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War in Iraq

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Same Old Hillary.

While working this week on my semi-regular project of fixing the archives around here (something I’d like to complete before GitM’s 15th anniversary in November, but it’s slow, tedious going), I came across this line, from a post on the very first Election 2008 debate back in May 2007:

“As for Clinton, well, it’s not entirely her fault, I guess — unlike Obama, she’s been with us for a decade and a half now, and is nothing if not a known quantity. But she came across to me as the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist she’s shown herself to be over the past fifteen years in public life, and it’s getting harder to imagine myself being anything but underwhelmed by her as a candidate in the general election.”

Of course, the 2008 primaries thereafter grew quite heated, and, suffice to say, I didn’t think HRC accorded herself very well. So instead of the cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist we knew, I and millions of others took a gamble on Hope and Change…and ended up with a cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist regardless.

So here we are six years later, with an American electorate that has moved demonstrably to the left, and the former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee just held her first almost-a-candidate townhall on CNN. And what have we learned so far about the all-new, tanned, rested, and ready, 2016 iteration of Hillary Clinton?

1) She thinks Edward Snowden pals around with terrorists. “I think turning over a lot of that material—intentionally or unintentionally—drained, gave all kinds of information, not only to big countries, but to networks and terrorist groups and the like. So I have a hard time thinking that somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia, under Putin’s authority.”

2) Her favorite book is…the Bible. “[T]he Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.” Edgy!

3) She won’t take a position on Keystone. “‘I can’t respond,’ she said…’This particular decision is a very difficult one because there are so many factors at play.’”

4) She was actually against the Iraq War last time around, but just couldn’t come out and say it because she supports the troops. “[I]n fact, in the Democratic Party at that time, the smart political decision, as so many of my colleagues did, was to come out and say ‘Terrible mistake, shouldn’t have done it,’ and you know blame the Bush administration. I had this sense that I had voted for it, and we had all these young men and women over there, and it was a terrible battle environment…So I felt like I couldn’t break faith with them.”

5) By the way, those troops should still be in Iraq right now. “When — President Bush decided, before President Obama became president, that we would leave Iraq in 2011, the United States would end its combat mission, unless the Iraqi government agreed to ask us to stay, under the same conditions that we have all around the world. It’s called a status of forces ingredient. I was involved in a lot of the efforts to come up with what our offer would be. And we made such an offer to then Prime Minister Maliki. And he would not accept the status of forces agreement…[W]e knew Iraq would be quite dangerous for a long time, unpredictable, at the very least — you have to have the host government, in this case Iraq, say, OK, here’s what we want…We didn’t get that done. And I think, in retrospect, that was a mistake by the Iraqi government.”

6) She won’t come right out and endorse paid maternity leave in America. “I think, eventually, it should be, but, right now, we’re seeing some — some very good proposals being implemented in other parts of the country, so that we have answers…I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” By the way, you know who else doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. That’s it.

7) She won’t come right out and say racism may be a factor in anti-Obama sentiment. “Well, I know that — I don’t want to — I don’t want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion — even if it’s an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting on a visceral stereotypical basis. And that’s unfortunate.” YES, Madam Secretary. The answer here is “YES.”

8) Her family is apparently shielding wealth from the estate tax, a tax both she and the former President support. A common move among 1%’ers, but nonetheless one that doesn’t inspire confidence.

And so on. Secretary Clinton has moved left on immigration (though she wouldn’t badmouth Obama’s draconian deportation policy), on marijuana (though she said medicinal marijuana “needs more research” and gave the “let the states lead the way” hedge on decriminalization), and on gay marriage (she came out in support…last year.) In all of these, she’s lagging behind the country as a whole, much less the Democratic Party.

TL;DR: Secretary Clinton is still, indisputably, the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist as ever. And yet, for some reason — even though it’s hard to think of a single solitary stance she’s taken that would move our party in a new and progressive direction — she’s not only the party of the left’s presumptive standard-bearer — For all intent and purposes, she’s running unchallenged!

Politics these days is depressing, and no mistake.

Hounding Private Manning.

“I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public, who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled– if not more troubled that me by what they saw.”

While pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning makes a long and detailed statement about why he gave classified documents to Wikileaks. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read a, and used, a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.”

See also this on Gitmo: “[T]he more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent, low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held in theater.”

I’m with Glenn Greenwald on this – Bradley Manning should be considered a hero, the Daniel Ellsberg of our day, and the real crime here is how terribly he’s been treated by the powers-that-be for a justifiable act of whistle-blowing. “He knew exactly what he was risking, what he was likely subjecting himself to. But he made the choice to do it anyway because of the good he believed he could achieve, because of the evil that he believed needed urgently to be exposed and combated, and because of his conviction that only leaks enable the public to learn the truth about the bad acts their governments are doing in secret.”

And, for this stand on idealism, we’ve kept Pvt. Manning locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are (still) threatening him with life in prison. Meanwhile, this town is overrun with glib, useless assholes who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and those guys keep failing up. We hound and imprison our Swartzes and Mannings, while coddling and venerating the Dimons and Blankfeins of this world. Some system.

The War Bubble.

An executive at a small defense contractor recently joked to me, ‘Afghanistan is our business plan.’ I asked him what he would do if the war ended. He stared at me for a moment and said, ‘Well, then I hope we invade Libya.‘”

Proving Chalmers Johnson‘s maxim in Why We Fight that “when war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see more of it,” PBS’s Joshua Foust looks at the economic implications of withdrawal in Afghanistan for our standing army of Hessians defense sub-contractors. “Ten years of war have established a discrete class of entrepreneurs, mid-level workers and administrators who are completely reliant upon the U.S. being at war to stay employed.” I somehow doubt we’ll be freezing their pay anytime soon.

Joe Wilson’s War (or: The Plame Game.)

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts reunite to tell the story of Valerie Plame and the imaginary yellowcake in the new trailer for Doug Liman’s Fair Game. Hmm, ok…but I’m getting a Lions for Lambs/Green Zone flavor from this trailer — edutainmenty and too little, too late. Still, it pretty much has to be better than 21 Grams.

