Adam Ash

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

US Diary: the rather strange America we've become

1. Fear Destroys What bin Laden Could Not -- by Robert Steinback

One wonders if Osama bin Laden didn't win after all. He ruined the America that existed on 9/11. But he had help.

If, back in 2001, anyone had told me that four years after bin Laden's attack our president would admit that he broke U.S. law against domestic spying and ignored the Constitution -- and then expect the American people to congratulate him for it -- I would have presumed the girders of our very Republic had crumbled.

Had anyone said our president would invade a country and kill 30,000 of its people claiming a threat that never, in fact, existed, then admit he would have invaded even if he had known there was no threat -- and expect America to be pleased by this -- I would have thought our nation's sensibilities and honor had been eviscerated.

If I had been informed that our nation's leaders would embrace torture as a legitimate tool of warfare, hold prisoners for years without charges and operate secret prisons overseas -- and call such procedures necessary for the nation's security -- I would have laughed at the folly of protecting human rights by destroying them.

If someone had predicted the president's staff would out a CIA agent as revenge against a critic, defy a law against domestic propaganda by bankrolling supposedly independent journalists and commentators, and ridicule a 37-year Marie Corps veteran for questioning U.S. military policy -- and that the populace would be more interested in whether Angelina is about to make Brad a daddy -- I would have called the prediction an absurd fantasy.

That's no America I know, I would have argued. We're too strong, and we've been through too much, to be led down such a twisted path.

What is there to say now?

All of these things have happened. And yet a large portion of this country appears more concerned that saying ''Happy Holidays'' could be a disguised attack on Christianity.

I evidently have a lot poorer insight regarding America's character than I once believed, because I would have expected such actions to provoke -- speaking metaphorically now -- mobs with pitchforks and torches at the White House gate. I would have expected proud defiance of anyone who would suggest that a mere terrorist threat could send this country into spasms of despair and fright so profound that we'd follow a leader who considers the law a nuisance and perfidy a privilege.

Never would I have expected this nation -- which emerged stronger from a civil war and a civil rights movement, won two world wars, endured the Depression, recovered from a disastrous campaign in Southeast Asia and still managed to lead the world in the principles of liberty -- would cower behind anyone just for promising to ``protect us.''

President Bush recently confirmed that he has authorized wiretaps against U.S. citizens on at least 30 occasions and said he'll continue doing it. His justification? He, as president -- or is that king? -- has a right to disregard any law, constitutional tenet or congressional mandate to protect the American people.

Is that America's highest goal -- preventing another terrorist attack? Are there no principles of law and liberty more important than this? Who would have remembered Patrick Henry had he written, ``What's wrong with giving up a little liberty if it protects me from death?''

Bush would have us excuse his administration's excesses in deference to the ''war on terror'' -- a war, it should be pointed out, that can never end. Terrorism is a tactic, an eventuality, not an opposition army or rogue nation. If we caught every person guilty of a terrorist act, we still wouldn't know where tomorrow's first-time terrorist will strike. Fighting terrorism is a bit like fighting infection -- even when it's beaten, you must continue the fight or it will strike again.

Are we agreeing, then, to give the king unfettered privilege to defy the law forever? It's time for every member of Congress to weigh in: Do they believe the president is above the law, or bound by it?

Bush stokes our fears, implying that the only alternative to doing things his extralegal way is to sit by fitfully waiting for terrorists to harm us. We are neither weak nor helpless. A proud, confident republic can hunt down its enemies without trampling legitimate human and constitutional rights.

Ultimately, our best defense against attack -- any attack, of any sort -- is holding fast and fearlessly to the ideals upon which this nation was built. Bush clearly doesn't understand or respect that. Do we?

(Email Robert Steinback at:

2. Staying the Course -- by James Carroll

American intellegence was proving itself inadequate to the challenge. The president appointed a special commission to make recommendations. The year was 1954. The commission chairman was James Doolittle, the retired bomber general who had led the first air raid against Tokyo.

