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

The State of Things

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

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

The Speech at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a curious thing. It's the second volume of five in the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series - and perhaps you need to know a bit about the earthling Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox.  Arthur and Ford, having survived the destruction of Earth by surreptitiously hitching a ride on a Vogon constructor ship, have been kicked off that ship by its commander. Now they find themselves aboard a stolen Improbability Drive ship commanded by Beeblebrox, ex-president of the Imperial Galactic Government, who also is a rather clever thief.

But that hardly matters. What is amusing is the restaurant, a kind of a time warp place where each evening's entertainment is watching the end of everything -

    The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire history of catering.

    It is built on the fragmented remains of an eventually ruined planet which is enclosed in a vast time bubble and projected forward in time to the precise moment of the End of the Universe.

    This is, many would say, impossible.

    In it, guests take their places at table and eat sumptuous meals whilst watching the whole of creation explode around them.

    This is, many would say, equally impossible.

    You can arrive for any sitting you like without prior reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were when you return to your own time.

    This is, many would now insist, absolutely impossible.

    At the Restaurant you can meet and dine with a fascinating cross-section of the entire population of space and time.

    This, it can be explained patiently, is also impossible.

    You can visit it as many times as you like and be sure of never meeting yourself, because of the embarrassment this usually causes.

    This, even if the rest were true, which it isn't, is patently impossible, say the doubters.

    All you have to do is deposit one penny in a savings account in your own era, and when you arrive at the End of Time the operation of compound interest means that the fabulous cost of your meal has been paid for. This, many claim, is not merely impossible but clearly insane, which is why the advertising executives of the star system of Bastablon came up with this slogan: "If you've done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?"

Somehow President Bush's State of the Union speech was a bit like that place.  It's a time warp thing. We've heard it all before, or most of the end of the world as we know it hysterics, even if this one was delivered Tuesday, January 23rd.  And by the way, one should not make much of the Bush - Zaphod Beeblebrox parallels.  Beeblebrox is a prankster who just steals things and says he doesn't really know anything about anything - and as for how he became president of the Imperial Galactic Government, well, hey, he's just a lucky guy.  Don't go there.

The Bush speech was, of course, a bit different from the preceding five - this was delivered before a Democratic-controlled Congress for the first time.  That's new. And he said nice things to and about Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House, the first woman to ever hold that office.  How could he not? And the visuals were oddly new - the president in the center of the frame, and on the left side Vice President Cheney looking sardonic, with Pelosi on the right side looking a bit smug, but nicely so.

But the speech itself was seen as "modest" by many.  That may be charitable, actually.

On the left, Steven Benan at The Carpetbagger Report had this to say - "Bush, for all of his many tragic flaws, is capable of delivering a decent speech, just so long as we put the merit of his ideas aside while listening. With this in mind, last night was just boring. Anticlimactic. Void of soaring rhetoric and almost anything of any interest at all. The speech and its delivery felt obligatory. The president might as well have just skipped the event altogether - he showed up, rehashed some old ideas, and left."

On the right, Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters, liked the speech but had his issues - "[t]he meat of the speech impresses me less. I'm a little troubled that he only gave Iran and Syria a passing mention. Iran would be one of the issues on which he could demand bipartisanship, since the Democrats spent the last two electoral cycles complaining that he hadn't done enough about Teheran."

Yeah, well, the worst of it for the right-side folks may have been his nod to the traditionally left causes - jiggering the tax code to let the poor get a cut in the income tax so they could buy health insurance while taxing people who get that at work, calling for mandatory fuel standards and the development of alternative energy sources. Jonathan Adler at the National Review's "The Corner" was grumbling - "Increasing automotive fuel economy standards will do little to offset these additional costs, and will also restrict consumer vehicle choices. I also question the environmental wisdom of artificially increasing the demand for biofuels, which will mean thousands of acres will remain (or be converted to) crop production that would otherwise revert to (or remain in) wildlife habitat."

Is no one happy? John Dickerson said here that Bush had "the posture of an unhurried man" -

    He offered some blah proposals and he appealed to the common purpose of America, but that was all. Bush was not confrontational, as he was in the 2006 SOTU, but he sacrificed nothing. He called on everyone to cross the aisle, but showed no intention of doing so himself. And on the crucial issue of the day - the Iraq troop surge - he delivered another rebuke to his opponents. This is the posture of an unhurried man. It is easy to take him at his word when he says he is not concerned about his legacy.

