George Bush Sr.’s no-class putdown of Michael Dukakis

Michael Dukakis. Via Northeastern.edu
Michael Dukakis. Via northeastern.edu.

While you are enjoying George H.W. Bush’s putdowns of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, George W., pause for a moment and consider his vicious characterization of Northeastern’s Michael Dukakis, one of our great public citizens, as a “midget nerd.”

No, I don’t necessarily expect a 91-year-old to know that “the M-word” is considered offensive to people in the dwarfism community. But one of the reasons it’s offensive is that it’s nearly always used to demean and degrade someone. (Dukakis, obviously, is not a dwarf; he is merely on the short side of average.)

The elder Bush has his good qualities, but he could be a nasty piece of work. You may recall that his late henchman, Lee Atwater, issued a deathbed apology for the “naked cruelty” and racism of Bush’s campaign against Dukakis in 1988, in which Atwater said he “would strip the bark off the little bastard.” Somehow I doubt Bush is going to say he’s sorry.

Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Islamic State

The Washington Post today fronts a horrifying story by Liz Sly showing how the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime are pulling the strings of the Islamic State. We will be paying for the hubris of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era for many years to come.

As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Obama’s secret war on civil liberties

Remember Section 215? It was a notorious provision of the USA Patriot Act, renewed on Thursday, that allowed the government to snoop on what library books you’d borrowed, what videos you’d rented, your medical records — anything, really, if investigators thought it might have something to do with terrorism, no matter how tangential.

I wrote about it for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 as an example of the then-budding excesses of the Bush-Cheney years.

Well, Section 215 is back — not that it ever went away. Charlie Savage reports in today’s New York Times that two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have accused the Obama administration of using Section 215 for purposes not intended by Congress. Then-senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, raised similar alarms in 2009.

The senators know what the White House is up to because they were privy to secret testimony. But, legally, under Senate rules, they can’t reveal what they learned. Thus they have demanded that the White House come clean with the public. “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” Udall is quoted as saying.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute recently described Section 215 in an interview with Salon:

It allows investigators to get an order from the FISA court permitting them to compel the production of any tangible thing that is relevant to an investigation. It’s pretty unlimited in scope. Any record or other thing that pertains to a suspected agent of a foreign power or someone in contact with them is under the law considered to be “presumptively relevant.” That means the judge has no discretion to deny such requests. The records don’t have to belong to anyone who is thought to be guilty of anything.

“FISA,” you may recall, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the height of the Bush years, the White House didn’t even bother with the niceties of going to a FISA court before ordering wiretaps. But as Sanchez notes, the FISA provision isn’t much more than a fig leaf anyway.

Which reminds me: The Obama Justice Department recently issued a subpoena ordering James Risen, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story about the Bush administration’s secret wiretaps, to reveal his confidential sources.

President Obama’s approach to civil liberties has been similar to that of his predecessors: for them when convenient, against them when upholding our rights would interfere with his exercise of untrammeled executive power. Last year, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero pronounced himself to be “disgusted” with Obama’s civil-rights record.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain outliers because of their embrace of torture, secret rendition and the like. But, otherwise, Obama fits into a long pattern of presidents whose actions on civil liberties are very different from their pious words.

I found the photo at a blog called the Bourgeois Librarian. I do not know its provenance.

Even George Will is appalled by Cheney

Thought you might enjoy George Will’s response on “This Week” when George Stephanopoulos asked him about Dick Cheney’s accusation that President Obama, by taking his time before deciding on a strategy in Afghanistan, is “dithering while America’s armed forces are in danger.” Here’s how Will began:

A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. For a representative of the Bush administration to accuse someone of taking too much time is missing the point. We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action.

Good stuff, although a few caveats are in order. First, though Will is a conservative, he’s not a neoconservative, and he’s been notably less enthusiastic about foreign adverturism over the years than his neobrethren. Second, he came out against the war in Afghanistan weeks ago. Third, Will has never been much taken with the Bush clan or its minions.

