Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Winners and Sinners

Winners & Sinners / Martin Luther King Jr. Day edition.

Winner:  Scott Horton.  This morning Harper’s Magazine jumped its publication date for the March issue by thirty days to rush out Scott Horton’s blockbuster cover story  about three possible murders at Guantanamo which the government and the mainstream media have always described as suicides.

    The piece also identified a black site on Guantanamo where those who died may have been tortured on the night of their supposed suicide.

    Horton is a law professor, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and one of the finest torture reporters of our time.

    At the heart of the cover-up Horton alleges is the fact that the Pentagon told the press–and convinced most reporters–that the three prisoners who died had hanged themselves.  However, Horton has interviewed five American servicemen who gave this account of what Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, told a meeting of fifty guards at 7am the morning after the prisoners had died.

    The commander said to the guards, “you all know” that the prisoners committed suicide by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.  “But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.  It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes.”

    Horton says Bumgarner refused all of his requests for interviews, although Bumgarner did attack the story today to the Associated Press  after it was posted on the Harper’s website.

   The guards interviewed by Horton said the night of the prisoners’ deaths, the guards believed that they had witnessed the prisoners’ removal to the black site away from the prison compound.  They also said that their clear site lines from the guard towers made it possible for them to know that none of the prisoners had been taken from their cells to the medical center on the night of their deaths.

    In a  article entitled “The Battle for Guantánamo” in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, Tim Golden wrote about Col. Bumgarner’s efforts to humanize conditions at Guantanamo.  He also reported the “suicides” of these three prisoners as an established fact.

   Golden never interviewed any of the guards quoted in Horton’s story.  Yesterday, he told FCP that he had read Horton’s story “quickly,” but he refused to make any comment about it.

   Some of the guards interviewed by Horton ridiculed Golden’s piece as “stenography” for Col. Bumgarner.

    Horton’s story also accuses the Obama administration of allowing the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of these deaths which was nothing more than a continuation of the cover-up that started under George Bush.

    He writes that the chief investigator in the case, Teresa McHenry, “has firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and having participated in the preparation of at least one of those memos” which authorized the torture conducted at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  McHenry refused to discuss her role in the preparation of that memo with Horton.

    Tune in to Keith Olbermann’s Countdown tonight on MSNBC, where Horton is expected to produce new evidence casting doubt on Col. Bumgarner’s credibility.

Sinners: David Carr and Tim Arango, who wrote a worshipful, 1,943 word profile
 of fox News Chief Roger Ailes
for the front page of The New York Times–which included exactly one paragraph of balance:

         “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to,” said Matthew Freud, who is married to Ms. Murdoch and whom PR Week magazine says is the most influential public relations executive in London.”

    The other 1,878 words were favorable–because Fox is supposedly the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  And why would anyone bother to mention that those profits come from constantly stirring up the dumbest 1 percent of the American TV audience with lies, hatred, and the never-ending tears of Glenn Beck?  The sad truth is, readers of The New York Times almost never learn the truth about Fox or Beck or the rest of the serial prevaricators on that network.  For that information, you have to be a regular viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Sinner: Lloyd Grove, for his appalling review of a new biography of Molly Ivins in The New York Times Book Review–one of the worst FCP has ever read.  Who was the genius editor who decided that a failed gossip columnist like Grove would be the best person to evaluate the life of one of the most important progressive journalists of the 20th century?  According to Grove,  “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life isn’t convincing as the biography of a significant figure in journalism”, mostly because “Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she’d always wanted to.”

The fact that she was one of the great newspaper columnists of her era, who was right about Iraq, George Bush and oh-so-much else when the geniuses in the Washington press corps were getting it all wrong, well, Grove (an alumnus of that fabulous group) doesn’t mention that.  To understand who Ivins really was, read Paul Krugman’s great column about her or FCP’s own tribute.   Or CJR’s excellent review of the book here.

Winner: The indispensable Hendrik Hertzberg, for his laugh-out-loud review  in this week’s New Yorker of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book–the first account of the 2008 campaign to be “told in the style of an airport potboiler.”  Says Hertzberg:

      Game Change is a bit like those tabloid photo features in which celebrities are caught with their cellulite showing. What do we learn from it, apart from the news that the thighs of the famous may be lumpier than they look onscreen? One lesson is that the eagerness of political operatives to trash tends to be inversely proportional to the power, present and future, of the trashee.

Winner: Tony Judt, for one of the most important pieces of 2009: What is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy, published last month in The New York Review of Books. His 6,600 word article is a devastating account of the sharp decline of the Western World over the last three decades–and essential reading for anyone disturbed by the perilous condition of American democracy.  For this, it was also the winner of the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for December.

The Tower of Dubai

Above the Fold

 Dubai–When the world’s tallest tower was inaugurated last week, the lavish ceremony began with bag pipes and seven precision parachutists, each one jumping from the top of the 2,717 foot tower into the same small spot just in front of the VIP area, which was populated by hundreds of local residents in turbans and flowing white robes, and an equal number of business-casual-attired Westerners.

    What bridged the cultural divide between the suited and the robed?  Everyone from Judy Miller–yes, that Judy Miller–to the Sheikh of Dubai was texting, almost all the time.

   The new building, nearly twice the height of the Empire State, features the world’s
highest swimming pool, (76th floor), the highest observation deck, (124th floor) and the highest–and probably smallest–mosque (158th floor).  It’s a mix of offices and apartments, with an Armani Hotel at the base (the designer’s first).  Some days the temperature is 15 degrees warmer at the base than it is at the top.   When the building went on the market two years ago, it sold out within two days, although Dubai now has a glut of office and residential space all over the city.

   The big news of the inaugural evening was the building’s exact height (a state secret until then) and the name change announced by  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

   What had been known during construction as the Burj Dubai had suddenly become the Burj Khalifa, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, and the head of oil-rich emirate Abu Dhabi, which so far has provided $25 billion to prop up its over-extended neighbor.   “Abu Dhabi has the oil, Dubai has the chutzpah,” a local expat explained.

    That meant the $1.5 billion glass and steel structure designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had  set another record–the highest naming fee for any structure in the history of the planet.