    Bush's most important request of the night was for more time to let his Iraq strategy work. Yet while he was asking for support, he was also showing who (he believes) is boss. He made it clear that his surge was already under way and pressured Democrats. "I ask you to support our troops in the field - and those on their way," he said. He was playing hardball because Democrats are terrified of being on the wrong side of the troop issue but when he plays hardball on the tough issue of the day, he undermines his effort to reach out. Sitting behind him, Nancy Pelosi had lost the teary-eyed look she wore at the start of the speech. She looked like she was biting down hard enough to crack a molar.

Fred Kaplan called the speech 'maddening' -

    What is most head-shaking of all is that, after four years of this war, the president once more fell short of making its case. As in the past, he said that it's very important - "a decisive ideological struggle," he called it, adding, "nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed." And yet he also said that America's commitment to the war is "not open-ended." How can both claims be true? If nothing is more important, it must be open-ended. If it's not open-ended, it can't be all that important.

    One reason he can't argue for it is that it's not clear he understands it. "The Shi'a and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat," he said. "Whatever slogans they chant ... they have the same wicked purpose. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East." He still seems to view the ever-mounting violence as reflecting a struggle between good and evil, freedom and tyranny. He fails to grasp the sectarian nature of the fight. (Does he really believe that the Shiites and Sunnis are the same - or that, besides the small minority of al-Qaida, they're "totalitarian" in nature?)

    He then said, "Americans can have confidence in the outcome of this struggle because we are not in this struggle alone. We have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism."

    This is mind-boggling. The largest "coalition" partner, Great Britain, plans to pull out by the end of the year. Most of the others have long since vanished. There is, clearly, no "diplomatic strategy," no "rallying" to recruit others to the fight. A diplomatic strategy and energetic leadership are precisely what everyone is waiting for. They are what President Bush once more failed to offer tonight.

Oh well. He had to say something. Jacob Weisberg's assessment was there was a sense of "overall limpness" -

    For the last six years, George W. Bush has treated Congress the way he treats the United Nations, the press, and most of his own Cabinet secretaries - as an unavoidable (and entirely useless) irritant. Despite running for president in 2000 on the strength of his ability to forge compromise with the Democratic-controlled legislature in Texas when he was governor, he has for the better part of six years treated the people's representatives with barely veiled contempt. Once established in the White House, Bush "the Uniter" quickly became Bush "the Decider." In the Bush Constitution, as opposed to the U.S. Constitution, the executive "leads" and the judiciary "defers." The legislature's role is to swiftly grant the president what he demands.

    Before last night, this imperious attitude resounded through all Bush's speeches to Congress. His previous State of the Union addresses each represented attempts - more successful than not in the first term, more unsuccessful than not in the second - to impose his will on Washington and the world. The administration's attitude toward congressional challenge was perhaps best summed up by Dick Cheney's famous suggestion to Pat Leahy of Vermont on the Senate floor: "Fuck yourself."

    It would be foolhardy to think that Bush's true feelings have changed. Until the day he leaves office, he will continue to regard members of Congress as meddlesome Lilliputians trying to tie him down. But the reality is that they have tied him down. Faced with an assertive and so far remarkably effective Democratic Congress - and with no supportive public to turn to - Bush has to suppress his arrogant and bullying style as best he can. He is in no position any longer to dictate terms.

So he did suppress his "decider" exuberance. No new tax cuts, no announcement that the bombing of Iran had begun, with nuclear weapons. And there was nothing on abortion or gay marriage - no calls to make each a federal crime and all that. And of course there was no mention of what used to be New Orleans.

So what was new this time, perhaps, was the toothless nature of the whole thing. It was a restaurant thing, but not like the fanciful Douglas Adams restaurant.  It was more the mantra of places like Denny's and Applebee's - "Offend the Most people the Least."   It's a proven market strategy.  It's just boring.

And anyway, people wanted to know more about where we're going with this war in Iraq.  That was the big issue. He could have said the government was giving everyone a free hybrid Prius and free health insurance and chocolate cookies for life, and it wouldn't have mattered. There was only one issue.

Juan Cole, the Middle East scholar at the University of Michigan, offers a detailed analysis of how that issue got muddled.

Bush - "Yet one question has surely been settled - that to win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy."

Cole -

    Actually, it is unclear what "taking the fight to the enemy" means in Bush's ill-conceived "war on terror." He is probably still trying to sneak Iraq into the struggle against al-Qaeda through the back door. If so, that dog won't hunt. By launching an unprovoked and illegal war of aggression on a major Arab Muslim country, Bush hasn't "carried the fight to the enemy" but has rather dishonored the 9/11 dead by using their killings as a pretext to carry out his own preconceived and Ahab-like plans to "take out" Saddam Hussein. Nothing could be better calculated to increase the threat of terrorism against the United States than an attempt militarily to occupy Iraq, with all the repression and torture it has entailed. And, if Bush was so good at taking the fight to the enemy, why is Ayman al-Zawahiri still free to taunt him by videotape. Al-Zawahiri was a major force behind the September 11 attacks. Why is he at large?

