Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Twilight Highlights

Talk about not believing your own eyes. Fox News showed a graphic while reporting on Clinton's calls for a ‘Lincoln-Douglas’ style debate, but rather than showing Abe and his debating partner, Stephen Douglas, they paired him off with escaped former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Maybe Ann Coulter was advising their editorial team.

Now, let’s stop to consider the level of stupidity and ignorance reflected in that gaff. Not only did they get two perfectly famous figures from American history dead wrong. They assumed A BLACK GUY could have been running for national office in the 1850s! Guys! Slavery still existed then! Even in Illinois the idea would have been laughable.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised in a country that worships goofy ignorance like W’s and thinks a president who can’t string together an English sentence is kind of cute.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

God, give me an F. Please.

My intuition in the electoral-political sphere is miserable and consistently wrong, so let’s hope it’s not working once again. But I now have a queasy feeling about the Obama campaign and suspect that the unbearable Clintonoids are correct that the tide has shifted against his candidacy.

Reverend Wright could do better than have his 15 minutes of fame at the candidate’s expense, but that wouldn’t matter if the silver-tongued senator could manage to get off the defensive and neutralize the drumbeat of negative coverage with some spin of his own. But that isn’t Obama’s style, and in my view it’s his biggest weakness.

There are myriad examples over the past few weeks of opportunities that Obama let sit when he could have levered the debate into brand-new territory. It’s not enough to insist that his appeal is that of the above-it-all healer and uniter since people want their leaders to show some balls in the healing process, too. The two things aren’t contradictory.

The Obama campaign could use some of the leftover juice from Edwards’ attacks on the big money boys, rather than responding to Hillary’s and McCain’s absurd claims that the guy who left Harvard to do community organizing is an ‘elitist.’ This from the $100 million lady and the guy who voted against the Martin Luther King holiday--the openings are barn-sized, but Obama didn’t even swat.

Yes, yes, the news media have played a shoddy role and may even have shifted definitely toward Clinton. Could be. But the soaring rhetoric and supra-racial vision is looking weaker and weaker when Obama can’t refocus in the face of an attack and bounce it back with the kinds of simplified counter-messages that modern politics requires.

For example, Obama could have shamed the absurd news anchors in the final debate for sinking into utter frivolity. Instead, he patiently tried to answer all their repetitious charges as if cooperating would convince them he was all right after all. That was the moment to take charge, even kick some butt, and the public would have applauded him for it.

But he didn’t, missing a chance to boost that sense of powerful confidence that nervous voters need at a time when their worlds are maked by uncertainty.

I think Obama’s margin in North Carolina will be less than expected and that Indiana will go to the suburban white lady, that the nominating process will drag on and that the remaining super-delegates will remain anxiously undecided. If his support sags further, I see Hillary Clinton edging closer and closer to the nomination, leaving us with the prospect of two candidates from the War Party to choose from.

I hope I’m wrong.

Monday, 28 April 2008

May I serve you?

When I was a kid, one didn’t ‘eat out’ as a rule, except to occasionally visit a ‘dining room’ on Sundays after church where a waitress named DeeDee or Trixie wearing a white uniform with an exploding handkerchief in the blouse pocket would bring you one of the specials. Since the main reason for this exercise was to free up Mom from the labors of food preparation once a month, the whole affair was straightforward and workaday, and the amusement for adults involved seeing some of their acquaintances among the townspeople out doing the same thing. For the kids, it was getting butter in individually wrapped pats.

Now that we collectively spend nearly as much being served our food as we do in buying it, how we eat out says something about the reigning assumptions of a place and the way we handle the emblematic act of consuming. I just spent a week on the road and so had multiple opportunities to experience the way Americans are expected to eat in public and to compare them with the rituals and habits of my jaded fellow New Yorkers.

Needless to say, it ain’t a pretty sight given that bipeds are involved. I include myself in that sentence since despite my best attempts at cultural sensitivity, I did not always contain my annoyance at the chirpy intrusiveness that marked the relationship between me and the local versions of Candace and Dotty, who consistently assumed that I had come to restaurant not to satisfy my hunger or to have a business meeting but to spend time with them.