    After the bag pipes, the parachutists, and the Sheik’s speech, the tower exploded from top to bottom in a spectacular fireworks display, echoed in the moat in front of it by the world’s largest fountain, whose geysers pulsated and swayed in time to an Arabic Ode to Joy.

    Drowning in bad publicity since last November, when the state-owned Dubai World group succumbed to the worldwide credit crunch and requested a six-month freeze on $26 billion of debt repayments, Dubai saw a chance to use the opening of the spectacular new structure to improve its image.

    “Brand Dubai” is a new government office headed by Mona Al Marri, a dazzlingly attractive former journalist who was previously president of the Dubai Press Club.  Created five months before the crash to coordinate all media affairs, Brand Dubai invited three dozen journalists and architects from around the world to a conference on sustainable architecture, which was thrown together just three weeks before the inaugural ceremony for the stunning new Burj (“tower” in Arabic.)    New York’s Cooper Union was recruited to be the co-sponsor of the all-expenses paid junket, to which FCP was invited.

    Besides Judy Miller, conference members included Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, as well as former Clinton White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis, who carried a personal message of congratulations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Also present was the architect of the 38-story monstrosity at Broadway and 99th Street, which is twice as tall as its neighbors, and could well be the worst building erected in Manhattan in the last forty years.  Its violation of the scale of the neighborhood was so severe, it inspired a change in the zoning law to prevent any future imitators.  

    That architect’s presence was appropriate, because Dubai is one over-the-top skyscraper after another.   Oddly, the only one which seems understated is the world’s tallest, because its elegant, set-back  design makes it fit perfectly on top of its gigantic base. 

   The city has exploded from a sleepy port just thirty years ago into a center of tourism, commerce and American-style consumerism, featuring 12-lane highways and a brand new (mostly above ground) Metro with wi-fi.   It boasts twenty-eight shopping malls (including the world’s largest, with a gigantic aquarium with sharks and barracudas) and a panoply of man-made islands. Streets filled with hundreds of Mercedes, Bentleys and Rolls Royces, and the presence of Tiffany’s, Cartier, Bloomingdales, Galeries Lafayette, and just about every other major Western brand you can imagine, combine to give the desert city something of the feel of a crowded East Hampton on a July afternoon.

    It’s a strange mix of ultra-modernism, and medieval instincts, the latter leading to zero tolerance for gays and drugs, and the periodic seizure of foreign newspapers, whenever they get a little too harsh towards one of the sheiks. Two years ago a Canadian changing planes at the Dubai airport was caught with .6 of a gram of hash and two poppy bulbs.  The fact that he had been working as a consultant for the U.S. State Department’s Afghan poppy elimination program did not prevent him from receiving a four-year prison sentence.

    There is one under-the-radar gay bar, but half of its patrons are apparently undercover policemen.

    It’s also a place where the “properties” section of the Gulf News features ads for villas, hard by another one offering “Labor Camp For Rent–183 rooms, generator provided; water + electricity extra.”   The labor camps are for the foreign workers who do virtually all of the construction, and are kicked out of the country as soon as their jobs are over.   Last year, 27,550 were arrested for over-staying their welcome.  In 2007, the US State Department estimated that less than 20 percent of the UAE’s population of 4.4 million are citizens–and 93 percent of its workforce is foreign.

    The big question is whether the Burj Khalifa will mark the end of Dubai’s glory days or the beginning of its resurrection after the financial bust.  The betting here is that the oil money of its neighboring emirate and the undaunted ambitions of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed will gradually lead to the city’s financial revival.  But the plan for a massive new seawater canal through the center of the city to create waterside properties in the desert hinterland is probably on hold– forever.


Sage Advice for the President from Spitzer, Koch and The New York Times

Above the Fold

More than a year after the rescue began, crucial questions remain unanswered. Who knew what, and when? Who benefitted, and by exactly how much? Would A.I.G.’s counterparties have failed without taxpayer support?…We know where the answers are. They are in the trove of e-mail messages still backed up on A.I.G. servers…The government should insist that the company immediately make these materials public. By putting the evidence online, the government could establish a new form of “open source” investigation.
                                               –Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black

The President should do more. He should instruct his Attorney General, Eric Holder, that one of his highest priorities should be holding criminally liable those who engaged in illegal activities on Wall Street that nearly caused our banking system and, indeed, our entire economy to collapse.

                                               –Edward I. Koch

What profits the banks have made over the last year were funded by oodles of cheap financing provided by the Federal Reserve. This is a windfall that they should not be allowed to keep…Bankers are likely to scream…No one should be intimidated…A windfall tax on bankers’ bonuses would not be enough, but it would be a start.

                                               –from an editorial in The New York Times


        This week the Obama administration will quite rightly celebrate a huge achievement, one which eluded six previous Democratic presidents–a giant step towards universal health care for every American citizen.  Yes, the Senate bill is vastly inferior to the House version, and not just because of the absence of a public option, but it is also a very important beginning, and it represents a triumph over a fiercely-united, know-nothing Republican minority, which was paid tens of millions of dollars by the medical-industrial complex to prevent anything from passing.
       When David Gregory pointed out yesterday that the president’s approval ratings are still sliding downward, White House counselor David Axelrod was perfectly correct to point out that no poll numbers will really matter until October of next year, on the eve of the next Congressional election.  And if health care reform is accompanied by a genuinely rebounding economy, all of the predictions of massive Democratic losses in that election may prove to be unfounded.

        But despite these “green shoots” of optimism, the Obama administration still faces a gigantic political problem because of the way it has treated Wall Street.  Even if the financial reform bill Barney Frank is shepherding through the House survives a much more conservative Senate, this administration must finally put some real muscle behind its anti-Wall Street rhetoric.

        Of course it was welcome to hear the president tell Steve Croft, “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of…fat cat bankers on Wall Street. Nothing has been more frustrating to me this year than having to salvage a financial system at great expense to taxpayers that was precipitated, that was caused in part by completely irresponsible actions on Wall Street.”  But now he must do something decisive to dispel the idea that the administration’s first priority is to keep Goldman Sachs happy.  And the best way to do that would be to embrace the powerful  advice of two middle-of-the-road Democrats and one very-slightly-left-of-center newspaper.