    Bush then claims some successes in breaking up terror plots. But these plots were broken up by old-fashioned detective and intelligence work, with some substantial dependence on our allies. It has even been suggested that Bush broke the news about the alleged airplane liquids plot in the UK before British intelligence was ready for it to become public. In any case, it is hard to see what these counter-terrorism successes have to do with his expansion of the US military or his quixotic war in Iraq.

The issue is whether we have to be at war. Cole puts it bluntly. Couldn't we just be vigilant and do good counter-terrorism.

Bush - "What every terrorist fears most is human freedom - societies where men and women make their own choices, answer to their own conscience, and live by their hopes instead of their resentments. Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies - and most will choose a better way when they are given a chance. So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates, reformers, and brave voices for democracy. The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security we must."

Cole -

    First of all, "terrorists" are just political activists who commit violence against noncombatants. Lots of political movements have used this technique including some whose goal was liberal democracy. So it simply is not true that all those who deploy terror have the same goals.

    Second, people in capitalist democracies resort to terrorism all the time. Indeed, the most horrific regime of modern times, that of the Nazis, came out of the liberal parliamentary Weimar Republic and was elected to office. The Baader-Meinhoff gang in liberal West Germany, the Japanese Red Army, the McVeigh-Nichols "Christian Identity" terrorism in Oklahoma-- all of these examples prove Bush's premise wrong.

    And, even if it were the case that capitalist democracies don't produce terrorism (which it is not), Bush cannot spread democracy in the Middle East by his so-far favored military means. Ask any Middle Easterner if he or she would like to have a situation such as prevails in Iraq. They will say, if that is democracy I want none of it. Bush has actively pushed the Middle Eastern publics away from democracy for an extra generation or two.

Bush - "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in. Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory."

Cole -

    Puh-lease. Spare us the Rumsfeldisms. Either we are in charge or we are helpless leaves being blown by the wind of the enemy. If we aren't in charge, then we have already lost.

    As for the idea that we still have the power to shape the outcome, that is contradicted by his previous admission that we have been maneuvered into a different kind of war that we hadn't planned on. We couldn't shape the outcome, which is why the war is going badly. We cannot now shape the outcome by main force. We have to negotiate, with the insurgents and with Iran and Syria, if we are to avoid a catastrophe.

And as for the administration's new strategy in Iraq -

    You don't have a new strategy. You may have some new tactics, but that remains to be seen. Iraq's government in any case has already rejected the idea that it must meet artificial US 'benchmarks.' And, the "government" is anyway weak and divided. Most of the major political figures are linked to guerrilla or militia groups. It cannot stop the fighting because its members provoke the fighting.

Bush - "If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shi'a extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country - and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective."

Cole -

    Yes, Mr. Bush, and you are the one who got us into this mess. Nor can you get us back out by 'staying the course' or with a mere 21,500 further troops. Any other ideas how to extract us from the dilemma?

There's much more at the link. It's a bit devastating.

The attorney and diplomat Gregory Djerejian has more to say -

    This SOTU felt like something of a requiem. It was almost painful to watch. Like, say, Jacques Chirac, the President seemed a dead man walking. The domestic policy part, despite some initiatives of arguable import (energy conservation, health insurance), reeked of half-hearted delivery, a sense that little of it would come to fruition, in short, that it was mere filler/prologue. Put simply, Bush's heart wasn't in the domestic policy section (and Cheney even mischievously winked to the gallery during one of the reduction in energy usage parts). None of it was truly convincing, in the least.

    Then Bush transitioned to foreign policy (after the obligatory homeland security boiler-plate), the lynch-pin of his Presidency, and how his legacy will largely be determined. And of this section, what can one say? His tactical political goal was clear, stop the hemorrhaging in support of Republicans on the Hill. Might he have swayed a Norm Coleman, say, to stay on the reservation and support Plus-Up? Maybe, but it was weak fare, a recitation of much that had been said before, and nothing I heard tonight gave any additional faith that injection of 17,500 troops into a raging civil war in the capital city of Iraq will change the direction of the conflict absent massive crisis management with all the key neighbors via a diplomatic offensive led by a chief diplomat of real caliber (if one were available).

