Stepping Back - Notes on a Slow News Day
The slow news day in question would be Thursday, October 26 - twelve days before the midterm elections. The war continued apace - we lost another five of our guys in Iraq, bringing the total to ninety-six for the month. But that wasn't front page for long. We lost four firefighters the same day as the wildfires fire edged its way toward Palm Springs out here, and there was talk of murder charges if someone or other is ever caught. Those deaths got more play. No one expected that. It was big news - folks are numb to the Iraq business and this was new. There seems to be a new variation on the cynical news saying, "if it bleeds, it leads." It now has to be unexpected blood. People are jaded, or perhaps looking for something they don't expect. And no one expects anything different now with Iraq.
The day was filled with commentary on the political ad - never so nasty and full of fury. There was a new classic, although that was one of many. The Michael J. Fox ad was still the buzz that day, with Matt Lauer on the NBC Today Show, chatting with Susan Estrich, saying this - "And you brought up Michael J. Fox. Let me just ask you: You know, Rush Limbaugh started a lot of controversy when he said perhaps Michael J. Fox was exaggerating or faking these effects of Parkinson's disease in that ad promoting stem cell research. Didn't Rush Limbaugh just say what a lot of people were privately thinking?"
No Matt, only idiots were thinking that - but you have to generate some buzz, so you see what Lauer was up to, playing a moronic gadfly for ratings. There's no issue left. Rush Limbaugh is who he is, and those who hang on his every word - those who call themselves the "ditto-heads" - needed someone to tell them that what they were proposing - ending stem cell research because it killed the cell clumps that would never become children but should be considered as if they were real children in some religious and political power calculation - was okay because the man in favor of such research was really faking his disease to get the godless Democrats elected. The story was over. Lauer couldn't really revive it. And they jumped to the Palm Springs fire anyway - so it hardly matters.
Others stepped back, sensing it was a day for introspection and dealing with the new malaise, or whatever you wished to call it - that sense that anything different now with Iraq is out of the question.
John Dickerson, the Chief Political Correspondent (cool title) for SLATE, stepped back -
There is a reason conservatives used to be against nation building. It can turn into baby-sitting. That's what this war feels like it has become: a tense exercise in which the United States tries to balance an uncomfortable mix of threats and pleas without being able to use ultimate force. If the al-Maliki government doesn't do what the Bush administration wants, Iraq will become an even greater nightmare. But if the United States gets fed up and leaves, Iraq will become an enduring nightmare. In baby-sitting, this lack of true force is usually resolved when the parents come home. No such luck here.
The president said that he won't put any more pressure on the Iraqi political system than it can bear, but how can he know what the Iraqi government can bear? He doesn't even know what the American government can handle. President Bush outlined two goals for his second term - comprehensive immigration reform and Social Security reform. Neither worked out. It's quite a stretch to think he'll be more successful at evaluating, from half a world away, what the Iraqis are capable of and whether they've achieved that. It's like trying to do brain surgery while wearing oven mitts.
The president used to rely on what he believed was the Iraqi people's innate yearning for freedom. He could refer to their courageous turnout on Election Day and hope that spirit would ultimately move their political leaders in the right direction. That hasn't happened. Now he's making an even longer-odds bet: that he can influence Iraqi politicians to do the right thing without making them bristle. This seems far harder than merely securing the streets and turning on the lights. As a political matter at home, this strategy seems likely to build pressure for American withdrawal because it focuses all of our eyes on the behavior of Prime Minister al-Maliki. If his government misses a bench mark, it looks incompetent. If al-Maliki asserts his independence by telling Bush to back off, he looks ungrateful. Both will feed the growing sentiment among Bush's conservative allies that Iraqis cannot handle this freedom that has been given to them no matter what the United States tries or how many troops fill the streets. And if the Iraqis can't handle it, then why should Americans keep dying to help them? This, of course, is not the conclusion the president wants people to reach, but his welcome candor about the state of affairs in Iraq also pointed out how few options he has left.
Baby-sitting. That seems about right. And that explains why the news from Iraq is no longer news, or at least not new news. Old news goes to the back of the queue. Tales of baby-sitting are tedious.
And the sense of no good options, or maybe no options at all, later the same day led to this -
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that anyone demanding deadlines for progress in Iraq should "just back off," because it is too difficult to predict when Iraqis will resume control of their country.
During an often-combative Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said that while benchmarks for security, political and economic progress are valuable, "it's difficult. We're looking out into the future. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty."
He said the goals have no specific deadlines or consequences if they are not met by specific dates.
"You're looking for some sort of a guillotine to come falling down if some date isn't met," Rumsfeld told reporters. "That is not what this is about."
