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

Levels of Seriousness

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

Levels of Seriousness - Political Halloween, a Retrospective

Okay, Tuesday, October 31, was Halloween, and here above Sunset we were all hiding. Down the hill they had the annual Halloween parade and party - most of West Hollywood closed, the streets blocked, and the crazies were out. West Hollywood is famous for such things, but dropping in once is enough. And streets are closed out here all the time. Coming up it's the Twentieth Century Fox folks with the new Bruce Willis film, "Live Free or Die Hard." That will be a pain, "shooting on the 105 Freeway and surrounding areas for three weekends in November. The movie involves explosions and pyrotechnics. The eastbound 105 will be completely closed on the first three weekends in November. Imperial Highway will be shut down most days, November 2-19." The first one of those shut down a lot of Century City on many a Sunday.

You get used to a certain level of craziness out here, and sometimes it spills out into the wider world - and sometimes it has very little to do with the movies.

Out in Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl and Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (lots of intense and brilliant people working on the latest close-up photos just in from the surface of Mars), you'll find Pasadena City College - a rather fine commuter school with its left-wing radio station (KPCC) and a great student jazz band and whatnot. That's where the national crazy Halloween story started, the day before Halloween.

John Kerry, the man who got the most votes for president in the 2004 election, was visiting. He was campaigning with California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides - another Democrat who can't win for losing (no one can touch Arnold Schwarzenegger as he's one heroic movie star) - and Kerry messed up big time. He told the student crowd at Pasadena City College - "You know, education - if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

What? As Tim Grieve notes here, this blew open on Halloween with the White House saying Kerry insulted the troops and John Kerry insisting, "No, I insulted Bush."

It's all how you read the words.

Kerry spokesman David Wade insisted the senator was referring to George W. Bush - "a president not exactly known for his intellectual curiosity or academic successes" - but no one on the right was buying that. The Republican National Committee said that Kerry, who volunteered for Vietnam after graduating from Yale, was belittling our troops now serving in Iraq. John McCain said Kerry's comments were "insensitive" and "ill-considered." White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said on Halloween that Kerry "not only owes an apology to those who are serving, but also to the families of those who have given their lives in this." And Snow said that Democratic candidates like Jim Webb and Tammy Duckworth should be asked whether they're in accord with Kerry's "absolute insult."

It seems Kerry was trying to say if Bush had actually been any kind of student and made a minimal effort at being smart, instead of mocking those who try either, we wouldn't be in the Iraq mess. But the man has a tin ear and just can't tell a joke - he messed up - bad timing, bad delivery. That's death out here. He'll never make it in Hollywood, especially if he cannot get it working in Pasadena. This town is unforgiving

And the Republicans needed an issue. Blaming the North Korea nuclear test and the 9/11 attacks - and the sluggish economy and most everything else - on Bill Clinton was getting thin. Flogging a president who has been out of office for six years for what's happening now was starting to look silly. Best to switch to the fellow who lost two years ago and has been fighting obscurity ever since. Normally he'd be ignored. But this was just a gift. That he's not running for anything and shunned by his own party didn't really matter. When you need a new scapegoat sometime you just get lucky. This would do.

There was damage control - a Kerry statement followed by a press conference -

    If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy. This is the classic G.O.P. playbook. I'm sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did.

    I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh, who no doubt today will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease to start lying about me just as they have lied about Iraq . It disgusts me that these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country lie and distort so blatantly and carelessly about those who have.

    The people who owe our troops an apology are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who misled America into war and have given us a Katrina foreign policy that has betrayed our ideals, killed and maimed our soldiers, and widened the terrorist threat instead of defeating it. These Republicans are afraid to debate veterans who live and breathe the concerns of our troops, not the empty slogans of an Administration that sent our brave troops to war without body armor.

    Bottom line, these Republicans want to debate straw men because they're afraid to debate real men. And this time it won't work because we're going to stay in their face with the truth and deny them even a sliver of light for their distortions. No Democrat will be bullied by an administration that has a cut and run policy in Afghanistan and a stand still and lose strategy in Iraq.

That's all beside the point. The man tried to make a pointed joke and screwed it up. Unforgivable. You don't give a fifth-rate performance to a rough audience.

The most widely-read fellow on the left, Kos, has this to say -

    Man, there are times when this stuff is more ridiculous than anything a fiction writer or satirist could ever dream up.

    So John Kerry mangles a sentence in a public appearance, and the right-wing smear machine and its traditional media enablers are apoplectic. I mean, John Kerry is a, um, junior senator not running for reelection! And he's, um, a war hero who hates the troops! And um, we hate him because he's John Kerry!

