Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Fat Tuesday

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Mardi Gras for News Junkies

Tuesday, February 20, was the day, as in New Orleans Celebrates Fat Tuesday -

    Many spectators spent the day along the parade routes or in the French Quarter, where the first Mardi Gras parade of the day was staged by the 1,250-member Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a predominantly black group that wears grass skirts and black face makeup in parody of stereotypes from the early 1900s, when it was founded.

Yep, everyone should relax and stop taking everything so seriously - even the insulting racial stuff from long ago. Let the ironies sink in, and let the good times roll. Social Aid and Pleasure should be the order of the day. After all, we can work it out - "Life is very short, and there's no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend."

That may be the wrong musical reference, as this song repeatedly pleads, "Try to see it my way." There's far too much of that going around.

Garrison Keillor sees that this is the main problem these days, as he notes in Got the February blues? Go to lunch -

    The problem with liberals in our time, even though we'd like to think we're riding high at the moment, is that we're not so much fun to eat lunch with. We carry an air of self-righteous sorrow about hunger, global warming, homelessness, tax inequity, the heartlessness of big corporations, and a list of crises as long as your arm. You eat lunch with a liberal and you are ashamed to order dessert. The basic message of liberalism is simply: The true measure of a society is how it treats the weak and the needy. A simple Christian message ("Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:40), but when you place it alongside the consumer carnival and the raunch and razzmatazz of pop culture, it sounds joyless.

    But the Republican Party has a harder row to hoe. It is the captive of people who believe that most of us are destined to spend eternity in hellfire, and when you believe that, you will inevitably find it hard to persuade the damned to vote for you. You take a Republican to lunch and he is obligated to bring out a big black book and open it to Revelations and tell you that the beast with 10 horns is Hillary Clinton. Who is, I understand, good to have lunch with, and if she can convey this to the electorate at large, we will see much more of her in the future.

A parade in New Orleans chock full of irony or a non-political gab-fest lunch in Minnesota - people should relax. But the Fat Tuesday in question was full of events that put people on edge.

The day brought the news that our most faithful ally in Iraq was walking out on us, and it was hard to put a positive spin on that. The first report, later conformed on all the wire services, came from the BBC - British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to appear before the House of Commons on the first day of Lent (it always follows Fat Tuesday of course) to discuss a schedule for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom's troops from Iraq. The BBC was reporting that the plan is to take fifteen hundred soldiers out of the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second largest, in the next few weeks.  That's about twenty percent of all UK forces in Iraq right now. The schedule for when the rest will haul ass out of there is unclear - the BBC correspondent suggests that it will not be before the end of 2008, at the very earliest.

Maybe it's a minor realignment, or maybe it's the beginning of the end of this war - even a twenty percent reduction looks like a slap in the face.  Consider the sequence - poll after poll and then the mid-term elections showed the administration had lost the American people on this war, then the House voted to say that the whole "surge" thing is wrong-headed, and then the Senate almost did, but the certain majority vote to say the same thing there was blocked by filibuster that required sixty votes to break, and that fell two votes short. Now the Brits are waking away from this, or starting to walk away. Who's left to support this war, other than the increasingly odd John McCain and the "I listen to no one" Joe Lieberman, and the president's dog, Barney?

The administration looks blindsided - you know the football term for when the quarterback, momentarily in the pocket, carefully peers downfield to find an open receiver, and chooses one or another, and as he raises his arm to throw the devastating long bomb that will win the game, is wiped out by the blitzing and enormous linebacker he hadn't see coming. It's like that.  And yes, rhetorically, that's a Homeric simile.

But how else do you deal with what seemed like a great offensive line protecting the quarterback (Blair, January 24, 2007, in the Los Angeles Times) -

    Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls Wednesday to withdraw British forces from Iraq by October, then dodged a blistering debate in Parliament in which there was almost unanimous condemnation of the war and little optimism for a U.S. plan to boost its troop presence in Baghdad.

    Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett suggested that British troops might complete the transfer of security responsibilities in southern Iraq to the Iraqi government by November. But she said a withdrawal would depend on "conditions and circumstances."

