Friday, July 13, 2007

An Unjustified Privilege

Published: July 13, 2007

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Ralph Nader mocked politicians of both parties as “Republicrats,” equally subservient to corporations and the wealthy. It was nonsense, of course: the modern G.O.P. is so devoted to the cause of making the rich richer that it makes even the most business-friendly Democrats look like F.D.R.

But right now, as I watch Senate Democrats waffle over what should be a clear issue of justice and sound tax policy — namely, whether managers of private equity funds and hedge funds should be subject to the same taxes as ordinary working Americans — I’m starting to feel that Mr. Nader wasn’t all wrong.

What’s at stake here is a proposal by House Democrats to tax “carried interest” as regular income. This would close a tax loophole that is complicated in detail, but basically lets fund managers take a large part of the fees they earn for handling other peoples’ money and redefine those fees, for tax purposes, as capital gains.

The effect of this redefinition is that income that should be considered by normal standards to be ordinary income taxed at a 35 percent rate is treated as capital gains, taxed at only 15 percent instead. So fund managers get to pay a low tax rate that is supposed to provide incentives to risk-taking investors, even though they aren’t investors and they aren’t taking risks.

For example, the typical hedge-fund manager has a 2-and-20 contract — that is, he gets a fee equal to 2 percent of the funds under management, plus 20 percent of whatever his fund earns. It’s not exactly straight salary, but none of this income comes from putting his own wealth at risk. Except for the fact that he might make a billion dollars a year, he resembles a waitress whose income depends on a mix of wages and tips, or a salesman who lives on a mix of salary and commissions, more than he resembles an entrepreneur who sinks his life savings into a new business.

So why does he get the same tax breaks as that entrepreneur? Not to put too fine a point on it, why does Henry Kravis pay a lower tax rate on his management fees than I pay on my book royalties?

There’s a larger question one could ask: should we even be giving preferential tax treatment to true capital gains? I’d say no, because there’s very little evidence that taxing capital gains as ordinary income would actually hurt the economy. Meanwhile, the low tax rate on capital gains is one main reason the truly rich often pay lower tax rates than the middle class.

A couple of weeks ago, Warren Buffett pointed out that he pays an average federal income tax rate of 17.7 percent, while his receptionist pays about 30 percent.

But even those who disagree with me on the larger point, who think the special treatment of capital gains is justified, should be able to agree that treating the income of fund managers differently from the way we treat the income of everyone else who works for a living makes no sense. And that’s why it’s very disheartening to read that prominent Democratic senators are taking seriously the claims of fund managers that making them pay taxes like regular people would discourage risk-taking.

The immediate response should be: what risk-taking? To repeat: the fund managers aren’t entrepreneurs; they aren’t putting their own assets on the line.

Look, this isn’t about envy, about punishing success. No doubt many fund managers earn their pay. Some of them also give generously to worthy causes.

But closing the carried interest loophole should be a simple question of fairness: other Americans also earn their pay, but they don’t get special tax breaks. Plus, we’re talking about a lot of lost revenue due to that loophole — revenue that could, for example, be paying for the health care of tens if not hundreds of thousands of children.

And since we’re living in the real world of politics, there’s also the Republicrat issue: the hesitation of the Senate Democrats is terrible for the party’s image. It conveys the impression that they’re as beholden to hedge funds, one of the few types of businesses whose campaign contributions strongly favor Democrats, as Republicans are to the oil and drug industries.

So here’s a plea to Democratic senators on the fence: do the right thing and close this unjustified tax loophole.

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The Endgame Deadlock

Published: July 13, 2007

Until this week I thought we were entering the last stages of the Iraq war. Roughly 40 percent to 60 percent of Republican senators have privately given up on the war. Senior G.O.P. officials have told President Bush that they are unwilling to see their party destroyed by this issue.

I figured that sometime between now and September the White House would be so isolated that it would have to launch withdrawal plans.

But ending a war is as complicated as starting one. In order to wind up the Iraq conflict there has to be some general agreement about how to do it. We’re nowhere close to that. In fact, the U.S. is now entering a phase you might call the Endgame Deadlock.

In this phase everybody argues bitterly over how to get out of Iraq, but amid the discord nobody can do anything about it. This phase — and with it, the war — could go on for a while.

In the Senate, for example, there are several major factions, but there’s no prospect that these factions are going to merge to form a majority that will change policy.

To simplify a bit, roughly 20 senators, led by John McCain and Joe Lieberman, believe in Gen. David Petraeus and the surge. There are roughly 30 Republicans, led by Dick Lugar, John Warner and Lamar Alexander, who believe that the U.S. should scale back its mission and adopt the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations. There are roughly 30 Democrats, led by Carl Levin and Jack Reed, who also want to scale back and adopt the study group’s approach. And finally, there are roughly 20 Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold, who just want to get out as quickly as possible.

In theory, it should be possible to get the 30 Republicans and the 30 Democrats who support the study group’s framework together to embrace a common plan. But Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, is doing everything he can to prevent a bipartisan consensus. It’s much better politically for the Democrats to stay united and force the Republicans to vote with the president.

And even if Reid were to allow bipartisanship, in practice it’s hard to write a single piece of legislation that can get you 60 votes. Senior staffers are finding that if they tweak the language to get four more Republicans, they wind up losing seven Democrats. It’s a bit like immigration reform: In theory there is a centrist majority; in practice, it’s hard to put it together.

The deeper truth is that the end-the-war forces are divided on several fundamental questions, and there’s not even a mechanism for resolving these differences. Normally, war policy disputes are resolved in the executive branch, but in this case, the executive branch is unwilling to play.

First, is genocide inevitable? Some anti-war advocates believe Iraq is so broken that genocide is unavoidable, and we might as well get U.S. forces out of the way. Others find this view abhorrent and shortsighted.

Second, is there a middle way? Some argue that as soon as the U.S. announces its intention to withdraw, the Iraqi power struggle will begin in earnest. Iraqi security forces will collapse. The government will disappear. The U.S. has to be all the way in, or it’s got to get all the way out.

Others believe that’s a false dichotomy. The U.S. will still have vital interests in Iraq, like preventing a terror state and stopping an Iranian takeover. Military planners believe a reduced force is viable: 20,000 troops to protect the Iraqi government, 10,000 to train and advise, 10,000 in headquarters and a smaller number of special forces to chase terrorists.

Third, how exactly do you manage withdrawal? Will there be a receding line of U.S. troops, followed by an approaching line of Talibanization? How do you fight when every day your forces get weaker? It will take 3,000 huge convoys and 10 months to get out. How do you preserve soldiers’ faith in the mission and prevent a Saigon-style collapse?

Fourth, how amid withdrawal do you handle future Anbars? In that province, the tribes have united to fight Al Qaeda. When far-flung tribes in other places ask the U.S. to flood the zone to help fight terror, do we just say no?

