Sunday, September 30, 2007

WAR ALERT! Hersh: The attack plans for Iran

Yes, this is really happening. Get ready for our 3rd war in 6 years.

Shifting Targets
The Administration's plan for Iran

by Seymour M. Hersh
October 8, 2007 |

In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. "Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people," Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. "The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops." He then concluded, to applause, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."

The President's position, and its corollary—that, if many of America's problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran's known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on "surgical" strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.

During a secure videoconference that took place early this summer, the President told Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that he was thinking of hitting Iranian targets across the border and that the British "were on board." At that point, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interjected that there was a need to proceed carefully, because of the ongoing diplomatic track. Bush ended by instructing Crocker to tell Iran to stop interfering in Iraq or it would face American retribution.

At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, "Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives." The former intelligence official added, "There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, 'You can't do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we're only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.' But Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President."

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "The President has made it clear that the United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran. The State Department is working diligently along with the international community to address our broad range of concerns." (The White House declined to comment.)

I was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the "execute order" that would be required for a military operation inside Iran, and such an order may never be issued. But there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning. In mid-August, senior officials told reporters that the Administration intended to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. And two former senior officials of the C.I.A. told me that, by late summer, the agency had increased the size and the authority of the Iranian Operations Group. (A spokesman for the agency said, "The C.I.A. does not, as a rule, publicly discuss the relative size of its operational components.")

"They're moving everybody to the Iran desk," one recently retired C.I.A. official said. "They're dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It's just like the fall of 2002"—the months before the invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi Operations Group became the most important in the agency. He added, "The guys now running the Iranian program have limited direct experience with Iran. In the event of an attack, how will the Iranians react? They will react, and the Administration has not thought it all the way through."

That theme was echoed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser, who said that he had heard discussions of the White House's more limited bombing plans for Iran. Brzezinski said that Iran would likely react to an American attack "by intensifying the conflict in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, their neighbors, and that could draw in Pakistan. We will be stuck in a regional war for twenty years."

In a speech at the United Nations last week, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was defiant. He referred to America as an "aggressor" state, and said, "How can the incompetents who cannot even manage and control themselves rule humanity and arrange its affairs? Unfortunately, they have put themselves in the position of God." (The day before, at Columbia, he suggested that the facts of the Holocaust still needed to be determined.)

"A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be," Brzezinski told me. "Will they cool off Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?" The Bush Administration, by charging that Iran was interfering in Iraq, was aiming "to paint it as 'We're responding to what is an intolerable situation,' " Brzezinski said. "This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we're going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand."

General David Petraeus, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, in his report to Congress in September, buttressed the Administration's case against Iran. "None of us, earlier this year, appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq's leaders all now have greater concern," he said. Iran, Petraeus said, was fighting "a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."

Iran has had a presence in Iraq for decades; the extent and the purpose of its current activities there are in dispute, however. During Saddam Hussein's rule, when the Sunni-dominated Baath Party brutally oppressed the majority Shiites, Iran supported them. Many in the present Iraqi Shiite leadership, including prominent members of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, spent years in exile in Iran; last week, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Maliki said, according to the Washington Post, that Iraq's relations with the Iranians had "improved to the point that they are not interfering in our internal affairs." Iran is so entrenched in Iraqi Shiite circles that any "proxy war" could be as much through the Iraqi state as against it. The crux of the Bush Administration's strategic dilemma is that its decision to back a Shiite-led government after the fall of Saddam has empowered Iran, and made it impossible to exclude Iran from the Iraqi political scene.

Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, who is an expert on Iran and Shiism, told me, "Between 2003 and 2006, the Iranians thought they were closest to the United States on the issue of Iraq." The Iraqi Shia religious leadership encouraged Shiites to avoid confrontation with American soldiers and to participate in elections—believing that a one-man, one-vote election process could only result in a Shia-dominated government. Initially, the insurgency was mainly Sunni, especially Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nasr told me that Iran's policy since 2003 has been to provide funding, arms, and aid to several Shiite factions—including some in Maliki's coalition. The problem, Nasr said, is that "once you put the arms on the ground you cannot control how they're used later."

In the Shiite view, the White House "only looks at Iran's ties to Iraq in terms of security," Nasr said. "Last year, over one million Iranians travelled to Iraq on pilgrimages, and there is more than a billion dollars a year in trading between the two countries. But the Americans act as if every Iranian inside Iraq were there to import weapons."

Many of those who support the President's policy argue that Iran poses an imminent threat. In a recent essay in Commentary, Norman Podhoretz depicted President Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary, "like Hitler . . . whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it . . . with a new order dominated by Iran. . . . [T]he plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force." Podhoretz concluded, "I pray with all my heart" that President Bush "will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel." Podhoretz recently told that he had met with the President for about forty-five minutes to urge him to take military action against Iran, and believed that "Bush is going to hit" Iran before leaving office. (Podhoretz, one of the founders of neoconservatism, is a strong backer of Rudolph Giuliani's Presidential campaign, and his son-in-law, Elliott Abrams, is a senior adviser to President Bush on national security.)

In early August, Army Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Times about an increase in attacks involving explosively formed penetrators, a type of lethal bomb that discharges a semi-molten copper slug that can rip through the armor of Humvees. The Times reported that U.S. intelligence and technical analyses indicated that Shiite militias had obtained the bombs from Iran. Odierno said that Iranians had been "surging support" over the past three or four months.

Questions remain, however, about the provenance of weapons in Iraq, especially given the rampant black market in arms. David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by "the huge amounts of arms" it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country. He recalled seeing stockpiles of explosively formed penetrators, as well as charges that had been recovered from unexploded American cluster bombs. Arms had also been supplied years ago by the Iranians to their Shiite allies in southern Iraq who had been persecuted by the Baath Party.

"I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today," Kay said. "When the White House started its anti-Iran campaign, six months ago, I thought it was all craziness. Now it does look like there is some selective smuggling by Iran, but much of it has been in response to American pressure and American threats—more a 'shot across the bow' sort of thing, to let Washington know that it was not going to get away with its threats so freely. Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons."

Another element of the Administration's case against Iran is the presence of Iranian agents in Iraq. General Petraeus, testifying before Congress, said that a commando faction of the Revolutionary Guards was seeking to turn its allies inside Iraq into a "Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests." In August, Army Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters in Baghdad that his troops were tracking some fifty Iranian men sent by the Revolutionary Guards who were training Shiite insurgents south of Baghdad. "We know they're here and we target them as well," he said.

Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me that "there are a lot of Iranians at any time inside Iraq, including those doing intelligence work and those doing humanitarian missions. It would be prudent for the Administration to produce more evidence of direct military training—or produce fighters captured in Iraq who had been trained in Iran." He added, "It will be important for the Iraqi government to be able to state that they were unaware of this activity"; otherwise, given the intense relationship between the Iraqi Shiite leadership and Tehran, the Iranians could say that "they had been asked by the Iraqi government to train these people." (In late August, American troops raided a Baghdad hotel and arrested a group of Iranians. They were a delegation from Iran's energy ministry, and had been invited to Iraq by the Maliki government; they were later released.)