These youthful waiters are now trained regularly to interrupt whatever their customers are doing to see if they are delighted with the dishes laid before them. No amount of monosyllabic replies, eye contact refusal, or stubborn continuation of the conversation will dissuade the confidant servers from another offer of freshly ground pepper or inquiries about iced tea refills. The idea that one might prefer to be left alone would come as a shock to them, as I can attest from having suggested it.

And woe is he who puts down his fork! One must stand ready to defend one’s plate like Leonidas on the bridge at Thermopylae lest the wait staff, in their misguided notion of efficiency, whip it away to get the diner into the next phase, no matter what the rest of the table is doing.

The overall impression—and an apt symbol, I believe, for how consumption of all varieites has been organized in our culture—is that the situation is tightly controlled by the seller, with the purchaser bundled neatly into a narrow range of apparent, but not real, choices. To put it another way, it is as though the waiter is the customer and we the beneficiaries of his or her performance, for which we should gladly accede to the established rules and then pay handsomely.

Only a culture in which the human interchange that uniquely occurs over the breaking of bread has been debased and nearly forgotten could reify so consistently and completely the mechanics of obtaining a public meal to the exclusion of the role of people in it. Like the state-run economies of the disappeared Soviet bloc, the consumers are unimportant as individuals, expected partiently to queue for whatever products are provided, to carry them home and gives thanks to the people’s republic. We are at their service and in exchange, allowed to live another day.

At my last meal out, even the musicians providing background music thought it appropriate to chastize the diners sarcastically for not applauding them with sufficient energy. After all, who did we think we were, sitting there eating while they created Art? I wanted to explain that I didn’t dare put down my fork.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Workers trump states

Mugabe’s 28-year grip on Zimbabwe must be loosening significantly if the country’s Electoral Commission can defy him by confirming the loss of his parliamentary majority. The whole idea of the recount was bizarre to start with—it was held even though the three-week-old presidential vote’s results haven’t even been announced yet. Since the recount clearly was arranged to reverse the ZANU-PF electoral defeat, for Commission officials to rise to this level of rebellion suggests that cracks are appearing in the ruling party.

Meanwhile, South African president Mbeki continues to gaze lovingly into Mugabe’s eyes, but his own workers apparently are seeing a bit straighter. South African dock worker unions brilliantly refused to unload a boatload of Chinese weapons headed for the Zimbabwean tyrant in solidarity with the people who would be beaten and slaughtered with them.

That action set off similar resistance in Mozambique and even Angola, where the president of that one-party state met very publicly with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer who is touring Africa to forge an anti-Mugabe coalition. Since the Angolans are historically close allies of Mugabe, that photo-op indicates a tidal wave shift.

Even the British, who as the former colonial power prudently kept their mouths shut in the first few days, are now joining the chorus against Mugabe, apparently in the assumption that he can’t use the old Rhodesia bugaboo to shore up his position.

It’s a pity that an American government led by the Republicans, the party that longest stood shoulder to shoulder with the old apartheid regime, should now be the taking the lead to end one of Africa’s worst nightmares, rather than the liberated South Africa of Nelson Mandela. But at least the people are having something to say, too.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Hunting seasons

I have just seen the appalling news of the acquittal on all counts of the police detectives who fired 50 bullets at three unarmed black men and killed one of them, Sean Bell, the night before he was to be married. No doubt we’ll now hear a lot of pious comments about how it’s not really about racism and none of the accused is individually a racist. (In fact, two of the three cops are black).

But that’s not the point. Condi Rice famously insisted that George Bush was personally not hostile to people of other races in reference to his historic incompetence after Hurricane Katrina. We’re supposed to believe that if a guy is nice to his dinner guests, it doesn’t matter where his priorities lie when ruling the nation or when letting fly with his service weapon.

I wrote here a few months ago about a Long Island suburbanite who awoke one night to find his teenage son fleeing from a crowd shouting racist threats in his front lawn. He went out, fired a shot at them and killed one. That guy, an adult black male protecting his family in the middle of the night, was convicted of murder.