The questions go on. Deadlock in Baghdad will be matched, in paler form, by deadlock in Washington. The next change in policy will not come from Congress or the White House.

It will come from General Petraeus in September. His recommendations — on troop strength, political strategy and everything else — will be the only coherent platform in town.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

The White House’s status report on Iraq “benchmarks” is the big subject of the day. If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, check out Ilan Goldenberg’s “fact check” of the report at National Security Network, which finds in sum that “some benchmarks claimed as ‘satisfactory’ only demonstrate minimal progress, not achievement. Others have been achieved on the surface, but fail to accomplish the overall purpose of the specific measurement.”

Not wonky enough? O.K., Noah Shachtman at Wired magazine has reprinted an even more comprehensive assessment of the report distributed by the estimable Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who feels that “the Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration’s benchmarks in any major area.”

Or, if you have a job or a life or a family or anything else to do this afternoon, plenty of other bloggers are happy to give you opinion unburdened by such attention to facts.

“While we can troop surge to the cows come home, the fact is that when the people of Iraq turn on Al Qaeda - such as in Anbar, we will see rapid success,” insists Macranger at Macsmind: “The long and the short is that this report DOES show progress. General Petraeus and the troops have only been on the ground a few months and from all accounts making significant progress.”

The blogger at Down With Tyranny disrespectfully disagrees: “Bush’s fantasyland report claims progress in 8 of 18 benchmarks Congress set. Bush claims the Iraqi constitution is being revised, minority rights are being protected in the legislature, semi-autonomous governing regions are being set up, Iraqi political and economic support for military operations to secure Baghdad neighborhoods …. Before I go into the absurdity of all these preposterous claims, even Bush agrees that other benchmarks have resulted in dismal failure.”

Over at Prairie Weather, the emphasis on Iraq itself is deemed the problem: “Where Al Qaeda is making itself felt is in its old stamping ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Bush is maintaining a tenacious hold on a failing policy in Iraq, the reality of failure in Afghanistan is much more dangerous to the U.S. Bush is using an exhausted American military effort in Iraq to bolster his political position even as he cripples our military’s ability to respond to the growing power of the real Al Qaeda.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has his own benchmark update, saying that we must withdraw from Iraq and “dedicate our resources and attention to Al Qaeda and the real threat it poses.”

This prompts some questions from the Gateway Pundit:

“Umm.. What about those 12,000 Al Qaeda members operating in Iraq, Harry? What about the 4,000 Iraqis killed or wounded by Al Qaeda in the last 6 months, Harry?”

Those questions, of course, are likely to go unanswered — as opposed to those raised by the administration’s benchmark scorecard, which will, unfortunately, be answered in terms of human lives.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

  • From Thomas Malthus to Al Gore, one of the subtexts of most gloomy assessments of humanity’s future has been that the planet is overpopulated. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, however, has crunched the numbers, and comes to a very different conclusion:

    In a physical sense, the natural resources of the planet
    are clearly finite and therefore limited. But the planet is now experiencing a monumental expansion of a
    different type of resource: human resources. Unlike
    natural resources, human resources are in practice
    always renewable and in theory entirely inexhaustible –
    indeed, it is not at all self-evident that there are any
    “natural” limits to the build-up of such potentially
    productive human-based capabilities.
    It is in ignoring these very human resources that so
    many contemporary surveyors of the global prospect
    have so signally misjudged the demographic and
    environmental constraints upon development today –
    and equally misjudged the possibilities for tomorrow.

  • What will happen in Iraq if American troops are pulled out? Austin Bay, who has spent a bit of time in combat zones, envisions seven potential scenarios. No. 5 seems, um, not so good: “The region becomes a cauldron. Iraq shatters into ethnic enclaves, a few ‘new Mesopotamian city states’ managing to control oil fields. Iran and Turkey exert ‘regional influence’ over eastern Iraq and northern Iraq, respectively, but concerned about confrontation between themselves or provoking sanctions from Europe and the U.S., neither send their military forces in large numbers beyond current borders . Terror attacks and intermittent fighting afflict neighborhoods throughout Iraq. Local warlords rule by fear and make money either smuggling oil, drugs, or arms. This tribal hell is a perfect disaster—the kind of disaster that allows Al Qaeda to build training facilities and base camps for operations throughout the Middle East and Europe.”

  • In reference to the criticism non-candidate (wink, wink!) Fred Thompson has received for his past lobbying and lawyering activities, the gang at Powerline has posted a reader’s commentary on the inherent problems faced by members of the bar when they run for office. “Every person, unpopular or not, is entitled to representation,” the writer insists. “The views of attorney Abe Lincoln would have been a little hard to discern from looking at the positions he took as a lawyer. He represented the big railroad companies and on other occasions represented farmers and small land owners against the railroads.”

    Why is this of note? The name of the guest commentator: Fred Thompson.

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Basic Instincts: Life on Two, Four, Six and Eight Legs

Thank you for your warm and very generous response.

My life, editorially and otherwise, is sometimes a little haphazard. So I have a blog, but it’s mostly devoted to curious discoveries in natural history. I also have a Web site, but it’s mostly about one of my books. I update both only sporadically. But I promise I will try to do better.

Readers who also want to know where I am being published in print at the moment could send an e-mail to me at rconniff@theapeinthecorneroffice, and I will make a distribution list for sending out updates. Thank you again.

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Twixt 8 and 12, the Tween

Published: July 12, 2007


At dinner the other night, my nine-year-old daughter asked me what the greatest shopping city in the world is. I confess I was not ready for that one. Vague memories of nightmare hours at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, stirred. But I decided to go with something more cosmopolitan.

"Hong Kong, I guess."

"Really?" she shot back. "That's fascinating. I had always heard it was between Paris and New York."

It is not often that I say something to my daughter that qualifies as fascinating. Still, the "always" was ominous. I wondered how long the small person opposite me had been pondering this weighty issue and who her source was on shopping heaven. "That's what my friends say," she told me.

Could she and Maggie and Sophia and the rest of them really be sitting around discussing the relative merits of London, Tokyo and Moscow for chocolate-sundae lip balm or purplish-pinkish nail polish or the latest cellphone model? Yes, they could.

I am the proud father of a "tween." Tweens, falling roughly into the 8-12 age group, used to be called pre-teens. They are now in a generational category of their own in part because that gives retailers a clearer target, but also because their preternatural state - between childhood and all-knowingness - demands it.

Tweens are worth studying. They are the future. In fact, they are also the present. The U.S. military and their families are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rest of America is shopping or watching the Disney Channel or dreaming of becoming American idols.

There is a wider phenomenon of which tweens are a part. It is called "age compression" - roughly the cramming of experience into ever younger human vessels, creating an eerie disconnect between the outer child and the inner sophisticate. Marketers have an acronym for this, "KGOY," which stand for "kids getting older younger."

KGOY represents opportunity, of course. The U.S. apparel market for tween girls is now worth upward of $11 billion.

Tweens are discerning consumers. They think a lot about what they are going to wear, whether their outfit matches their peach-sparkle nail polish, how clothes sit with a teal-colored cellphone ("Can you believe Mom didn't know what color teal is?"), what kind of sushi they are going to eat, and what to read after books like "30 Guys in 30 Days."

What should be made of all this? It is plausible to take a dark view, seeing in the spread of "tweendom" the commercial exploitation of young girls (and to a lesser extent boys), their corrupting transformation into shop-until-you-drop mini-citizens, and their premature sexualization.

Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and the co-author of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes," sent me an e-mail saying, "Tween is a word made up by marketers in order to sell teen items to younger and younger girls." She added: "Shopping itself is sold as a quintessential girl activity before girls even have an allowance to spend."

I cannot argue with that, although tween is also a term that seems to capture the psychological tension of late childhood in the Internet age. Moreover, the sophistication of tweens is not confined to shopping.

Another thing my daughter said to me recently was that we should buy a "high bird." I eventually worked out she meant a "hybrid." We needed one, she explained, because the world is getting warmer, ice caps are melting, and too many cars in America are belching heat-trapping gases.

Right. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was smart in declaring that the fight against global warming will be his first priority, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, has been smart in leading a campaign against greenhouse gases. Green is sexy. Any tween will tell you that - and they will be voting within a decade.

It is encouraging that the tween generation has taken global warming, as well as global shopping, to heart. The world is knit ever closer. It is itself in a "tween" state - poised between hope and menace.

Tweens keep you on your toes, which is important. When I suggested to mine the other day that she should brush her teeth, she retorted that George Washington had very bad teeth. But, I noted, the girls in "Twist" and other magazines for tweens, as well as the girls on Disney channel, all have white teeth.

"You want me to take them as a model rather than George Washington?" she asked.

There is hope out there in tween city.


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‘Inspiring Progress’ on Iraq?

Published: July 12, 2007

As we debate what to do in Iraq, here are two facts to bear in mind:

First, a poll this spring of Iraqis — who know their country much better than we do — shows that only 21 percent think that the U.S. troop presence improves security in Iraq, while 69 percent think it is making security worse.

Second, the average cost of posting a single U.S. soldier in Iraq has risen to $390,000 per year, according to a new study by the Congressional Research Service. This fiscal year alone, Iraq will cost us $135 billion, which amounts to a bit more than a quarter-million dollars per minute.

We simply can’t want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there. That poll of Iraqis, conducted by the BBC and other news organizations, found that only 22 percent of Iraqis support the presence of coalition troops in Iraq, down from 32 percent in 2005.

If Iraqis were pleading with us to stay and quell the violence, maybe we would have a moral responsibility to stay. But when Iraqis are begging us to leave, and saying that we are making things worse, then it’s remarkably presumptuous to overrule their wishes and stay indefinitely because, as President Bush termed it in his speech on Tuesday, “it is necessary work.”

We can’t afford universal health care at home — but we can afford more than $10 billion a month so that American troops can be maimed in a country where they aren’t wanted? If we take the total eventual cost of the Iraq war, that sum could be used to finance health care for all uninsured Americans for perhaps 30 years.

Or imagine if we invested just two weeks’ worth of the Iraq spending to fight malaria, de-worm children around the globe and reduce maternal mortality. Those humanitarian projects would save vast numbers of lives and help restore America’s standing in the world.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush argued that we should give the surge a chance and that the costs of withdrawal would be enormous.

Just because President Bush says something doesn’t mean it is fatuous. It’s true, for example, that our withdrawal may lead to worse horrors in Iraq. But don’t ignore the alternative possibility, believed overwhelmingly by Iraqis themselves, that our departure will make things better.

Mr. Bush is also right that the surge is only just in place and may still enjoy modest success. Sectarian violence initially dropped in Baghdad (although it seems to have risen again since May), and it’s impressive to see Sunni tribes cooperating with us in Anbar against foreign jihadis. Then again, even the Green Zone is now a daily target, Turkish troops may invade Kurdistan and brace yourself for battles in Kirkuk between Kurds and Arabs.

Meanwhile, since Mr. Bush announced the surge, 600 American troops have been killed and 3,000 injured.

But whatever happens on the streets that the Americans patrol, the only solution in Iraq is political, not military. The surge was supposed to build political space for that solution, and that is not happening.

Progress has stalled on de-Baathification and constitutional reform, one-third of Iraq’s cabinet is boycotting the government and people are turning to sectarian militias for protection. The Pentagon itself reported last month that 52 percent of Baghdad residents say that militias are serving the interest of the Iraqi people.

In this desperate situation, the last best hope to break the stalemates in Iraqi politics will come if Congress forces Iraqi politicians to peer over the abyss at the prospect of their country on its own. If Congress makes it clear that the U.S. is heading for the exits — and that we want no permanent bases in Iraq — that may undercut the extremists and lead more Iraqis to focus on preserving their nation rather than expelling the infidels.

It’s nice that Mr. Bush is still confident about Iraq, telling us on Tuesday: “I strongly believe that we will prevail.”

Apparently, we’re doing almost as well today as we were in October 2003 when he blamed journalists for filtering out the good news and declared: “We’re making really good progress.”

Then in September 2004, Mr. Bush assured us that Iraq was “making steady progress.” In April 2005: “We’re making good progress in Iraq.” In October 2005: “Iraq has made incredible political progress.” In November 2005: “Iraqis are making inspiring progress.”

Do we really want to continue making this kind of inspiring progress for the next 10 years?

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

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A New Life After Death

Published: July 12, 2007


Literary history is full of stories of men and women whose once rising stars fell below the horizon, but who were rediscovered and even canonized (in the literary sense) after they died. What must that feel like?

Unless you believe that not only is there life after death but also that in the other life you will be able to keep tabs on this one, it doesn’t feel like anything. It certainly doesn’t feel like success, even in prospect. No one opts for the “undervalued when alive, but admired when deceased” track. The pleasures of being vindicated in the long run are experienced by those left behind, by biographers and torch bearers; it is their careers that flourish. How can that be satisfying?

I ask because of what is now happening (after the fact, as it were) to an old friend of mine, someone I once knew well as a colleague, friend and fellow basketball player (unlike me, he really could play the game), someone I lost touch with, someone who died in 2003. His name was, and on the page still is, Leonard Michaels, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s his first two collections of short stories (“Going Places” and “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could”) earned him the praise of people like Susan Sontag, who said, “I think Leonard Michaels is the most impressive new American writer to appear in years.”

A novel in 1981, “The Men’s Club,” seemed to seal the promise, but then the production slowed, the notices were less positive and, as Wyatt Mason observes in a retrospective in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, by the time he died at the age of 70 his story had become one of “an apparent exhaustion of resources, as common in the arts at it is in life.”

Right after his death, the story didn’t get any better. An obituary in The New York Times took away the Ph.D. he had earned at Michigan (it was restored to him a week later, but few ever read the corrections) and dispatched his mother by leaving her off the list of survivors (she was restored, too). But now that Farrar, Straus & Giroux is reissuing his fiction and essays, the story is being rewritten and is on an upward trajectory. Michaels is now being recovered, reappreciated and, in a way, resurrected.

Now people say things like: “Leonard Michaels’s stories stand alongside those of his best contemporaries — Grace Paley and Philip Roth”; “He was among the few essential American short-story writers of the past half-century”; “The author’s five decades of short fiction argue effortlessly for a place beside the work of America’s paragons of the story form.”

And there are confident predictions like: “Four years after his death, it seems he’s finally poised to get the audience he deserved”; “The republication of his work ... should bring Michaels to a new generation of readers and remind us of his lasting achievement.”

It is a cliché that we Americans love comebacks and second chances. We especially love them when they’re given to the dead.

In this case, the revival — I say the word in the hope of furthering it — has another byproduct: it has produced a new work for which Michaels can now be praised. In 1997, Michaels wrote a story titled “Nachman,” and followed it up with six others. Nachman is a middle-aged mathematician, whose “need for ecstasy was abundantly satisfied.” In place of the untidy war zones inhabited by Michaels’s earlier, volcanically passionate characters, Nachman inhabits a simple, clean space: “The room looked as if Nachman weren’t guilty of existence.”

He is determined to be ordinary. “It was Nachman’s deepest pleasure to feel like everyone else, regular, not like a freak.” But, of course, he is like everyone else, a freak, and the “internal resources” he takes pride in are always being frayed by contacts with a world that is itself deeply freakish.

Written in a style outwardly calmer than the snap and crackle of his earlier stories with their sentences that explode like cluster bombs, the Nachman stories are nevertheless just as tensile, disturbing and unpredictable. Collected in a slim volume as they should be (they now occupy the last 90 pages of “The Collected Stories”), they will surely win their author posthumous prizes, as if he cared.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist.

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For an Old Hand at Cycling, Just Another 750-Mile Ride

Published: July 12, 2007


Many years ago, LeRoy Varga took a bike ride.

Using an old, gray, single-gear bike given to him by a neighbor who had gone off to join the Army, he left his home here in northern New Jersey and headed off one morning for a summer place his aunt and uncle ran in the Catskills.

He left at dawn. He got there before sundown. It was about 125 miles away. He was 12 years old.

“I don’t know,” he says, thinking back. “It was just something like Mount Everest. It was there, and you felt you had to do it.”

In August, Mr. Varga will take another bike ride. It’s known as the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur, and it begins outside Versailles, then winds through the French countryside to the port city of Brest and back to Paris. It covers 750 miles. It has to be completed in 90 hours. He’s 80 years old.

It’s hard to be sure what to make of Mr. Varga, a retired mechanical engineer with three children and five grandchildren, who lives in the same house, full of ceramic busts of family members made years ago by his mother, that he and his wife have lived in since 1963.

Uncanny bionic combination of good genes and epic willpower, or slightly scary example of a new breed of hyper-fit seniors you see frequenting health clubs with their ripped abs and weight-lifting belts?

As he sat in his un-air-conditioned home on Monday, seemingly oblivious to the killer heat, you thought it had to be some of both.

Mr. Varga has a full head of hair the color of steel wool, and a wiry frame seemingly devoid of body fat. He was wearing a white T-shirt, burgundy Bermuda shorts, black socks, black shoes. He talked in a calm, reedy voice about his attempt to become the oldest man to complete the Paris-Brest-Paris Randonneur like someone who had taken an engineer’s slide rule to the whole thing and figured it was worth a shot.

He did, in fact, complete the event, held every four years, in 1987, 1991 and 1995. He tried in 2003 but didn’t make it, though he’s not sure how much was mechanical failure on the part of the bike and how much was the frailty of flesh.

“I don’t know if it’s stupidity or something else that’s driving me,” he said, sounding as if it didn’t much matter. “I give myself a 50-50 chance of completing it. But I’m going there with the idea I’ve done it before, and I can do it again, and that either way, this is my last hurrah. I wouldn’t consider it after this.”

Mr. Varga had long since stopped riding bicycles when he read Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s first book on aerobics about 40 years ago. Mr. Varga tends to do things whole-hog, be it his 25 years as a scoutmaster, or the marathon income-tax counseling he still does as a volunteer. So he decided to get serious about aerobics.

But running was tough on his knees, so he dusted off a three-gear bike that had belonged to one of his two sons and tried that. Soon, with better bicycles, he took to riding to work, taking longer and longer trips, joining the Morris Area Freewheelers bicycle club.

He and two friends biked across the country 15 years ago. Now, when he needs to stay in top condition in the winter (and when his wife is not home), he rigs up a stationary bike, turns off all the heat in the house and pedals for hours and hours on end. To stay in shape, he does a 125- or 150-mile-long ride twice a week, out Route 513 toward Frenchtown, and then north or south.

Julian Orleans, who cycled cross-country with Mr. Varga, said he’s not surprised that Mr. Varga has become the consummate two-wheeled marathon man.

“LeRoy was never one to do that much sightseeing,” he said. “Once I wanted to stop at an Indian reservation. He just kept going on. He’s the type who never wants to stop until you get there.”

Out in the garage is Mr. Varga’s 27-speed aluminum frame Trek 2300 bicycle. It has a black silicon foam covering he added for gripping the handlebars, a two-cushion seat, an electronic readout that measures altitude, distance, height, speed and temperature, and another that serves as a heart monitor.

He’s done it before; he knows the drill. So part of him looks forward to the rigors, and the hoopla, of the ride. And most of him is thinking about getting done what needs to be done.

“It’s like a jail sentence right now,” he said amiably. “I have to gauge what I do based on whether or not I’m doing what I think I have to do.”


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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

The Times’s Gardiner Harris reported this morning that “former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel Tuesday that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.”

Explosive stuff, and it led to some expected responses in the blogosphere, as well as a few that might not have occurred to us spectators.

Michael J.W. Stickings at The Reaction exemplifies the horrified amusement of the left: “Finally a presidency in full anti-enlightenment mode. I’m surprised they haven’t taken the logical next steps and come out against, say, gravity. An apple fell on Newton’s head? No, we can’t talk about that.”

While Nick Anthis, the Scientific Activist, is in predictably high dudgeon. “There’s no reason why we should be particularly surprised about all of this, but Carmona’s testimony is particularly shocking,” he writes. “Without a doubt, this administration has been the most hostile to science (and anything else that counters its narrow, extreme, short-sighted, and destructive right-wing agenda) of any that I know about. This will be the Bush legacy, and thank God (for the sake of scientific progress) it’s almost over.”

Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger Report is more amused by the Bush administration’s response. “Bill Hall, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, added, ‘It has always been this administration’s position that public health policy should be rooted in sound science.’ ” reports Benen. “It looks like Hall made the comment over the phone — so reporters wouldn’t have to see him struggle to keep a straight face. I do have one question, though. After years of heavy-handed politicization, why didn’t Carmona resign as soon as he realized how pathetic the White House is?”

Still, some feel the White House was only following precedent. “Carmona says he was told to shaddup about stem cell research and the morning-after pill Plan B,” writes Nick Gillespie at Reason. “He was talking to a committee convened by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and joined by two other ex-surgeons general, David Satcher, who served under (cough, cough) Bill Clinton, and C. Everett Koop …. Satcher told a tale of political buttinskyism too.”

Gillespie cites a Washington Post article, which noted that Satcher was told he could not release a report on sexuality and public health, “in part because of sensitivities triggered by the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” and that “Clinton also forced out Joycelyn Elders as surgeon general in 1994 after her controversial remarks that public schools should consider teaching about masturbation.”

“On that last point,” notes Gillespie, “just think what would have happened had schools actually started teaching masturbation. Talk about federal overreach! If there’s one thing you don’t even need vouchers for, much less a centralized curriculum, it’s probably masturbation. I imagine that within a few years, American students’ standing in international rankings would have dropped through the floor.”

Dick Polman acknowledges the Clinton precedent, but sees a more disturbing pattern:

Indeed, everything Carmona said yesterday merely confirms what John DiIulio was the first to say, five long years ago. DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor and domestic policy expert, lasted barely a year as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. His parting shot looks more prescient with each passing day: “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

Now, those of us who have watched far too many reruns know that Mayberry had a physician of its own, Dr. Peterson, whose practice struggled because none of Andy Griffith’s townsfolk wanted to see him — they questioned his expertize and were scared of what he might have to say. Perhaps DiIulio’s clever line held a bit more truth than even he realized.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In or Out

Published: July 11, 2007

When it comes to Iraq, September will be coming early this year — like now.

Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, are determined not to wait until September for the president to report on whether the surge is working. The American people have had enough. They want out. As we move into the endgame, though, the public needs to understand that neither Republicans nor Democrats are presenting them with a realistic strategy.

Obviously, President Bush’s stay-the-course approach is bankrupt. It shows no signs of producing any self-sustaining — and that is the metric — unified, stable Iraq. But the various gradual, partial withdrawal proposals by many Democrats and dissident Republicans are not realistic either. The passions that have been unleashed in Iraq are not going to accommodate some partial withdrawal plan, where we just draw down troops, do less patrolling, more training and fight Al Qaeda types. It’s a fantasy.

The minute we start to withdraw, all hell will break loose in the areas we leave, and there will be a no-holds-barred contest for power among Iraqi factions. Our staying there with, say, half as many troops, will not be sustainable.

Look at the British in Basra. The British forces there have slowly receded into a single base at Basra airport. And what has happened? The void has been filled by a vicious contest for power among Shiite warlords, gangs and clans, and British troops are still being killed whenever they venture out.

As the International Crisis Group recently reported from Basra: “Basra’s political arena is in the hands of actors engaged in bloody competition for resources, undermining what is left of governorate institutions and coercively enforcing their rule. Far from being a model to replicate, Basra is an example of what to avoid. With renewed violence and instability, Basra illustrates the pitfalls of a transitional process that has led to the collapse of the state apparatus.”

We must not kid ourselves: our real choices in Iraq are either all in or all out — with the exception of Kurdistan. If those are our only real choices, then we need to look clearly at each.

Staying in means simply containing the Iraqi civil war, but at the price of Americans and Iraqis continuing to die, and at the price of the U.S. having no real leverage on the parties inside or outside of Iraq to negotiate a settlement, because everyone knows we’re staying so they can dither. Today, U.S. soldiers are making the maximum sacrifice so Iraqi politicians can hold to their maximum positions.

Getting out, on the other hand, means more ethnic, religious and tribal killings all across Iraq. It will be one of the most morally ugly scenes you can imagine — no less than Darfur. You will see U.S. troops withdrawing and Iraqi civilians and soldiers who have supported us clinging to our tanks for protection as we rumble out the door. We need to take with us everyone who helped us and wants out, and give green cards to as many Iraqis as possible.

But getting out has at least four advantages. First, no more Americans will be dying while refereeing a civil war. Second, the fear of an all-out civil war, as we do prepare to leave, may be the last best hope for getting the Iraqis to reach an 11th-hour political agreement. Third, as the civil war in Iraq plays out, it could, painfully, force the realignment of communities on the ground that may create a more stable foundation upon which to build a federal settlement.

Fourth, we will restore our deterrence with Iran. Tehran will no longer be able to bleed us through its proxies in Iraq, and we will be much freer to hit Iran — should we ever need to — once we’re out. Moreover, Iran will by default inherit management of the mess in southern Iraq, which, in time, will be an enormous problem for Tehran.

For all these reasons, I prefer setting a withdrawal date, but accompanying it with a last-ditch U.N.-led — not U.S. — diplomatic effort to get the Iraqi parties to resolve their political differences. If they can, then any withdrawal can be postponed. If they can’t agree — even with a gun to their heads about to go off — then staying is truly pointless and leaving by a set date is the only option.

“It is one thing to try to break up a fight between two people who disagree; it is another thing to try to break up a riot,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins. “You just get sucked into the middle.”

We need to determine — now, today — whether this is a fight that can be resolved or a riot that we need to build a wall around and wait until it exhausts itself.

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History as an Alibi

Published: July 11, 2007


On Friday, Condi Rice played hooky and spent the afternoon at the Tiger Woods golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in suburban Maryland.

She had lunch at the clubhouse with Tiger, who had dedicated the contest to American servicemen. She followed Phil Mickelson and Brad Faxon for a bit, after having them over to the White House on the Fourth to watch the fireworks. She gave interviews about her newfound affection for golf, laughing about her errant drives and “wicked hook.”

Like W. going out boating and fishing in Kennebunkport as Britain and its new prime minister, Gordon Brown, reeled from terrorist attacks, Condi acted as if she didn’t have a care in the world. And why on earth should she?

The homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff, has a gut feeling that a Qaeda cell might be coming or already be here. “Summertime seems to be appealing to them,” he said, sounding more like a meteorologist than the man charged with keeping us safe.

With 30 mortars hitting the Green Zone yesterday and Army recruiting wilting, some Bush advisers are at long last coming around to the Baker-Hamilton report recommendation that they should engage in intense diplomacy with the countries around Iraq.

Someone might tell Condi — who said in one of her golf interviews that her zest for sports is so all-encompassing that “I love anything with a score at the end” — that she’d better get to work or America’s score in Iraq will be zero.

The Iraq war she helped sell has turned into Grendel, devouring everything in sight and making it uninhabitable. It has ravaged Iraq, Bush’s presidency, the federal budget, the Republican majority, American invincibility and integrity, and now, John McCain’s chance to be president.

And there’s no Beowulf in sight. Just a bunch of spectacularly wrong hawks stubbornly continuing to be spectacularly wrong at what an alarmed Republican Senator John Warner calls “a time in our history unlike any I have ever witnessed before.”

Watching the warring tribes in Iraq grow more violent has caused the beginning of a reconciliation among the warring tribes in Washington, as they realize they have to get the car keys away from the careening president who has crashed into the globe.

With Republicans in revolt over the surge and losing patience, and Bushies worried, as one put it to The Washington Post, that “July has become the new September,” the president decided to do a p.r. surge to sound as if he’s acquainted with reality.

But in a speech in Cleveland yesterday, the president was still repeating his deranged generalities. Making a tiny concession, he said we would be able to pull back troops “in a while,” whatever that means, but asked Congress to wait for Gen. David Petraeus to debrief on the surge in September — rather than focus on the report due this week that says the ineffectual Iraq government has failed to meet benchmarks set by America.

It was ironic that his strongest supporter to the bitter end was the Republican who was once his bitter rival. There was speculation that Mr. McCain would come back from his visit to Iraq and revise his bullish support of the war to save his imploding campaign. But the opposite happened.

As his top advisers were purged, Mr. McCain went to the floor of the Senate to reassert his warped view that “there appears to be overall movement in the right direction.”

Like W., Senator McCain values the advice of Henry Kissinger and said, “We can find wisdom in several suggestions put forward recently by Henry Kissinger.”

Why they continue to seek counsel from the man who kept the Vietnam War going for years just to protect Richard Nixon’s electoral chances is beyond mystifying. But Mr. Kissinger holds their attention with all his warnings of “American impotence” emboldening radical Islam and Iran. Can’t W. and Mr. McCain see that American muscularity, stupidly thrown around, has already emboldened radical Islam and Iran?

The president mentioned in his speech yesterday that he was reading history, and he has been summoning historians and theologians to the White House for discussions on the fate of Iraq and the nature of good and evil.

W. thinks history will be his alibi. When presidents have screwed up and want to console themselves, they think history will give them a second chance. It’s the historical equivalent of a presidential pardon.

But there are other things — morality, strategy and security — that are more pressing than history. History is just the fanciest way possible of wanting to deny or distract attention from what’s happening now.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

The iPhone has conquered humanity — or at least that part of it willing to shell out $500 a pop — and as we all know, it only works with AT&T’s cellular service. That’s a problem for Ben Scott, writing at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog:

The only solution to this problem is a political one. Decisions that legislators and regulators in Washington make now will determine what the internet looks like in the future. The US Congress is holding a hearing this week — call it the iPhone hearing — to discuss the new technology and its impact on consumer choice…

Our elected leaders will decide if there will be maximum consumer choice between networks, devices and services. Will consumers have free rein on the internet, or will they be guided into “walled gardens” of “preferred content”? And — if the disappearing democratic ideals of cyberspace don’t get you worked up — will you be able to buy the iPhone this year without paying hundreds of dollars in penalty fees and handcuffing yourself to a long-term contract?

The idea of regulation doesn’t sit well with Tim Worstall, the popular British blogger. “Actually, I think this is something we can safely leave to markets to work out for themselves,” he writes on his blog. “As AOL tried to create a walled garden and failed, in the medium term those mobile companies which try to do so will …. Perhaps the best way of looking at these hearings is the cynical one: a chance for a few Congressmen to shake down a few more companies for campaign contributions.”

Speaking of consumer choice, Jacob Sullum at Reason’s Hit & Run blog has found a new twist on the V-Chip:

Here’s an interesting alternative to yanking soda, potato chips, and candy from vending machines in schools: A company called Vend Sentinel offers a system that allows parents to pay for their children’s beverages and snacks in advance and decide which items they’re allowed to buy, using a swipe card and PIN number. I imagine this arrangement might lead to a gray market in vending machine cards, as kids with stricter parents pay kids with more permissive ones for the privilege of buying a Coke or a Snickers bar. Still, it puts the responsibility for controlling what kids eat where it belongs, while providing a diversity of options to reflect a diversity of parental preferences.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

“John McCain’s top two advisers – John Weaver and Terry Nelson – quit the campaign today as Mr. McCain struggled to get his once surging campaign back on course,” reports Adam Nagourney at The Times’s Caucus blog. “Their departure came after Mr. McCain announced last week that his campaign had just $2 million in the bank, and was forced to lay off most of its staff.”

And then things got worse: “One Republican directly connected to today’s events said that Mark Salter, McCain’s long-time chief of staff and co-author of his five books, had also left the campaign payroll,” reports Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic Online.

Ana Marie Cox at Swampland is uncharacteristically wistful. “The departure of Salter and Weaver marks the end of one of the most charismatic and legendary political braintrusts this town has seen — especially considering that they never actually won the presidency,” she writes. “Journalists regarded Salter as McCain’s alter-ego and he was the source of some of the Senator’s most memorable lines — both in speeches and in the form of the some half-dozen books that the two wrote together. (Their next one debuts next month. That oughta be a fun book tour…) Salter leaving the campaign — and the Senator’s side — is the most visible sign that the McCain [campaign] is not just desperate but hopelessly astray.”

More gleeful are the sarcastic conservatives at The Llama Butchers.

“Money doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but over the long haul it’s the life-blood of a Presidential campaign,” notes one contributor, Gary. “And Ron Paul has more cash on hand than the former front-runner for the GOP nomination. Yikes! If you can’t pay your people, they see the hand-writing on the wall.”

Rich Lowry at The Corner, however, doesn’t think this is all bad news for the McCain campaign. “It probably means Rick Davis is taking over,” notes Lowry. “He had run the campaign last time, but had no day-to-day responsibility this time and had been pushed upstairs. Then, John Weaver brought Terry Nelson in to run the campaign. As one strategist puts it, ‘They ran it into the ground.’ So this was a fight between Weaver and Davis that Davis won.”

Of course, McCain isn’t the only senator, or presidential candidate, having a tough day. The titillating tattle in Washington today is all about Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, whose phone number turned up in the newly released records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called D.C. Madam. What does this have to do with the race for the nomination? Leave that to the all-knowing Ambinder:

“Recall that Vitter was among the first Republicans to endorse the presidential candidacy of Rudy Giuliani and has come to serve as one of Giuliani’s chief liaisons to social conservatives. He is also Giuliani’s chief whip in the Senate and serves as the Southern regional chairman of his campaign.”

So, the Republican campaign has become a swamp of sex scandals, nasty divorces and personal betrayals. Anyone think the Democrats are feeling a few pangs of nostalgia?

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

  • So, if the United States does pull out of Iraq, what do we think we’ll leave behind? Greg Djerejian at Belgravia Dispatch doesn’t think the Bush administration is doing any better a job planning for this eventuality than it did for the postwar insurgency:

    In earlier days, Wise Men would have corralled Bush and insisted he appoint a James Baker, say, to supplement Tony Blair’s Palestinian institution-building, the better to rush to the region on a non-stop basis to build a regional consensus for an American withdrawal from Iraq that doesn’t leave a massive power vacuum in its wake. Instead, we’re flailing. Badly. It’s amateur hour, and the fires are only growing worse.

    More soon, I hope, on what a sufficiently empowered special envoy of caliber could hope to accomplish, including, per [Senator Chuck] Hagel, a non-American one. But with Bush in power and this approach so unlikely, one is left feeling as if counseling such action is but a waste of time. … The President doesn’t like to listen to critics, alas, and so the folly continues.

  • Bradford Plumer, a reporter and researcher at The New Republic, is interested in studies showing that scientists think lead abatement in the 1980s might have been a major driver in the great crime decline of the 1990s. “On this theory,” writes Plumer on his personal blog, “children who are exposed to lead paint or gasoline fumes are more likely to become violent teenagers. Rick Nevin, an economist, argues that the reduction in lead pollution in the 1970s and 1980s can account for most of the decline in New York City’s crime rate over the past decade.”

    Plumer feels there’s a problem, however:

    “The Bush administration loves lead. Loves it. They want it everywhere. Okay, that’s only a slight exaggeration: Back in 2002, the White House tried to stack an advisory committee on lead regulations with industry types. Last December, the administration announced that it would consider doing away with the standards that cut lead from gasoline, at the behest of battery makers and lead smelters. And its EPA has weakened a rule on removing lead paint from older residences.”

  • When Senators talk about raising their state’s profile, they usually mean they’ll try to bring home prestigious new federal facilities or other pork projects to their voters. Ted Kennedy has more animated plans — involving “The Simpsons” — according to Ryan Kelly at CQPolitics:

    “Last week, Kennedy urged everyone on the e-mail list of his leadership political action organization, the Committee for a Democratic Majority, to vote for Springfield, Mass., in a USA Today contest to determine which of the 14 American cities named Springfield should assume the status of real-world equivalent for the Simpson clan’s hometown.”

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Third Strike and Beyond, if This Man Was There

Published: July 11, 2007

At 2:30 Monday morning, the two young police officers approaching the black sport utility vehicle on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn knew nothing of the histories of the people inside. But if, as the police say, Dexter Bostic was one of the passengers, he would have known that the spinning light was a signal of crisis for him.

The police, at that hour, and in those circumstances, meant prison for him, most likely for life, before the first shot was fired.

Having spent most of his adulthood behind bars for acts of violence in Queens and Brooklyn, Mr. Bostic’s freedoms were rationed out by the New York State Division of Parole in minute doses.

At age 34, Mr. Bostic still had to be home by 9. He could drive only when he got permission from a parole officer, could not live within 1,000 feet of a school, and, on command, had to urinate into a cup every few weeks. He had raped and robbed a woman as a teenager, spent most of his 20s in prison, then returned to the street long enough to take part in a robbery in which a cohort fired shots. He had two convictions for violent felonies.

Over the years, four parole panels refused to grant Mr. Bostic early release. “There is a reasonable probability that you will not remain at liberty without violating the law, and your release at this time is incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community,” a panel found in September 2002.

Still, he was not in prison for life, and after serving the maximum sentence for his part in the robbery, he returned to Queens in 2004. He found a job at a car dealership on Long Island. Last Thursday, a parole officer visited his home at 11 p.m. to make sure that he was abiding by curfew, according to Mark E. Johnson, a spokesman for the parole division.

On Monday morning, Officer Russel Timoshenko, 23, and Officer Herman Yan, 26, checked the license plate on a black BMW, and found that it did not match.

If Mr. Bostic was there, the circumstances were clear.

He was out after his parole curfew.

The BMW had been stolen.

There were guns in the car.

Before a shot was fired, he was likely to return to prison for another two years on a parole violation. Any guns that were in the S.U.V. might have earned him a third violent felony conviction and a sentence of 25 years to life.

Alberto Ortiz, 30, stood outside a parole office in Midtown yesterday, on his way to report to his parole officer. He did not know Mr. Bostic, but the thought of being in a car at 2:30 a.m. made him shudder.

“Parole has rules, and you can’t do none of that,” Mr. Ortiz said. “My parole officer came to my house at 6 a.m., Sunday into Monday, to see if I was home in bed. I can’t have pets — well, not a dog — because it might go against the officer. I can’t drive, unless I get permission.”

To violate any parole rules is to risk returning to prison. The strict rules, Mr. Ortiz said, keep him a safe distance from even deeper trouble. He committed a robbery when he was young, and sold drugs in 2005 to an undercover officer, becoming one of the 7 percent of parolees in New York who commit new felonies within three years.

“I’ve got two felonies. I get another one” — he shook his head. “I won’t see daylight for a long time.”

On Monday, the police say, as Officer Timoshenko approached the passenger side of the black BMW on Rogers Avenue, someone inside opened fire and gravely wounded him. Officer Yan, who returned fire, was hit in the arm and the chest by shots from inside the car, but was spared from life-threatening injury by his protective vest.

The police say they believe Mr. Bostic and another man, Robert Ellis, fired from inside the car, and they were looking for both men last night. A third man has been arrested.

By Mr. Ortiz’s calculations, riding in a car after curfew, even for easy money, would not be worth the risk. “I’d rather stay broke, the freedom’s too good,” Mr. Ortiz said.

If Mr. Bostic was involved, Mr. Ortiz said, that meant “he loved prison, man.” And if it is true he shot the officers, Mr. Ortiz said, “now he’s going to die there.”

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Abusing Iraqi Civilians

Published: July 10, 2007

With no end yet in sight for the long dark night of the Iraq war, The Nation magazine is coming out this week with an article that goes into great and disturbing detail about the brutal treatment of Iraqi civilians by some U.S. soldiers and marines.

The article does not focus on the handful of atrocities that have gotten substantial press coverage, like the massacre in Haditha in November 2005. Instead, based on interviews conducted on the record with dozens of American combat veterans of the war, the authors address what they describe as frequent acts of violence in which U.S. forces have abused or killed Iraqi civilians — men, women and children — with impunity.