Okay, Don, then what is it about? Three-quarters of America would like to know. Our guys are getting killed - and a whole lot of Iraqis are dying.
He didn't say what it was about. He was too stuck in his anger at the reporters. In response to one question about reducing troop levels - asking when if ever that would happen - he shot back, "That's a rather accusatory way to put it." This was an exercise is disabusing everyone trying to find out where all this is going of their stupid assumptions about what we were up to. It wasn't about what we were actually up to.
But people were trying to put two and two together. This was less than two weeks before the big election for control of Congress, and everyone knows the Bush administration's conduct of the war has become perhaps the defining issue. And it was two days after a timeline was first announced by our ambassador and General Casey in Baghdad - with no Iraqi official anywhere to be seen. They said that they and Iraqi leaders had agreed to "craft guidelines" toward progress in the country. The next day, Iraq's president said that wasn't so - these benchmarks just reflected the campaign season pressures in the United States, and had little to do with them at all.
Rumsfeld said it was all really nothing - critics and the media were just trying to "make a little mischief" by trying to "find a little daylight between what the Iraqis say or someone in the United States says." And he was having none of it. So everyone should just back off. There was no problem. He doesn't like it when people don't trust him and look at the events and try to figure things out. Who do they think they are?
This was not a successful press briefing. No one was satisfied, on either side.
Yes, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced in Baghdad on Tuesday that Iraqi leaders had agreed that by the end of the year that they really will have a plan that lays out the times by which they want certain things accomplished. This was a very big deal. It was real progress. And yes, the next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected Khalilzad's claim and said "his" government had not agreed to anything. President Bush then said that al-Maliki was correct in saying mandates could not be imposed on Iraq, but then said the United States would not have unlimited patience.
So what's up with all this? Folks just want to know.
That's the problem. It's not their business. Rumsfeld - "You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated, it's difficult. Honorable people are working on these things together. There isn't any daylight between them."
So what you saw was not what you saw.
This was not a successful press briefing. No one was satisfied, on either side.
But the president did explain it all. The goal here is victory -
I want to remind you, victory is a government that can sustain itself, govern itself - a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and serves as an ally in the war on terror.
That sounds good, until you actually think about it, and that's what "Alex" at Martini Republic does here -
The problem is its practicality. First, getting a central government in Iraq which can sustain itself has proven immensely difficult. After three and a half years of training Iraqis, we've come to find that the new security forces are in many cases themselves contributors to the cycle of violence. Increasingly, experts are questioning the viability of a unified Iraq governed by a central authority. Whether this is a "practical" goal is open to serious doubt.
Putting aside that issue, an even more intractable problem is creating a government which "serves as an ally in the war on terror." The current Iraqi government hasn't demonstrated any propensity to become that ally. The most powerful faction of the Shiite-dominated government has close ties with Iran, one "axis of evil" it's party leadership having been sheltered by the Tehran regime for years. The other powerful faction in the current Iraqi government is the Sadrists. Moqtada al Sadr has never renounced violence against US forces, and his Mehdi Army just recently routed government forces in Amarah.
Maliki himself spoke in condemnation of Israel and in support of Hezbollah during the fighting in Lebanon, even as a 100,000 people, including five members of Parliament, rallied in Baghdad in support of Hezbollah, chanting "Death to Israel, Death to America."
Recently, Prime Minister al Maliki pressured the US to release a Mahdi Army commander believed to be involved in death squad activity ravaging the Iraqi capital. Just yesterday, al Maliki rejected US "benchmarks" for curbing Shiite militias and achieving political reconciliation with Sunni dissidents, and criticized the US for a raid in Sadr City aimed at arresting another Sadrist death squad leader.
The practical reality of Iraq is that any representative government will necessarily be dominated by the Shiites who comprise a majority of the people. And that government will be more inclined to lean towards its Shiite neighbor, Iran, than become our steadfast ally in the war on terror.
What would Rumsfeld say to that? He could do a Ronald Reagan - "There he goes again," looking at what everyone just sees. He doesn't seem satisfied that "honorable people" are working on these things together.
That last bit is cute - you look at the facts on the ground, and at the events that have actually occurred, and you put two and two together, and then you get accused of "questioning the honor" of those who got us into this mess.
Of course that's the classic defense of the indefensible. When you have no answers, when you're sort of caught red-handed having done something extraordinarily bone-headed, when all the really unpleasant evidence and facts are sitting out there, streaming and stinking - you change the subject. "Are you impugning my honor, sir?" That wasn't exactly the issue, but you have to discuss that, and say you're not really doing that. Those with pre-teen kids know the variation - "Are you calling me a liar?" That's usually followed by tears of hurt - how could you think that? You then say pleasant things to your kid, so he or she doesn't feel so hurt. Works every time, except when you say, no, you're not a liar, but in this case you're lying, so stop it.