    There was also the obnoxious trotting out of thinly veiled 'flypaper' fear mongering, and the equally obnoxious presentation to Congress of something of a fait accompli with regard to the so-called "surge." We also heard the "victory" word, a Panglossian fantasy at this stage. And worrisome, we saw more hyper-simplistic narratives being bandied about (the Middle East reduced to an evil duo of Sunni extremists allied with al-Qaeda, and Shi'a extremists managed out of Mullah Central in Teheran), showcasing yet again this Administration's gross inability to grapple with the complexities and ambiguities of the region (for instance, Sadr is not but an Iranian agent, as most regional specialists well realize, given his Iraqi nationalist stripes).

He rather liked the Democratic response from the newly elected James Webb -

    I want to share with all of you a picture that I have carried with me for more than 50 years. This is my father, when he was a young Air Force captain, flying cargo planes during the Berlin Airlift. He sent us the picture from Germany, as we waited for him, back here at home. When I was a small boy, I used to take the picture to bed with me every night, because for more than three years my father was deployed, unable to live with us full-time, serving overseas or in bases where there was no family housing. I still keep it, to remind me of the sacrifices that my mother and others had to make, over and over again, as my father gladly served our country. I was proud to follow in his footsteps, serving as a Marine in Vietnam. My brother did as well, serving as a Marine helicopter pilot. My son has joined the tradition, now serving as an infantry Marine in Iraq.

    Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons, but because we love our country. On the political issues - those matters of war and peace, and in some cases of life and death - we trusted the judgment of our national leaders. We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm's way.

    We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.

    The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable - and predicted - disarray that has followed.

    The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

    The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.

Djerejian says that business about how we were owed "sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it" is why the Bush Presidency is dead -

    His Administration violated this basic duty, and can no longer be afforded our trust, our faith, our support. The Bush Presidency is something of a damage control exercise now, as we run out the clock to January 2009. It's over, in short (the risk of an epoch-shaping blunder in Iran aside), though as an American praying for us to salvage something from the Iraq wreckage, I can only hope against hope that Petraeus can work a miracle against all odds, despite my massive doubts about whether our surge-lite strategy in Baghdad can succeed.

This is odd, and new.  The Democrats trotted out a guy who used to be a Republican, who was Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, a highly decorated marine, a major novelist, who has a son fighting in Iraq, to say what no one else had the guts to say - "Mister President, you betrayed us."

Now that was new.

And the day after the speech - Senate Committee Repudiates Bush On Iraq - "In a calculated snub of President Bush, the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee dismissed plans for a troop buildup in Iraq on Wednesday as 'not in the national interest' of the United States."  The vote was 12-9 and the resolution goes to the Senate floor next week.  It basically says this is a really bad idea, and you can do it, but you shouldn't.  It's a matter of going on record, and how the Vietnam War started to wind down.

One of the other decorated war veterans in the Senate, Chuck Hagel - the Republican from Nebraska - was on fire during the run up to that vote. You can watch the video or note the transcript -

    I don't know how many United States senators believe we have a coherent strategy in Iraq. I don't think we've ever had a coherent strategy. In fact, I would even challenge the administration today to show us the plan that the president talked about the other night. There is no plan. I happen to know Pentagon planners were on their way to the Central Com over the weekend. They haven't even team B'ed this plan.

    And my dear friend Dick Lugar talks about coherence of strategy. There is no strategy. This is a ping-pong game with American lives. These young men and women that we put in Anbar province, in Iraq, in Baghdad are not beans. They're real lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder. We better be as sure as you can be.

    And I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 senators to look in that camera, and you tell your people back home what you think. Don't hide anymore; none of us. That is the essence of our responsibility. And if we're not willing to do it, we're not worthy to be seated right here. We fail our country. If we don't debate this, if we don't debate this, we are not worthy of our country. We fail our country.

    I don't question the president's sincerity, his motivations in this. I never have. Nor anyone in his administration.

    This president is sincere about what he said last night. He believes this is the right thing to do. I happen to disagree.

    This resolution, by the way, does not tie the hands of the president of the United States. It does not tie the hands of the president of the United States in any way.

    Part of the problem that we have, I think, is because we didn't - we didn't involve the Congress in this when we should have.

    And I'm to blame. Every senator who's been here the last four years has to take some responsibility for that.

    But I will not sit here in this Congress of the United States at this important time for our country and in the world and not have something to say about this. And maybe I'll be wrong. And maybe I have no political future. I don't care about that.

    But I don't ever want to look back and have the regret that I didn't have the courage and I didn't do what I could to at least project something.

With Webb and Hagel speaking like this (Webb tossed out the speech the Democratic National Committee gave him and wrote his own, while Hagel is speaking off-the cuff), the president (speaking words carefully assembled by his staff and tweaked for all possible demographics) should have just lingered awhile longer at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe - watching the world end, again and again.  His has ended.

This item posted - in its final version - January 28, 2007

[The State of Things]

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