The Press in the Tank.

From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008…The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63).

By way of Greenwald and Sullivan, a Harvard study documents exactly how absurdly our national media carried water for the Dubya-era torture regime. “In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.

This story, along with Politico’s gaffetastic reaction to Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings doing real journalism on the McChrystal story — (“Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks” — See also Lara Logan) and Joke Line deeming Glenn Greenwald a traitor because he dared to call unrepentant Iraq war evidence-falsifier Jeff Goldberg a horrible journalist (“Greenwald…so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world.“) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our broken and corrupt Village media. And this is all just in the past week. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over again. (Pic via here.)

The Deficit-Witchhunt: The Long Depression.


We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense. And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy.

They used to tell me I was building a dream…In the NYT, Paul Krugman calls out the deficit peacocks one more time before the wheels come off around the world. “[This is] the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times. And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.

In very related news, from the bowels of the Fed comes a taxpayer-paid response to Krugman, DeLong, and others sounding the alarm about the deficit witchhunt: Quiet, you nasty bloggers! You have not sufficiently mastered our economickal arts! “[W]riters who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department (and passed their PhD qualifying exams), cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy…[T]here is extremely low likelihood that the speculations of the untrained, on a topic almost pathologically riddled by dynamic considerations and feedback effects, will offer anything new.

Having spent much of the past decade in academe, I’d like to point out that this is a pretty classic overreach by the writer here. I mean, you spend all those years chasing down a degree that’s not particularly useful anymore…there must be some upside to it, right? Am I not now part of the intellectual — in this case, macroeconomic — Elect? No, Mr. Athreya, I’m afraid not. Sometimes people spend so much time examining, say, the myriad variances in an oak leaf (or worse) they miss the forest for the trees.

Update: In an attempt to move past the entitlement-cutting hysteria out and about in DC at the moment, the Center for Economic Policy and Research offers up handy tool: The People’s Deficit Calculator. “The budget options in the calculator include ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, adopting a carbon tax, reduction in the size of the health care subsidies created by the health care reform bill, progressive price indexing of Social Security, adopting a financial speculation tax and others.

Update 2: James K. Galbraith reads the riot act to the deficit witchhunt tribunal. “You are plainly not equipped, either by disposition or resources, to take on the true cause of deficits now or in the future: the financial crisis.

Meet the iRoach.


Right now, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have to lug around a huge amount of equipment, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds. But the soldiers of the near future may followed by a pack bot that can carry all their gear while gracefully stepping over obstacles. As for giving the robot the ability to lay down some suppressive fire, that’s something the military is understandably skittish about…You know, worldwide robot apocalypse when they inevitably turn on their fleshy masters.

With a word of warning from The Prospect‘s Paul Waldman, Popular Science takes a gander at Boston Dynamics’ LittleDog. “LittleDog doesn’t just traverse the terrain; it learns as it goes, noting what works and what doesn’t and incorporating that knowledge into its foothold scoring system.

The Tyranny of the Bullet (Point).

“‘When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,’ General McChrystal dryly remarked.” By way of a friend in the office, our military at the highest levels has apparently been infiltrated and subdued by Powerpoint groupthink. “‘PowerPoint makes us stupid,’ Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina…’It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,’ General [H.R.] McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. ‘Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.‘”

The first thing that came to mind when I saw that ungainly graph above: The Daughters of the American Revolution’s “spider chart” in the 1920′s, which aimed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the women’s peace and disarmament groups of the time were in fact the fifth column of international socialism. What goes around, comes around, I guess.

Like a Bad Penny.


Decision Point: Is it a good idea for me to land on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit with a sign that says ‘Mission Accomplished‘? Key Decision: How is it not a good idea?” On the announcement that former President Bush’s forthcoming memoirs will be called, um, Decision Points, the wags at the Gawker crime lab have some fun with Photoshop. (Speaking of decision points, I will concede that it’s very smart of the GOP powers-that-be to wait until the week after Election Day to remind America of the Dubya years.)

It’s Not Easy Being Green.


On this St. Patrick’s Day, what better recent release to discuss here at GitM than Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone? Not only do we have two shades of emerald in that last sentence, but we’re now on the cusp of the 7th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Iraq. (It broke out, I well remember, just as I was heading to a March Madness weekend in Vegas.) Alas, I just wish I had a better sitrep to report.

I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his two Bournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.

As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.

More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.

To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…

Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: Ahmed Chalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)

But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.

This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?

Just as with our indefensible dabbling in torture and indefinite detention in recent years, we have known about the lies and incompetence that fueled the Iraq fiasco for awhile now. And, alas, nothing ever happened. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole awful, lying lot are still deemed Serious People with Serious Opinions by the nation’s domesticated media watchdogs, who, by the way, have also been studiously ignoring the Blair hearings overseas. Our current president, elected with the largest mandate for change in a generation, has deemed all of this just the sins of the past and refused to “look backward” (or worse, made himself complicit in these Dubya-era crimes.) And life continues, much as it has this past age, with no sense of reckoning whatsoever for the Big Lies that were told.

One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammo.

“‘This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country,’ said Weinstein. ‘It’s literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we’re fighting. We’re emboldening an enemy.’”

I like Saving Private Ryan as much as the next guy, but this, in a word, is ridicky-goddamn-diculous. Apparently, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are routinely outfitted with sniper rifles etched with New Testament verse. “Trijicon confirmed to ABCNews.com that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon…said the inscriptions ‘have always been there’ and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is ‘not Christian.’

Newsflash: Given that we’re currently engaged in multiple wars and are strongly trying to avoid any appearance of being involved in any sort of anti-Muslim Crusade, arming our soldiers with “Jesus rifles” and crafting bible-thumping war reports for the Commander-in-Chief isn’t just catastrophically stupid. It’s basically writing the Al Qaeda recruiting posters for them.

Update: Also, “They started it!” is not an appropriate response to this dismal revelation.