"If you want to attack [Iran], you have to prepare the groundwork, and you have to be prepared to show the evidence," Clawson said. Adding to the complexity, he said, is a question that seems almost counterintuitive: "What is the attitude of Iraq going to be if we hit Iran? Such an attack could put a strain on the Iraqi government."

A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. "We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities," he said, "and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America." There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. "Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it," the diplomat said.

In interviews with current and former officials, there were repeated complaints about the paucity of reliable information. A former high-level C.I.A. official said that the intelligence about who is doing what inside Iran "is so thin that nobody even wants his name on it. This is the problem."

The difficulty of determining who is responsible for the chaos in Iraq can be seen in Basra, in the Shiite south, where British forces had earlier presided over a relatively secure area. Over the course of this year, however, the region became increasingly ungovernable, and by fall the British had retreated to fixed bases. A European official who has access to current intelligence told me that "there is a firm belief inside the American and U.K. intelligence community that Iran is supporting many of the groups in southern Iraq that are responsible for the deaths of British and American soldiers. Weapons and money are getting in from Iran. They have been able to penetrate many groups"—primarily the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias.

A June, 2007, report by the International Crisis Group found, however, that Basra's renewed instability was mainly the result of "the systematic abuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias." The report added that leading Iraqi politicians and officials "routinely invoke the threat of outside interference"—from bordering Iran—"to justify their behavior or evade responsibility for their failures."

Earlier this year, before the surge in U.S. troops, the American command in Baghdad changed what had been a confrontational policy in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland (and the base of the Baathist regime), and began working with the Sunni tribes, including some tied to the insurgency. Tribal leaders are now getting combat support as well as money, intelligence, and arms, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Empowering Sunni forces may undermine efforts toward national reconciliation, however. Already, tens of thousands of Shiites have fled Anbar Province, many to Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, while Sunnis have been forced from their homes in Shiite communities. Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of "ethnic cleansing."

"The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous," Nasr said. "The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is 'So what if you're getting rid of Al Qaeda?' The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don't share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary."

Nasr went on, "The United States is trying to fight on all sides—Sunni and Shia—and be friends with all sides." In the Shiite view, "It's clear that the United States cannot bring security to Iraq, because it is not doing everything necessary to bring stability. If they did, they would talk to anybody to achieve it—even Iran and Syria," Nasr said. (Such engagement was a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.) "America cannot bring stability in Iraq by fighting Iran in Iraq."

The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities.

"Cheney's option is now for a fast in and out—for surgical strikes," the former senior American intelligence official told me. The Joint Chiefs have turned to the Navy, he said, which had been chafing over its role in the Air Force-dominated air war in Iraq. "The Navy's planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They've got everything they need—even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The Navy is flying FA-18 missions every day in the Gulf." There are also plans to hit Iran's anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile sites. "We've got to get a path in and a path out," the former official said.

A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called "short, sharp incursions" by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, "Cheney is devoted to this, no question."

A limited bombing attack of this sort "only makes sense if the intelligence is good," the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing "will start as limited, but then there will be an 'escalation special.' Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning."

The surgical-strike plan has been shared with some of America's allies, who have had mixed reactions to it. Israel's military and political leaders were alarmed, believing, the consultant said, that [the surgical strike plan] didn't sufficiently target Iran's nuclear facilities. The White House has been reassuring the Israeli government, the former senior official told me, that the more limited target list would still serve the goal of counter-proliferation by decapitating the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to have direct control over the nuclear-research program. "Our theory is that if we do the attacks as planned it will accomplish two things," the former senior official said.

An Israeli official said, "Our main focus has been the Iranian nuclear facilities, not because other things aren't important. We've worked on missile technology and terrorism, but we see the Iranian nuclear issue as one that cuts across everything." Iran, he added, does not need to develop an actual warhead to be a threat. "Our problems begin when they learn and master the nuclear fuel cycle and when they have the nuclear materials," he said. There was, for example, the possibility of a "dirty bomb," or of Iran's passing materials to terrorist groups. "There is still time for diplomacy to have an impact, but not a lot," the Israeli official said. "We believe the technological timetable is moving faster than the diplomatic timetable. And if diplomacy doesn't work, as they say, all options are on the table."

The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A senior European official told me, "The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing. All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance, training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too."

There were four possible responses to this Iranian activity, the European official said: to do nothing ("There would be no retaliation to the Iranians for their attacks; this would be sending the wrong signal"); to publicize the Iranian actions ("There is one great difficulty with this option—the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments"); to attack the Iranians operating inside Iraq ("We've been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect"); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.

The European official continued, "A major air strike against Iran could well lead to a rallying around the flag there, but a very careful targeting of terrorist training camps might not." His view, he said, was that "once the Iranians get a bloody nose they rethink things." For example, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, two of Iran's most influential political figures, "might go to the Supreme Leader and say, 'The hard-line policies have got us into this mess. We must change our approach for the sake of the regime.' "

A retired American four-star general with close ties to the British military told me that there was another reason for Britain's interest—shame over the failure of the Royal Navy to protect the sailors and Royal Marines who were seized by Iran on March 23rd, in the Persian Gulf. "The professional guys are saying that British honor is at stake, and if there's another event like that in the water off Iran the British will hit back," he said.

The revised bombing plan "could work—if it's in response to an Iranian attack," the retired four-star general said. "The British may want to do it to get even, but the more reasonable people are saying, 'Let's do it if the Iranians stage a cross-border attack inside Iraq.' It's got to be ten dead American soldiers and four burned trucks." There is, he added, "a widespread belief in London that Tony Blair's government was sold a bill of goods by the White House in the buildup to the war against Iraq. So if somebody comes into Gordon Brown's office and says, 'We have this intelligence from America,' Brown will ask, 'Where did it come from? Have we verified it?' The burden of proof is high."

The French government shares the Administration's sense of urgency about Iran's nuclear program, and believes that Iran will be able to produce a warhead within two years. France's newly elected President, Nicolas Sarkozy, created a stir in late August when he warned that Iran could be attacked if it did not halt is nuclear program. Nonetheless, France has indicated to the White House that it has doubts about a limited strike, the former senior intelligence official told me. Many in the French government have concluded that the Bush Administration has exaggerated the extent of Iranian meddling inside Iraq; they believe, according to a European diplomat, that "the American problems in Iraq are due to their own mistakes, and now the Americans are trying to show some teeth. An American bombing will show only that the Bush Administration has its own agenda toward Iran."

A European intelligence official made a similar point. "If you attack Iran," he told me, "and do not label it as being against Iran's nuclear facilities, it will strengthen the regime, and help to make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker."

Ahmadinejad, in his speech at the United Nations, said that Iran considered the dispute over its nuclear program "closed." Iran would deal with it only through the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said, and had decided to "disregard unlawful and political impositions of the arrogant powers." He added, in a press conference after the speech, "the decisions of the United States and France are not important."

