State of the Union

Parsing “cruel and unusual.”

The four torture memos the Obama administration has promised to release are online in PDF.

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From Carter and Reagan to Callaghan and Thatcher

TAC continues to think critically about the legacies of Jimmy Carter (not as bad as commonly supposed) and Ronald Reagan (who wasn’t a neocon, but may have been an Emersonian — see Richard Gamble’s essay in the forthcoming issue). Across the Atlantic, there’s an even more symbolically potent divide between the Harold Wilson/Jim Callaghan era and the Thatcher years. High Tories have always disliked Thatcher’s commercial reconstruction of Great Britain, and over time even many of her erstwhile supporters have revised their view of her. Today there’s a great vogue for “Red Toryism,” although its chief proponents seem to be more red than Tory. (I’m reminded of ill-advised dalliance of some American traditionalists with Amitai Etzioni-style “communitarians” in the early 1990s.)

I sympathize with some of Thatcher’s critics. But I wonder whether the trend of recognizing Thatcherism’s deficiencies is not obscuring just what a social-economic basket case Britain was before Thatcher. A recent piece in the Guardian looks back at some late ’70s novels to remember what kind of society that was:

To many novelists, Britain seemed undeniably in decay, ageing and falling apart. Graham Greene’s late fable Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980), a tale of corruption and money, includes a vignette in an “English Pub” in Geneva. An Englishman addresses a barman. “‘Get many English customers?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Why? I would have thought …’ ‘They have no money.’ He was a Swiss and not forthcoming.” Belief in British decrepitude usually emerged less directly. It can’t be an accident that three of the shortlisted titles for the Booker prize in 1977 were studies of old age, and both Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and Paul Scott’s Staying On are about more than the individual situation. They seem to present images of Englishness as mad, impoverished, desperate and mean. Four very different colleagues reach retirement in Pym’s bleak novel, and find themselves wrecked in a new landscape of social workers and tinned food. Scott’s couple, similarly, are beached in a post-independence India with no options, and find their Englishness has no meaning any more. In other novels of the time, such as Paul Bailey’s Old Soldiers (1980), personal ageing is linked to an ageing and helpless Britishness. The chair of the Booker judges in 1977, Philip Larkin, had written extensively and despairingly of the betrayals of nation and empire, as he saw it, by successive governments, and must have seen in these studies of decrepitude his own larger beliefs.

Piers Paul Read, in A Married Man (1979), had his hero dwell on “the squalor around him – the listless slut serving tea behind the counter. It is a sign of a nation’s decline, he thought, that its people no longer take the trouble to dress themselves decently or keep themselves clean.” The urgency of the situation, for Read, sends his writing into areas well beyond the novel’s traditional concerns, and his characters engage in fierce debate about trade union responsibility, his hero’s finances and expenses strictly specified. “He was taxed by governments determined that if they were unable to make the poor any richer, they could at least impoverish the rich … Thus the state was his greatest expense.” Read doesn’t exaggerate: taxation at the time had a top rate of 83% on earned and 98% on unearned income.

Read on.

The Right on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to get beyond Reagan and Thatcher, but to go back to the welfarism of an LBJ or Nixon, or a Ted Heath or Harold Wilson, would not be an improvement.

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Subversive Thoughts for April 15

The New York Times takes note of Sean Scallon’s recent TAC essay oon the conservative side of Jimmy Carter. He was no Wilhelm Roepke, of course, but Carter’s “malaise” speech included some quite Roepkian socio-economic ideas. Scallon’s story, as well as Dermot Quinn’s new essay on Roepke, is a timely reminder of the “demand” side to our economic crisis. The American public has been led by politicians over the last several decades to expect everything for nothing–easy credit, oceans of oil, limitless growth, low taxes, and an extensive welfare state. And of course, the world’s biggest military. (See Jeff Huber’s “Sticker Shock and Awe.”)

Having written the largest check of my life to the IRS a few days ago, I’m as ready for a tax revolt as anyone. (There I go being a right-wing extremist again.) But there are social and spiritual dimensions to our woes as well as purely economic and political ones, as the Scallon and Quinn pieces show.

Speaking of right-wing extremism, if you haven’t yet read Philip Jenkins’s “Terror Begins at Home,” perhaps the most prophetic essay of the year, be sure to do so. Jenkins recounts the 60-year history of hysteria about domestic terrorism under Democratic administrations.