One would have to be very comfortable as well as naïve to not see a pattern in these incidents. Black males simply are not protected by the police apparatus in our liberal city, nor are they allowed to protect themselves. Whether you want to call that racist or use some other term, it remains a fact.

The police union and the upper echelon of the department bear a heavy burden on this case as well for closing ranks and implicitly justifying the crazy behavior of these loose cannons.

There will be solemn marches and speeches now, and I will certainly attend them to show my disgust. But police work in this city has now become more difficult, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see people a lot more trigger-happy when facing tense moments involving the cops. After all, if they can fire at you 50 times with impunity when you don’t have a gun, what is the logic of cooperating when you do?

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Biloxi, Mississippi

I’ve heard several references to the supposed fact that the war in Iraq had slipped down into fourth place in importance to the Pennsylvania primary voters, replaced by something called ‘the economy’. Given that the failed conquest of Iraq is now burning a half billion of our debased dollars a day, I don’t see how the two things can be so neatly separated either by the commentators, the voters or most of all the candidates.

This Gulf city is the other Katrina story, less known than that of New Orleans, but with similar storm damage and recovery problems. Two colleagues and I were here for other reasons, but by chance got the opportunity to attend a FEMA informational meeting open to the public one night.

We were surprised to hear horror stories and complaints very similar to those reported in the months after the storm, surprised because it happened THREE YEARS ago. The tangle of programs and benefits is far too confusing for an outsider, but the overall message was pretty clear: there’s not enough money to really do things properly and get people back on their feet. Some are muddling through, but those who were struggling to make it before the hurricane aren’t getting the help they need. And they won’t.

Furthermore, a lot of the rebuilding and other relief work is being handled by private charities and sustained by the ongoing presence of volunteers. Government funds are also present but more constrained by guidelines and rules and also limited in quantity. Some people just don’t qualify for the government programs, and even if they do, the maximum is quickly reached and often absorbed just in getting by day to day.

The main reason there’s no money to spend on people’s needs, here in Biloxi and everywhere else, is because George W Bush decided he wanted to play soldiers with it instead. That isn’t stated very often, but it’s the glaring, obvious truth. I’d like to see someone pound that message home in between discussions of Hillary’s laugh and Barack’s middle name.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Dialectic of Bipedism

It would take a resuscitated Freud properly to probe the repression, projection and assorted psychic acrobatics of the ineffable GW Bush and his cohort of bipeds. For example, consider the decades of Cold War criticism of the prison created by the Soviet bloc states as exemplified by the Berlin Wall. This terrible monument was supposed to illustrate all that was cruel and inhumane about those systems and the contrasting delights of Freedom. Yet all around us, walls now go up as the preferred solution to social ills, and suddenly we are supposed to applaud these universal symbols of thralldom and oppression.

We have the Mexican Wall, which is supposed to divert the flow of immigrants (and will be about as successful in doing so as the New Orleans levees in holding back the Mississippi), the wall around the Gaza Strip and the West Bank wall to herd the Palestinians into their pens. Now comes the Sadr City wall in Baghdad as reported in today’s New York Times.

This one is supposed to ‘stem the infiltration of militia fighters,’ according to Michael Gordon who a few paragraphs later dutifully repeats the Bushite falsehood that the Sadrist faction is an ‘Iranian-backed group’ battled by the ‘Iraqi forces’, who are by implication not Iranian-backed. Ha ha.

Every expert not consuming crystal meth knows this is total propaganda by the White House cynics who engendered this war and, not content with their sterling record so far, are eager to carry it further eastward. Gordon and the Times, burdened with a shoddy record of complicity, should be ashamed of repeating this line as they know full well that it is laying the groundwork for the war’s expansion.

The language appearing in this account is telling: Gordon quotes an American officer that they want to turn Sadr City into a ‘protected enclave’ and who assures worried residents that they have no desire to stop government services from coming in. The Gaza ghetto should be a calming precedent for local residents.

Once the wall is completed, and the American-backed Iraqi enemies of local residents are in control of it, the lady trying to get in and out to buy a loaf of bread may find those promises a little thin. But of course by then, it will be too late, and new excuses will be offered—by Michael Gordon & company.