But still. With the war-mongering Laura Ingraham fulminating on the same set today (and when is she going to enlist?), it was heartening to hear a sane conservative call out Cheney’s posturing for what it is.

Obama’s Nobel Prize

obama_20091009I should be reading the papers and getting ready for class, but I just want to get this out there first. No doubt the topic will inspire a long string of comments, and probably a few of you will have more coherent thoughts than I do.

President Obama is a leader of extraordinary promise. I think he’s already accomplished a lot. His policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession. He’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president.

And, yes, his approach to foreign policy has combined pragmatism, cooperation and an orientation toward negotiation and peace that stands in stark contrast with the belligerent Bush-Cheney team. I’m also glad he’s rethinking his original desire to escalate in Afghanistan.

That said, I’m puzzled, to say the least, by his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Obama might well have been Nobel-worthy in a couple of years, depending on what he’s able to accomplish with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Iran and its nuclear aspirations, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess and with North Korea. And that’s assuming he can find willing negotiating partners.

For the Nobel committee to award its most prestigious honor to Obama at this early stage of his presidency, the members must have been thinking one of two things:

  • He deserves it for all sorts of symbolic reasons: he’s the first African-American president, he represents a clean break with George W. Bush and he’s reached out to the international community in a variety of ways.
  • He doesn’t really deserve it, but he should get it in order to give him ammunition (oops; bad word) against his critics and to provide some momentum to his peace-making efforts.

I don’t think either of those reasons are good enough.

Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. By contrast, I think Gore and especially Carter were very deserving recipients who received the honor on the basis of many years of hard work.

Many liberals are going to be thrilled that Obama won, although the early buzz on the left, based solely on my monitoring of Twitter, is that at least some liberals are as perplexed as I am.

Not that Obama is the worst selection ever. Certainly there have been much more undeserving recipients, such as Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. (Despite what some conservatives are claiming on Twitter, Adolf Hitler did not win the Nobel. Try looking it up, folks.)

Anyway — there you have it. Discuss among yourselves.

Spying on the antiwar movement

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at a disturbing, underreported revelation: that a public-records request in Washington State revealed an antiwar activist was, in fact, a military spy whose activities may have been a violation of federal law. And I argue that President Obama can no longer ignore calls to investigate the Bush-Cheney White House.

NPR ombudsman Shepard responds

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has responded to my item of last week in which I criticized her for defending NPR’s policy of refusing to refer to waterboarding as “torture.” She writes:

Yes, President Obama and AG Eric Holder have said that waterboarding was torture. I’d personally call it torture. But if you were an editor at the Globe, would you say that someone tortured another person? Or would you want to use a direct or indirect quote, i.e., “John Smith said the guard tortured him”?

I’m not trying to say what is and is not torture, but is every abuse classified as torture now or are there degrees? When a police officer throws a suspect to the ground and handcuffs them, is that torture or simply abuse?

Would it be better to, say, describe the technique and then say some call it torture? I do not think enhanced interrogation techniques is acceptable either. That’s why I come down on describing the technique and adding that some call it torture.

Shepard asks, so I’ll attempt a few answers.

I’m not sure what Shepard thinks there is to gain by skiing down the slippery slope from waterboarding to getting rough with a suspect during an arrest. In my original item, I strictly limited my remarks to waterboarding, recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.

The opinions of Obama and Holder are entirely unnecessary to determining whether waterboarding is torture.

As John McCain and others have pointed out, the United States executed several Japanese military officers for waterboarding American prisoners of war after World War II. And as I wrote last week, if NPR really can’t bring itself to use the T-word, perhaps it can describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

So yes, if I were an editor at the Boston Globe, you’re damn right I would refer to waterboarding as torture. That seems about as solid as referring to oil as a fossil fuel, or baseball as a sport. By eschewing the term “torture” to describe a practice that the entire international community regards as such, NPR is not being neutral. Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.