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Poppy Palaces

“Poppy Palaces” — sounds perversely lyrical, echoes of the Wizard of Oz, but in the land of Afghanistan, ancient and epic as it is, the witch is not dead and so far, the happy ending is nowhere in sight.

Poppy Palaces, or Poppy Houses — cynically crafted in modern “narcotecture” — inhabit the space (geographically, the hilltop neighborhood of Sherpur) now reserved for a filthy rich class of Kabul suburbanites who seem to have largely slipped past the sluggish lens of the western mainstream media. As consumers of neatly packaged images, we know all about the Afghan tribal warlord, the Afghan Taliban, the poor rural Afghan, the poor urban Afghan — we hardly hear of the rising middle class Afghan. Particularly those nouveau riche with their garish indulgences a few miles away from what can only be described as the trans-generational wreckage of the Afghan soul.

But it is their very existence — familiar to us or not — that threatens to drain every single penny we have put into Afghanistan or are willing to commit to make that country whole again. They are the new landed gentry — on property  seized after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban  — occupying a gated community fashioned with the spoils of a drug trade that courses through the very heart of the central government, security forces, the parliament and emerging merchant class.

From Dexter Filkins, NYT, in January: “Nowhere is the scent of corruption so strong as in the Kabul neighborhood of Sherpur. Before 2001, it was a vacant patch of hillside that overlooked the stately neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan. Today it is the wealthiest enclave in the country, with gaudy, grandiose mansions that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Afghans refer to them as “poppy houses.” Sherpur itself is often jokingly referred to as “Char-pur,” which literally means “City of Loot.”

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about Sherpur is that many of the homeowners are government officials, whose annual salaries would not otherwise enable them to live here for more than a few days.”

Discussions over the $4 billion drug trade in Afghanistan have largely revolved around its use as a cash cow for insurgents, particularly Taliban and Al Qaeda. Solving the problem has been fixed mostly on NATO-led military eradication efforts and helping poor Afghan farmers shift to (less lucrative) alternative crops like wheat and fruit. The latter is what  “Special Envoy” Richard Holbrooke was all about when he demanded a total “rethink” of the drug problem in a briefing with reporters in Brussels late last month. In his words, the $800 million investment in eradication so far has been a waste. We need to “re-program that money, about 160 million of it is for alternative livelihoods, and we would like to increase that.”

Forget the Taliban for a moment. It is becoming clearer by the day that such eradication efforts — whether it be arresting drug lords and the razing of crops, or the softer touch, giving out seeds and teaching farmers new ways — are in sharp conflict with Afghanistan’s powerful elite, its government and burgeoning bourgeoisie. Do we really expect our increased commitment to resourcing “alternative livelihoods” to get much farther than Kabul? And if so, have any lasting effect in this merciless social and political reality? Read More…

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Evil, Evil Everywhere

Rich Lowry describing his new thriller, Banquo’s Ghosts“: “Well, think of an episode of ’24’ written by Proust.” (He might have recalled his beau ideal’s Remembrance of Things Past before entitling his recent National Review cover piece on Afghanistan “The War That Hasn’t Been Tried.”)

Apparently the cliffhanger goes something like this: Evil Iranian scientist is developing nukes. Banquo, a “forgotten” former CIA officer, enlists a “dissolute, morally bankrupt liberal news journalist” to travel to Tehran to kill the evil scientist. (Pay no mind to the rumpled oxford; secretly scribblers have mad cloak and dagger skills.) In a shocking twist, the plot fails, and DMBLNJ is tortured. Aided by “the battle-hardened Marjorie Morningstar,” Banquo gets him back, and together they lead a team of federal agents to head off an Iranian nuclear attack on Manhattan. When the formerly DMBL, now heroic, journo’s only daughter is kidnapped by the Iranians, “he and Banquo must race against time to save her … and the City of New York.”

No word on how it ends (though I hear that a certain contributing editor has been allowing Proust for the Hannitized to keep him up nights). Perhaps hundreds of thousands of soldiers are plunged into a desert quagmire only to find that the evildoers aren’t hoarding dangerous weapons after all. But that would probably be too unrealistic–even for fiction.

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VD Hanson: Killing Pirates Isn’t Enough–Let’s Kill Civilians, Too

Ships with cargo worth many millions of dollars are sailing through waters adjacent the poorest inhabited continent on the planet. And they’re doing so without armed guards. What do you think is going to happen? The only remarkable thing about the Somali piracy so far is that no hostages have been killed. If you drove an unguarded Brinks truck loaded with $10 million or so in cash at a leisurely clip through, say, Gary, Indiana, much worse would befall you. The brigandage plaguing the Gulf of Aden is serious but hardly anything to get hysterical about. Basic private-security efforts should be sufficient to control Somali privacy.