Update 2: Trijicon stands down — Jesus rifles are hereby discontinued, most likely because of quotes like these: “General David Petraeus also addressed the scopes this morning, calling the matter ‘disturbing and a serious concern for me.‘”

Doubling Down in Kabul.

“First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. Yet this argument depends upon a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.

And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border. To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaeda from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.”

This is a bit late by now, but regardless: As you all know, President Obama made the case last week for sending 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. At this point — and like Fred Kaplan — I’m conflicted about our continued involvement there…but I’m leaning toward withdrawal. Everything I’ve heard about the war lately has had that “Vietnam in ’66″ sense to it: A corrupt government as our ally; trouble winning “hearts and minds”; The US stepping half-blindly into a conflict that’s been simmering for centuries (in Southeast Asia, it was the endless Vietnamese war against interlopers; here it’s long-simmering ethnic rivalries between the Pashtuns and everyone else.) And now, our new progressive-minded president tells us: If we just commit X more troops (where, now X=30,000), we can win, close up shop, and go home. Uh, really? I think I’ve already seen this movie a few times.

Obama’s shout-out above to basically token international support doesn’t assuage my fears. And, as far as the threat posed by Vietnam: True, Tonkin never happened, but obviously policymakers of that era were less sanguine about a Communist victory in South Vietnam than we are today — The threat of the Enemy can always gets unduly amplified in the heat of the moment. (Speaking of said Reds, it should sober us to acknowledge that all we’ve done so far in Afghanistan is basically manage to re-create the Soviet experience in the region. Iirc, that didn’t end so well.)

Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, yes, and if we could weed them out and destroy their capacity to attack again, all the better. (And always remember: If Dubya, Rummy et al had just finished the job properly in 2002 rather than salivating over Iraq, we would be in a lot better position right now.) But Al Qaeda is also in Somalia, Tajikstan, Yemen, the Philippines, Kosovo…all over the place. We don’t have the resources to play whack-a-mole in all these nations anymore, particularly when every whack usually just works to create new moles. (You’d think we learn that the Hydra sprouts two more heads every time you cut off the wrong one.)

The biggest argument in favor of increasing our military position in Afghanistan would be the continued stability of neighboring Pakistan. (There’s Vietnam again — it’s another variation of the Domino Theory.) But, there’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that more troop increases by us will only inflame the situation and further destabilize Pakistan. In which case, I’m not sure what we’re doing over there, and what we could possibly accomplish in 18 months that we haven’t gotten done the last seven years.

In short, it seems to me like we had our shot in Afghanistan, and Dubya blew it. I could be wrong, of course. But, to my mind, now feels like a good time to recognize that fact and stop chasing good money after bad.

Paranormal Activity.

Less a scathing Catch-22-type satire than it is just a jaunty road movie-type yarn, Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I caught last weekend, is basically a Coen-lite cinematic bon-bon for the fanboy-inclined. It’s never really laugh-out-loud funny, and something much more dark, resonant, and Strangelovian could (and probably should) have been made from this choice material, particularly as the story moves into Iraq mode. After all, this is basically the true story of how we, the United States of America, ended up torturing people with Barney the Dinosaur.

But however frothy about its subject at times, The Men Who Stare at Goats manages to sustain a low-key whimsy and amiable weirdness for most of its run. If anything it feels a bit like the much-maligned and underrated Ocean’s 12: a bunch of exceedingly likable actors — George Clooney, Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick — all enjoying an extended goof. Consider it the Road to Iraq, Hope and Crosby-style. David Crosby, that is.

Loosely based on the book by British journalist Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stares at Goats begins with an ambiguous disclaimer (“More of this is true than you would believe“), a Kitty Pryde-experiment gone awry, and a voiceover by one Bob Wilton (MacGregor), a down-on-his-luck reporter for the Ann Arbor Daily-Telegram. (Wilton, unlike Ronson, is an American, although MacGregor’s scattershot accent may make you wonder. Ewan’s a fine actor, but, lordy, he can’t get the Yankee patter down to save his life — yes, it’s worse than Peter Sarsgaard’s British accent, although it’s still better than Don Cheadle’s cockney.)

Anyway, after a chance interview with a psychic hamster-killer (Root) and a falling-out with his cuckolding wife and their mutual boss, Bob alights to Iraq, where he presumes he’ll learn how to impress his now-ex with grim tales of life as a veteran war correspondent. But unfortunately, he can’t even get into the country…until he happens upon Lyn Cassady (Clooney). Disguised as your run-of-the-mill private contractor, Cassady in fact turns out to be a psychic spy, a master of the “sparkly eyes,” a, as he puts it, “Jedi warrior.” (To which MacGregor consistently responds, “Jedi?,” with an arched eyebrow. Like, who in their right mind would spend years doing that?)

Cassady, it turns out, was trained in the psychic arts by his very own Qui-Gon, Bill Django (Bridges). A Vietnam veteran who discovered his own psychic powers through a rigorous regimen of Hippie indulgence, Django managed to convince the Pentagon powers-that-be back in the day that the Age of Aquarius would soon eclipse the Atomic Age on the battlefield — we’re talking peace warriors, psychic samurai, astral projectors, the awesomely unstoppable power of good vibes, brah, you know? (Put simply: “This aggression will not stand, man.”)

Some of the brass (mainly Lang) become fervent believers in Django’s New Age warfare. Others figure, heck, if there is something to this paranormal business, we’d really hate to be on the wrong side of the ball when the psychic shooting starts — Let’s throw some money at it just in case the Russkies are reading our minds right now. And so the First Earth Battalion is born. (And, yes, it really was born — your tax dollars at work.) But, of course, problems emerge — Not all the recruits have Django and Cassady’s intrinsic shamanic gifts. And once the Jedi are founded, there is naturally a Sith waiting in the wings…and, he (Spacey) has no compunction about using the team’s psychic powers for evil. Ya fook one goat…

The rest of the story involves Wilton and Cassady having crazy misadventures in Iraq, while Lyn fills us in on the rise and fall of the First Earth order…which may or may not be gone for good. (After all, someone’s gotta put the psy- in psy-ops.) I presume much of the Iraq narrative was added by Heslov, and sometimes it’s a bit hit-or-miss, frankly. There are brief encounters with Iraqi bounty hunters, ne’er-do-well Blackwater types, and even the infamous Barney-fueled detention chambers, but the tone is too breezy to sustain any kind of edgy or cutting critique of this stuff — It’s more like Syriana on nitrous oxide. (There’s also a sequence involving a LSD-crazed soldier shooting up his army base, which feels more uncomfortable than probably intended, coming right after the tragedy at Ft. Hood.)