''It is now clear," he stated in his report to President Eisenhower, ''that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, longstanding concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counter-espionage services, and must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. It may be necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand, and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy."

Sound familiar? Again and again, in the year now ending, the American people have been told by their leaders that strategies based on a new ''repugnant philosophy" are required if the nation is to survive the challenge facing it. Forbidden incendiary weapons must be used in urban settings. Prisoners of war must be deprived of Geneva protections. Aggressive interrogations of enemies must approach torture. Commitments to provide US combat forces with adequate protective gear must be forsworn. Extrajudicial kidnapping of bad people must be justified. Allies must be pressured into joining secret networks of detention camps.

Human rights standards must be jettisoned. Traditional obligations to the United Nations must be ignored. Treaties that limit action can be cast aside. Distinctions between foreign and domestic espionage must be left behind, with US citizens subject to unmonitored surveillance by military agencies. Public libraries must be regarded as government peepholes. The lawyer-client privilege must no longer be regarded as sacrosanct. The press must be recruited into the project of information management. Dissent must be labeled as treason.

A great American erosion has occurred this year, and only now are the contours of what is lost becoming apparent. Much more is at stake than the abandonment of ''longstanding concepts of 'fair-play' " of which Doolittle wrote. To ''subvert, sabotage, and destroy" what threatens us, we have begun to subvert, sabotage, and destroy what protects us: the mutuality of solemn compacts abroad, fundamental safeguards of the Constitution at home. Because the justifying ''state of emergency" is an open-ended war, the trashing of ''hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct" will be permanent. Get used to it.

Doolittle proposed a break with American traditions and laws for the sake of far more aggressive responses to Soviet communism. The year he did so saw the initiation of unprecedented American covert actions in Iran and Vietnam, with unhappy consequences that reverberate to this day. But Doolittle's remained a minority report in the annals of US government responses. Eisenhower was neither as freaked out by what threatened as his commission chairman, nor as indifferent to basic decency as a standard of national identity. To Doolittle's credit, he and those who saw things his way understood themselves as occupying the country's shadows. They knew enough to be ashamed of what they thought was necessary.

Where is the shame in Washington today? How does Donald Rumsfeld not blush in the presence of the soldiers he so routinely betrays? How does Dick Cheney maintain that straight face, treating core values as a joke? The recasting of the nation's moral meaning -- a blatant embrace of ends-justify-the-means -- is happening in plain daylight. No shadows here.

Every time the Bush administration is caught in one of its repugnant purposes (Thank God, again this year, for Seymour Hersh), the White House declares its intention to stay the course. Torture? Wiretapping? Kidnapping? Deceit? The president's eyes widen: Trust me, he says with a twisted smile. Then he leans closer to display a snarling defiance. The combination reduces his critics to sputters.

Perhaps Bush's savviest achievement has been to make the public think that Rumsfeld and Cheney are the dark geniuses behind the administration's malevolence. If Bush is taken as too shallow to have a fascist ideology; as too weak to stick with hard policies that undermine democracy; as a religious nutcase whose apocalyptic fantasies don't matter; as a man, in sum, the average citizen can regard as slightly less than average -- then what he is pulling off will not be called by its proper name until it is too late. 2005? Oh yes, that was the year of the coup.

(James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.)

3. What Bush Could Learn from Lincoln -- by Robert Kuttner

My Christmas present to George W. Bush is a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin's splendid study of Lincoln and his Cabinet, ''Team of Rivals." President Bush believes in redemption, and so do I. Here are just a few things Bush might profitably learn from our first Republican president.

Lincoln assumed the presidency at a time when the nation was horribly divided, not into culturally warring ''blue" states and ''red" ones, but into a real civil war between blues and grays -- the states that stayed in the Union and those that seceded. Even among the unionists, Lincoln's own Republican Party and Cabinet were bitterly rent between those who wanted to accelerate emancipation and punish the South and those who gave top priority to keeping the Republic whole.