        Eliot Spitzer is the undisputed master of how to investigate Wall Street fraud to propel a political career, and the Obama administration could learn volumes from studying Spitzer’s tenure as New York’s attorney general.  Spitzer’s proposal to force a government-owned A.I.G. to make public all of its emails is good policy and good politcs.  So is Ed Koch’s admonition to focus the Justice Department’s attention on the bankers who knowingly participated in the massive fraud which came so close to destroying the economy.  And the windfall tax advocated by The New York Times could be the single most popular policy change the president could champion.
       Earlier this month the Senate Judiciary Committee summoned Robert Khuzami, the enforcement director of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general of the criminal division at the Justice Department; and Kevin Perkins, the F.B.I.’s assistant director in charge of its criminal investigative division, to find out why it is taking so long to hold anyone accountable for Wall Street’s criminal shenanigans. 

        “Why aren’t we seeing more board room prosecutions?” Ted Kaufman, Democratic senator of Delaware, demanded.  Assistant attorney general Breuer replied that the cases were “complicated,” and would take a long time to investigate, “but they will be brought.”

        Khuzami said the S.E.C. had already gone after top officials in the mortgage industry–like Angelo R. Mozilo, the head of Countrywide Financial–but he too said that other areas of the financial industry were a bit more complicated to investigate.  And the FBI’s man said that a new interagency financial fraud enforcement task force created only last month would speed up the process, and could lead to more prosecutions down the road.
       This is much too little,  too late.  What we need now is a president who will match not only the rhetoric but also the bravery of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest American president of the 20th Century.

        These were Roosevelt’s words during his first re-election campaign in 1936.  Obama must now find  the courage to adopt Roosevelt’s tone, and his policies:

         We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.  They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

         Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.  I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

            From FDR’s lips to Obama’s ears.




Special thanks to FCP contributors DEK and JWS.

Danner v. Cheney


Above the Fold

   Our own era, I am convinced, will be remembered for the American Government’s official development of, its placing the country’s legal imprimatur on, and Americans’ acceptance of, the techniques and practice of torture.

                                                                                             – Mark Danner, December 16, 2009

    This week Mark Danner synthesized the most important points from all of his articles and books about torture for the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at the graduate center of the City University of New York.

    As I have pointed out before, when the history of this era is written, Danner will be remembered as one of a handful of journalists who summoned the necessary outrage to alert his readers to the horrendous costs of America’s broad embrace of torture during the Bush years.   Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Scott Horton of Harper’s, Andy Rosenthal of The New York Times editorial page, Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Jon Stewart–yes, Jon Stewart–all deserve praise for their superb efforts in this area,  but none more so than Danner.

    Danner is a professor at Bard and the University of California at  Berkeley, where, he noted wryly, ex-Bush administration torture-enabler John Yoo is now his colleague: “I can hear the demonstrators down the street in front of his house.” 

   Earlier this year, Danner broke the story of the Red Cross report on American torture practices  in the New York Review of Books and an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

    This week he began his lecture by quoting Irving Howe on George Orwell’s 1984:

    The book appalls us because its terror, far from being inherent in the “human condition,” is particular to our century; what haunts us is the sickening awareness that in 1984 Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.

    Danner argued that courage and intelligence were exactly what had been needed to prevent America from falling into the abyss of torture.  He also noted the deadening similarities between our endless war on terror, and the permanent war among Oceania, Urasia and Eastasia depicted in 1984.

    Danner’s lecture was entitled “Escaping the State of Exception: Torture and Truth, Obama and Us,” and he reminded his listeners that America had endured many previous  “states of exception:”

* “The most famous:” when Lincoln  suspended habeas corpus and took other measures solely on his own authority in the months after his inauguration in 1861;

* John Adams’ imprisonment of hundreds of political opponents in 1798 and 1799 in the run up to an expected war with revolutionary France;

* Woodrow Wilson’s imprisonment and deportation of thousands who spoke out against the country’s entry into World War I;

* Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to imprison 110,000 Japanese-Americans afer Pearl Harbor – the great majority of them American citizens.

    So, Danner concluded, “we have been here before.”   But while each of these previous “exceptions” occurred within the confines of a well-defined event, like the Civil War or World War II–and thus ended along with those conflicts–elements of the current state of exception could last as long as the endless war on terror.  

   “So far,” Danner declared, “those elements have included wholesale arrest and long-term detention of aliens on American soil; massive wiretapping of Americans without benefit of a warrant, as prescribed by law; ‘extraordinary rendition’—secret kidnapping–of large numbers of foreign citizens on foreign soil and their transfer to other countries for interrogation or to secret American facilities; establishment of offshore prisons, the most notorious of which the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the long-term detention without trial of hundreds and, taken as a whole, thousands of prisoners; establishment of secret prisons–so-called “black sites”–for covert and prolonged detention of prisoners; and finally the development of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ so-called EITs, making use of suffocation, battery, close confinement and other measures and their widespread use on detainees held in secret prisons.”

    Danner said Barack Obama deserved praise for ending torture in the first week of his administration, and for this passage in the speech he gave last week when he accepted the Nobel in Oslo:

    “All nations–strong and weak alike–must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.    I–like any head of state–reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.   Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakness–those who don’t….Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.  And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

    On the other hand, so far there has been no renouncement of rendition, and Obama has said repeatedly that when it comes to torture, he wants to “look forward,” not “back.”  Danner called that “a pernicious phrase, and, if held to consistently, would preclude all punishment and prosecution, [because] rendering justice, by definition, implies looking backward.  But the political costs of justice, at least that provided by prosecution, are very great; for we live still in the ‘politics of fear.’”

    The main actor in keeping that fear alive, of course, has been former vice president Dick Cheney, who began his relentless assault on the current administration barely a week after it took office, and continued it by scheduling a speech on terror which he delivered almost simultaneously with one Obama gave on the same subject.  Danner quoted several of Cheney’s core arguments, including these:

 * “If it hadn’t been for what we did—with respect to the…enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees…—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US….

 * “I think there’s a high probability of [another] such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends [on] whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States….”

    Danner called  these “dark admonitions,” which are “both exculpatory, pointing back to what the administration did and justifying it, and minatory, warning about what will happen in the future and laying down a predicate for who will be blamed.”  Partly because of them, “Congress has been reluctant to vote funds for the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, fearful of warning cries that the new president will be ‘putting terrorists in our neighborhoods.’ And we see its effect in the increasing refusal to release photographs and memoranda, and the increasing willingness to take positions similar to the Bush administration when it comes to lawsuits regarding torture and detainee rights.”   

