May 23, 2003

Thought Experiment Redux

An answer has now been provided to the question I raised in “Thought Experiment” of February 24, 2003. NASA officials had insisted that the question of whether Columbia was fatally damaged was moot, as no rescue was possible. Associated Press reported today, however, that the board investigating the shuttle accident put my question to NASA, namely: had it been known that the shuttle was fatally damaged, could a rescue mission have been mounted? According to AP, “NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said he would have strongly considered sending Atlantis to the astronauts’ rescue, even if it meant losing another shuttle and crew.”

May 22, 2003

Random Thoughts on Iraq

The U.N. Security Council is about to vote on removing sanctions on Iraq. The resolution on the table has been revised to make it more acceptable to Russia, France, and others. It is to be hoped that this resolution moves forward the process of making Iraq whole. A big job is before us. Here are some random thoughts about it.

Why didn’t we immediately declare martial law in Iraq? There was surely no doubt that we would win the war because we couldn’t afford to lose it. (Had it been necessary to destroy the country in order to save it, we would have done that.) We therefore knew that we would have to maintain order, lest Iraq descend into anarchy. Unfortunately, we seem to have decided to cross that bridge when we came to it, and we assumed that rebuilding the government wouldn’t have to be done from scratch. We are now dealing with such foreseeable questions as the degree to which we will allow Baath Party members to be part of any future government. While we are figuring out what to do next, the country has been busily tearing itself apart and organizing religious parties that seek to create a new Iran (or Afghanistan). People should have been kept in their houses and, for the moment, prevented from demonstrating (and perhaps even from meeting). Arguably, we didn’t have enough troops to enforce martial law, and certainly didn’t have enough MPs. Why not? We are now sending troops home! The President seems eager to put a government in place in Iraq and to seem to be doing something about the deteriorating U.S. economy, so he can be re-elected in 2004. Will we install a government and leave, only to see it become an Islamic theocracy after a “decent interval”? Surely, we don’t want to see a Vietnam-like withdrawal from a war that we actually won!

What about OPEC? We have at least four reasons to ignore OPEC and its quotas. The first reason, of course, is that the OPEC cartel restrains free trade. (Could the WTO move against OPEC? I don’t know.) Second, we need all the funds we can get to rebuild Iraq, and maximizing oil revenue seems to be the way to get them. Third, selling more oil at lower prices will lower the cost of gasoline in the U.S. This is good for Americans and would seem to be a great boon to Mr. Bush’s election prospects (well, that isn’t a good thing). Finally, if the Iraqi deals with Russia are honored—they should be, as should all Iraqi foreign debt—telling OPEC to go to hell will result in more revenue for the Russians. They need the money, and this will buy the U.S. some goodwill. Spurning OPEC will confirm the suspicions of everyone who thought this war was all about oil, but even those people will reap benefits. Of course, the President may not want to offend OPEC because doing so will be unpopular in Arab countries and because Big Oil probably secretly likes OPEC (doesn’t mind it anyway), which keeps prices relatively stable.

The administration has a genuine problem of deciding how much authority it can allow the U.N. to have in Iraqi affairs. The need to improve our reputation among the world’s nations argues for giving the U.N. a significant role in rebuilding Iraq, yet American wariness is not simply paranoia. In fact, the Oil for Food program was run badly, resulting in illicit gains for Saddam Hussein and for unscrupulous foreign “merchants.” We will be tempted to take responsibility for the “important” tasks ourselves (installing a government) and to leave the less glamorous tasks to the U.N. (food relief). We justifiably will be chastised for this. Perhaps a more ideal division of labor would be for us to manage everything, farming out some work to others, and to have the U.N. monitor everything. Responsibility for some tasks would be assigned to the U.N. As manager, we would oversee this work, but some other country should assume the external monitor role. The smart money is not on my plan.

In the short run, no truly democratic process in Iraq is going to produce the outcome we would prefer, namely a western-style liberal democracy. Our government is not acting as if it believes this, however, which is worrisome. For appearances’ sake, we are eager to get an indigenous government (or a quasi-indigenous one, if exiles are to be involved) up and running, so we can extract ourselves sooner, rather than later (by September 2004, say). This approach is not promising. Imposing a constitution, as MacArthur did on Japan (see “The Next Battle for Iraq”) might work, though Iraq is not the homogeneous nation that Japan was after World War II, and the lawgiver’s task is arguably more difficult. I recommend instead temporary military rule and a lot of education. For now, no program of education is in sight.

May 15, 2003

Constituent Services

Three weeks ago, I sent e-mail messages to my congressman, to my own senators, and to Republican Senators Snowe and Voinovich, who were objecting to the size of President Bush's tax cut proposal. To each, I expressed the view that, as far as tax cuts are concerned, less is more, and my preference would actually be to rescind the massive cuts enacted at the beginning of Mr. Bush’s term. Today, I received my first letter in response to these messages. It was from Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

As most people know, Mr. Santorum is one of the most partisan, right wing ideologues in Congress. I did not expect him to be much affected by my message, but I wanted him to know that this constituent, anyway, did not agree with him. From experience, I know that Senator Santorum answers his mail. In fact, I received a 2-1/2 page letter. I expected that this would be something of a standard letter—no senator has time to compose 2-1/2 pages of personal response to every letter received. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the senator’s response. The letter began:

Thank you for contacting me regarding congressional and presidential efforts to strengthen American’s economy. I appreciate hearing from you and having the benefit of your views.
This is a fair opening. The senator then provided 11 paragraphs of explanation of how he and President Bush are working to bring the benefits of the President’s tax cut proposal to the people. The letter concluded with:

I appreciate hearing your specific comments on the current condition of the economy, and as the 108th Congress continues I will be sure to keep your views in mind. If I can be of further assistance to you on this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to call on me again.
Nowhere does the senator acknowledge that I expressed a view diametrically opposed to his own. A reader of his reply might reasonably conclude that I had written a letter in praise of his enlightened leadership and wise policy positions. Obviously, Senator Santorum does not give a damn about what any constituent thinks. Did anyone in his office even bother to tabulate my note as a dissenting one?