Still, while Syriana, or Three Kings, for that matter, — My, Clooney has done a lot of tours in the region now — offers more in the way of food for thought, The Men Who Stare at Goats has its own low-key charms. As I said, the actors are all top-notch and clearly having fun with this project. It’s always good to see the Dude again, even in passing. And the script is relentlessly witty, with wry jokes that slowly creep up on you like a psychic ninja — For example, Spacey talking about the power of subliminal messages, then being distracted by Twizzlers. Mmm, Twizzlers.

Speaking of subliminal messages, I’ve had Boston’s “More than a Feeling” stuck in my head for over a week now thanks to this movie, and I really can’t stand Boston. So, well-played, Jedi, well-played.

Hard Times in the Emerald City.

Somebody was going to get to the bottom of this whole WMD thing eventually — it might as well be Jason Bour…Oh, wait, he’s not Bourne this time? Well, close enough for government work. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass reunite in the new trailer for Green Zone, verrrrry loosely based on Rajiv Chandasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and co-starring Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, and Greg Kinnear. Great cast, and Greengrass hasn’t missed yet — I’m in.

State of Play.

Some folks in this film would probably call me a right bleedin’ tosser (and much, much worse) for starting off this post as such. But Armando Iannucci’s hilarious In the Loop, which I caught Sunday morning, has only one real flaw — It feels like it’s coming out a few years too late. This faux-documentary-style disquisition into Britain and America’s joint lead-up to war in the Middle East, and the shrewd, venal bureaucrats who got us there, can’t help but feel very 2003. (Which is not to say Washington politics is now a beacon of optimism and good faith in the Obama era, only that the political zeitgeist has shifted some since the events depicted here.)

But, that one small caveat aside — and to be fair, In the Loop is apparently based on a British TV show (The Thick of It) that was more timely (and is going in the Netflix queue) — this is a gut-bustingly funny film. I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in a theater. (Alas, it was probably 21 Grams, and that was for all the wrong reasons.) True, given that this is a sharp-edged, basically anti-Dubya political satire that goes out of its way to reward pop-culture geekery (Frodo, Ron Weasley, and the White Stripes are all used as epithets at one point or another), I’m probably as close to a target audience for this sort of movie that’s out there. Nevertheless, if your sense of humor runs anywhere from squirmathons like The Office UK or Curb Your Enthusiasm to sardonic political comedies like The Candidate or Bob Roberts to the current-events commentaries of Stewart and Colbert, this movie is a must-see. (And if you don’t find hyperarticulate Scotsman Peter Capaldi spewing forth rococo profanities funny just yet, you probably will after watching In the Loop.)

Iannucci’s film begins with another day in the life of Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi), the tough-as-nails, take-no-guff director of communications at 10 Downing St. (Think Rahm Emanuel, but funny.) This particular morning, Tucker quickly becomes enraged by the latest slip-up by the seemingly ineffectual Minister for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, best recognized in America from the Pirates sequels.) To wit, Foster responded to a direct press question about an impending Mideast conflict by blurting out that “war is unforeseeable.” This is not “following the line,” as Tucker puts it, but after a stern rebuke, the Minister — and his communications team, new guy Toby (Chris Addison) and competent veteran Judy (Gina McKee) — only compound the error. Foster gets completely lost in the thicket at a follow-up press avail, and soon manages to mangle his way through to an even more unwieldy soundbite: “To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.” (Tucker’s livid response to this policy breach: “You sound like a f**in’ Nazi Julie Andrews.“)

Nonetheless, this sort of Zen pronunciamento is exactly the sort of thing the big boys in Washington want more of, even if no one (least of all Foster) seems to know what exactly he was driving at. Soon both the Hawks (represented by a Rumsfeldian David Rasche) and the Doves (mainly State Dept. deputy Mimi Kennedy and peacenik general James Gandolfini) think they’ve found an ace-in-the-hole in the confused minister. Meanwhile, this being Washington, a town that’s “like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns,” there’s another tier of shenanigans brewing under the principals. State Dept. aide Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) has penned a career-killing memorandum — soon acronymed, in DC fashion as “PWIP PIP” — that outlines the few pros and many cons of the imminent war. And Foster’s new man Toby has managed to inadvertently leak the real name of the War Committee to his friend at CNN — naturally, it was the committee with the most boring-sounding title.

Throw in a few more byzantine political subplots — more aides, committees, leaks, and whatnot — and simmer, and you have what amounts to the smartest, funniest political satire I’ve seen in a good long while. This is also clearly a movie that will reward repeat viewing, and I could see In the Loop someday being quoted as often and as lovingly in certain circles as The Big Lebowski. It may not be everyone’s cup of bile, I suppose, but if you’re generally a reader of this site, I’m guessing you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did. So, if this movie is still playing in your area, go check it out…or brave the unholy wrath and frightening verbiage of Mr. Tucker. War may be “unforeseeable” — your enjoyment of In the Loop is not.

Dusty and the Black Sites.

“Eventually, the agency’s network would encompass at least eight detention centers, including one in the Middle East, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maximum-security long-term site at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that was dubbed Strawberry Fields, officials said. (It was named after a Beatles song after C.I.A. officials joked that the detainees would be held there, as the lyric put it, ‘forever.’)