    The decision “that expresses most purely the ambivalence of the Obama Administration…is the decision not to bring criminal investigations against those who have tortured – or rather to do so only in the case of those who have gone beyond the Bush Administration’s immensely wide guidelines.”

    Danner is not opposed to broad prosecutions of those responsible for formulating the Bush administration’s torture policies, but the professor is more practical than polemica– and he sees no possibility of such prosecutions in the current political climate.   Therefore, he argues that the road to justice must run through education, which should take the form of a truth commission, “to investigate what was done in the realm of interrogation, who did it, what it accomplished and, not least, how it hurt the country. For the priority must be not destroying the torturers but destroying the idea of torture.”

    Danner cited poll numbers showing that many more people in America now believe that torture is sometimes necessary than their counterparts in Europe, or Egypt, or most other countries of the world:

    There are many reasons for this – the myth of the ticking bomb, the desire for harsh justice expressed from the American Western to Dirty Harry – but it is clear these attitudes are deep seated and damaging. They represent the stark reality of a society that, post-9/11 – has come to accept torture. It is only through an effort to change those attitudes that we can approach a state of justice.

    So far, there hasn’t even been any broad political pressure to create a truth commission, much less the political will to prosecute those who sanctioned torture.   Under these circumstances, the road back to sanity and justice is likely to be very long indeed.


The President and the Nobel

 Above the Fold

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

                                         –Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside Church, 1967

“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”                              

                                          –President Barack Obama, Oslo, 2009

    Barack Obama gave the best speech he could last week–given the fact that he had decided to expand the war in Afghanistan just ten days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.   He nodded to Gandhi and quoted the speech Martin Luther King gave when  he  accepted the Nobel : “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” 

   Obama added, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”

    It’s true that presidents do not have the same freedom of action as civil rights leaders.  But it is also true that Martin Luther King’s decision to oppose to the War in Vietnam was one of the best and most important things he ever did–even though it brought him the opprobrium of practically the entire white liberal establishment at the time.

    Just like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has chosen to commit American blood and treasure to a deeply corrupt government which lacks the support of most of his citizens, without any real plan for victory, or even much of a benchmark for success.  And in Obama’s latest speech we also hear another echo of LBJ, who was forever invoking the ghost of appeasement in Europe in the 1930’s as a reason for American adventurism in the 1960’s: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” Obama declared in Oslo.

    It is Obama, rather than his critics, who has misread the historical lessons of Vietnam.   Here, I believe, we are paying a serious price for having elected a president who is too young to have any adult memories of Vietnam.

    Naturally, Obama tried hard to put the best face on America’s infatuation with war:
“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.  The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.  We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.  We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

    Obama also said, “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.”   That’s true, but our closest friends also include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many other governments which are famously contemptuous of the rights of their citizens.

    But the biggest part of recent American history Obama needed to ignore to portray us as democracy’s defender is our shameful role as chief arms merchant to the world.   Not since Jimmy Carter was president has anyone made even a cursory effort to restrain American arms makers from selling their most expensive weapons to many of the poorest nations in the world.

    Only once in the last thirty years did the world pay any attention to the consequences of the fervent competition among the developed nations to sell every tank and missile and airplane they can to the undeveloped ones.   That occurred after Saddam Hussein’s remarkably quick and successful invasion of Kuwait.

    As one historian has noted:
    Observers were initially struck by the speed and brazenness of the invasion, which could only be viewed as a willful violation of international law. But another aspect of the invasion also sparked international attention: the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped with very large numbers of sophisticated weapons that had been obtained from foreign suppliers. During the previous eight years Iraq had spent an estimated $43 billion on imported weapons, giving it the most modern and powerful arsenal of any nation in the developing world. Many of these arms were supplied by the Soviet Union (long Iraq’s major supplier), but others were acquired from France and other Western countries. This led to widespread charges that the major suppliers bore some degree of responsibility for Iraq’s aggressive behavior, in that they had provided the means for mounting the 1990 invasion.

    In the aftermath of Kuwait, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met twice in 1991 and pledged to develop new controls on the international arms trade.  But before the next scheduled meeting of the group of five took place in 1992, to formalize the restrictions, the first president Bush decided sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.  A furious China withdrew from the negotiations, which gave everyone else an excuse to boycott them–and they have never been revived since.

    During the administration of the second President Bush, foreign arms sales exploded–from $12 billion in 2005 to $32 billion in 2008.  As Eric Lipton noted  in a fine story in The New York Times last year,

    The United States has long been the top arms supplier to the world. In the past several years, however, the list of nations that rely on the United States as a primary source of major weapons systems has greatly expanded. Among the recent additions are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan, according to sales data through the end of last month provided by the Department of Defense. Cumulatively, these countries signed $870 million worth of arms deals with the United States from 2001 to 2004. For the past four fiscal years, that total has been $13.8 billion.  In many cases, these sales represent a cultural shift, as nations like Romania, Poland and Morocco, which have long relied on Russian-made MIG-17 fighter jets, are now buying new F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin.

    This is just the tip of the military-industrial complex Obama confronts as president, and he has gotten practically no pressure from anyone to confront it head on.

    The key moment in the Afghanistan debate occurred in London at the end of September when General Stanley McChrystal rejected the possibility of scaling back the American war effort there.   This was a clear act of insubordination, which, in another time and place, would have led to the general’s firing. 

   That, of course, is the way Harry Truman dealt with General Douglas MacArthur when he ignored the president’s wishes during the Korean War.

    But this time no one ever thought McChrystal would be fired.   Justin Feldman, the wisest political analyst I know, observed that if Defense Secretary Robert Gates had responded to the London speech the way he should have–by firing McChrystal–Obama would at least have had the option of rejecting his demand for tens of thousands of additional troops.   “Obama was boxed in politically as a new president,” Feldman said.   “He has too much on his plate–and if Gates wouldn’t fire McChrystal, Obama couldn’t afford to have Gates and McChrystal bail out on him.”