Maybe Bush has been reading Robert Frost: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ That’s quite true, especially if your own brain is a stand-alone gated community.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Things I don’t care about


The professional baseball season.

What the Pope thinks/says/does.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Claque=body of paid applauders

I’m reading a biography of I.F. (‘Izzy’) Stone, a grand and curmudgeonly old-school journalist who raised hell from the age of 15 well into the (and his own) 80s. Stone was an independent radical who drew the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover but relished his outsider role and seemed blithely unconcerned about being persona non grata for people whom he despised.

I ran into his Weekly at a 1969 antiwar demonstration without having ever heard of him (radical Jewish writers weren’t big during my midwestern childhood) and immediately recognized the four-page handout as a jewel of common sense bracingly independent of the jingoist or cozily complicit mainstream papers. Stone used direct extracts from open congressional hearings or government reports in his famous sidebars to illustrate the points he made in the central text. I became a loyal reader, but unfortunately Stone had to retire the Weekly a couple years later, just months after he had agreed to let me send him contributions on spec for those ‘boxes’. (I never managed to place one with him.)

Stone would have appreciated the brouhaha over Bittergate, especially the enterprising work by Mayhill Fowler at Huffington Post’s Off the Bus team, to which I briefly belonged. Pundits, advocates, boosters and ideologues of all stripes have fallen over themselves to make hay of Obama’s now-famous phrases, but plenty of them also have attacked the eminently thoughtful Fowler for daring to report it, incredulous to the possibility that a committed individual might not belong to any claque.

Stone wasn’t one to express too many regrets, but he must have felt a twinge at giving Joe Stalin too much of a pass during the Popular Front period in the late 1930s despite the accumulating evidence of the thuggery of his totalitarian state. Izzy was too busy sounding the alarms about Hitler to maintain a cautious note about the erstwhile ally on the eastern front, and despite his prescience on that score, it wasn’t good enough later to excuse casting a willful blind eye.

Bush is a bad man, and Obama’s a good one. I hope the latter becomes a great president. That doesn’t mean we have to suspend our critical faculties or pretend not to hear what we heard. And for reporters, good reporters anyway, it shouldn’t mean placing oneself in the bag for anybody. There are plenty of eager acolytes ready to suck up to the powerful, and if Obama’s choice of phrasing in telling a discomforting truth causes people to vote for the McCain-Clinton party instead, well, that’s just biped self-immolation at its most exasperatingly typical, and there’s really nothing a sane person can do about it anyway.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Loathesome in Zimbabwe

When Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF gang were wobbling a week ago after their surprise defeat in what were to be successfully rigged elections, a little push might have led to the peaceful collapse of one of the world’s most disgusting regimes. The key individual at that crucial and all-too-brief moment was South African president Thabo Mbeki. Twelve million people needed him to pull the plug on the guy who had looted their country and thrown them to the dogs.

Instead, Mbeki went to the mat to save Mugabe’s hide. As African heads of state gathered in neighboring Zambia to pressure for the election results to be honored (starting with an announcement of what they were, two weeks after the fact), Mbeki first flew to Harare to meet Mugabe and announce that a ‘natural process’ was under way and that there was ‘no crisis’ in the country, thus delivering a huge boost to the shaky dictator.

No crisis. I suppose one’s perspective on that would depend on whether you’ve had a square meal in the last couple of years.

The latest news reports from British papers suggest that Mugabe is lining up his thugs to rerun the elections and rig them better this time, intimidating the defenseless citizens with deadly attacks on villages that dared to support the opposition. Recent event in Kenya have shown how quickly these tactics can spiral out of control and lead to a real bloodbath.

If that happens, it will be interesting to see if Mr Mbeki spins that as another ‘natural process’ or something regrettably unnatural for which he, of course, bears no responsibility.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Pompeius Magnus Petraeus

A lot of the commentary about the Petraeus performance on Capitol Hill last week has noted how the general has displaced the guys in suits as the point man and even formulator of geopolitical policy in the region. He’s constrained by Bush’s refusal to give up on any of his pet fantasies like ‘victory,’ whatever on earth that could mean, but within those obvious limits, Petraeus is now as much in charge as Pompey or Gaius Cassius were in their provinces of the Roman Empire.