Charming. The NYT gets a window into the CIA’s top-secret “black sites” program courtesy of former #3 man Dusty Foggo, who — irony alert — is currently serving a three-year term in a Kentucky jail on fraud charges associated with Duke Cunningham. (I presume Kentucky’s finest have yet to break out the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on this joker. Speaking of which, “[n]othing exotic was required for the infamous waterboards — they were built on the spot from locally available materials…The cells were constructed with special features to prevent injury to the prisoners during interrogations: nonslip floors and flexible, plywood-covered walls to soften the impact of being slammed into the wall.“)

Frere Jacques, Dormez-Vous?

z’[W]ith Reagan, the prophecy appreciation part of his brain functioned quite independently of the part that started wars (there’s nothing in the Old Testament about Nicaragua or even Grenada). Bush seems to have taken the threat of Gog and Magog to Israel quite literally, and, if this story can be believed, to have launched a war to stop them.

One rather frightening story from a few days ago: As if the recent “Onward Christian Soldiers” war reports in GQ weren’t Crusadery enough, it appears that Dubya explictly invoked the End of Days to convince Jacques Chirac to get involved in the Iraq War, making his appeal Christian-to-Christian about the unholy dangers of Gog & Magog. Uh, really? (Apparently, Chirac has confirmed it.)

Hurts so Good.

Last of the past weekend’s offerings was Kathryn Bigelow’s lean, gripping The Hurt Locker. A taut, minimalist “men-in-combat” thriller that immediately goes up on the top shelf of Iraq flicks next to HBO’s Generation Kill (and, if you’re counting Gulf War I, Three Kings), The Hurt Locker is also that rare thing in the summer of Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and GI Joe: a war movie for grown-ups. Very highly recommended.

As The Hurt Locker opens, we meet a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team out of Bravo Company doing what they do best: locating, examining, and disposing of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the streets of Baghdad. Even on a run-of-the-mill call like this, and despite the jaunty banter among team members — the temperature is rising, the tension is thick, and the situation is life-or-death. For the IED in question could blow at any moment and take out everybody around…or it could be triggered by any one of the onlookers gathered, perhaps innocuously, perhaps not, to watch the soldiers work. Well, in this particular case of somebody-setting-us-up-the-bomb, things happen to go terribly awry. And, only six weeks out from the end of Bravo Company’s deployment, a crucial spot opens up on this EOD team.

Enter Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), an amiable, reckless, possibly suicidal fellow who, not unlike Harry Tuttle, “came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble, a man alone.” (It’s this same devil-may-care attitude and notable lack of self-protective instinct, presumably, that eventually got him reassigned to zombie-stricken London.) Particularly showing up as he does so close to Bravo Company’s ship-out date, James’ cowboy moxie in the field causes huge headaches for his teammates (Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty), who even at one point contemplate fragging the guy. But, just as Jimmy McNulty is startlingly good po-lice despite his many disastrous personal foibles, Staff Sgt. James turns out to be surprisingly in his element whenever the situation deteriorates. And, amid the alleyways, warehouses, dust, and rubble of the Emerald City, the situation tends to deteriorate pretty much constantly.

The Hurt Locker isn’t really a commentary on our Iraq excursion like other movies in the genre we’ve seen of late. (Grace is Gone, Lions for Lambs) Like Generation Kill, it aims mainly to recreate the visceral experience of the war by getting us into the headspace of the men on the front lines. Inasmuch as there is a wider moral to this tale, it’s found in the epigram — “war is a drug” — taken from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Or, if you’d prefer, the same point is found in the first ten minutes of Apocalypse Now: “When I was home after my first tour, it was worse…I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.

Scratch a little deeper, tho’, and you can find glimmers of a wider critique of the Iraq fiasco in Bigelow’s film — indeed, you could argue that these moments have more force because they’re so throwaway. After a Iraqi cabbie breaks a cordon, stares down the EOD team for unclear reasons, and is summarily carried away after finally backing down, James quips, “Well, if he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure is one now.” Later, David Morse briefly appears as some high-ranking muckety-muck akin to Godfather who has little regard for Geneva niceties, and Ralph Fiennes and Jason Flemyng also show up as British operatives looking to make some easy quid as bounty hunters on the side.

These small moments notwithstanding, The Hurt Locker is mostly apolitical, focusing mainly on the men (and it’s just men here) who find themselves deep in the midst of the suck. And, on that level, it’s a rousing success. In all honesty, the film cheats a bit by giving this EOD team a wider set of experiences than I think is probably likely — at various points they are forced into sniper and resource extraction missions by the course of events. But, that’s a quibble — for the most part Hurt Locker is as tense a thriller as I’ve seen in years.

Bigelow understands intuitively what far too many action directors these days miss: It’s not the size of the explosion or the volume of bullets fired that determine the quality of an action flick, but the slow, remorseless buildup to the potentially deadly events. In vignette after vignette, The Hurt Locker ratchets up the suspense by degrees, until you find yourself — like the EOD team we’re following — living out each moment in a heightened state of tension, endlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s an impressive moviemaking feat, and it helps to make The Hurt Locker one of the best films of the year.

Rosen: Stop me before I blog again!

“How absurd is that? Let us count the ways. First, even when the most establishment ‘journalists’ such as Rosen get caught engaging in patently irresponsible behavior, they still find a way to blame blogs rather than themselves (I thought I was just blogging, and reckless gossip is what bloggers do.) It wasn’t blogs that “reported” Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of scary aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons or that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks; it wasn’t blogs that glorified Jessica Lynch’s nonexistent heroic firefight with Iraqi goons; it wasn’t blogs that turned John Edwards into The Breck Girl and John Kerry into a “French-looking” weakling; and it wasn’t blogs that presented retired military generals who were participating in a Pentagon propaganda program and saddled with countless undisclosed conflicts as ‘independent analysts.’

Call it the State of Play fallacy: After TNR’s Jeffrey Rosen blames “blogging” for the obviously poor quality of his recent Sotomayor hit piece — and vows never to blog again — Salon‘s inimitable Glenn Greenwald sets the record straight about what can and can’t be pinned on bloggers. “Despite his efforts to blame ‘blogging’ for what he did, Rosen didn’t use journalistically reckless methods to smear Sotomayor’s intellect because of some inherent attribute of the medium. Instead, he did that because…that’s how the establishment media typically functions: ‘background reporting from people with various axes to grind, i.e. standard Washington reporting.’” (And, for what it’s worth, Rosen’s original article was hardly what you’d call blogging anyway — it was just a lengthy piece that ran online.)