    So instead of the dramatic change so many of us hoped for when we cast our ballots for president 13 months ago, when it comes to war and peace, it seems we will mostly continue to see more of the same.



Leo Siqueira of Brazil’s canal da imprensa interviews FCP about Obama here.

Afghanistan, the Economy, and Obama's “Anti-MacArthur Moment”

The President at West Point                           Job losses January 2008–November 2009

  Above the Fold

     “The longer we delay the process [of withdrawal] and the harder we try to prevent it, the more certain it is that the Taliban will dominate. This has been uniformly true of insurgencies for the last two centuries all over the world: those who fought hardest against the foreigners took control.”   -William R. Polk         


      Give credit to the victors.  Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant.  Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot.”    - Tom Englelhardt 

                                                                                                          Barack Obama’s week began with a deeply dubious policy decision and ended with a huge, early-Christmas present.  The misstep was his decision to continue his steady escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the gift was a very surprising improvement in the economy, the shedding of just 11,000 American jobs, which could signal an earlier-than-expected end to the recession.

       The question is whether the economic recovery will ever be strong enough to compensate for the black hole of war, which drains more and more billions from our economy every year. 

      The most useful analysis of Afghanistan FCP has encountered recently is also the most depressing one: William R. Polk’s “Let America Be America,” posted last month as a guest editorial on Juan Cole’s indispensable blog.         

      These are some of Polk’s most trenchant observations: 

* “For the first time that I know of in recent American history, the uniformed military have created what amounts to a pressure group of their own. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are the leaders but, by influencing or controlling promotions panels, they have fostered the advancement of middle grade and junior officers who agree with them. Some have been brought into a group called ‘the Colonels’ council.’ And numbers of retired senior officers have joined not only in what President Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’ but have become the opinion-makers on foreign policy in the media.” 

*   Obama “must hope that the general public will reach the conclusion that ‘staying the course’ is costly, does not work and is pointless. But, if [he]waits until a course of action is completely evident to everyone, it will be probably be too late to implement easily, cleanly and in command of our principal objectives. Thus, a large part of a president’s responsibility is educating the public.” 

* “As the current Russian ambassador and long-time KBG expert on Afghan affairs, Zamir N. Kabulov, has commented, there is no mistake the Russians made that has not been copied by the Americans.” 

* America probably lost its last, best chance to convince most Afghans of the legitimacy of a new national government seven years ago, when it ignored the wishes of two thirds of the delegates to a loya jirga (a national meeting of tribal councils), who signed a petition to make the exiled Afghan King, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government. “But we had already decided that Hamid Kara was ‘our man in Kabul’ and did not want the Afghanis to interfere with our choice..As Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason reported…. ‘This was the Afghan equivalent to the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam; afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government.’ While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan; without one, as they put it, ‘an elected president is a on a one-legged stool.’”  

* “At our current level of activity - before the introduction of more troops - we are “burning”…about $60 billion a year. Next year, our direct costs will probably rise to at least $100 billion. And even that figure will surely rise in the years to come. So the Congressionally allocated funds in the coming few years under even the most modest form of “staying the course” would amount to a minimum of $600 billion and more likely to much more…. This is money that we don’t have and will have to borrow form overseas.” 

* “General McChrystal has told us that we must have large numbers of additional troops to hold the territory we ‘clear.’ He echoes what the Russian commanders told the Politburo: in a report on November 13, 1986, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev commented that the Russians attempted the same strategy but admitted that it failed. ‘There is no piece of land in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘that has not been occupied by one of or soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize … Without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time.’” 

      At the heart of the president’s argument for an escalation is the idea that we must–at all costs–deny al-Qaeda a renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan.  But this idea ignores two essential facts: 1) it is far beyond our capacity to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary everywhere else–from Somalia to Germany, and 2) whatever benefit we may gain from denying them Afghanistan is far outweighed by the huge damage we are doing to our security by guaranteeing the recruitment of thousands of new terrorists through our continued involvement in what is now an eight-year-old war. 

      Polk thinks the best chance we have of creating a manageable situation lies with the Pakistanis.  It may be a long shot, but its chances of success strike me as far greater than what we can expect from a continuing escalation of American involvement.  Polk writes, 

      The Pakistanis have a long history with the Taliban, know them intimately, have subsidized them and have sought in the Taliban a barrier against Indian infiltration of their backyard, Afghanistan. That long-term interest remains despite the current conflict. And, at base, the Pakistanis share with the Afghanis, religion, a population of nearly 30 million Pashtuns and the desire to preserve their neighborhood from foreign control. Thus, I believe that in the coming months, they will do what neither the Russians nor we have been able to do – bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This move would offer a wise American president an opening to begin the process of turning over the war to our ally Pakistan. 

      Meanwhile, over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt identifies the single most depressing aspect of the president’s decision: 

      It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy.  They have shocked-and-awed their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success, triumphant at last. And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not about devolving Afghanistan.  I’m talking about what’s happening in Washington. You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered.   

      Engelhardt calls this Obama’s “anti-MacArthur moment,” and I’m afraid that’s exactly what it was.  Engelhardt recalls, “In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces.  He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to ‘limit’ the war after the Chinese intervened.” 

      This failure is as much the fault of the left as it is the president’s.  Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that simply by electing a new president, we could achieve a fundamental change of direction in America.  But, as usual, after being beaten at the ballot box, the right wing has redoubled its efforts to maintain control over the American political process, while the left remains just as impotent as it was during the Bush years. 

      In the long run, the good economic news at the end of the week may be more important to Obama’s long-term fortunes than his poor judgment about the war.   A resurgent economy in 2010 could prevent Republicans gains in the House and Senate in the fall. 

      However, it now seems just as likely that Obama’s flawed foreign policy will cripple his other ambitions for change–just as Lyndon Johnson’s repeated failure to face down his own generals in Vietnam fatally crippled him. 

Special thanks to FCP contributor JWS.


Obama, So Far

   Above the Fold

    On the eve of the most important foreign policy speech of his presidency, pundits are more divided than ever over what Barack Obama has or has not accomplished in the first ten months of his presidency.

    FCP’s common-sense-of-the-week-award goes to Jacob WeisbergWriting in Slate, Weisberg makes a series of extremely sensible observations.