The director general of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, has for years been in an often bitter public dispute with the Bush Administration; the agency's most recent report found that Iran was far less proficient in enriching uranium than expected. A diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based, said, "The Iranians are years away from making a bomb, as ElBaradei has said all along. Running three thousand centrifuges does not make a bomb." The diplomat added, referring to hawks in the Bush Administration, "They don't like ElBaradei, because they are in a state of denial. And now their negotiating policy has failed, and Iran is still enriching uranium and still making progress."

The diplomat expressed the bitterness that has marked the I.A.E.A.'s dealings with the Bush Administration since the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "The White House's claims were all a pack of lies, and Mohamed is dismissive of those lies," the diplomat said.

Hans Blix, a former head of the I.A.E.A., questioned the Bush Administration's commitment to diplomacy. "There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf," he said. Speaking of Iran's role in Iraq, Blix added, "My impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for a possible attack—as an excuse for jumping on them."

The Iranian leadership is feeling the pressure. In the press conference after his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad was asked about a possible attack. "They want to hurt us," he said, "but, with the will of God, they won't be able to do it." According to a former State Department adviser on Iran, the Iranians complained, in diplomatic meetings in Baghdad with Ambassador Crocker, about a refusal by the Bush Administration to take advantage of their knowledge of the Iraqi political scene. The former adviser said, "They've been trying to convey to the United States that 'We can help you in Iraq. Nobody knows Iraq better than us.' " Instead, the Iranians are preparing for an American attack.

The adviser said that he had heard from a source in Iran that the Revolutionary Guards have been telling religious leaders that they can stand up to an American attack. "The Guards are claiming that they can infiltrate American security," the adviser said. "They are bragging that they have spray-painted an American warship—to signal the Americans that they can get close to them." (I was told by the former senior intelligence official that there was an unexplained incident, this spring, in which an American warship was spray-painted with a bull's-eye while docked in Qatar, which may have been the source of the boasts.)

"Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, 'Uncle Sam is here! We'd better stand down'?" the former senior intelligence official said. "The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer."

Another recent incident, in Afghanistan, reflects the tension over intelligence. In July, the London Telegraph reported that what appeared to be an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile was fired at an American C-130 Hercules aircraft. The missile missed its mark. Months earlier, British commandos had intercepted a few truckloads of weapons, including one containing a working SA-7 missile, coming across the Iranian border. But there was no way of determining whether the missile fired at the C-130 had come from Iran—especially since SA-7s are available through black-market arms dealers.

Vincent Cannistraro, a retired C.I.A. officer who has worked closely with his counterparts in Britain, added to the story: "The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident—in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran." The intelligence subsequently was forwarded, he said.

The retired four-star general confirmed that British intelligence "was worried" about passing the information along. "The Brits don't trust the Iranians," the retired general said, "but they also don't trust Bush and Cheney."

Friedman: 9/11 Is Over

I hate to say "Friedman is right," because the guy has reversed himself so many damn times, and will probably disavow this op-ed, too, that you never really know what he stands for, but... in this particular op-ed, Tom Friedman is right on. (Anyway, I guess changing one's mind too often is better than never at all, like G.W. Bush....)

Not long ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion ran a fake news story that began like this:

"At a well-attended rally in front of his new ground zero headquarters Monday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani officially announced his plan to run for president of 9/11. 'My fellow citizens of 9/11, today I will make you a promise,' said Giuliani during his 18-minute announcement speech in front of a charred and torn American flag. 'As president of 9/11, I will usher in a bold new 9/11 for all.' If elected, Giuliani would inherit the duties of current 9/11 President George W. Bush, including making grim facial expressions, seeing the world's conflicts in terms of good and evil, and carrying a bullhorn at all state functions."

Like all good satire, the story made me both laugh and cry, because it reflected something so true — how much, since 9/11, we've become "The United States of Fighting Terrorism." Times columnists are not allowed to endorse candidates, but there's no rule against saying who will not get my vote: I will not vote for any candidate running on 9/11. We don't need another president of 9/11. We need a president for 9/12. I will only vote for the 9/12 candidate.

What does that mean? This: 9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.

It is not that I thought we had new enemies that day and now I don't. Yes, in the wake of 9/11, we need new precautions, new barriers. But we also need our old habits and sense of openness. For me, the candidate of 9/12 is the one who will not only understand who our enemies are, but who we are.

Before 9/11, the world thought America's slogan was: "Where anything is possible for anybody." But that is not our global brand anymore. Our government has been exporting fear, not hope: "Give me your tired, your poor and your fingerprints."

You may think Guantánamo Bay is a prison camp in Cuba for Al Qaeda terrorists. A lot of the world thinks it's a place we send visitors who don't give the right answers at immigration. I will not vote for any candidate who is not committed to dismantling Guantánamo Bay and replacing it with a free field hospital for poor Cubans. Guantánamo Bay is the anti-Statue of Liberty.

Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association, told me that the United States has lost millions of overseas visitors since 9/11 — even though the dollar is weak and America is on sale. "Only the U.S. is losing traveler volume among major countries, which is unheard of in today's world," Mr. Dow said.

Total business arrivals to the United States fell by 10 percent over the 2004-5 period alone, while the number of business visitors to Europe grew by 8 percent in that time. The travel industry's recent Discover America Partnership study concluded that "the U.S. entry process has created a climate of fear and frustration that is turning away foreign business and leisure travelers and hurting America's image abroad." Those who don't visit us, don't know us.

I'd love to see us salvage something decent in Iraq that might help tilt the Middle East onto a more progressive pathway. That was and is necessary to improve our security. But sometimes the necessary is impossible — and we just can't keep chasing that rainbow this way.

Look at our infrastructure. It's not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich's ultramodern airport to La Guardia's dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. I still can't get uninterrupted cellphone service between my home in Bethesda and my office in D.C. But I recently bought a pocket cellphone at the Beijing airport and immediately called my wife in Bethesda — crystal clear.

I just attended the China clean car conference, where Chinese automakers were boasting that their 2008 cars will meet "Euro 4" — European Union — emissions standards. We used to be the gold standard. We aren't anymore. Last July, Microsoft, fed up with American restrictions on importing brain talent, opened its newest software development center in Vancouver. That's in Canada, folks. If Disney World can remain an open, welcoming place, with increased but invisible security, why can't America?

We can't afford to keep being this stupid! We have got to get our groove back. We need a president who will unite us around a common purpose, not a common enemy. Al Qaeda is about 9/11. We are about 9/12, we are about the Fourth of July — which is why I hope that anyone who runs on the 9/11 platform gets trounced.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blackwater shoots 43 Iraqi bystanders, kills 16

When Blackwater's highly-paid mercenaries indiscriminately shoot and kill innocent Iraqis, the Iraqi people don't know it was mercenaries who did it, they think it was U.S. soldiers. Mercenaries in Iraq are harming the mission of our real troops by turning the Iraqis against America.

Blackwater is a deadly menace, and yet another blight on America's image as our real soldiers try to win hearts and minds in Iraq.

Blackwater guards killed 16 as U.S. touted progress
By Leila Fadel
September 28, 2007 | McClatchy

On Sept. 9, the day before Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Congress that things were getting better, Batoul Mohammed Ali Hussein came to Baghdad for the day.