The senator is in good company among Republicans, of course. Like President Bush, Senator Santorum knows what he knows and has no need to measure his views against reality. Also, like President Bush, he could learn a thing or two about respecting—or evening pretending to respect—the views of others.

[Senator Rick Santorum figures in another of my essays. Read Rick’s Fix in Commentary.

May 13, 2003

Chicken or Egg?

I find myself constantly asking what has happened to the Democrats. Where is the Loyal Opposition? Is everyone in the party brain dead? Do Democrats no longer have any ideas of their own? Why don’t they just come out and say that George W. Bush is a reckless cowboy who stole the Presidency, conducts foreign policy with the subtlety of Attila the Hun, who is running the country for the benefit of his rich cronies, and who doesn’t give a damn about the average American or about civil liberties? Isn’t this obvious to anyone who isn’t in a coma?

Joe Klein, in his latest report in Time, “How to Build a Better Democrat,” has some good suggestions to help Democratic candidates get noticed (recapture the flag, lose the frown, kill the consultants). He neglected to point out the Catch-22 that seems to restrain the Democrats, however. They are reluctant to criticize President Bush because he is so popular. But Mr. Bush’s popularity is enhanced by the fact that there are so few credible, national voices opposing him. When the opposition party does not take on the President, people conclude that our leader must be doing things right and deserves our support. The result is that his popularity increases, and the Democrats become ever more timid. By the time George W. Bush ruins the country, there may not even be a Democratic Party to pick up the pieces!

The Democrats should immediately begin a program of truth telling. When the President does or says something of which they approve, they should say so. In this case, some measure of the President’s popularity may actually rub off on them. When the President does something damnable, however, his policies should be attacked unmercifully. Democrats will take some abuse for this from the Republican right, from the columnists, and from the radio talk show hosts. Eventually, however, people will begin listening to that wee small voice in their heads that has been telling them all along that something is seriously wrong in the land, that perhaps the nakedness of the Emperor is really an indication that he has no clothes on. Especially should the Democrats not let President Bush get away with claiming the moral high ground when he is being most partisan, while accusing the Democrats of partisanship whenever they express even the mildest disapproval.

What comes first, decreased presidential popularity or an atmosphere in which it is easy to criticize the President? The answer is the former. Unless the Democrats are willing to attack a popular President, however, that President will remain popular, and neither expressing dissent nor winning elections will become any easier.

May 12, 2003

Bucking the Odds

President George W. Bush’s dramatic tail-hook landing on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for a “victory” speech has been much criticized as an expensive political stunt. Surprisingly, the President has avoided the abuse heaped upon presidential candidate Michael Dukakis some years ago after that candidate donned military uniform and helmet to pilot a tank. The consensus then was that Mr. Dukakis merely looked silly. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has been accused of looking too military in a country where civilians are supposed to be in change, but he otherwise played his Karl-Rove–scripted part quite well.

Allow me to offer another objection. I believe that the President of the United States needlessly (and recklessly) endangered his health and safety by landing as he did on the Abraham Lincoln (and perhaps by training for the landing as well). Mr. Bush apparently felt that the risk was acceptable, given the potential political gain. Citizens, however, can reasonably have a different view. The trauma associated with presidential injury or death is simply too great to justify taking unnecessary chances with a President’s life.

George W. Bush has led a charmed life. His family name has given him opportunities that ordinary people seldom get, even if, unlike Mr. Bush, they work hard for them. His father’s friends have always been there to bail out Mr. Bush from his business failures. And his stubborn political determination has won him victory after victory—including the capture of the Office of the President itself—when any rational evaluation of the odds would have indicated caution.

On the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush dodged yet another bullet. Some day, however, his luck will run out. When that happens, I pray that it is Mr. Bush, his family, and the Republican Party, not the citizens of the United States or the inhabitants of the planet, who will pay for his exalted sense of invincibility. In the end, probability cannot be denied. If the President continues to bet the farm at every turn, his eventual downfall is assured.

May 7, 2003

All New

Have you noticed that television networks have taken to describing upcoming episodes of their shows as “all new”? (For example, “an all new ER.”) What does that mean? Have we unknowingly been watching programs containing stock footage and scenes aired previously, that is, shows only partly new? Perhaps “all new” is supposed to mean “new to everyone,” a distinction necessitated by NBC’s introduction of the slogan “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” of a few years back.

Actually, “all” is probably just a meaningless intensifier dreamed up by some PR type trying to be original. That “all new” episode of ER no doubt uses the same actors playing the same characters on the same sets as earlier ones and is produced by the same people and filmed by the same crew. All new? Hardly!