Among them:

* This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

* Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

*  If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

* Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.

    That’s all true.  The other side of the coin, which Weisberg ignores, is best expressed by Glenn Greenwald, who has become the conscience of America on all questions of torture and civil liberties.  Greenwald takes Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesisas to task for giving Obama more or less of a free pass for his failure to reverse many of Bush’s policies in these areas.   Yglesias, for example, wrote “I agree that the civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted, but I’m continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that’s going to have to come from congress.”

    For Greenwald, and for anyone who shares George Orwell’s conviction that one’s own side must live up to its own principles, Yglesias’ analysis simply won’t do.

    “It’s interesting how what was once lambasted as ‘Constitution-shredding’ under George Bush is now nothing more than:  Obama’s ‘civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted,’ writes Greenwald.  “Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt’s argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties.  The success of Obama’s campaign – which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that  – ought to have permanently retired that excuse.”

    “Whatever else is true,” Greenwald continues, “watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be ‘disappointing’ even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it.  I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy – policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”

    FCP shares all of Greenwald’s disappointment over Obama’s failure to repeal all of Bush’s extra-consitutional policies.   So far, the only major act of the administration on the other side of this argument–besides the outright banning of torture–has been the appointment of Michael Posner as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

   Posner, who headed Human Rights First for three decades, has as good a record of fighting the Bush administration’s torture policies as anyone else in America,  so his selection was extremely encouraging.  It has also gone almost completely unreported by the MSM and the blogosphere alike.

    Meanwhile, holding up the radical fringe this week is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, with a piece which could easily make him even more of a laughing-stock than he was before. So far, Meacham is the only “mainstream” pundit I know to take Liz Cheney seriously, after she suggested her father really ought to run for president.

    Ignoring the fact that Cheney was the author of almost all of the foreign policy decisions which have brought the nation to the edge of catastrophe, Meacham heartily endorses Liz Cheney’s suggestion–“Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions.”

    Bracing indeed.   Apparently, the plight of Newsweek is now so desperate, Meacham will do literallyanything to try to bring attention to his magazine.


Update: For a shameful example of the non-journalism so often favored by Washington journalists, don’t miss this morning’s appalling interview  with Meacham’s would-be Republican presidential nominee in Politico.  Conducted by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the 90-minute exchange does not include a single tough question.   It also contains absolutely zero news, just an endless repetition of the same Cheney rant we have heard over and over again this year.  I guess that’s why Politico is leading with it today.

   The intrepid Politico reporters reported:

   “Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. ‘I basically don’t,’ he replied without elaborating.”

   Follow up, gentlemen? Naturally, there was none.

   If either of these reporters knew any of the details about this subject, they might have asked the former vice president why reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 to 37,000 in Cheney’s final year of office–and slashing aid to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense from $9.6 billion to $5.4 billion during the same period– had nothing to do with the current meltdown over there.   But the pristine ignorance of these reporters insures an utterly free ride for the their subject.

   As the indispensable Steve Benen points out  at The Washington Monthly this morning, “there’s no real journalism to be found. No fact-checking, no pushback, no scrutiny. Just an uninterrupted string of predictable, misguided nonsense. Cheney could have just written a blog post/screed, and had Politico publish it. This would have saved Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the trouble of adding quote marks to their stenography.”




Lessons for Afghanistan from Lyndon Johnson's last Secretary of Defense

 Above the Fold

   Forty odd years ago, in the spring of 1968, when America was trapped in another terrible quagmire, William Westmoreland, the commanding the general in Vietnam, made a startling request of  president Lyndon B. Johnson: on top of the 500,000 American troops already serving in Southeast Asia, Westmoreland said he  needed 206,000 more to finish the job. 

    When that 206,000 number was reported in a headline on the front page of The New York Times, it caused “a national disturbance,” Clark Clifford remembered.

    Clifford had been brought into Johnson’s administration in 1968 to be the new Secretary of Defense, because he had been a reliable hawk on the Vietnam war and–to Johnson’s dismay–Clifford’s predecessor, Robert McNamara, had lost confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam.   But after Clifford arrived at the Pentagon, his views about the war underwent a very rapid metamorphosis.

    “Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked his generals, and he received no assurance that they would.  How long would  the war last with hundreds of thousands of more troops to wage it?  Six months?  A year? Two years?   No one could agree.  Worse still, Clifford couldn’t even find a single man willing to express any confidence in his own guesses.

    “It all began to add up to the realization on my part that we’d been through a period of the never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford told me twenty years later–and  Clifford ended up convincing Lyndon Johnson that another huge troop increase in Vietnam would be a disaster.

    Now we are mired in another unwinnable war, half a world away, in a country governed by a deeply corrupt president.   If we are lucky–really lucky–Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired lieutenant general now serving as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, will have the same effect on his president that Clark Clifford had on his.

    Just as Clifford had special standing as a hawk on the Vietnam War, Eikenberry’s words carry special weight because he is the former American military commander in Afghanistan.  The news last week that Eikenberry had sent two cables questioning the wisdom of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops may have come just in time to prevent Obama from drowning his presidency in another hopeless war.

    Eikenberry’s sensible skepticism was a refreshing contrast to the attitude of so many Washington “journalists” who are, almost unbelievably, repeating all of the mistakes they made as cheerleaders in the run up to our last spectacular national adventure, the War in Iraq. 

    Why are they doing this?

    As Hendrik Hertzberg explained the fundamental problem of Washington to me a couple of years ago, “It’s much harder to damage your career by consistently supporting war and cruelty than by consistently supporting peace and love. The default position is ‘bombs away.’”

   And that goes for journalists and public officials alike.

    In that venerable “bombs away” spirit,  David Broder echoed dozens of his confreres when he wrote in The Washington Post last week  that “the cost of indecision is growing every day.”   Instead of rejoicing that there was now some real debate within the administration over the idiotic idea of sharply escalating American involvement in Afghanistan, Broder reached for exactly the wrong quote from exactly the right person.  Broder wrote that “Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford, one of Harry Truman’s closest advisers, said: that the president ‘believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.’ “

   If only Broder wasn’t too senile to remember what Clifford had said to Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, instead.