NPR should not use enhanced interrogation techniques on the English language.

Thursday update: I was not as precise as I wanted to be when I wrote about “everyone on the planet,” as I was in a rush and had lousy Internet access. Last week, Bob Garfield of “On the Media” interviewed Shepard and made the point I was trying to make:

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights says that waterboarding is torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross have called what the U.S. did “torture.” Waterboarding is unambiguously in violation of the International Convention on Torture, which has been ratified by 140-some countries.

The United States is among those 140 countries, but, as the Associated Press reported in 2002, the Bush administration sought to block enforcement of the measure when inspectors wanted to visit Guantánamo.

Torture is not only a moral problem, but it has a precise legal meaning that most definitely encompasses waterboarding.

David Brooks almost gets it right

David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times is smart and useful in its treatment of the similarities between the national-security policies of President Obama and those of George W. Bush after 2003 (though I think a more reasonable date to pick would be 2005), and of the differences between the Bush team and Dick Cheney during the waning years of the Bush White House.

But Brooks misses entirely why Obama has been more successful in selling those policies. It’s not just that Obama is more skillful at it, and understands public leadership better than Bush ever did. More than anything, it’s that when Bush finally moved away from the abject failures of the Bush-Cheney years, they were his failures.

Bush may have begun doing the right thing — or, at least, he may have begun doing the wrong thing less often — but he no longer had any credibility. Thus, by the time Condoleezza Rice had begun moving foreign policy in a less-insane direction, Bush had already irretrievably cast himself as a malleable tool.

Nor are the choices Obama is making today — on Guantánamo, on torture photos, on military tribunals — the sorts of things that will gain any real support on their own merits. Rather, most reasonable people see them as the least-bad decisions he could make given the “mess” that he inherited from Bush, as he put it yesterday.

Again, not an argument Bush could have made.

How to avoid prosecuting Bush and Cheney

Prosecuting George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others for torture-related war crimes would be madness, and President Obama clearly doesn’t want to do it. But torture is serious business. What should we do?

At ThePhoenix.com, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate shows us the way out.

David Gregory grooves one for Rice

Could David Gregory have possibly done a worse job in his interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on “Meet the Press” Sunday? More than anything, what stood out was the moment when he made her own false point for her, sparing her the trouble of having to do it herself:

GREGORY: Let’s talk about Iraq. The president’s final visit there as president happening just a week ago today, and what became, obviously, the most noticed image of that trip was this press conference with the prime minister and a member of the press throwing his shoes. As the president pointed out, as you’ve pointed out, certainly a sign of freedom in Iraq.

RICE: Yes.

GREGORY: You got a press corps that can speak its mind and act the way it wants to act.

Notice that the Gregory quotes contain several English-like phrases, but that he is not actually speaking English. But to my point: Gregory cites the shoe-throwing incident as “a sign of freedom in Iraq,” following up with: “You got [sic] a press corps that can speak its mind and act the way it wants to act.”

Well, yes, for those members of the press who are willing to pay the consequences. The reporter who threw his shoes at Bush, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, was reportedly beaten so badly after the incident that there was blood on the floor.

Al-Zeidi was then hauled off to jail, where he sits to this day. He is scheduled to go on trial on Dec. 31, and could face as much as 15 years in prison, although such a harsh sentence is reportedly not likely.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. You can’t assault the head of state from another country, standing next to your prime minister, and face no consequences. For that matter, if an American reporter had stood up at a White House news conference and thrown his shoes at the president, he’d be in trouble, too.

But Gregory, rather than make those common-sense observations, chose instead to say something completely untrue, making the interview even easier for Rice than it otherwise would have been.

Then again, Gregory had scored the first major interview with the secretary of state since Vice President Dick Cheney publicly bragged about his role in promoting torture and in going to war regardless of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And Gregory didn’t ask Rice about Cheney’s statements, either.

Gregory is not off to a good start in his new role.