A clerk in the Iraqi customs office in Diyala province, she was in the capital to drop off and pick up paperwork at the central office near busy al Khilani Square, not far from the fortified Green Zone, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work. U.S. officials often pass through the square in heavily guarded convoys on their way to other parts of Baghdad.

As Hussein walked out of the customs building, an embassy convoy of sport-utility vehicles drove through the intersection. Blackwater security guards, charged with protecting the diplomats, yelled at construction workers at an unfinished building to move back. Instead, the workers threw rocks. The guards, witnesses said, responded with gunfire, spraying the intersection with bullets.

Hussein, who was on the opposite side of the street from the construction site, fell to the ground, shot in the leg. As she struggled to her feet and took a step, eyewitnesses said, a Blackwater security guard trained his weapon on her and shot her multiple times. She died on the spot, and the customs documents she'd held in her arms fluttered down the street.

Before the shooting stopped, four other people were killed in what would be the beginning of eight days of violence that Iraqi officials say bolster their argument that Blackwater should be banned from working in Iraq.

During the ensuing week, as Crocker and Petraeus told Congress that the surge of more U.S. troops to Iraq was beginning to work and President Bush gave a televised address in which he said "ordinary life was beginning to return" to Baghdad, Blackwater security guards shot at least 43 people on crowded Baghdad streets. At least 16 of those people died.

Two Blackwater guards died in one of the incidents, which was triggered when a roadside bomb struck a Blackwater vehicle.

Still, it was an astounding amount of violence attributed to Blackwater. In the same eight-day period, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers, other acts of violence across the embattled capital claimed the lives of 32 people and left 87 injured, not including unidentified bodies found dumped on Baghdad's streets.

The best known of that week's incidents took place the following Sunday, Sept. 16, when Blackwater guards killed 11 and wounded 12 at the busy al Nisour traffic circle in central Baghdad.

Iraqi officials said the guards were unprovoked when they opened fire on a white car carrying three people, including a baby. All died. The security guards then fired at other nearby vehicles, including a minibus loaded with passengers, killing a mother of eight. An Iraqi soldier also died.

In Blackwater's only statement regarding the Sept. 16 incident, Anne Tyrell, the company's spokeswoman, denied that the dead were civilians. "The 'civilians' reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies," she said in an e-mail, "and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire."

A joint commission of five U.S. State Department officials, three U.S. military officials and eight Iraqis has been formed to investigate the incident, though almost two weeks later, the commission has yet to meet. A U.S. Embassy statement on Thursday, the first official written comment from the embassy since the al Nisour shooting, said that the group was "preparing" to meet.

Blackwater and the U.S. Embassy didn't respond to requests for information about the other incidents.

But interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors of each incident describe similar circumstances in which Blackwater guards took aggressive action against civilians who seemed to pose no threat.

"They killed her in cold blood," Hussein Jumaa Hassan, 30, a parking lot attendant, said of Hussein.

Hassan pointed to the bullet-pocked concrete column behind him. He'd hidden behind it.

"I was boiling with anger, and I wished that I had a weapon in my hands in those minutes," he said. "They wanted to kill us all."

Anyone who moved was shot until the convoy left the square, witnesses said. Also among the dead was Kadhim Gayes, a city hall guard.

It took two days for Hussein's family to retrieve her body from the morgue. Before they could, her sister signed a sheet acknowledging the contents of her purse, which had been collected by security guards at the Baghdad city hall — a Samsung cell phone, a change purse with six keys and 37,000 Iraqi dinars ($30), gold bracelets, a notebook, pens, and photos of her and her children.

Three days later, Blackwater guards were back in al Khilani Square, Iraqi government officials said. This time, there was no shooting, witnesses said. Instead, the Blackwater guards hurled frozen bottles of water into store windows and windshields, breaking the glass.

Ibrahim Rubaie, the deputy security director at a nearby Baghdad city government office building, said it's common for Blackwater guards to shoot as they drive through the square. He said Blackwater guards also shot and wounded people in the square on June 21, though there are no official reports of such an incident.

On Sept. 13 — the same day Bush gave his "ordinary life" speech — Blackwater guards were escorting State Department officials down Palestine Street near the Shiite enclave of Sadr City when a roadside bomb detonated, ripping through one of the Blackwater vehicles.

The blast killed two Blackwater guards. As other guards went to retrieve the dead, they fired wildly in several directions, witnesses said.

Mohammed Mazin was at home when he heard the bang, which shattered one of his windows.

Then he heard gunfire, and he and his son, Laith, went to the roof to see what was going on.

What they saw were security contractors shooting in different directions as a helicopter hovered overhead. Bullets flew through his home's windows, he said.

No civilians were killed that day, but five were wounded, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry.

The following Sunday, Blackwater guards opened fire as the State Department convoy they were escorting crossed in front of stopped traffic at the al Nisour traffic circle.

While U.S. officials have offered no explanation of what occurred that day, witnesses and Iraqi investigators agree that the guards' first target was a white car that either hadn't quite stopped or was trying to nudge its way to the front of traffic.

In the car were a man whose name is uncertain; Mahasin Muhsin, a mother and doctor; and Muhsin's young son. The guards first shot the man, who was driving. As Muhsin screamed, a Blackwater guard shot her. The car exploded, and Muhsin and the child burned, witnesses said.

Afrah Sattar, 27, was on a bus approaching the square when she saw the guards fire on the white car. She and her mother, Ghania Hussein, were headed to the Certificate of Identification Office in Baghdad to pick up proof of Sattar's Iraqi citizenship for an upcoming trip to a religious shrine in Iran.

When she saw the gunmen turn toward the bus, Sattar looked at her mother in fear. "They're going to shoot at us, Mama," she said. Her mother hugged her close. Moments later, a bullet pierced her mother's skull and another struck her shoulder, Sattar recalled.

As her mother's body went limp, blood dripped onto Sattar's head, still cradled in her mother's arms.

"Mother, mother," she called out. No answer. She hugged her mother's body and kissed her lips and began to pray, "We belong to God and we return to God." The bus emptied, and Sattar sat alone at the back, with her mother's bleeding body.

"I'm lost now, I'm lost," she said days later in her simple two-bedroom home. Ten people lived there; now there are nine.

"They are killers," she said of the Blackwater guards. "I swear to God, not one bullet was shot at them. Why did they shoot us? My mother didn't carry a weapon."

Downstairs, her father, Sattar Ghafil Slom al Kaabi, 67, sat beneath a smiling picture of his wife and recalled their 40-year love story and how they raised eight children together. On the way to the holy city of Najaf to bury her, he'd stopped his car, with her coffin strapped to the top. He got out and stood beside the coffin. He wanted to be with her a little longer.

"I loved her more than anything," he said, his voice wavering. "Now that she is dead, I love her more."

(Special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Hussein Kadhim and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Krugman: Iraq mercenaries are outsourcing run amok

Surely even the most conservative among you can see that the federal government can't privatize or outsource all  its functions, especially its most important function: defending our country. Real patriotism can't be bought, and it's not for sale either. If these private military contractors were real patriots, they would re-enlist in the U.S. armed forces. No, they're just in it for the cash. They may talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk of real soldiers. And they don't answer to the military chain of command. Nor are they subject to Iraqi or U.S. law. They are a law unto themselves, armed to the teeth and accountable to no one.That's Bush's "army of the 21st century."