Onward, Christian Soldiers.

“To paraphrase Al Pacino in ‘Godfather III,’ just when we thought we were out, the Bush mob keeps pulling us back in. And will keep doing so. No matter how hard President Obama tries to turn the page on the previous administration, he can’t. Until there is true transparency and true accountability, revelations of that unresolved eight-year nightmare will keep raining down drip by drip, disrupting the new administration’s high ambitions.” In today’s NYT, Frank Rich makes the case for a full investigation into Dubya-era crimes (as, in a switch, does Maureen Dowd — with some unattributed help from TPM’s Josh Marshall.)

Also linked in Rich’s piece is a damning profile of Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at Defense by GQ’s Robert Draper, which happens to include these bizarre and, diplomatically speaking, blatantly idiotic Christian-minded cover sheets created especially for Dubya’s briefings. “This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery, which until now has not been revealed, had become routine…At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout–as one Pentagon staffer would later say — ‘would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.’ But the Pentagon’s top officials were apparently unconcerned about the effect such a disclosure might have on the conduct of the war or on Bush’s public standing…Rumsfeld likely saw the Scriptures as a way of making a personal connection with a president who frequently quoted the Bible.

But Wait, It Gets Worse.


‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four. I suppose there are four. I would see five if I could. I am trying to see five.’

‘Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see five, or really to see them?’

‘Really to see them.’

‘Again,’ said O’Brien.

Perhaps the needle was eighty — ninety. Winston could not intermittently remember why the pain was happening. Behind his screwed-up eyelids a forest of fingers seemed to be moving in a sort of dance, weaving in and out, disappearing behind one another and reappearing again. He was trying to count them, he could not remember why. He knew only that it was impossible to count them, and that this was somehow due to the mysterious identity between five and four. The pain died down again. When he opened his eyes it was to find that he was still seeing the same thing. Innumerable fingers, like moving trees, were still streaming past in either direction, crossing and recrossing. He shut his eyes again.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six — in all honesty I don’t know.’

‘Better,’ said O’Brien.

Hard to believe, but, this morning, the recent grisly revelations of Dubya-era torture practices became even more horrifying. As we’ve gleaned more info over the past few days, certain obvious and troubling questions kept popping up. Why, as indicated here, would higher-ups insist on additional waterboarding sessions for Zubadayah, even after the CIA agents at hand thought the suspect “had given up all the information he had“? Also: Mind you, even one session of torture is reprehensible — and illegal — enough. But what more did the powers-that-be think they were going to get out of these suspects after ten waterboardings? Twenty? One hundred?

Well, now we know. Not only did Dubya apparachiks conceive a torture regime well before it was approved (and before they had any prisoners on hand — see also the new and unredacted Armed Services Committee report), but they tortured their suspects into the ground because they were trying to prove a false positive, i.e. that there was some serious operational link between Iraq and Al Qaeda that could be used to sell the second Gulf War. (See also the forged Habbush letter.)

‘There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,’ the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. ‘The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.‘”

So, in short, it would seem the suspects held by the CIA were tortured over and over again because they would not concede that two plus two equals five.

Really, how much lower can these assholes sink? What could they possibly do that would cause more violence to our ideals, or that would make our cherished role as a beacon of freedom seem any more ridiculous in the eyes of the world, than what they’ve already done?

Once again, I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous remark to the Indiana 14th: “‘Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.‘” At the very least, somebody, or somebodies, better go to jail for a loooong time for this. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Fighting “Fighting the Last War.”

After Gates was confirmed as George W. Bush’s defense secretary in December 2006, he gave several speeches outlining major reforms that his successor should undertake–in weapons procurement, promotion policy, and the whole careerist culture inside the Pentagon. (With only two years in office, combined with a plateful of crises in Iraq and elsewhere, he knew he wouldn’t have time to take those steps himself.) When he stayed on at Barack Obama’s request, and thus became his own successor, many wondered whether he would turn his words into action. With this budget, he has begun to do just that.

A holdover from the bookmarks of last week: Slate‘s Fred Kaplan offers a concise overview of the proposed Obama-Gates military spending reforms. (These are not spending cuts, by the way, despite what you may have heard — just some much-needed and long-overdue reprioritizing over at the Pentagon. I also like the idea of phasing out defense contractors in favor of presumably much more cost-conscious civil servants.) “This budget will not go down easily in the Pentagon or in Congress. The F-22, the DDG-1000, and the Future Combat Systems are the favored systems by much of the Air Force, Navy, and Army brass, respectively…The F-22 in particular is also a favorite of many legislators — the result of politically shrewd subcontracting that spread out production of the plane to key districts in 46 states.

The Whole Truth, and Nothing But.

“Rather than vengeance, we need a fair-minded pursuit of what actually happened.” Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy calls for a “truth commission” to investigate Dubya-era abuses. “‘We need to be able to read the page before we turn the page,’ Leahy said. ‘We need to come to a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past.” Ok, sounds grand…but perhaps we should stop perpetuating those abuses while we’re at it.

Out with a Whimper (and a “9/11″)

“This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house – Sept. 11, 2001.” Now, there‘s a surprise. To be honest, there’s not much to be said about Dubya’s dismal farewell speech last night, which had been touted earlier in the week as potentially something interesting. [Transcript.] Rather than go the statesman route a la Eisenhower, Dubya chose to spend his last few moments with the nation’s ear dispensing trite, self-serving, and patently idiotic bromides about the world that will do nothing to alter his status in history as one of our worst presidents, if not the worst president, to-date.

I hope to spend very little blog-time in the future attempting to parse the immature, inchoate worldview of this soon-to-be ex-president. But, for example: “When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror.” Uh, they don’t? (No, then it’s called regime change. [rimshot].)