    Blair insisted that it would be wrong to commit to any date to end Britain's military role.

    "For us to set an arbitrary timetable ... would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq," he said. "It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible."

The offensive line is now "deeply irresponsible" now - Tuesday, February 20, 2007 - letting the linebackers through -

    Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce on Wednesday a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, the BBC reported.

    Blair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the British Broadcasting Corp. said, quoting government officials who weren't further identified.

Glenn Greenwald does wonder about the effect of this -

    That rather striking reversal does not appear to reflect much confidence in the prospects of success for the President's Glorious AEI Surge currently underway. Moreover, given that British troops are deployed primarily in Southern Iraq, their withdrawal will either require a deployment of replacement American forces (thereby diluting the "surge"), or create a vacuum where Iran can exert still greater influence and/or provide a safe haven for Shiite militias to wait out the "surge" in safety (while American forces do their dirty work in battling the Sunnis).

    Blair's reversal was likely motivated in large part by various domestic political pressures. Still, the fact that President Bush's most steadfast ally has reversed himself in such a public and humiliating way, and announced a clear-cut withdrawal from Iraq on a set timetable, should embolden frightened American Congressional war opponents to move beyond inconsequential and limited non-binding resolutions and begin thinking seriously about how to compel an end to this endlessly destructive occupation.

That won't happen - the "frightened American Congressional war opponents" are mostly Democrats after all. They need a focus group to advise them, or at least some highly paid consultants. How would it look to actually do something?  Could it be used against you? One must be careful. People might say mean things.

But something is up. One of Greenwald's readers suggests something quite odd - that Blair's decision may be grounded in an expectation of some sort of imminent conflict between the United States and Iran.  They see what's coming - a series of cross-border incidents between our troops and Iran, and then a large-scale military confrontation.  That would leave British troops in Southern Iraq vulnerable both to retaliatory attacks and the risk of inadvertent involvement. So it's really is best to get out of there.  But that's all speculation.

Maybe, on the other hand, not much is up.  Kevin Drum has been reading the Guardian -

    The reduction of just 1,000 by early summer cited by officials yesterday is significantly less than anticipated in reports that British troops in southern Iraq, presently totalling 7,200, would be cut by half by May.

    A more cautious reduction may reflect concern expressed by the Iraqi and US governments about British intentions.

Drum reads things differently -

    If the Guardian is right, the real story here isn't that Britain is withdrawing from Iraq, but that they're actually planning to stay longer than previously planned. That seems like a pretty important qualifier.

    Now, if Tony Blair announces in tomorrow's speech a firm deadline of 2008 for withdrawing the rest of Britain's troops, as the Guardian also reports, that will be news. But I betcha he does nothing of the sort. It'll be "if conditions allow," just like it's always been.

Drum seems cynical here. But he's probably right. Blair would never abandon George Bush. He's just throwing a sop to the British public, also unhappy with the whole business.  It's a PR thing - but the White House can be assured that more and more young Brits will still die, year after year, for the American neoconservative dream.  That was the deal he made.  He's not really going back on his word. He just needs a little political breathing room. A minor pull-back that really isn't one will do the trick.

Just as Lord Farquaad said in the movie, Blair is saying the same thing - "Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make." It works on both sides of the Atlantic.  Blair is just fiddleing with the word "some."

It's all very bewildering. In fact, Fred Kaplan captures that in his item on four bewildering remarks from the Bush administration.

Kaplan suggests the world might be less stressful "if the president of the most powerful nation didn't so frequently convey the impression that he has no idea what's going on."

Who can argue with that? And this list is instructive.

First up is the classic - "If we leave [Iraq] before the mission is complete, if we withdraw, the enemy will follow us home."

That was from last August 16, directly - but he says it a lot. This month General Peter Pace said it, and he's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Ohio Republican congressman John Boehner keeps saying it.  Those I know who have served in Iraq used to say it a lot, but not so much any longer. Still it persists. Some think it is very, very true.

Kaplan says this -

    In fact, it makes no sense whatever. First, it assumes that "the enemy" in Iraq consists entirely of al-Qaeda terrorists, when they comprise only a small segment of the forces attacking U.S. troops. Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias are not likely to "follow us home."