Bush has done enormous damage to the concept of civilian leadership even though or because he has been such a booster of military force. Where once service families or career types scoffed at the Democrats or mocked Clinton for his mushy ‘compromise’ on gays and lesbians in service, now they spew disdain at the ‘chicken-hawks’ like Bush who don bomber jackets or tour the front under massive protection to then brag about it later on U-Tube.

Whom does that leave to determine policy? While Petraeus obtains some (surely temporary) breathing room, Bush shows no interest in the political solution and instead blames Iran and the nationalistic Sadrist faction who want U.S. troops out. The clueless White House civilians refuse to cede any ground and insist on more sacrifice and miracles from the ‘boots on the ground,’ to use one of their faux-butch phrases. To avoid retreat in the tin-soldier war in Bush’s head, he engineers ever greater collapse, chaos and destruction.

How much longer can this go on? The populace has long since turned against the failed conquest, yet the political threat of being made to look disloyal to the troops trumps any real defiance of the endless campaign. Bush’s gang retaliate against any dissidents in uniform while the grumbling grows. Voters hold out the hope of changing policy at the polls, but they tried that in 2006 and failed. The situation is fraught with dangers and potential surprises of a most unpleasant nature.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The Great Broad Jump Forward

The Olympics are more or less political as the host country chooses to make them, and China was desperately eager to showcase itself through the Games as a modern powerhouse reassuming its rightful place at the center of world affairs. But the insular system that has reigned there over the last 60 years blinded its leadership to the costs of being noticed, and now they’re flailing around clueless about how to handle the unscripted developments related to Tibet.

Let’s dismiss without further ado the complaint that the Olympics are suddenly being ‘politicized’ instead of being treated as mere sporting competitions. There’s a long tradition of turning the Games into propaganda, dating at least back to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 spectacle of Aryan superiority, running through the wrecking of the 1980 Moscow games by Jimmy Carter over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the triumphalism of the 1984 version in Los Angeles, which the Soviet return boycott inadvertently turned into a Reaganite orgy of national chauvinism.

All the attention focused on China provided an obvious opportunity for the Tibetans, and a wiser Chinese leadership would have anticipated a way to defuse it with a more conciliatory stance, thus letting the notoriously corrupt IOC gang and politicians eager to avoid controversy off the hook. But that would be like asking an elm tree to grow pears.

Dictatorships like China’s become so brittle that they’re incapable of the flexibility sometimes required to neutralize a problem. No doubt the autocrats fear opening the dikes to any type of criticism or establishing the precedent of successful opposition to what the top guy says.

The Chinese are apparently determined to get their way and to pretend everything is going exactly as planned in the best-planned of all possible worlds. However, they’re not living in Mao’s autarkic retro-spaceship any more but in a vast worldwide bazaar where they occupy the biggest trading stall. When you need to sell a quadrillion plastic toys and a Mount Everest of T-shirts, you have to consider the subjective universe of the customers. Failure to do so is bad for business.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Defeat in War

Watching General Petraeus give the annual Iraq war update reminded me that his counterpart from 40 years ago, General Westmoreland, didn’t have such a central political role. The cabinet ministers and White House advisors to Presidents Johnson and Nixon did, and Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, then later Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger, had to trudge regularly up to Capitol Hill to explain to legislators what they were doing in Vietnam.

One particularly hostile bloc back in the late 1960s was comprised of the recalcitrant southern segregationists like Fulbright of Arkansas and Stennis of Mississippi who regularly put Johnson’s people’s feet to the fire, no doubt feeling little sympathy for the president who had sided with Martin Luther King against them.

They also expressed remorse—something making a comeback on Capitol Hill these days—about being bamboozled into supporting the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave Johnson his war-making authority, disguised as authorization to respond quickly to attacks at sea. Ah, the lessons of history—I guess Biden, Edwards and Hillary C all skipped that chapter.