    Then we have intrepid TV reporters like Chip Reid, the chief White House Correspondent for CBS News.  Why Reid holds that title is another deep Washington mystery–except that he looks right for the job.  Last Thursday, Reid filed a lengthy and not completely unbalanced report for the CBS Evening News,  about the president’s deliberations on Afghanistan.  It was perfectly OK, really, until Reid got to his kicker–the place reporters often use to put their own opinions in someone else’s mouth.

    “That the president is so thoroughly researching such a critical decision is a good thing,” said Reid, “according to CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate.  But, there’s great danger,  [Zarate] says, if it looks like uncertainty.”  Then we got Zarate himself, the only talking head in Reid’s whole piece:

    “It’s the body language of indecision, or the perception of indecision, that may matter more, in some ways.  It matters in terms of how our allies view our sense of resolve in Afghanistan, how our enemies perceive our willingness to have backbone for whatever decision is made.”

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the former deputy national security advisor to the previous president made a completely mindless observation like that one, he would at least have been identified as a former Republican official now challenging  a Democratic president. But in the wonderful world of 21st century Washington, a Bush aparatchek like Zarate can now have his past magically erased by CBS News, where he is reborn on the evening news as an objective “national security consultant to CBS“–with no mention whatsoever of his previous employment.

    There’s another piece of extremely recent history that all of the Washington hawks demanding that Obama escalate the war have conveniently forgotten.   In his final year in office, it was George Bush who reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 in June of 2008, to 37,000 in January of this year.  During the same period, aide to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense was slashed almost in half, from $9.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2008, according to an excellent new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

    So after spending more than $167 billion on the war in Afghanistan, and failing for seven years in a row to come up with a winning strategy, Bush sharply reduced American resources in Afghanistan during his final year in office, pretty much guaranteeing the god-awful mess Obama inherited when he took office. 

   Now we can only pray that Obama will follow the advice of his ambassador and his vice president, and reverse course before this war buries his presidency exactly the same way Vietnam buried Lyndon Johnson’s.


Update: For Ed Koch’ clarion call for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan go here;
 and for additional, relevant Westmoreland quotes, see Barry Eisler’s post.

Winners & Sinners

Sinner  Dexter  Filkins  and  Winner  Jane  Mayer

Sinner: Dexter Filkins.

Filkins is a fine reporter, one of the best foreign correspondents working for The New York Times, and the author of countless scoops, including the one he co-authored this morning  about the regular payments the CIA has been making for years to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president who has repeatedly been accused of being a major player in that country’s drug trade.

    Given Filkin’s track record, FCP was extremely eager to read his recent piece about Stanley McChrystal and the Afghan war in The New York Times magazine.  The cover line suggested Filkins had written something particularly important: “Is it just too late — politically and militarily — for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to win in Afghanistan?”

    That head made me hope that Filkins might have written a piece like Walter Cronkite’s famous report from Vietnam, right after the Tet Offensive in 1968, in which Cronkite concluded, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion..It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate…”

    However,  Filkins failed to reach any clear conclusion about our prospects in Afghanistan the same way Cronkite had in Vietnam.  But that was not the main problem with his article.   Like so many other reporters before him, Filkins had clearly been seduced by the general.  Here is a typical passage: “With his long and gaunt face and his long and lean body, McChrystal looks almost preternaturally alert — coiled, hungry. He pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night, eating one meal a day. He runs eight miles at a clip, usually with an audiobook at his ears. ‘I was the fastest runner at Fort Stewart, Ga., until he arrived,’ Petraeus told me recently. ‘He’s a tremendous athlete.’” (What is it about being a jock that is so irresistible to so many male reporters?)

    Seduction, of course, leads to sloppiness.   As FCP pointed out earlier this month, McChrystal has some very large skeletons in his closet,concerning  the torture of prisoners interrogated by his men, and his central role in covering up the fact that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

    Regarding the multiple accusations of prisoners tortured by men under McChrystal command, this was all Filkins wrote: “One of JSOC’s units, Task Force 6-26, was cited for abusing detainees, many of them at a site known as Camp Nama, in Baghdad. McChrystal himself was not implicated, but at least 34 task-force members were disciplined. ‘There were cases where people made mistakes, and they were punished,’ McChrystal told me. ‘What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.’

    As for his role in the Tillman cover-up, McChrystal gave Filkins the same misleading, non-denial-denial that the general had offered at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year: “McChrystal said he never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death. ‘I certainly regret the way this came out,’ McChrystal told me.

    In an e-mail to Filkins, FCP reminded The Times reporter what Tillman’s father had written about the Army’s supposedly unintentional deceptions:

The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.

    I also reminded Filkins that the officers at the camp where McChrystal’s men had been accused of routinely torturing their prisoners never used their real names–to make it more difficult to prosecute them later.  They also allowed their soldiers to decorate the base with signs reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL“–which the Times itself had reported in 2006 “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

    Then I asked Filkins these questions:

1.  Don’t these facts make it impossible to believe that “McChrystal… never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death,” or that he “certainly regrets the way this came out?” Is there some reason you don’t find Tillman’s father’s description of the Army actions to be credible?  That the deceptions were willful, and repeated many times?

2.  Do you not find the interrogator interviewed by Human Rights First and the Esquire reporter [who described the torture committed by McChrystal’s troops] to be credible?  I think it’s flatly false–or at least gravely incomplete–to assert that McChrystal was “not implicated” in any of the abuses at Nama.  In fact, I believe he was questioned behind closed doors about these allegations by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
3.  And then there’s this:  “What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.”  How could you allow the posting of signs reading  “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL” if that you were trying to establish “such a policy and atmosphere”?

    Filkins did not reply.

Winner:   Karen DeYoung for a powerful portrait of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine corps captain turned  Foreign Service officer, who was “exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.”  Last month Hoh resigned from the State Department in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.  “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department’s head of personnel. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”  DeYoung’s piece gives a far better sense of the hopelessness of the American effort than Filkins’ did.

Winner: Nathaniel Frank for the most thorough evisceration in memory at The Huffington Post of an appalling piece by Sinner James Bowman in The Weekly Standard.   Bowman’s essential argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military: “We know that soldiering… is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity… ‘Being a man’ typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.–and being heterosexual…. [and] includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality.”