Sometimes it seems that the only way to make sense of the Bush administration is to imagine that it's a vast experiment concocted by mad political scientists who want to see what happens if a nation systematically ignores everything we've learned over the past few centuries about how to make a modern government work.

Thus, the administration has abandoned the principle of a professional, nonpolitical civil service, stuffing agencies from FEMA to the Justice Department with unqualified cronies. Tax farming — giving individuals the right to collect taxes, in return for a share of the take — went out with the French Revolution; now the tax farmers are back.

And so are mercenaries, whom Machiavelli described as "useless and dangerous" more than four centuries ago.

As far as I can tell, America has never fought a war in which mercenaries made up a large part of the armed force. But in Iraq, they are so central to the effort that, as Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution points out in a new report, "the private military industry has suffered more losses in Iraq than the rest of the coalition of allied nations combined."

And, yes, the so-called private security contractors are mercenaries. They're heavily armed. They carry out military missions, but they're private employees who don't answer to military discipline. On the other hand, they don't seem to be accountable to Iraqi or U.S. law, either. And they behave accordingly.

We may never know what really happened in a crowded Baghdad square two weeks ago. Employees of Blackwater USA claim that they were attacked by gunmen. Iraqi police and witnesses say that the contractors began firing randomly at a car that didn't get out of their way.

[Click here to see how Blackwater has won more than $1 billion in U.S. government contracts since the Iraq invasion in 2003, many of them non-competed. -- J]

What we do know is that more than 20 civilians were killed, including the couple and child in the car. And the Iraqi version of events is entirely consistent with many other documented incidents involving security contractors.

For example, Mr. Singer reminds us that in 2005 "armed contractors from the Zapata firm were detained by U.S. forces, who claimed they saw the private soldiers indiscriminately firing not only at Iraqi civilians, but also U.S. Marines." The contractors were not charged. In 2006, employees of Aegis, another security firm, posted a "trophy video" on the Internet that showed them shooting civilians, and employees of Triple Canopy, yet another contractor, were fired after alleging that a supervisor engaged in "joy-ride shooting" of Iraqi civilians.

Yet even among the contractors, Blackwater has the worst reputation. On Christmas Eve 2006, a drunken Blackwater employee reportedly shot and killed a guard of the Iraqi vice president. (The employee was flown out of the country, and has not been charged.) In May 2007, Blackwater employees reportedly shot an employee of Iraq's Interior Ministry, leading to an armed standoff between the firm and Iraqi police.

Iraqis aren't the only victims of this behavior. Of the nearly 4,000 American service members who have died in Iraq, scores if not hundreds would surely still be alive if it weren't for the hatred such incidents engender.

Which raises the question, why are Blackwater and other mercenary outfits still playing such a big role in Iraq?

Don't tell me that they are irreplaceable. The Iraq war has now gone on for four and a half years — longer than American participation in World War II. There has been plenty of time for the Bush administration to find a way to do without mercenaries, if it wanted to.

And the danger out-of-control military contractors pose to American forces has been obvious at least since March 2004, when four armed Blackwater employees blundered into Fallujah in the middle of a delicate military operation, getting themselves killed and precipitating a crisis that probably ended any chance of an acceptable outcome in Iraq.

Yet Blackwater is still there. In fact, last year the State Department gave Blackwater the lead role in diplomatic security in Iraq.

Mr. Singer argues that reliance on private military contractors has let the administration avoid making hard political choices, such as admitting that it didn't send enough troops in the first place. Contractors, he writes, "offered the potential backstop of additional forces, but with no one having to lose any political capital." That's undoubtedly part of the story.

But it's also worth noting that the Bush administration has tried to privatize every aspect of the U.S. government it can, using taxpayers' money to give lucrative contracts to its friends — people like Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, who has strong Republican connections. You might think that national security would take precedence over the fetish for privatization — but remember, President Bush tried to keep airport security in private hands, even after 9/11.

So the privatization of war — no matter how badly it works — is just part of the pattern.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Taibbi on Thompson: 'The lowest we've ever sunk'

Make-Believe Reagan
In Fred Thompson's fantasy world, all you have to do to be president is pretend you're the Gipper and act tough on TV

By Matt Taibbi
September 20, 2007 | Rolling Stone

I can say exactly when I first knew that Fred Dalton Thompson is dangerous. It is 12:07 p.m. on Sunday, September 9th, in Manchester, New Hampshire, just outside a restaurant called Chez Vachon. Thompson has just served up another mumbling, noncommittal tour through a packed diner of breakfasting locals, sitting glumly through the requisite this-sure-is-great-coffee shot. Then, once the needed photos are banked, the lumbering B-list character actor -- who plays a video called "The Hunt for Red November" at every campaign stop and sells buttons that, in an unsettlingly McLuhanian twist, pimp him as the "Law and Order candidate" -- tries to make a quick beeline back to his bus. But a cheeky local TV reporter shouts at him before he can reach the door.

"Senator!" the reporter calls out. "What's harder, playing the president or being the president?"

It is a shitty New Hampshire day; as Thompson stands on the street in a blue polo shirt, cold rain splashes visibly off his bald head. There are times when the candidate's eyes go blank and you almost see a big sign in his brain screaming, "Line! Line!" Finally, he glances back at the reporter and grumbles, "Well, neither of 'em are that hard."

I turn to the TV guy, not sure of what I'd just heard.

"Did he just say . . . ?"

"Yeah," the guy says, dumbfounded. "He just said being president isn't that hard."

I'm still trying to process this when I spot Carl Cameron, the right-wing hatchet man for Fox News. Cameron is whaling on Thompson, doing a mocking impersonation of the candidate's "Security, Unity, Prosperity" campaign shtick.

"We're, uh, gonna be yoo-nited bah owre yoo-nity!" Cameron cracks.

A crowd of reporters doubles over in laughter. Then they get in their vehicles and chase after Thompson to the next event, so they can feverishly record those same hackneyed lines again and again for posterity. They'll laugh in private, but they'll be repeating that shit on air with a straight face for the next 400 days.

Well, I think as I stand by myself on the curb, so much for Fred Thompson. After all, logic dictates that anyone who's too much of a lightweight for Fox News is probably...

I freeze. Probably what? Probably a shoo-in for the presidency, that's what! I shudder as I realize my mistake, and suddenly the candidacy of Fred Thompson, which seemed impossibly silly just a few minutes ago, makes deadly serious sense. Thompson may act like a blank slate -- a homespun version of Being There hero Chauncey Gardiner running on a platform of "Whatever you say" and "I'll get back to you on that" -- but he represents something else that no one, after seven years of George W. Bush, could possibly have expected: a new low. It was bad enough when the GOP field was led by a grinning Mormon corporatist and a fascist ex-mayor itching to take his prostate pain out on the world, but Thompson is the worst yet -- a human snooze button, campaigning baldly for the head-in-the-sand vote by asking Americans not to think but to change the channel.