But I don’t recall seeing the uniformed guys playing such a role in defending state policy back then, which probably is an indication of Johnson’s continued credibility, despite everything, compared to Bush’s team at Fantasyland. Since W’s folks can’t be taken seriously, all that’s left is to wheel out a guy with high sidewalls and every hair in place to hold back the deluge of dissent and disbelief in hopes that the metallic lustre on his epaulettes will hypnotize the critics.

Then what? As the miserable, failed exercise grinds on year after year with no resolution, the military weakening steadily and the economic impact finally kicking in, where is the next firewall to put off the inevitable reckoning? What happens when the no-peace, no-victory status quo becomes untenable? Nixon’s solution was multifaceted: murderous bombardment, escalation into neighboring Cambodia, ‘Vietnamization’ (or leave the mess to the locals), then interminable negotiations and finally the inescapable retreat presided over by Gerald Ford, the accidental president. If that scenario is any guide, this war story has many chapters yet to run.

Monday, 7 April 2008


Forget the breathless talk about global warming and the seven-times-Manhattan-sized ice shelf that sheared off of Antarctica last week—people in suburban New York want to drive their cars, goddammit, and they’re going to drive them when and where they please. That’s the message from the local (Democratic) pols who scuttled Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme today with a revolt in the state capitol.

The plan would have charged people $8 to come onto the island during rush hour like they do in London, and it was part of Bloomberg’s preparation for the additional 1 million inhabitants who will be living here over the next couple of decades. But whiny politicians from the outer boroughs had a hissy fit because some of their powerful constituents don’t want to take the subway like 95% of their neighbors, the same subway that would have benefited directly from the new tax.

Congressman Anthony Wiener from Queens was one of them. His knickers were in more knots than a Persian rug when the plan was announced.

Weiner wants to be mayor, and he comes from the Chuck-Schumer/Hillary Clinton school of politics where you ‘deliver’ for your voters, albeit at the expense of the rest of humanity. Weiner even worked for Schumer and has slimy Chuck’s skill at playing both sides of an issue. As the congestion pricing scheme started to win a broad consensus among people who actually worry about the future rather than their miserable careers, Weiner started to backpedal from his original screechy opposition and said we shouldn’t ‘rush’ forward with the idea.

The problem is that New York stood to win over $300 million in desperately needed federal transit funds if the state and city agreed to the plan as of midnight tonight. That went down the tubes, but no matter—Wiener’s middle-class drivers will remain happy, and the planet can go stuff itself.

It’s exactly the mentality that led Wiener’s role model Hillary Clinton to endorse Bush’s conquest of Iraq even though she knew better. It was a popular idea at the time, and she had to make sure she ‘delivered’ for her befuddled, beknighted, patriotic voters. Getting out ahead of them and telling them ‘No’ when they’re wrong doesn’t appear in her playbook, and the irony is that she’s going down to defeat precisely because she had no capacity to take the temporary heat that a principled stand would have required. Had she done so, she might be headed for the Oval Office today.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Oh, Africa

Ominous signs point to plans by Mugabe’s thug regime in Zimbabwe to launch a war against its own people now that he’s been rejected at the polls. Would that be part of the defense of African culture against western imperialism?

This is the time for African leaders fond of denouncing colonial interference and occidental cultural hegemony to step up and prevent a massacre. Instead, Mugabe-enabler Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, always ready to weigh in on the side of the powerful against the weak, insists that there’s no reason to do anything but wait and see what happens next.

Mbeki’s position assumes that there is continuing electoral support for a government that’s engineered a 100,000% annual inflation rate and put 9 out of every 10 citizens out of work. Even the usual dose of beatings and torture and the regime’s total control of the news media weren’t enough to stave off the electoral drubbing that apparently took it by surprise.

The West including the pious-after-the-fact Clintons were rightly criticized for standing by during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. But given Britain’s historical links to the white settler class that created Rhodesia that gave rise to the ZANU-PF guerrilla movement that put the disastrous Mugabe in power for 28 years, there’s not a lot more that the western powers can do. Any pressure on him is immediately turned to the regime’s advantage.