Frank’s rebuttal makes it clear that Bowman’s pristine ignorance of all of the actual data on this subject leads him to get almost every single fact wrong in his piece.   Bowman’s piece is a classic example of stupidity and intellectual dishonesty masquerading as objective analysis.

Frank is the author of Unfriendly Fire, the brilliant and definitive book he published on this subject earlier this year.

Winner: The great Jane Mayer for another superb New Yorker article  excerpted here about the steep decline in the moral standards associated with the way America now conducts its wars.  Mayer’s subject this time: the predator drones used by the CIA to assassinate “terrorists.”   Piloted by remote controllers thousands of miles from their targets, the drones are regarded within the American government as one of our most effective tools against terrorism.  But Mayer makes it clear that the collateral damage they often cause is probably creating even more terrorists than they are destroying.

General McChrystal: American "Hero"


                                                 General Stanley A. McChrystal 

  Above the Fold

   The next time John McCain or David Gregory or some other Washington sage demands to know why President Obama hasn’t already acceded to General Stanley A. McChrystal’s demand that we immediately send 40,000 additional troops to the bottomless cesspool known as Afghanistan, (just imagine: A Commander-in-Chief who thinks that generals are supposed to work for him, rather than the other way around) consider these facts:

* McChrystal was a personal favorite of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney;

* Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh says that McChrystal ran what Hersh called Cheney’s personal “executive assassination wing”;

*Newsweek reported in 2006 that “Rumsfeld is especially enamored of McChrystal’s ‘direct action’ forces or so-called SMUs–Special Mission Units–whose job is to kill or capture bad guys…But critics say the Pentagon is short-shrifting the ‘hearts and minds’ side of Special Operations that is critical to counterinsurgency–like training foreign armies and engaging with locals.”

* A former interrogator at an American-run prison outside Baghdad called Nama, (soldiers said that stood for Nasty Ass Military Area), told a reporter for Esquire  that all of the officers there went by first names only, and that prisoners were repeatedly beaten, and exposed to all of the torture techniques that the Bush administration pretended were only administered by “rogue soldiers.”

*The Colonel the interrogator worked for at Nama promised him that the Red Cross would never visit the facility. The Colonel was certain of that because “He had this directly from General McChrystal.”

* The same interrogator said that the Colonel was fully aware of all of the abuses taking place on the base. Asked by an investigator from Human Rights Watch where the Colonel’s orders were coming from, the interrogator said, “I believe it was a two-star general. I believe his name was General McChrystal. I saw him there a couple of times.”

* According to Jon Krakauer’s new book, Where Men Win Glory, McChrystal was at the center of the effort to pretend that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by the enemy, instead of being a victim of friendly fire. At the same time that the general was approving a Silver Star for Tillman, he was cabling the White House, to warn, in secret, that the soldier had actually been killed by his American comrades.

* Krakauer says that Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned, and his weapon, helmet, and even a part of his brain, which fell to the ground after the attack, disappeared.

* Queried about the cover up during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal said he had failed to review the Silver Star citation “well enough to capture” the fact that it implied that Tillman was not a victim of friendly fire.

* Although McChrystal told the committee that those involved with the Tillman cover-up “just didn’t line things up right,” the general also said “it was not intentional…I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.”

   Pat Tillman, senior had a very different view of the cover-up of his son’s death in which McChrystal was a principal participant. In a letter to the Washington Post, Tillman wrote,

   The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.  I have absolute respect and admiration for Army Rangers acting as such. As to their superior officers, the West Point-Army honor code is: ‘I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those that do.’ They should reissue the booklet.

   The reference of the interrogator to the failure of officers at Nama to use their real names describes one of the most serious breakdowns in the chain of command sanctioned by the Bush administration. The purpose of this anonymity, of course, was to make it as difficult as possible to prosecute officers for the war crimes which they had sanctioned.  And the strategy was extremely successful.

   In 2006, a superb story  by New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall reported that soldiers from McChrystal’s Task Force 6-26 had been accused by the son of one of  Hussein’s bodyguards of forcing him to strip, punching him in the spine until he fainted, putting him in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured on him, and kicking him in the stomach until he vomited.

   “Army investigators were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005,” the Times reported, “after they said task force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that 70 percent of its computer files had been lost.”

    McChrystal refused to be interviewed by The Times, which also reported that the general’s soldiers had decorated the post with signs reading NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.” The signs “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

   The Times also said, “the abuses [at Nama] appeared to have been unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known throughout the camp. For an elite unit with roughly 1,000 people at any given time, Task Force 6-26 seems to have had a large number of troops punished for detainee abuse. Since 2003, 34 task force members have been disciplined in some form for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 members have been removed from the unit.”

   Despite all of this excellent reporting in the Times, when McChrystal was chosen to be the new American commander in Afghanistan earlier this year, the same newspaper published a worshipful profile,  which described the general as someone who had “moved easily from the dark world [of killing terrorists] to the light.” The Man in the News article mentioned McChrystal’s central role in the Tillman cover-up only in passing, calling it  “one blot on his otherwise impressive military record.”

   The story made no mention at all of the involvement of McChrystal’s men in torture, but it did quote a retired general as saying that the new commander was “lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier” who  has “all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

   Now the General who orchestrated one of the Bush administration’s most famous cover-ups, and whose men were specialists in torture and assassination, has been reborn with a brand new preoccupation with the fate of civilians in Afghanistan.

   As The Times of London observed a couple of weeks ago, “This compassion [for civilians] was a long way from the reputation McChrystal had enjoyed as America’s ruthless ‘chief terrorist pursuer’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught up in a scandal over torture and prisoner abuse. His transformation into a ‘scholar-soldier’ is perhaps one of his greatest achievements in a remarkable career.”

   There is a searing irony to the fact that McChrystal is the man President Obama selected to re-invigorate the American effort in Afghanistan–and that the general has now gone public, in London, with a demand for 40,000 additional troops for this quagmire. (That was such an egregious abuse of the chain-of-command,  even Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a mild reprimand.)

   The presidential candidate who campaigned on the promise of a sharp break with the shameful abuses of the Bush administration now seems to have made himself hostage to one of the men most closely identified with all of them.

                                                                                                     –Charles Kaiser