By the way, was America not “free” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or were Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and other duly-elected architects of ugly institutions like indian removal and slavery all just part of ye old axis of iniquitye? Now, put your keyboards down, crazy right-wing Freeper-types. (How’d you end up here anyway?) I’m not arguing that the U.S. is evil — I love America (I just hate flag pins.) But I am arguing that it’s never been satisfactorily proven by world events that ostensibly freedom-loving people aren’t capable of horrible atrocities from time to time.

This is the same ridiculous note Dubya struck constantly in his second inaugural (“Freedom, yeah!”), and it still rings false. When people live in freedom, they can willingly choose anything they want, including paths and policies deeply at odds with the direction we — or even common humanity — might want them to go. News flash: Dubya’s windbreaker-clad nemesis, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is — along with being a certifiable, Holocaust-denying nutjob — the freely-elected president of Iran. So let’s stop pretending that the introduction (or imposition by force) of a western-style democracy to a region is a sudden and immediate cure-all for that area’s problems. Even after eight years in the world’s most powerful office, Dubya once again showed us last night that he harbors the black-and-white, absolutist worldview of a child…or an ex-alcoholic. Good riddance.

Update: See also DYFL on this Dubya chestnut last night: “Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Um, yeah.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…

“I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better, or, you know, mistakes I made. Clearly putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake. I’ve thought long and hard about Katrina — you know, could I have done something differently…”

After eight long years, the end is in sight, and the Idiot Wind is at long last subsiding. For the 43rd president of these United States, George Dubya Bush, gave his final press conference today, during which he finally conceded that “there have been disappointments.” Why, yes, yes, there have. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were — things didn’t go according to plan, let’s put it that way.” Um, yeah.

At any rate, don’t worry: I’m sure we’ll be getting one last round of 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 before closing time, when Dubya delivers his “farewell address” on Thursday. One can only hope that it turns out to be Eisenhoweresque, and not one more final, futile attempt to rewrite the history books. But I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

A Shoe of Contempt.

“I didn’t know what the guy said, but I saw his sole.” Say what you will about the 43rd president — and, no doubt, the history books will — the man has cat-like reflexes for his age. The story of the weekend was, of course, the shoe incident in Baghdad, which ended up clearly overshadowing Dubya’s remarks and reason for his visit — the signing of a Status of Forces agreement — and serving as an exclamation point of sorts for the president’s, shall we say, fraught relationship with the nation and people of Iraq. I have to give him credit, tho’ — Bush not only handled the incident with agility, aplomb and a surprising amount of sang-froid, but generally struck the right tone about it afterward. “Okay, everybody calm down for a minute. First of all thank you for apologizing on behalf of the Iraqi people. It doesn’t bother me. And if you want some — if you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw. (Laughter.) Thank you for your concern, do not worry about it.”

In the wake of the biggest shoe-related world incident since Nikita Khrushchev (or perhaps Richard Reid), there’s been some discussion of late about the legitimacy of shoe-throwing as a form of political protest. (Throwing shoes into machines, a.k.a. “sabot-age,” is already generally considered a no-no.) It’s not hard to understand, or even empathize with, the anger that drove Muntadar al-Zaidi to this act of protest. Here’s a journalist who’s been covering airstrikes and Abu Ghraib, who has seen the “collateral damage” of this war-of-choice firsthand, and who himself was briefly arrested by American security forces at one point. That being said, to my mind, any attempted act of physical violence against the president — even something as seemingly innocuous as shoe-throwing — cannot be countenanced. Now, I’m not saying the guy needs to rot in jail for the rest of his life — far from it — but let’s not start pretending that that this form of protest is “ok.” It’s not. End of story.

Plus, keep in mind that a horrible situation was averted by Bush here just by his underreacting estimably to the incident. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that al-Zaidi may have put his life in danger by making a threatening lunge at the president. The Secret Service are — and have to be — a hair-trigger bunch. Ok, al-Zaidi was only armed with a shoe…anybody ever heard of Amadou Diallo? All too often, tragedy results from a simple misunderstanding of intentions. Mr. al-Zaidi made his point, no doubt…but it was still a stupid and dangerous stunt, by any reckoning.

And besides, It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

Kaplan: The Good News Abroad.

“It’s a truism that Barack Obama faces the most intractable set of challenges that any president has faced in at least 50 years. But on a few issues in foreign and military policy, he’s caught a break. Whether by luck, the effect of his election, or President George W. Bush’s stepped-up drive to win last-minute kudos, Obama will enter the White House with some paths to success already marked, if not quite paved.” Having covered six diplomatic priorities for Obama right after the election (the link was buried in this post), Slate‘s Fred Kaplan takes a gander at five foreign policy arenas primed for good news under the coming administration.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.

To be honest, I don’t have all that much to say about last night’s lone vice-presidential debate in St. Louis, as I think the event speaks for itself. The general consensus congealing today is that Joe Biden won the debate, which he obviously did, but that Sarah Palin performed better than expected. Well, I guess she did, given that everyone was pretty much expecting another embarrassing and hard-to-watch Couric-style meltdown. But, remove that exceedingly low bar, and we still find ourselves confronted with a fundamentally unqualified and frighteningly obtuse candidate for the vice-presidency, one who has no business getting anywhere near the Oval Office, let alone only the heartbeat of a 72-year-old cancer survivor away.