Lincoln's priority, always, was to preserve the Union and to reduce the sectional and ideological bitterness. As Goodwin brilliantly shows, he did so by the force of his personality and the generosity of his spirit. Lincoln had an unerring sense of when public opinion was ready for partial, then full abolition of slavery, and he would not move until he felt he had the people behind him. He governed by listening and persuading.

By contrast, Bush's entire presidency is about eking out narrow victories, not about building national consensus. Even when he prevails, Bush wins by manipulation and stealth. His legacy is deepened division and bitterness.

Bush is said to live in a bubble. His tiny inner circle protects him from realities that might upset him or challenge his dimly informed certitudes. Lincoln, by contrast, had the confidence to reach out to critics and seek out widely divergent viewpoints.

Goodwin's unusual title, ''Team of Rivals," refers to the fact that Lincoln deliberately included in his Cabinet the prominent leaders of different factions of his party who had opposed him for the 1860 nomination. Some, like his treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, a fierce abolitionist, wanted Lincoln to proceed much more aggressively. Others feared that Lincoln was moving too fast and alienating border states like Maryland and Kentucky that permitted slavery but had voted not to leave the Union.

Goodwin, improbably finding something wholly new to illuminate this most heavily researched of historic figures, relies partly on the diaries of his contemporaries to reveal Lincoln's sheer genius at winning the trust and affection of rivals.

Can you imagine Bush including in his inner Cabinet such Republicans as John McCain, who opposes Bush on torture of prisoners, or Chuck Hagel, who challenges the Iraq war, or Lincoln Chafee, who resists stacking the courts with ultra-right-wingers? Not to mention Democrats, a group Lincoln also included among his top appointees.

Bush, despite today's ubiquity of media, doesn't read newspapers, much less the Internet, and he settles for carefully filtered briefings. Lincoln was a voracious reader; he haunted the War Department's telegraph office to get firsthand reports from the battlefield.

Lincoln gained incomparably in wisdom over four years. Does anyone think George W. Bush is wiser now than in 2001?

Despite civil insurrection, Lincoln resisted broad intrusions on democratic rights. Bush runs roughshod over liberties.

Bush's visits to Iraq are choreographed media events. Lincoln often went to the front on horseback or by ship, almost alone, shunning news coverage, to confer at length with his generals, thank the troops, and educate himself.

Bush relies on secondhand inspirations of a speechwriting staff. He blathers when he wanders off script. Lincoln wrote his own words, including the timeless eloquence of the Second Inaugural or the Gettysburg Address. More often, his eloquence was extemporaneous.

Lincoln was magnanimous almost to a fault. His personal generosity and numerous acts of kindness helped him win over critics and, too briefly, to ''bind up the nation's wounds." Salmon Chase, who never gave up his dream that he should have been elected in 1860, allowed his allies to seek to push Lincoln aside and nominate Chase in 1864. Urged to break irrevocably with the faithless Chase, Lincoln instead appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Critics of the more moderate William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, claimed that Seward functioned as acting president. Goodwin makes clear that this was fantasy. Dick Cheney, however, really does operate as de facto president.

When Lincoln was assassinated, three days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the nation lost the one man who might have spared America the awful years of inconclusive struggle between radical Reconstructionists and segregationists who wanted to restore slavery in everything but name. Much of today's red state versus blue state bitterness has its roots in the struggle for black liberty versus the wounded humiliation of the white South, something Lincoln wanted to avoid at all cost.

The crippled presidency of his successor, Andrew Johnson, who ended up a pitiful captive of radical reconstructionists in Congress, was one of the bleakest chapters in our history. But this Union of the people did not perish from the earth. Reading Goodwin's magnificent book, one has to believe that our nation, in a new birth of freedom, will survive even George W. Bush.

(Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.)


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