Classicist-turned-propagandist Victor Davis Hanson, however, has apparently never stubbed a toe without wanting to amputate a leg–and somebody else’s, at that. He doesn’t just crave a war on pirates, at National Review Online he calls for “disproportionate measures” (his words) that would involving slaughtering Somali civilians in large numbers. Take it away, VD:

Pompey’s victories over the Cilician pirates, the Venetian clean-up of the Mediterranean sea-lanes, and the British success in stopping Caribarrean piracy were all predicated on going ashore, destroying the docks, headquarters, and homes of the pirates. To end Somali piracy, disproportionate measures against the shore should be taken—for every one pirate assault, a lethal air assault should immediately follow.

A lethal air assault on what? VD knows there isn’t a nice isolated buccaneer cove with a bar marked “Pirate Shack–Bomb Here.” He would kill women and in children in retaliation for what a gang of street-criminals-on-the-waves gets up to. Hanson is the Ward Churchill of the neocons: civilian deaths mean nothing in themselves to him, they’re just fuel for his power fantasies — sinners on the wrong side of progress.

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Why Europe Won’t Fight

“No one will say this publicly, but the true fact is we are all talking about our exit strategy from Afghanistan. We are getting out. It may take a couple of years, but we are all looking to get out.”

Thus did a “senior European diplomat” confide to The New York Times during Obama’s trip to Strasbourg.

Europe is bailing out on us. Afghanistan is to be America’s war.

During what the Times called a “fractious meeting,” NATO agreed to send 3,000 troops to provide security during the elections and 2,000 to train Afghan police. Thin gruel beside Obama’s commitment to double U.S. troop levels to 68,000.

Why won’t Europe fight?

Because Europe sees no threat from Afghanistan and no vital interest in a faraway country where NATO Europeans have not fought since the British Empire folded its tent long ago. Read More…

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Wartime Mental Health, Scandal and Stigma

Nearly a year ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that eliminating the stigma of mental health from the military culture would be a Pentagon priority. Seeing that some one-third of soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are reporting mental health symptoms, particularly those associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hearing him say, “We have no higher priority in the Department of Defense, apart from the war itself, than taking care of our men and women in uniform who have been wounded — who have both visible and unseen wounds,” was at the very least, an institutional  acknowledgment of the problem.

Good intentions and politically correct language aside, like most of what we see and hear in Washington, his words papered over and have yet to affect a cruel reality, one with which only a small percentage of Americans have any real familiarity. Perhaps with the help of investigative reporters Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, who have been producing some amazing work for Salon.com, we can all get up to speed.

Through their recent “Coming Home” series, Benjamin and de Yoanna discover that stigma is only the first cut (but a terribly deep and potentially fatal one, considering the growing suicide and murder rates among recent veterans). Then comes the twist of the knife, when mental health is used against active duty soldiers, for example, when they are punished or even dishonorably discharged for a “personality disorder” instead of correctly diagnosed and treated for PTSD or worse, TBI (traumatic brain injury), resulting in a gross reduction of post-service medical and financial benefits for themselves and their families.

Then there are the soldiers who brave the stigma to seek care and, according to a series of interviews by the Salon.com reporters and related investigations, are deliberately misdiagnosed, again, to avoid the expense to the military down the road. Both intrepid patients and reporters seem to have — with the help of whistle blowers in the medical community and interested congressional lawmakers — uncovered enough testimony to argue there is a systematic problem, and in reality, it is a heartbreaking scandal, despite continued denials from the Army.

Another thing to keep in mind is we’re not only talking about PTSD victims. Nearly two million men and women have so far served in Afghanistan and in Iraq — and about 20 percent of them have incurred a head injury, according to a recent DoD study. Seeing that, depending on the degree of TBI, residual damage can manifest itself in many of the same symptoms as PTSD (depression, anxiety, severe moodswings and rage), we ask how many of these soldiers and veterans are being shuffled off by military psychologists with the wrong diagnoses, perhaps penalized for their behavior, and how many more are suffering silently, the victims of institutional stigma and neglect?