    Trust me, I haven't been shy to pile on Kerry when warranted, but what a load of bullshit this is. And showing that he has learned from his Swiftboating days, Kerry hit back hard…

    Kerry has nothing to apologize for. The people who have turned their backs on the troops do. And even though this ridiculousness will lead the evening news, fact is, we should embrace the opportunity to remind Americans how Republicans rally to the "troops" defense only when it suits their own cynical political ends.

Too late - the damage is done. Now everyone will accept that the war is going well, we're winning decisively, and no mistakes were made about anything at all.

Maybe that'll happen. One commenter at the Kos site notes on MSNBC's Hardball show, host Chris Matthews said flat out that reading the full transcript of the Pasadena thing it's clear that Kerry was insulting the president, not the troops. A big time Republican, Dick Armey, was on at the time and essentially agreed and they both laughed about how funny it was that the White House and the whole Republican Party was feigning mock outrage. As the Brit kids say in the Harry Potter books - brilliant.

Kos -

    If Republicans want to debate who supports the troops more, let's have that debate. I'd love to talk about nothing else than Iraq for the next week.

    And for the rest of you who think this is the end of the world - stop being afraid of your own shadow. Just stop it. Fight or get out of the kitchen. It will get hotter than even this.

Of course it will get hotter. And Halloween day it got hotter -

    A Democratic activist who verbally confronted U.S. Sen. George Allen at a campaign rally in Charlottesville yesterday was shoved, put into a headlock and thrown against a window by three men wearing Allen stickers, according to a widely disseminated video of the incident.

The CNN video of that is here, another here, and a series of stills here.

The fellow is a political writer - and an ex-Marine. He wasn't heckling. He waited until after the speech and asked nasty questions. As you see he wasn't violent or even raising his voice. Allen's goons took him down. He was disrespectful.

Senator Allen said such things happen - people get roughed up - no big deal.

This may have been staged, or pre-planned. It does send a message to voters - George Bush may be too much of a wimp when it comes to the press, so elect me and Helen Thomas and David Gregory will get bounced around real good if they ask uppity questions. It kind of reaches out to the authoritarian-minded Americans who are sick of people complaining and making trouble. It's a bit of a message.

Mike Stark, the fellow who was roughed up, doesn't get it -

    My name is Mike Stark. I am a law student at the University of Virginia, a marine, and a citizen journalist. Earlier today at a public event, I was attempting to ask Senator Allen a question about his sealed divorce record and his arrest in the 1970s, both of which are in the public domain. His people assaulted me, put me in a headlock, and wrestled me to the ground. Video footage is available here, from an NBC affiliate.

    I demand that Senator Allen fire the staffers who beat up a constituent attempting to use his constitutional right to petition his government. I also want to know why Senator Allen would want his staffers to assault someone asking questions about matters of public record in the heat of a political campaign. Why are his divorce records sealed? Why was he arrested in the 1970s? And why did his campaign batter me when I asked him about these questions.

    George Allen defends his support of the Iraq war by saying that our troops are defending the ideals America stands for. Indeed, he says our troops are defending our very freedom. What kind of country is it when a Senator's constituent is assaulted for asking difficult and uncomfortable questions? What freedoms do we have left? Maybe we need to bring the troops home so that they can fight for freedom at George Allen's campaign events. Demanding accountability should not be an offense worthy of assault.

    I will be pressing charges against George Allen and his surrogates later today. George Allen, at any time, could have stopped the fray. All he had to do was say, "This is not how my campaign is run. Take your hands off that man." He could have ignored my questions. Instead he and his thugs chose violence. I spent four years in the Marine Corps. I'll be damned if I'll let my country be taken from me by thugs that are afraid of taking responsibility for themselves.

    It just isn't the America I know and love. Somebody needs to take a stand against those that would bully and intimidate their fellow citizens. That stand begins right here, right now.

Yeah, yeah - well, times are changing. The price you pay for asking questions is going up. Anyone in Austria in 1938 would know that. This fellow doesn't get it.

Here and there a few people will be outraged by this incident, and a bit more widely some others may feel somehow uncomfortable about it. The political calculation seems to be that most of America is pretty fed up with politics and the election news from all over, and this will appeal to them. People should just shut up and not make trouble. George Allen's stock just rose.

But there is calm, reasoned questioning. It's just useless -

    Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered what they call a "major policy address" at the Council on Foreign Relations this afternoon, and it proved that, against an administration of misplaced conviction and shallow ideology, clichés are wisdom and conventional thinking can be profound.

    Few of Sen. Clinton's pronouncements would stun a classroom of freshman poli-sci majors. That U.S. foreign policy needs "bipartisan consensus" and "nonpartisan competence"; that, in an "increasingly interdependent world," we must remain "internationalists" and "realists"; that "patient diplomacy, backed up by American strength, informed by American values," is just the ticket. Who could dispute such truisms?