Biden was Biden — a bit wonky and/or self-aggrandizing at times, but clearly knowledgable about the issues and cognizant of the struggles that working people in America face, both as a result of the daily vagaries of the Dubya economy and of awful, unforeseen circumstances that can loom at a moment’s notice. (Imho, his emotion-filled nod to the tragedy in his past was a far more authentic moment than any of the “Aw shucks, I’m just a Wasilla hockey mom” patter emanating from Gov. Palin over the course of the evening.) If anything, I think Biden might’ve erred slightly on the side of gallantry, since Palin seemingly held no qualms about regurgitating easily refutable lies (Obama raised taxes on the poor, Obama voted against funding the troops, Biden supports McCain’s Iraq position — all hooey) throughout the evening. But, all in all, BIden definitely did himself and the ticket credit last night, and I expect he helped to solidify further Obama’s lead in the polls among independents.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, had the immediately recognizable air of the student who fills the air with digressions, non-sequiturs, and the occasional remembered idea in order to deflect attention from the fact that he or she didn’t really do the reading and doesn’t really understand the concepts being discussed. Even with Biden and moderator Gwen Ifill letting Palin slide on all sorts of evasiveness, the Governor often seemed scarily out of her depth whenever anything but energy policy was being discussed. (Her discussion of the Constitution and the vice-presidency was particularly galling.) As Paul Begala noted on CNN during the postgame, we already tried the whole “elevating the average Joe” thing with eight years of Dubya, and it’s turned out to be a miserable failure. And, while excellence may sadly be a rare commodity among our elected officials, I don’t think we the people are asking for too much when we expect basic competence from our leaders. Take away the memories of the Couric implosion, and Gov. Palin still failed to hurdle even that depressingly low threshold last night. Simply put, she wouldn’t be qualified to lead this nation even in the best of times. At it is, she’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

McCain: Grey Cell Green.

“I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.” Wait…John McCain was a POW? Who knew? (And how big of him to run the first completely selfless and ego-free presidential campaign in American History. A true patriot, he.)

I suppose I should’ve gotten my post up about McCain’s speech some time yesterday…but, really, what’s the rush? However well-watched, John McCain’s nomination address to the nation on Thursday night felt like a virtual political non-event. [Transcript.] I mean, c’mon now: I sat through three days of mind-numbing inanity and blatant falsehoods, distasteful 9/11 videos and endless surge talk, for this? (By the way, memo to Lindsey Graham, Tom Ridge, and anyone who happens to buy into the oft-repeated line of argument that “McCain was right in Iraq because of the surge.” Our recent involvement there began several years earlier, with McCain cheering on Dubya’s idiotic invasion and boasting of an easy victory. Remember that?)

Now I don’t think the speech was as woefully terrible as some — it was probably better than his last greenscreen speech, for example. (I am struck by the fact that today’s decaying GOP is so sickly it can’t even manage to exploit veterans for political gain properly anymore. What happened to you guys?) But, to my mind, Sen. McCain’s remarks definitely didn’t get the job done, unless — like me — you think the job that needs doing right now is getting Barack Obama elected to the Oval Office.

The most affecting moments of McCain’s speech were, naturally, in his discussion of his POW experience, and if the Republicans hadn’t beaten this point into the ground over the past few days, his retelling of those dark days might’ve packed a real emotional wollop. (“After I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.“) But, after all the reveling of late in McCain’s horrible stay in the Hanoi Hilton, and all the attendant plaudits to military heroism and sacrifice, country first etc. etc. served up as sides by the GOP during thus, McCain’s humdrum delivery of an otherwise subpar nomination address reminded me of nothing so much as another praiseworthy war hero wounded in his nation’s service: Bob Dole.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a nomination address in today’s GOP without some highly dubious propositions therein:

  • A word to Sen. Obama and his supporters. We’ll go at it over the next two months. That’s the nature of these contests, and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and admiration.” Oh, really? After several days of throwing chum in the water to get the fundies fired up, particularly on Wednesday night, this hail-fellow-well-met bow to the opposition felt ludicrous. You can’t have it both ways, y’all.

  • And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: Change is coming.” As you know, and as Sen. Obama noted last week, McCain voted with Dubya a whopping 95% of the time. That’s not change we can believe in. And just because the president’s name went unmentioned over the past few days doesn’t mean we all just up and forgot about his awfulness.

  • I’ve fought corruption, and it didn’t matter if the culprits were Democrats or Republicans.” Uh, unless those Dems and Republicans were doing business with Charles Keating. Ok, that may be a bit under the belt, but the fact remains: His opposition to pork barrel spending aside, McCain was mostly AWOL in the recent fights against GOP corruption that marked DC during Boss DeLay’s rule. His campaign is veritably drowning in lobbyists. Like so much else that once made McCain a relatively appealing figure, even his well-known advocacy of campaign finance reform has been thrown under the bus of late. And derailing the Alaskan probe into Palin’s illegal firings for electoral purposes is emphatically not fighting corruption.

    And so on. I’d spend more time picking McCain’s address apart if I thought it had been in any way effective. But, the POW-section notwithstanding, it felt rote as written and rote as delivered, and — in opposition just as in support — it was a hard speech to get all that fired up about. With Sen. Obama up in the states he needs and Dems mobilizing new voters all across the board, McCain needed a real gamechanger Thursday night. (Imho, the automatic dispenser of lousy headlines that is Sarah Palin is just going to keep backfiring, and the party of Lincoln continues to toy with the disgusting “Uppity Sambo” card at their peril.) In short, he didn’t get it.

    There’ll be a bump — there always is. But, to my mind, John McCain’s climb just got a whole a lot steeper. Barring some monumental revelation, egregious debate flub, or international incident over the next two months, it’s hard to see McCain getting any closer to victory in 2008 than he is right now. And over the next eight weeks, I would nevertheless expect a lot of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, perhaps momentarily flush with good feeling for McCain, to think it over, remember the past seven years, look over at Sarah Palin in the veep slot, and decide to put their country first…by voting for Sen. Barack Obama for president.

  • Oscar Mike at Last?

    ‘We have a text,’ Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after a day-long visit Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” How badly do the Republicans want to keep the White House? Apparently enough that the Dubya administration, contrary to its earlier stance (and to McCain’s promises of “100 years” in Baghdad), seems to be on the verge of signing a withdrawal accord with Iraq that would have all U.S. troops out by the end of 2011. (Not that we have much choice in the matter, given that Baghdad has already made it clear it wants us gone.) Well, however politically influenced, this is clearly a step in the right direction…but it’s way too late in the game to save the GOP now. It’s not like we’re all going to forget who started — and enabled — this disastrous sideshow.

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