Now is the time for Africa to intervene on the side of African people threatened with a bloodbath. Perhaps our African-American presidential candidate could find a spot in one of his speeches for a comment—before the fact, not after.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Surprise, surprise!

There is something extremely fishy about the consistent comments from ‘senior officials’ in Iraq about how ‘surprised’ they all are at recent developments. Plenty of on-the-record statements repeat the trope that Maliki’s failed attack on the Sadrists in Basra was a free-lance operation with the Americans as innocent bystanders. This makes no sense.

Politicians never like to say they’re surprised by anything because it makes them look, well, taken by surprise and lacking in foresight. They’re supposed to either know what’s going to happen or have a plan for unexpected contingencies.

So when everyone scrambles to say, Gee, we didn’t have any idea this was coming, one can fairly assume that the opposite is in fact true. In addition, the idea that the Iraqi Green Zone regime would undertake a major military operation without the knowledge of its principal protectors, the U.S. military, is frankly incredible.

Furthermore, both Cheney and McCain were just in Baghdad. Are we to believe that neither of them discussed this imminent scheme? McCain was one of those who claimed to be utterly taken aback by Maliki’s attempt to crush his Shi’ite rivals. Not very presidential—unless the alternative is worse, that is, to be found out encouraging a military operation that backfired badly, which it did.

Some commentators believe that the U.S. occupiers in fact were not surprised by the attempt to crush al-Sadr, whom they don’t like at all, but not for the reason officially trumpeted, that he’s a tool of the Iranians. Maliki’s main allies, the rival Shi’ite militia, are just as cozy with Iran if not moreso, so that’s a bogus smokescreen that only works because the American public doesn’t follow the players closely enough to know they’re being fed bald-faced lies.

Al-Sadr, however, wants the Americans to leave, so pounding his guys into submission would have been attractive to the McCain campaign tour and a neat selling point for the fall elections.

So let’s summarize: to score some political points and try to stay in power in Washington through the next election cycle, the U.S. military encourages Maliki to open up a Shi’ite civil war, to add to the intra-Sunni civil war between with the Awakening forces and the jihadist sectarians up north. This just as the Sunni-Shi’ite bloodbath is in recess, but has hardly disappeared. The idea is that the favored side will triumph, giving the occupation more time to try to put together a country and limp home with something that can be called ‘victory.’

Instead, they make matters worse, which is almost impossible to imagine. So all they can do is say, We were so surprised!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Endgame in Zimbabwe [updated]

Not surprisingly in a country with 70% unemployment and an annual inflation rate of 100,000 percent, President Robert Mugabe hasn’t received many votes in his race for an eighth four-year term. Although that hasn’t stopped him from remaining in office in the past, this time the vote-rigging, intimidation, beatings, arrests, threats and megalomaniac pomp apparently won’t be enough to save his throne. Even the possibility of calling out the troops and staging a coup is a shaky bet when the soldiers are as hungry as everyone else.

The way power is slipping through the fingers of one of the world’s longest-sinning autocrats is fascinating to watch, and the opposition seems to be playing its cards very cleverly. They haven’t declared themselves the winners or announced any vote totals, thus avoiding giving Mugabe an excuse to declare martial law as if he were defending the democratic process rather than making a farce of it.

Recent events in neighboring Kenya have shown that stealing elections can have deadly consequences, so one doesn’t want to succumb to anticipatory optimism. However, unlike the Kenyan situation, there’s apparently no real ethnic split—everyones hates the Mugabe regime, generating a nicely uniform, equal-opportunity repudiation.

If the long-suffering residents of that country can manage to throw off this creep once and for all without provoking or resorting to bloodshed, it’ll be a spectacular show of restraint and sophistication and merit applause from the entire world.

[UPDATE— I stand corrected: unemployment in Zimbabwe is actually 90%, deaths from AIDS-related causes number 4,000 per month, 4 million people are close to starvation and life expectancy is under 36 years. That didn’t stop Mugabe from staging an opulent birthday celebration last month surrounded by toadies and sycophants who are now reported to be feeling mighty nervous. The top guy may be allowed to slip away quietly to prevent violence—but they won’t.]