    The stunning thing is that the president of the United States and his top advisers do dispute them in their rhetoric and their policies. Hence their blithe disregard of expertise (military, economic, and otherwise), their harrumphing unilateralism, their exaggerated assumptions about American power, their dismissal of negotiations as a game for weaklings (and negotiations with bad guys as appeasement).

But she said it so nicely no one wanted to beat her up.

That's from Fred Kaplan who spends some time pointing out banal truisms now seem radical, but then, "when President Bush reduces the sectarian complexities of Iraq to a struggle between the forces of terror and the ordinary people who just want a decent life, he seems utterly incurious about the composition of those people or what they might consider a decent life - and genuinely unaware of the connection between their society's upheaval and the war that he brought on."

So in that context what Clinton proposes may seem "deep" and make the administration very, very, angry.

She's suggesting what seems kind of obvious -

    1) Press the Iraqi government to get serious about internal reconciliation, and present real consequences for their failure to do so. One possible approach, she said, might be to establish an oil trust, the revenue of which would be equitably shared by all Iraqis, thus placating Sunni discontent and demonstrating that America has no ambitions for their oil. 2) Convene an international conference of all parties in the region, including Iran and Syria. 3) Begin a "phased re-deployment" of U.S. troops, leaving behind only enough for support and training Iraq's own military.

And that makes her one of the "cut and run" people who want the terrorists to win, of course.

At least it's a policy. It would be nice to have one.

What else? More troops in Afghanistan, and direct talks with Tehran, if just to find out who's really running things over there. As Kaplan notes on the latter - "President Bush declines, leaving such things to the British, French, and Germans, saying that the Iranians know what we want if they want to strike up a conversation." On North Korea, said she was real happy that that the North Koreans agreed on Halloween morning, after extensive diplomatic pressure from China, to return to the six-party talks in Beijing. But she complained that the Bush administration "has spent six years dangling neither sticks nor carrots in its dealings with the admittedly horrid Kim Jong-il."

Kaplan says of all this (and there are a few other items) -

    In certain Democratic circles, the cry has gone out for presidential candidates and party honchos to articulate grand ideas, especially in foreign policy - bright new strategies for the 21st century and the post-post-Cold War world. But if there's one lesson of the George W. Bush era (and it is an era - has any six-year span ever seemed longer?), it's that grand ideas are the ones that most often get you in trouble. There are plenty of good ideas - sound ideas out there in the realms of history, shrewd analysis, and common sense. It might be enough simply to call for candidates who are smart, skeptical, and rooted in reality.

So forget John Kerry's screw up, and George Allen's demonstration of how things should really work in America. These are all minor matters. We need some big, obvious fixes, even if banal and a tad boring.

Why? Consider what Lieutenant General William E. Odom (retired) - a senior fellow at the wildly conservative Hudson Institute and a professor at Yale University - had to say on Halloween -

    Our leaders do not act because their reputations are at stake. The public does not force them to act because it is blinded by the president's conjured set of illusions: that we are reducing terrorism by fighting in Iraq; creating democracy there; preventing the spread of nuclear weapons; making Israel more secure; not allowing our fallen soldiers to have died in vain; and others.

    But reality can no longer be avoided. It is beyond U.S. power to prevent bloody sectarian violence in Iraq, the growing influence of Iran throughout the region, the probable spread of Sunni-Shiite strife to neighboring Arab states, the eventual rise to power of the anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr or some other anti-American leader in Baghdad, and the spread of instability beyond Iraq. All of these things and more became unavoidable the day that U.S. forces invaded.

    These realities get worse every day that our forces remain in Iraq. They can't be wished away by clever diplomacy or by leaving our forces in Iraq for several more years.

    The administration could recognize that a rapid withdrawal is the only way to overcome our strategic paralysis, though that appears unlikely, notwithstanding election-eve changes in White House rhetoric. Congress could force a stock-taking. Failing this, the public will sooner or later see through all of the White House's double talk and compel a radical policy change. The price for delay, however, will be more lives lost in vain - the only thing worse than the lives already lost in vain.

And he makes the case for getting out in three months. And he argues as Clinton did - the same points, generally.

That's because things like this are going on (a summary of the Halloween Iraq news from Mark Kleiman at UCLA -

    It's over.

    The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld strategy for Iraq is now obviously a dead letter.

    In a showdown between the U.S. Army and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Prime Minister of Iraq sided with Moqtada, and we are obeying his orders and backing down. PM al-Maliki thinks the presence of U.S. forces in Iraqi cities is fueling violence, and he'd like to see them withdrawn to bases in the countryside.

    Let's review the bidding:

    1. The Mahdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr's private militia - the same outfit that we fought house-to-house in Najaf - kidnapped an Iraqi-born U.S. soldier a week ago.

    2. Moqtada is a minister Moqtada's nominee is health minister in the Iraqi government, and his party is one of the three that make up the ruling coalition.

    3. In response, our troops invested Sadr City, the huge Shi'a slum where Moqtada has his power base, looking for the kidnapped soldier and for one of Moqtada's lieutenants, suspected of organizing the snatch. They set up roadblocks that made travel difficult both within Sadr City and between that area and the rest of Baghdad.

    That's the situation as of the weekend.


    4. Moqtada complained, and threatened unspecified but drastic consequences. The Mahdi Army cordoned off Sadr City, completely isolating it.

    5. Without any advance warning to the U.S., al-Maliki ordered that the roadblocks be taken down.

    6. The roadblocks are coming down.

    Of course when the head of a sovereign government gives orders about U.S. military actions in his country, we have no option but to comply. But why should our troops keep dying to prop up a government that won't stop its own political allies from kidnapping them?

    Nor, it turns out, does that government want to be propped up the way we're currently trying to do it: Al-Maliki has said he believes that the continued presence of American forces in Iraq's population centers is partly behind the surge in violence.

    Duhhhhh ... right. But of course Bush's friends call any Democrat who says that a coward, if not a traitor.

    And note also al-Maliki's proposed solution: The speedy withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities to U.S. bases in the country.

    And of course if we were to do that, we wouldn't need 150,000 troops in Iraq.

And all that is just numbering the sequential events in this news item.

They told us to back off, and what can we do?

Here's one idea from Gary Kamiya, apologize -

    Americans are feeling many emotions about Iraq these days. There's anger. There's sadness. There's despair, and vindication, and fear. But largely forgotten is the quietest, but most necessary, emotion of all: shame.

    When we chose to invade Iraq, we made ourselves morally responsible for the consequences. This was not a debt we wanted to think about. And until the last few weeks, it was possible to repress it, by clinging to the hope that things would somehow turn out OK. That hope has now been dashed. Whether we stay or leave, Iraq is not going to be OK. And all we can do is watch as the deadly consequences of our folly, our rashness, our stupid self-righteousness, our inexcusable imperial hubris are visited on thousands of men, women and children - only a minuscule fraction of them those "terrorists" we were supposedly attacking.

    We have turned Iraq into hell. In Iraq today, death can come from anywhere, for any reason or no reason. You can be killed because you belonged to the wrong sect, because you were seen talking to an American, because someone wants your car, because you wore shorts, because you were selling ice, because you drove too close to a U.S. checkpoint, because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    There is an old Arab proverb: "Better a thousand days of tyranny than one day of anarchy." It is not an inspiring sentiment, but perhaps there is a reason for it.

    … This is the shadow we now live under because of Iraq. We did it. We can't undo it. And we will never be able to make up for what we've done.

    Our guilt would be somewhat mitigated, or at least easier to deal with, if there had been any real reason for this war. All wars are terrible, but some are justifiable. This was not. It was a frivolous war, perhaps the most abstract, pulled-out-of-thin-air war ever launched by a world power. It was dreamed up by hollow men who had never experienced war themselves, who made the decision as if playing a board game, and were supported by people who convinced themselves that the world was a board game.

    To be sure, some war supporters had good intentions. But that does not exonerate them. If you start a war for no reason, you have to be right about the outcome. You don't have the option of being wrong.

    The war supporters' good intentions were to get rid of Saddam Hussein, one of the great monsters of our time, and improve the miserable lives of the Iraqi people. These were laudable sentiments. I was bitterly opposed to the war, but I allowed myself to celebrate the moment when he fell. I thought it was inhumane and dogmatic not to celebrate the downfall of such a dreadful dictator, even though I feared what would happen next. But it turns out that I was wrong to celebrate.

    … Whether you agreed with the war or not, once it started America incurred a moral responsibility to the Iraqis.

    … What can we do about this? We have no vocabulary for it, no moral compass. What do you do when you have incurred a debt so great it can never be repaid?

    In 1997, after a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli schoolgirls who were visiting a nature reserve, the late King Hussein knelt, weeping, before each of the girls' parents as a sign of his sorrow, his responsibility and his shame.

    America owes the Iraqi people the same gesture.

    Protest marches mean little now. Anger can be expressed on Nov. 7. But we need to express our shame.

Ah, we never do such things. But the thought kind of puts the Kerry thing in perspective. It really doesn't matter much.

This item posted November 5, 2006

[Levels of Seriousness]

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