    Second, if terrorists wanted to attack American territory again (and maybe they do), their ability to do so is unaffected by whether we stay in or pull out of Iraq. It's not as if they're all holed up in Baghdad and Anbar province, just waiting for the fighting to stop so they can climb out of their foxholes and go blow up New York. If al-Qaeda is a global network, its agents can fight in both places.

    Third, this is a hell of a thing to say in front of the allies. It's a crudely selfish message, suggesting that we're getting a lot of people killed over there in order that nobody gets killed back here. What leader of a beleaguered nation, reading this remark, would seek America's protection?

Yep, we created a new hell in Iraq - a different one with Saddam Hussein long gone - to keep "them" busy and us safe. And the man wonders why the Iraqis aren't sufficiently grateful? And just who is catching a flight to LAX to do us harm?  It's just a ridiculous boogieman thing - but you're not supposed to think about it too carefully. Just react - that'll do.

The second of the four has to do with just who is supplying high-powered roadside bombs in Iraq - "What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did. But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that they're there. What's worse - that the government knew or that the government didn't know?

Kaplan has the answer to that rhetorical question -

    There are two things worse - that the U.S. government doesn't know whether the Iranian government knew, and that the American president doesn't seem to care.

    This may be unfair; he probably does care. So, what's really worse - from this passage from Bush's Feb. 14 press conference -is that he doesn't seem to be doing much to find out.

    One way to find out might be to open up talks with Iran. Many former officials, of both parties, have urged the Bush administration to engage with Iran on a number of issues, for a number of reasons affecting national security. Here's one more. If these particularly lethal IEDs known as "explosively formed penetrators" are being supplied with the Iranian government's knowledge, maybe a deal can be struck to stop the flow; if they're being supplied without high officials' knowledge, maybe a deal can be struck to crack down jointly on the rogue agents.

    One thing is clear from this: The Bush administration doesn't want to talk with the Iranians on principle. Maybe the Iranians don't want to talk with us, either. It wouldn't kill us to find out. (It didn't kill us to find out, finally, with the North Koreans.)

The third item has to do with what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently about talking with Syria - "We don't have an ideological problem with talking to Syria. [T]here just isn't any evidence that they're trying to change their behavior."

Kaplan -

    Rice was responding to a heartfelt plea from Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia. "I beg of you," he said, "if we're going to ask a young man or woman in our military to go to Iraq three different times, it's not asking too much to send somebody to engage with the Syrians."

    The secretary's response was a replay of Bush's response to a similar question at a press conference last August: "We've been in touch with Syria," he replied. "Colin Powell sent a message to Syria in person. Dick Armitage talked to Syria. Syria knows what we think. The problem is that their response hasn't been very positive."

    Then, as now, a follow-up question might have been: How do you know what the Syrians are willing to do until you talk with them and offer them some incentives?

This kicker is the president on President's Day - "George Washington's long struggle for freedom has also inspired generations of Americans to stand for freedom in their own time. Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life."

Kaplan -

    In the past, George W. Bush has likened himself to Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

    He should stay away from historical analogies. The crises and wars that he's invoked don't really correspond to his predicaments, or to the extent that they do, the comparisons tend not to flatter him. Washington is particularly ill-cast as a Bush stand-in.

    "On the field of battle," Bush said at Mount Vernon, "Washington's forces were facing a mighty empire, and the odds against them were overwhelming. The ragged Continental Army lost more battles than it won" and "stood on the brink of disaster many times. Yet George Washington's calm hand and determination kept the cause of independence and the principles of our Declaration alive. In the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable."

    Sound familiar? It's obviously meant to, but it shouldn't. Here's an awkward question: By Bush's own description, which side in the Iraq war most resembles the "ragged Continental Army" and which side the "mighty empire"? I don't mean to draw moral (or any other sort of) equivalences, because there is nothing at all equivalent about those two wars, or these two presidents, and it degrades the serious study of history to pretend there is.