And that, after all, is what the campaign trail is all about. Give voters a chance to go lower than they've ever gone before, and you'll get numbers in a heartbeat. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next Republican front-runner. ***

In person, Fred Thompson reminds you of a lot of good actors who go numb when asked to play themselves. If you've ever listened to interviews with Laurence Olivier or Robert De Niro or any of a hundred other talented performers who can manhandle a script but seem at a loss when it comes to who they themselves really are, you'll recognize the same thing in Thompson.

That makes it all the more painful when you watch him try to sell his oddly thin biography as a great "American story." He has a few items of note on his résumé: minority counsel for the Republicans during the Watergate hearings (where he tipped off the White House that the committee knew about Nixon's secret tapes), lawyer for a Tennessee whistle-blower who exposed a cash-for-clemency scam in the governor's office, and two largely undistinguished terms as a U.S. senator. In between, there are about twenty-eight years of his adult life where he acted in bit parts in a few movies, and lobbied a little. Thompson's campaign video runs out of stuff to talk about after around ninety-eight seconds.

But he is on television, and has been in a movie with Sean Connery, and in the world of politics -- which is basically Hollywood for the ugly and talentless -- that makes him something close to a god on Earth, a veritable rock star. And despite his disinterested pose and empty-suit résumé, his TV persona gives him a natural advantage on the trail, one that most politicians can only dream of.

You have to see it to believe it, the effect that Fred Thompson has on certain crowds. Reporters who describe his public appearances as "bland" and "uninspiring" and "vague" and "blurry" do so because they're looking for the wrong thing; they're looking for theatrics, for fire and brimstone, for that candidate who can get crowds howling for blood. What Thompson inspires is something much more appropriate for Americans of the TV age: He gets audiences purring in a cozy stupor. Their eyes glaze over and they end up looking like a bunch of flies happily lapping up their own puke.

Anyone who's ever had a problem with houseflies knows that that's the best time to hit them with a swatter, which might explain Thompson's astonishing early success. One poll has him already in a dead heat with rage-virus victim Rudy Giuliani -- despite the fact that twenty-eight percent of Republicans have never even heard of him. While voters often leave Giuliani events wondering if they should hand this seemingly crank-mad Catholic the nuclear football, Thompson crowds walk out with the dazed smiles of recovery-room zipperheads, looking like they've just had their brains removed and couldn't be happier about it.

In his stump speech, the hulking Southerner paces the stage wearing a fatherly expression, giving a Gregory Peck-like pensive rub of the chin from time to time and hypnotically tossing out soothing ruralisms like "ain't" and "wadn't" that descend upon his audiences of besieged Decent Folk like gentle snowflakes. The pulse rate in the crowd goes down, not up. The gritted teeth and wizened anger lines around the eyes of these taut, white Silent Majority faces loosen and relax. Whereas minutes before they were collectively certain of imminent attack by an evil confederacy of Al Qaeda and Mexicans and queers ("What should society's position be on deviants?" one Iowan wonders at a Thompson event) all inspired to violence by their envy of the Decent Folk's shimmering new trucks and almost-new big-screen TVs and prized displays of Christian collectible figurines, they now feel if not safe, then soothed, in the right tent, at least. And their hearts flutter as this humble actor who gave up a big career on TV for them -- for them! -- tells them a story they like, a story about a world where America is still the good guy and no changes need to be made for things to turn out just fine in the end.

I watched this phenomenon in action over and over again. In a dead-still convention hall in Sioux City, Thompson meanders his way through a stump speech that appears to be about absolutely nothing at all -- he makes tamely self-deprecating jokes about his bald head ("You young fellas with good-lookin' heads of hair, enjoy it while you can"), ogles a standard-issue stuffed-animal-bearing Adorable Toddler ("You're a good Republican. Now let's show 'em your elephant") and talks away questions about specific policy issues with inspired flurries of utterly nonsensical hick'ry saws (his take on how to deal with the energy crisis: "We got to learn to skip 'n chew gum't the same time").

When asked about Iraq, Thompson goes into a scene straight out of Hollywood, talking about visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital who just couldn't wait for their leg stumps to grow back so they could give Jerry some more hell at the front. "It's the ones who are most wounded who most want to rejoin their comrades," he says.

Two minutes after that last bit, I am outside talking to an older woman named Rita Fairfield, who pronounces herself completely convinced. She likes Thompson's take on national security, among other things, especially the part about staying the course. I ask her why she thinks the surge is working. "From what I heard from the soldiers who are coming back, they're willing to give up life and limb," she says. "The ones that are coming back maimed seem to be the ones most ready to go back to battle."

Huh, I think. Where did I just hear that?

It's only after you run into this lobotomy act ten or eleven times that you start to see the dark essence of Fred Thompson. He is hard to dislike on a personal level: Unlike the overconfident district attorney he plays on Law and Order, the real-life Thompson comes off as a halting, humble, accidental celebrity who's really just dern glad to be here. And his personality seems consistent with his Goldwater-era ideology: A believer in limited government, he seeks to achieve his ends by getting his frankly limited self elected to the White House.

His politics, though, are another matter. As a political animal, Thompson embodies the twisted core of the Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh era: He looks you right in the eye with that aw-shucks face of his and tells you shit that just isn't true about who we are as a country. In his first few days on the campaign trail, he paces back and forth in front of crowds of Iowans and assures them without blinking that "we have the best health-care system in the world" -- and you sit there wondering how the hell he can get away with saying that when America's infant mortality rate is behind fricking Slovenia's.

But by then Thompson is talking about how France and England are desperate to copy our market-based system of health care. And then he's on to Iraq, where we "went in for the right reasons" because Saddam was planning a "nuclearized Middle East" that "would have defeated all of us," assertions that leave the bad-news-weary crowd dewy-eyed with approval. Thompson represents the essential bullshit at the heart of modern conservatism: The fantasy that we are the benevolent envy of the world must be believed at all costs, no matter how much waste or mayhem or loss of young lives is suffered in deference to it.

That's what Thompson is selling: a double dose of Middle American delusion. He's a Grade A nice feller who isn't running for president, even though he is, in a country that doesn't launch unilateral and unwarranted invasions, even though it does. ***

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Thompson campaign buses stop at a neatly groomed downtown spot called Bayliss Park to give a gathering of about 300 a chance to meet the nice old actor who talks to his mama. (On health care: "I talk to my mama, who is eighty-seven years old, regularly about this.") The traveling press spills out into the crowd in search of quotes for their preconceived story theses -- Thompson as Reagan, Thompson as the Only Republican Who Can Beat Hillary, Thompson as the Too-Late Candidate.

Standing on a riser in front of his bus, Thompson lays his Goldwater rap on the Decent Folk who have come to the park, telling them that the best thing government can do for the poor is to help them help themselves. "A government big and powerful enough to give you everything," he declares, "is also powerful enough to take away anything." The crowd cheers.

A minute or two later, an announcement sounds that the campaign is moving again, and the reporters, quotes in hand, flee back to the bus. I am headed that way myself when a homeless couple named Dot and Jamie, both weatherbeaten and in ragged sweatshirts, walk up to me and explain that they live in this park, and could I ask the candidate for a favor?

"Can you ask him to get us a public toilet?" Jamie asks. "There's no place to take a fucking shit here."

I say I'll see what I can do -- but I doubt that anything good will come of it. The campaign trail long ago evolved into an artificial world of self-involved bullshit, a see-no-evil/hear-no-evil parade of pristine, patriotically engaged Americana, where everyone looks nice, a bunch of Ivy League newspaper guys make up the story lines, and you never see the bad stuff.

What Thompson offers is a chance to drag the presidency itself into that bubble, leaving ugly reality behind. His campaign is basically a referendum on what America wants out of its president. Do we want an executive who solves problems and tackles issues, making decisions that are grounded in reality? Or do we want a lead actor to star in a television show about a fantasy America of our own creation, an America where poverty and war and insecurity can be solved simply by keeping them off camera?

That is a heavy, heavy question, a theme straight out of dystopian fiction, and those of us who would vote for reality should be chilled by Thompson because we know that even if America votes for the fantasy, someone is still going to be running the reality.

In the case of Thompson, that someone would be a slick frontman who might play the part of a Goldwater small-government Republican but in reality has made his living as an extravagantly paid pimp for government welfare. As a professional lobbyist in the 1980s, Thompson worked on behalf of Westinghouse, which was seeking billions in federal subsidies for nuclear power plants. (He conveniently leaves that part of his past out when, in his campaign speeches, he mentions nuclear power as one of the "other fuels" that "have to be part of the solution.") He also lobbied for the deregulation of the savings-and-loan business -- a Reagan-era move that helped lead to the infamous collapse of the industry. And between 2004 and 2006 he earned $760,000 lobbying to cut the asbestos liability of Lloyd's of London.

Thompson is frequently compared to Ronald Reagan, with plenty of justice. Like Thompson, Reagan projected for voters a fantasy America, one that didn't need to feel bad about Watergate and could still kick ass, despite having just been whipped by 2 million pajama-clad Vietnamese. But underneath Reagan's goofy cowboy act was a raging ideologue, a deadly serious political force that also pitched to voters grandiose dreams of endless riches and world conquest. The dream America bought from Reagan was wrongheaded and stupid, but it was at least a big dream, a dream commensurate with the breadth and power of the American empire. The people who bought it were mean and overconfident, but they were at least still living on planet Earth.

What Thompson is selling is escapism, pure and simple. He's selling America not as a vast adventure epic but as a timid, forty-seven-minute made-for-cable movie about a folksy small-town dad -- a fantasy that makes no sense at all in the context of a massive militarized oligarchy currently occupying half the world's deserts on borrowed money.

The people who are buying this fantasy are buying out of fear, because they can't bear to look anymore. They've simply given up trying to deal. If Thompson wins -- and he very well might -- that's what it'll be: total surrender. The lowest we've ever sunk.

WAR ALERT! Senate passes "attack Iran" amendment!

Well, there you have it. There's no going back now. I'm sure this will be one of those key turning points written up in the history books.

Today the Senate gave Bush & Cheney backdoor Congressional approval to attack Iran. McCain and Obama abstained from voting on the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment -- a real profile in courage. &*#!%-ing Hillary voted for it, repeating her mistake in 2002 to give Bush authorization to attack Iraq.

(Hillary's vote today brings to mind the immortal words of President Bush: "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again.")

Here are the 22 sane senators who voted against the amendment, all but 3 of them Democrats:

Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Dodd (D-CT)
Feingold (D-WI)
Hagel (R-NE)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Lincoln (D-AR)
Lugar (R-IN)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Sanders (I-VT)
Tester (D-MT)
Webb (D-VA)
Wyden (D-OR)

Postscript: The left-wing pressure group is actually celebrating a victory on this vote. They claim that their thousands of e-mails and phone calls to Congress got the two worst paragraphs deleted from the Lieberman-Kyl Amendment, making it essentially "toothless."

Monday, September 17, 2007

FOX: Greenspan: 'Iraq war is largely about oil'

Everybody knows former Fed. Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan is a long-haired, sandal-wearing, tofu-eating, pot-smoking socialist who likes to wear "Buck Fush" t-shirts and smash windows at anti-IMF rallies in his spare time. He has zero credibility, so we shouldn't pay any attention to his opinions on Iraq.

Greenspan: Oil the Prime Motive for Iraq War
September 16, 2007 | The Times-FOXNews

America's elder statesman of finance, Alan Greenspan, has shaken the White House by declaring that the prime motive for the war in Iraq was oil.

In his long-awaited memoir, to be published tomorrow, Greenspan, a Republican whose 18-year tenure as head of the US Federal Reserve was widely admired, will also deliver a stinging critique of President George W. Bush's economic policies.

However, it is his view on the motive for the 2003 Iraq invasion that is likely to provoke the most controversy. "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil," he says.

Greenspan, 81, is understood to believe that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the security of oil supplies in the Middle East.

Britain and America have always insisted the war had nothing to do with oil. Bush said the aim was to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and end Saddam's support for terrorism.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Feel-good fantasies: 'Anbar miracle' & 'Sunni awakening'

Sunni World

The cheerleaders for the surge have constructed a Disney-esque fantasy of Iraq which might as well be in Orlando for all it has to do with the grim reality on the ground. And Abu Risha's assassination isn't likely to dim that fantasy.

Marc Lynch | September 13, 2007 |

During his visit to Iraq last week, President Bush carved out an hour to sit down with Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, the controversial head of the Anbar Salvation Council who had become a symbol of America's Anbar strategy. The pictures from that photo-op were likely the Shaykh's death warrant: Abu Risha was assassinated today, even as Bush prepared to use the Anbar strategy's "success" to justify our continued involvement in Iraq.

David Petraeus was quick to blame al-Qaeda for the stunning murder, a leap to judgment emblematic of all which is wrong with America's current views of the Sunnis of Iraq. In reality there are a plethora of likely suspects, reflecting the reality of an intensely factionalized and divided community which little resembles the picture offered by the administration's defenders. Leaders of other tribes deeply resented Abu Risha's prominence. Leaders of the major insurgency factions had for weeks been warning against allowing people such as Abu Risha to illegitimately reap the fruits of their jihad against the occupation. The brazen murder of America's closest Sunni ally in Iraq was as predictable as it was shocking, and carries a powerful message to both Iraqis and Americans about the real prospects for the long-term success of the American project.

- - -

Iraq's Sunnis must be amazed at the role they are playing in today's Washington. A year ago, they were "dead-enders," brutal killers disgruntled over their expulsion from power and nostalgic for the return of Saddam Hussein. The suggestion that Americans might productively talk to Sunni insurgents would have met with as much Beltway scorn as do calls today to engage in talks with Iran or Syria.

The best way to deal with these Sunni throwbacks, we were told back then, was to unleash American firepower and pummel them until they surrendered or died. America's failures were failures of timidity and political correctness. Arabs only understood force, and America needed to beat them into submission and forget about "struggling to win hearts and minds which can't be won." The rubble of Fallujah and the prisons of Abu Ghraib bear silent testimony to the influence of such thinking.