Maybe that's how reporters should deal with Rumsfeld and the rest. Of course you're all honorable men, but it seems the evidence suggests you're wrong. That will never happen, but it would be fun.
Stepping back, could this foreshadow the way the administration and its party will approach the final days before the election, saying anyone who questions them about facts and evidence and events, and where we are in all this sorry mess, is hurtfully questioning their honor, and their noble intentions, and that's just not fair? That does neatly shift the ground.
Actually, it's hardly new. But now it may be the only thing left.
But you have to deal with this - Cheney Calls 'Water-Boarding' A Valuable Interrogation Tool - "The vice president confirmed that an interrogation technique that simulates drowning and has been called 'cruel and inhumane' was used on al Qaeda suspects."
It was in a right-wing AM radio interview Tuesday, and folks only noticed two days later. Vice President Cheney confirmed that detainees were subjected to water-boarding, and that's the first such admission by a Bush administration official. It may be war crimes territory, but he said - "It's a no-brainer for me." Even we used to define that as torture - and the president suggests with all his new authority to redefine what this nation thinks the Geneva Conventions really mean, that would be a no-no. Now this.
Okay - they got their wires crossed here. And as for honor, the argument has long been the smoking gun thing. That is this - torture is the moral and honorable thing to do, if it means there's a slim chance the subject won't just say anything to stop the pain and might, by luck, actually know something, and by even greater luck, reveal a plot that could kill us all. He might, and he might not know anything, or he might even be the wrong guy entirely - but the moral and honorable thing to do is get him to say something or other. It's obviously the right thing to do.
So they now will run on this definition of honorable? Why not? Most people agree. They've been told the tales of all the bad guys out to get us. No point in being all finicky about such things.
Some disagree of course. The November vote will, among other things, reveal this issue of what is honorable. People need to step back and decide.
RJ Eskow has another step back and think item here -
Any American who honors our military heroes - and I hope that's all Americans - should be outraged at the GOP's mistreatment of our troops. The practice of forcing psychologically scarred soldiers back into battle is yet another example of the way Republicans treat our fighting men and women like used parts. Oh, and one other thing - it's a lousy way to run a war, too.
Let's make one thing clear from the start: There's a word for soldiers who return from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological problems. That word is - hero.
The stigma associated with mental disorders should become a thing of the past. Even the strongest body may react to intense stress and shock by changing biochemically, and the bravest personality may react to trauma in unexpected ways.
These soldiers, just like those who have suffered physical injury, have made a sacrifice on behalf of their country. They should be honored and respected, not denigrated. They deserve all the medical care they require, and should receive a hero's welcome when they come home.
Whatever set off Eskow? That would be this CBS report on what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (General Patton had another word for it), and the soldier is one Bryce Syverson -
"It ended up they just took his weapon away from him and said he was non-deployable and couldn't have a weapon," says his father, Larry Syverson. "He was on suicide watch in a lockdown."
… That was last August. This August, he was deployed to Ramadi, in the heart of the Sunni triangle - and he had a weapon.
Under pressure to maintain troop levels, military doctors tell CBS News it's become a "common practice" to recycle soldiers with mental disorders back into combat. The military's actions were first reported by the Hartford Courant newspaper.
"It's flat-out not a good idea," says Dr. John Wilson, an expert in combat trauma.
Dr. Wilson is undoubtedly a good man to have in your corner if you're experiencing a wave of panic, given his gift for understatement.
These soldiers risk being scarred for life by this re-exposure to the trauma that wounded them in the first place. They're also a danger to their fellow soldiers, and to innocent civilians.
They're only there because the Republicans failed to plan adequately for this war. Rather than admit their failure, the Administration recycles these casualties to conceal their own mistakes.
That may be a bit over the top. We're just a bit short of combat troops. And there's probably not any member of the administration who didn't like that movie about Patton.
There is the other matter. This stressed out hero (Eskow) or total loser (Cheney-Rumsfeld-Patton) "isn't what you'd want to find in the person riding point or covering your back, if you're a soldier ... or doing a door-to-door search of your neighborhood if you're a civilian. In fact, the only person who benefits from having troops on the ground with this disorder is the insurgent. He's facing an enemy who's exhausted, jumpy, and unfocused."
But as Rumsfeld said, you don't go to war with the army you want, you go with the army you have.
So you decide who's honorable here. Then you vote.
This last item - sending traumatized and clearly mentally ill soldiers back into battle - may seem on odd issue to arise now - but it was a day for stepping back and looking at things. It was that kind of day, with many people trying to put things in perspective. That happens when the news is slow, or more of the same, and when there's an election twelve days away. We're supposed to decide whether we keep this crew.