    But dragging Washington into Iraq is especially perverse because it's hard to imagine a war that he would have found more dreadful. Bush quotes him as having once said, "My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever in any country I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom."

    Yet Bush leaves out the context in which Washington made this remark. It was when the French foreign minister presented him with France's new tricolor flag. That is, it was in celebration of the French Revolution.

    It was not, in any way, an endorsement of going to war to "spread freedom" around the world. To the contrary, in 1793, during France's subsequent war with much of Europe, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, forbidding American citizens from taking any action that would help one side or another.

    Nor did Bush say anything about Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, in which the first president, stepping down from two terms, elaborated his views still further. Washington urged his fellow citizens to avoid "overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty." He cautioned against "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another." And he advised, "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."

The man wasn't that good at history at Yale of course. It's just talk.  It not supposed to make sense. You're not supposed to think about it too carefully. Just react - that'll do.

Anyway, you're not supposed to do a whole lot of thinking on Fat Tuesday.

And you're not supposed to think too much on the other odd story of the day - the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled two to one that four hundred foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo don't have the right to challenge their imprisonment, at all.  That Military Commissions Act passed last fall by Congress blocked the detainees' right to appeal their indefinite imprisonment without charges. That's just the way it is. You're not supposed to think about this too carefully either - everyone knows they're bad guys, so why should they have the right to try to prove they're not? Besides, they're not citizens. And it will all be appealed to the Supreme Court anyway.

And what sort of legal wonk would read decision the decision itself (PDF format) - even if it left the door open for US citizens captured outside of US territory to be held without recourse to habeas corpus. Why would any citizen travel to another country? 

You want detail? Here's some detail -

    The decision is an exercise in disengenuity. It accepts as undisputed fact, without the merest discussion - that the detainees do not have Constitutional habeas rights because (1) Guantanamo is outside of the control of the US government (contradicting the Supreme Court holding in Rasul) and that (2) the detainees are "enemy aliens" for habeas purposes (though that is "irrelevant", see paragraph below.)

    The DC Circuit concedes at [footnote] 8 that in fact the detainees are NOT enemy aliens, but that it does not matter anyway - thus standing Eisentrager on its head. And this is not insignificant - for the reasoning could be read to allow the Executive to detain American citizens outside US territory as well.

    Consider this language from the DC Circuit opinion at [footnote] 8.: "[U]nder the common law [habeas corpus], the dispositive fact was not a petiotioner's alien enemy status, but his lack of presence within any sovereign territory."

In short any US citizen can be tossed in jail without charges and with no right to any kind of hearing or trial, and held forever, if they're not on US soil. Don't visit France.

And there's more detail -

    4, Although the holding of Judge Randolph's opinion apparently extends only to aliens held abroad, the logic of his opinion at page 16 suggests that even U.S. citizens held abroad would not be entitled to constitutional habeas protections:

    When agents of the Crown detained prisoners outside the Crown's dominions, it was understood that they were outside the jurisdiction of the writ. See HOLDSWORTH, supra, at 116-17. Even British citizens imprisoned in "remote islands, garrisons, and other places" were "prevent[ed] from the benefit of the law," 2 HENRY HALLAM, THE CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND 127-28 (William S. Hein Co. 1989) (1827), which included access to habeas corpus, see DUKER, supra, at 51-53; HOLDSWORTH, supra, at 116; see also Johan Steyn, Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole, 53 INT'L & COMP. L.Q. 1, 8 (2004) ("the writ of habeas corpus would not be available" in "remote islands, garrisons, and other places" (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Ah, it's all too complicated.

But as MC Joan points out -

    Among all of the problematic elements of this decision (can they really argue that Guantanamo doesn't count as U.S. sovereign territory for purposes of the rule discussed?), this one is potentially the most dangerous. We already know what the U.S. Attorney General believes about the Constitutional right of U.S. citizens to habeas corpus. Now we might find out what Chief Justice Roberts and Scalito think about it.

This is interesting news.  But it is a bit complex for most to care about - until it's too late.

Let the good times roll.

This item posted - in its final version - February 24, 2007

[Fat Tuesday]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik