hertzbergThis week’s (February 2nd) New Yorker has at least three wonderful surprises. The first is a guest article by the blogosphere’s own Joshua Micah Marshall — he of the Talking Points Memo — entitled Power Rangers: Did the Bush Administration create a new American empire — or weaken the old one. Josh draws some excellent points from history, and shows that the best writers in the blogosphere have the talent to hold their own in the world’s finest magazine.

Second is a long and fascinating report by Jon Lee Anderson on The Candidate (not available online) — based on a series of recent, face-to-face, on-the-ground interviews with the likely first legitimately elected president of post-Saddam Iraq, Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and with several of his supporters, detractors, and informed observers in Iraq. The impressions from Anderson’s report are consistent, and almost the opposite of what the Bush regime is saying, and doing:

  • The American occupying force is increasingly and uniformly despised by a huge majority, and almost every faction, of Iraqis. Iraqis overwhelmingly believe the US has long overstayed its welcome, is now doing far more harm than good, and is going to get embroiled in greater violence and more sustained and broad-based opposition the longer it stays. As one Iraqi put it so well “We are working, but it’s really just playing around as long as the Americans and the British are in charge. It’s like Iraq is a TV and the Americans and the British have the remote control.”
  • All civility that prevailed in the weeks after the war, and all progress achieved in post-Saddam Iraq is credited, rightly or wrongly, to the Iraqis themselves, and especially to the Shia Badr forces. There is an overwhelming sense that the occupying force doesn’t know what they are doing, have grossly inadequate resources to do anything anyway, and are trying to run Iraq on the cheap — no significant investment in labour or cash to rebuild the country. In other words, they are just “in the way” of Iraqis getting on with the job of determining their own future.
  • There is enormous resentment of native Iraqis at what is seen as a paternalistic attitude by the occupiers towards the ability of Iraq to rebuild itself. They feel insulted at Americans’ misperception of Iraqis as anarchic, politically naive, uneducated and under-skilled, the Americans’ foot-dragging in turning over control to an elected Iraqi government, and the lack of consultation with Iraqis in making important decisions affecting Iraq’s future.
  • Whether the occupiers leave now or later, the future will inevitably be violent and divisive. Hakim is guarded in his comments but he makes it absolutely clear that the next government will be a Shia Islamic state, and Anderson’s other interviews make it clear that significant concessions will be made to the Kurds in the North (probably an autonomous Kurdish state, setting the stage for a war with Turkey), and that the Sunnis and Baathists will be caught in the squeeze, put down in a violent civil war, and/or massacred. It’s going to be ugly, but it’s the only way to true constitutional liberalism and democracy, as everyone except the occupiers knows. The pieced-together ‘Governing Council’ is unsustainable and will not hang together. In case there is any doubt about any of this, Anderson quotes one Sunni businessman who says simply the large Baathist and Sunni minority “will accept any Sunni government for Iraq, but no other solution”. There is zero chance of that ‘solution’ coming about.

So let me say it again: The US needs to invest heavily in rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure that it destroyed, let the Iraqis do the rebuilding themselves, can Bremer’s hapless Provisional Authority, and bring the occupying forces home and out of harm’s way now. When will someone running for US office have the courage to stand up and say this? Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?

The best article in the magazine — in fact the best piece of political writing I have read in years — is the incomparable Hendrik Hertzberg’s lead Talk of the Town commentary entitled Unsteady State. This short piece should be compulsory reading in journalism school and for anyone who wants to write for a living, including us bloggers. It’s articulate, packed with brilliantly selected, illuminating examples and anecdotes in support of his arguments, punctuated with creative and memorable turns of phrase, short on adjectives, and savage in its broad and compelling skewering of every aspect of the sorry-ass Bush regime’s three years in power. In just 1200 words, Hertzberg (pictured above) succinctly sums up why so many of us believe that Bush will be remembered in perpetuity as the worst president in American history. Quick, someone sign this guy up to write the Dems’ speeches.

Please read the article, save it (it’s currently online but repeated below in its entirety so you’ll still be able to access it when it disappears into the New Yorker archives). And any time you think you have the stuff to be a world-class editorial writer, compare this article to your best work and be humbled and amazed. This guy is the master.

Unsteady State — by Hendrik Hertzberg

George W. Bush says he wants to go to Mars — a motion that many of his fellow-citizens would heartily second — but he probably doesn’t mean it. The speech in which he announced his ìNew Vision for Space Explorationî was exceedingly vague about how and when the trip was to be made. It did say that in 2015 or maybe in 2020 Americans would be going back to the moon, where they would build a base for ìhuman missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.î An official likened this speech to President Kennedy’s address of May 25, 1961, in which he asked the nation to ìcommit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.î

A week later came Bush’s State of the Union address, the text of which one scans in vain for any mention of Mars, the moon, or space exploration. The subject has already been dropped. (By contrast, Kennedy’s 1962 State of the Union reiterated and discussed the lunar excursion he had proposed eight months before.) Nor is a short attention span the only sign of Bush’s lack of seriousness about his interplanetary venture. There is also its Wal-Mart price tag. The President is asking Congress for an extra two hundred million dollars per year, about what it costs to make a movie like ìWaterworld.î Another couple of billion is to be cannibalized out of the existing space budget. This kind of money will get no one to Mars, but that isn’t to say that Bush’s project will yield no results. It has already led to the cancellation of maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s most scientifically valuable project, which means that the Hubble will go blind in three or four yearsí time. Bush’s ìNew Visionî is a sharp stick in the eye.

Polls published between the two Bush speeches revealed a distinct lack of public enthusiasm for the President’s space proposal, and it will be surprising if he mentions it again anytime soon. But ìMars,î ìthe moon,î and ìspaceî are not the only words missing in action from the State of the Union. So are ìunemployment,î ìaids,î and ìthe environment.î ìDeficitî makes but a single appearance, as part of an utterly unconvincing, detail-free assertion that the gigantic budget shortfalls with which Bush has replaced the surpluses he inherited can be halved in five years if Congress would just ìfocus on priorities.î

The word ìwar,î on the other hand, makes a dozen appearances in the speech, while ìterrorî and its derivatives appear twenty times. The surrounding contexts suggest that Bush and his political handlers plan to use 9/11 and its aftermath every bit as ruthlessly this year as they did in 2002, when Republicans captured control of the Senate by portraying Democrats as friends of terrorism. (The most prominent victim of this strategy was Senator Max Cleland, of Georgia, who lost three limbs fighting in Vietnam, and who was defeated by ads showing his face alongside those of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.) In 2004, according to Bush, ìwe face a choice: we can go forward with confidence and resolve, or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us.î If the choice he is talking about is November’s (and what else could it be?), then this is slander. The illusion that Bush describes is shared by none of the four remaining Democratic candidates with a chance at nomination. Nor, by the way, do any of them doubt that the Iraqi people are better off without the regime of Saddam Hussein. And, while all four are for other reasons critical of Bush’s Iraq policies, all recognize that, like it or not, the rehabilitation of Iraq is now an American responsibility.

The truth is that at this point no one can be sure whether the Iraq war, in its over-all effect, will turn out in the end to have helped or hindered the larger campaign against Islamism terrorism. What does seem fairly clear is that Iraq’s biological, chemical, and, especially, nuclear weapons did not exist. Public and congressional support for the war, as well as the scattered international support it enjoyed, was therefore purchased falsely and, to a degree not yet known, dishonestly. There has been a serious breach of trust, which cannot fail to have damaging results. ìFor diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America,î the President said in his speech, and for a moment one couldn’t be sure one had heard him right. Was he speaking ironically? America’s word — the present Administration’s, anyway — has in fact been cast into the deepest doubt, and that is one of the reasons its diplomacy has not been effective. Bush was talking about Libya’s promise, post-Iraq, to abandon its (not very scary) nuclear ambitions, and what he actually meant, of course, is that no one now doubts America’s will to make war. But that is not true, either. Iraq has stretched the Pentagon’s legions thin, and the misinformation that the Administration promulgated, from whatever admixture of intelligence failure and deliberate distortion, means that it will no longer be possible to rally domestic or international support for military adventures in the absence of a clear and independently verifiable casus belli. Washington’s word won’t do.

Bush’s only serious (that is, expensive) domestic program, as always, is yet another mammoth tax entitlement for the rich and the superrich. The new plan would make permanent his earlier tax cuts, which, in a gimmick designed to make future deficits look less terrifying, were scheduled to expire in 2010. This new round of relief for the unneedy, like the previous three, is to be financed (though the President didn’t mention this part) by confiscating the Social Security ìtrust fund,î curtailing federal activities that benefit society at large, and borrowing more trillions — taking out a fourth mortgage on the future, payable to foreign creditors. The rest of Bush’s proposals were either ruinously expensive, socially poisonous non-starters (such as privatizing Social Security) or cheap cuts of wormy red meat for the conservative and evangelical base. Of the latter the cheapest was an exhortation to professional athletes to quit taking steroids, the wormiest a threat to deface the Constitution with anti-gay graffiti.

In last year’s State of the Union, Bush’s buzz phrase was ìweapons of mass destruction,î the threat of which justified the impending conquest of Iraq. This year’s speech subsumed that phrase into the longer, mealier ìweapons of mass destruction-related program activities,î a usefully adaptable locution. Were teams of inspectors to fan out across Bush’s domestic policies in search of solutions to the nation’s problems, they would be less likely to return empty-handed if they settle for environment-related program activities (such as logging in national forests), education-related program activities (such as requiring tests without providing the funds to help kids pass them), and health care-related program activities (such as forbidding Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices). Like the speech itself, all this comes under the heading of winning the election-related program activities. Here’s hoping it will prove equally effective.

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7 Responses to UNSTEADY STATE

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Oh boy – here we go.Thanks, Dave for this – as usual. You are indded something special. I’m glad we humans invented blogging, so that you could shine on – you crazy diamond.

  2. kuros says:

    we shant be in iraq much longer the reasons were made clear a very long time ago “Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt.” Emperor Hadrian AD 117-138

  3. cs says:

    Dave, you wrote:So let me say it again: The US needs to invest heavily in rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure that it destroyed, let the Iraqis do the rebuilding themselves, can Bremer’s hapless Provisional Authority, and bring the occupying forces home and out of harm’s way now. When will someone running for US office have the courage to stand up and say this? Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?Dennis Kucinich has been saying these very things . . .

  4. John Robb says:

    David,Unfortunately, guerrillas in Iraq are getting smart. Attacks against infrastructure will negate much of what the US does to rebuild it (most of which we destroyed in the first Gulf War – or – wasn’t built in reponse to population growth due to sanctions).

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    CS: Yes, you’re right. My question was frustrated and semi-rhetorical. I’m a strong Kucinich supporter, and he’s saying these things, but few are listening, the media aren’t giving him coverage, and the pundits are giving him so-so ratings in the debates and saying he’s unelectable. Why is the only guy telling the truth, the only guy who seems to really understand what’s happening and what to do, unelectable in America?John: Yes — and the attacks will continue even if/when the US pulls out, because the insurgents, mostly Sunnis and Baathists, are trying to undermine Shia/Kurdish attempts to build a country whose government will exclude them. The attacks are, in fact, the first shots in the inevitable civil war, and because they can be conveniently aimed at the universally hated occupying forces, they can proceed with impunity — the continued presence of the US/UK ironically prevents the Shia and Kurds from dealing with the Sunni and Baathist insurgency.

  6. Cyndy says:

    Why is the only guy telling the truth, the only guy who seems to really understand what’s happening and what to do, unelectable in America?Because people are afraid of pronouncing his name wrong considering they rarely hear it???

  7. Raging Bee says:

    “The American occupying force is increasingly and uniformly despised by a huge majority, and almost every faction, of Iraqis.”This statement alone sinks the credibility of the whole article. It’s about as stupid as saying that all Iraqis are throwing flowers at the feet of US soldiers. Are “every faction” of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis thinking alike, regardless of their clearly varying self-interests vis a vis the US occupation? Such statements are not only wrong, but, coming from people who routinely condemn Republicans’ insensitivity toward other peoples and cultures, shockingly hypocritical.

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