How times have changed. Since their turn against al-Qaeda which began last year, the Sunnis have become the foundation of the administration's case for staying in Iraq. Good thing we didn't kill them all.

Alas, while the president's men may have discovered Iraq's Sunnis, they still show little sign of actually understanding them. The cheerleaders for the surge have constructed a Disney-esque fantasy of an Iraqi "Sunni World" which might as well be in Orlando for all it has to do with the grim realities of today's Iraq.

The Sunni turn against al-Qaeda had very little to do with American diplomacy or military efforts, and far more to do with local power struggles and preparations for the widely-expected coming war with the Shia. The origins of this shift in Sunni politics date back to last year's attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq to impose its hegemony over the Sunni insurgency and to establish physical and political control in a variety of locales.

Al-Qaeda's attacks on Iraqi Shia had always been controversial among the insurgency's factions, many of which preferred to keep a tight focus on attacking American forces and Iraqi government personnel. Al-Qaeda made many enemies [among Sunnis – J] with its grandiose rhetoric, attacks on local political figures, attempts to enforce Islamic morality, and decisions to muscle in on tribal smuggling routes. When it declared the "Islamic State of Iraq" as an umbrella for the insurgent groups, the major "nationalist" factions which make up the overwhelming majority of the insurgency decided they had seen enough. The Islamic Army of Iraq released the first public denunciation, other factions followed suit, and nasty fighting (both verbal and military) ensued. The root of the conflict was a struggle for power within the Sunni community -- not attitudes towards the United States or even the central Iraqi government. The turn against al-Qaeda did not mean abandoning the insurgency, even if some of the groups are willing to use American support for their current tactical needs.

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General Petraeus worked creatively and effectively to encourage this trend, and soldiers and diplomats on the ground seem to be aware of the complexities of the new "cooperative" mission. The same can't be said for surge cheerleaders in the United States. Much of the conventional wisdom about the Sunni areas now seems to come from the impressions formed by politicians and journalists on stage-managed visits to Iraq, or by carefully crafted press interviews with "former insurgents" hand-picked by American military handlers. But we don't need such a mediated view. Leaders of the major Iraqi Sunni groups actually speak quite often and quite candidly to their own people, though: in open letters, in official statements posted on internet forums, in the Arab and Iraqi press, and in statements released on al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations. What they say in such statements, in Arabic, when addressing their own constituencies, might be considered a more reliable guide to their strategy and thinking. So what are the major Iraqi Sunni leaders saying?

In their literature and public rhetoric, the Sunni insurgency has already defeated the American occupation -- which is why the Americans stopped fighting them and came to them for help in fighting al-Qaeda. One discovers virtually nothing in this literature of the American conceit that our forces wore them out or forced them to come to the table. During his meeting with President Bush in Anbar last week, Abu Risha, reportedly joked that his people had achieved in four months what the American military could not achieve in four years. It was one of the few claims made by Abu Risha with which most Iraqi Sunnis would agree, and one which should probably have infuriated more Americans than it seems to have.

Most of these statements are already looking past the question of al-Qaeda, and are instead in preparation for the aftermath of an American withdrawal. The overwhelming theme of recent Sunni discourse is the need to achieve political unity to prepare for a post-occupation Iraq. While Americans celebrate their cordial relations with certain tribal shaykhs, the insurgency's leaders publicly fumed that the fruits of their victory might be snatched by undeserving interlopers. The widely disseminated pictures of President Bush shaking hands with Sattar Abu Risha, the epitome of such illegitimate bon vivantes, were likely his death warrant.

Meanwhile, certain tribes worry that the groundwork is being laid for the domination of Sunni politics by other tribes, and that this is in fact the American plan -- to leave behind a divided, suspicious, and compromised array of tribes which will be unable to act politically. An important recent open letter from the highly influential Association of Muslim Scholars powerfully invoked the experience of the Afghan jihad, which collapsed upon itself after defeating the Soviet Union. The famously fractious insurgency has been trying hard to put forward a public political front to fill this perceived void, though at this point the various projects still seem to exist mostly on paper.

Partition, soft or hard, has far fewer fans in Anbar than in Washington. Most Sunnis continue to support a unified Iraqi state, and have exaggerated expectations about the role they should play in such a state. A recent letter from the "Amir" of the Islamic Army of Iraq claimed that Sunnis made up 60 percent of the population of Iraq, and few Sunnis seem ready to accept the status of "tolerated minority" within a Shia-dominated state. The Maliki government is almost universally denounced as sectarian, culpable for sectarian cleansing, and an Iranian puppet.

There is absolutely nothing in current Sunni discourse to suggest that any sort of "bottom up reconciliation" with the Shia is taking place or that the tactical cooperation with American forces against al-Qaeda is producing any kind of meaningful integration into the Iraqi state. Far more common is the need to prepare for future conflict with the Shia and, increasingly, the Kurds (see Kirkuk and Mosul). Resentment over the sectarian 'cleansing' of Baghdad runs exceptionally high, and few Sunnis seem prepared to accept any political settlement which does not include their return to Baghdad -- something that the Shia militias (which continue to dominate the Iraqi Police) seem rather unlikely to accept.

Finally, the alliance of convenience with American forces has not translated into support for the United States at the mass level. A public opinion survey conducted last month -- well into the surge -- found that only 1 percent of Sunnis say they have confidence in American forces and only 1 percent of Sunnis support the American presence in Iraq. Rather, 72 percent of Sunnis say that the US forces should leave immediately, 95 percent say that the presence of U.S. troops makes security worse, and 93 percent still see attacks on coalition forces as acceptable. Such results should make obvious the vacuity of claims that the turn against al-Qaeda was a victory for American diplomacy.

These Iraqi views throw into sharp relief the point I made in early August that the American strategy of empowering Sunnis at the local level actually worked against the goal of strengthening the national Iraqi state. This contradiction emerged as a key theme in this week's congressional hearings, and forced the president's team to concoct a gerry-rigged strategic argument linking the developments at the local and national levels. But these scenarios are almost impossibly utopian and astonishingly divorced from the messy realities of politics. The idea that the current strategy will produce bottom-up reconciliation, develop a political constituency for moderation, and push political development on the national level is deeply misleading. Does anybody really believe that handing these angry young Sunnis jobs in a police force dominated by the most sectarian Shia militias will give them a stake in the current political system?

Abu Risha's murder demonstrates the strategic naivete of these arguments. The Anbar strategy relies on a series of best-case scenarios in which virtually nothing can go wrong -- and when, in Iraq, has nothing gone wrong? Other powerful players were always going to be willing and able to take steps against a process which threatened their interests: not just al-Qaeda, but competing tribes, insurgency groups, and Iraqi Shia, all of whom fear that the guns will soon be aimed at them. The murder of Abu Risha exposes realities which should have been obvious, and offer a grim context for Bush's attempts to rest the case for America's war in Iraq on Anbar's "success."

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and author of the popular Middle East politics blog Abu Aardvark. His most recent book, Voices of the New Arab Public: Al-Jazeera, Iraq, and Middle East Politics Today, was published last year by Columbia University Press.