The perfectly sad thing is that now that the Democrats have arrived on the national security scene, they have seemingly abandoned all their high talk about soldiers put at risk by multiple overseas deployments and egregiously short dwell times. Instead, we have the (long predicted) return of liberal interventionists, who are pretty excited about flexing the military muscle to do for Afghanistan what the Bush Administration could not do, and believe they can achieve, as author and critic Nir Rosen said on Democracy Now! this morning, “the perfect confluence of national security … and American moral obligations.” They promoted the addition some 21,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan this year, and will no doubt advocate for more if they are convinced of the need.

“The Tale of the Secret Army Tape,” the latest in Benjamin and de Yoanna’s “Coming Home” series, takes up the challenge of our public obligation to soldiers and veterans when our representatives and key decision-makers fall down on the job. All signs today sadly indicate, that without a much stronger intervention and committment from Sec. Def. Gates himself, their investigative services will be in demand for quite awhile.

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I Predict a Riot

Tomorrow, there may well be riots in Georgia. Large, thumping riots. Reports suggest that tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have already descend upon Tbilisi to demand the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Georgian government and the Georgian Orthodox church are appealing for calm, and Georgia’s interior minister insists that police will show “maximum tolerance”– a somewhat menacing phrase–toward the protesters. But things look very likely to turn ugly. Saakashvili, for all the respect he commands among western politicians as a knight in shining democratic armor, seems to be increasingly despised by his people. And after his clumsy and stubborn handling of the humiliating war with Russia last year, Georgians are anxious to see him gone.

The key question is: If the unrest Tbilisi spills out of control, what would Russia do? Might the Kremlin, which despises Saakashvili, attempt to intervene? How then would Obama, who last year condemned Russia’s attack on Georgian forces over South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “unacceptable,” respond? Perhaps the first great test of the new administration’s diplomatic adroitness might come not from the Middle East or even the “Af-Pak” region, but from the Caucasus?

This is pure speculation, and who knows? But we can be almost sure that this story is going to develop–if not tomorrow, then someday soon.

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Last Gasps in Someone Else’s War

President Obama’s unscheduled stop in Iraq yesterday not only put Iraq back above the fold, but found reporters and analysts rushing to creatively package it. A popular theme to emerge is that Obama’s brief surprise visit, featuring a speech to U.S troops at Camp Victory outside the airport (sandstorms reportedly prevented him from traveling to the Green Zone or anywhere else in the country) did not symbolize his taking “ownership” of “Bush’s war” but rather underscored that this war, at least U.S participation in it, is coming to an end.

From the Washington Post: As president, he has set in motion a plan to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by late summer 2010. Traveling there Tuesday will draw attention to his commitment to end one of the most unpopular wars in American history, while giving him the opportunity to thank the military personnel for the sacrifices they have made there.

White House officials said the president added Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, to the end of his trip in part because of proximity — it was a short flight from Istanbul to Baghdad. But it allowed the president indirectly to remind voters of a campaign promise largely kept.

Indeed, Obama’s remarks to the troops did emphasize leaving, and by all news accounts, he was well-received (Bush, as one recalls, always was, too. Though the seemingly spontaneous “we love you” from one of the 600 in the crowd yesterday was a nice touch, as was the AP photo featuring commander-in-chief locked in a generous hug with a soldier). But ironically, Obama’s carefully scripted theme (“it is time for us to transfer [control] to the Iraqis … They need to take responsibility for their country”), not only sounded like vintage Bush, but it too, is threatened by increasingly bloody complexities on the ground, much like when Bush would fly in for unscheduled visits to pump up the troops and assure everyone success was on track.

For instance, when asked about the spike in Baghdad violence so far this year (including 46 Iraqis dead and more than 150 wounded due to car bombs in the previous 24 hours alone), Obama appeared just as imperturbable and resolved as Bush to stay on message: “We should not get distracted” by the violence, he told reporters in a joint appearance with Prime Minister Maliki, arguing that “our shared commitment is greater than the obstacles.”

Meanwhile, too, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates seemed uncharacteristically willing to put himself out on a rhetorical limb on Tuesday, suggesting with a whiff of the old guard that the bombings have been the work of al Qaeda in its “last gasp,” even though there has been no official conclusion that al Qaeda was even involved, gasping or otherwise. Some suggest that elements of a Baghdad Awakening Council are to blame (the Sunnis we had on our payroll to fight al Qaeda and who are now fighting openly with our Shiite allies there), while others, like central government officials, see residual Baathists as the convenient culprit. The fact is, while Obama and Gates seem resigned to play it down, most analysts agree that the tension between Sunni “Sons of Iraq” and Maliki’s Shia security forces has created a tinderbox that is increasingly difficult to ignore during this eager countdown to our withdrawal. Read More…

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