The combination of recklessness, wantonly destructive behavior born of panic and deliberate acts of cold-blooded violence by G.I.’s are believed to have cost the lives of thousands of innocent Iraqis, the article says. The soldiers interviewed said they believed that only a minority of U.S. troops engaged in objectionable behavior, but the toll of their actions has been huge.

The article describes soldiers and marines frustrated and fearful in an alien environment in which the enemy hides among civilians and uses acts of terror as the primary tactic. “The mounting frustration of fighting an elusive enemy and the devastating effects of roadside bombs, with their steady toll of American dead and wounded, led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis,” said the authors, Chris Hedges, a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, and Laila al-Arian.

Jeff Englehart, a 26-year-old Army specialist from Grand Junction, Colo., said in the article: “I guess while I was there, the general attitude was a dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi. You know, so what?”

For a lot of troops, he said, that attitude tended to morph into a debilitating sense of guilt after their return home.

Kelly Dougherty of Cañon City, Colo., who served in Iraq as a sergeant with a National Guard military police unit, remembered investigating an incident in which a military convoy ran over a boy, about 10 years old, and his three donkeys. When she and others from her unit arrived at the scene, the boy was lying dead by the side of the road. The donkeys had also been killed.

“We saw him there,” she said, “and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn’t even stop. They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down.”

Accidents, even those caused by recklessness, are bad enough. More disturbing are the incidents described in the article in which G.I.’s routinely abused civilians. Among the worst abuses have been the shootings of innocent civilians and the improper arrests that have occurred in the course of raids carried out by soldiers and marines looking for insurgents.

There have been thousands of such raids. An extraordinary number of them — the vast majority, according to the interviews for article — were exercises in futility, yielding nothing but grief and terror for the innocent families whose homes were invaded.

“So you have all these troops, and they’re all wound up,” said Army Sgt. John Bruhns of Philadelphia, who participated in many raids while serving in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib. “And a lot of them think once they kick down the door there’s going to be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons to start shooting at them.”

In most cases, there is nothing more than a terrified family on the other side of the door. In instances in which unarmed civilians are shot and killed in raids, which happens frequently, it’s not unusual for G.I.’s to plant weapons by their bodies and to arrest survivors on false charges of participating in the insurgency, the article says.

“Every good cop carries a throwaway,” said Joe Hatcher, who served with the Army’s Fourth Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. “If you kill someone and they’re unarmed, you just drop one on ’em.”

The article emphasizes the extreme stress that G.I.’s are operating under in Iraq. A byproduct of that stress is the tendency to stereotype and dehumanize all Iraqis. What the soldiers find out, after they get home, is that in dehumanizing the people they supposedly were fighting for, they often end up dehumanizing themselves.

There is no upside to this war. It has been a plague since the beginning. But it’s one thing to lose a war. It’s much worse for a nation to lose its soul.

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The New Lone Rangers


Published: July 10, 2007

If you’ve been driving around listening to pop radio stations this spring and summer, you’ll have noticed three songs that are pretty much unavoidable, and each of them is a long way from puppy love.

First, there’s “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. This is a song about a woman who catches her boyfriend in a bar fooling around with someone else. But she’s not wounded or insecure. She’s got nothing but contempt for the slobbering, cologne-wearing jerk. She’s disgusted by the bleached blond girly-girl who’s leading him on and who doesn’t even know how to drink whiskey.

As she rages, she’s out there in the parking lot rendering a little frontier justice — slashing his tires, taking a baseball bat to his headlights, carving her name into his leather seats.

The second song is “U + Ur Hand,” by Pink. This is about a woman out for a night on the town, very decidedly without men. She’s at the bar doing shots with her girlfriends and she’s not in a Cole Porter frame of mind. She snarls at the pathetic guys who come up offering to buy her a drink, telling them: “Keep your drink, just give me the money. It’s just you and your hand tonight.”

The third song is “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne, which is done in the manner of an angry cheerleader chant, a sort of drill sergeant version of the ’80s Toni Basil hit, “Mickey.” It’s about a woman who tells a guy to make his loser girlfriend disappear so she can show him what good sex is really like. Or as she sneers: “In a second, you’ll be wrapped around my finger, cause I can ... do it better! She so stupid! What the hell were you thinking?”

If you put the songs together, you see they’re about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago.

This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. She’s like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, who’s had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. She’s disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them. She’s also, at least in some of the songs, about 16.

This character is obviously a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade. But as a fantasy ideal, it’s also descended from the hard-boiled Clint Eastwood characters who tamed the Wild West and the hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart and Charles Bronson characters who tamed the naked city.

When Americans face something that’s psychologically traumatic, they invent an autonomous Lone Ranger fantasy hero who can deal with it. The closing of the frontier brought us the hard-drinking cowboy loner. Urbanization brought us the hard-drinking detective loner.

Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30. That’s two decades of coupling, uncoupling, hooking up, relationships and shopping around. This period isn’t a transition anymore. It’s a sprawling life stage, and nobody knows the rules.

Once, young people came a-calling as part of courtship. Then they had dating and going steady. But the rules of courtship have dissolved. They’ve been replaced by ambiguity and uncertainty. Cellphones, Facebook and text messages give people access to hundreds of “friends.” That only increases the fluidity, drama and anxiety.

The heroines of these songs handle this wide-open social frontier just as confidently and cynically as Bogart handled the urban frontier. These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don’t care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don’t need anybody else.

Of course it’s all a fantasy, as much as “The Big Sleep” or “High Plains Drifter.” Young people still need intimacy and belonging more than anything else. But the pose is the product of something real — a response to this new stage of formless premarital life, and the anxieties it produces.

In America we have a little problem with self and society. We imagine we can overcome the anxieties of society by posing romantic lone wolves. The angry young women on the radio these days are not the first pop stars to romanticize independence for audiences desperate for companionship.

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Memo to Spitzer: No One Likes a Bully

Published: July 10, 2007

Nine years ago, I raised a question about Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, wondering if he had flunked recess in grade school. He seemed to have never gotten the hang of playing well with others.

It may be time to ask the same thing about Eliot Spitzer and his days at the Horace Mann School. In the playground known as Albany, the governor is now having an awfully hard time getting along with some of the other kids, especially the State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno.

Not that this comes as a shock. Mayor Giuliani and Governor Spitzer may belong to different political parties, but in key respects they are cut from the same cloth.

Both are supremely smart (and don’t mind letting you know it). Both are exceedingly ambitious. Both are imbued with a certain self-righteousness. In previous jobs — Mr. Giuliani as United States attorney, Mr. Spitzer as New York’s attorney general — both pursued targets with a zeal that may have at times exceeded the bounds of fair play.

In short, both have what might be called temperament issues, except that some New Yorkers who disliked Mr. Giuliani’s style find the same traits somehow admirable in Mr. Spitzer. Those people are usually called Democrats.

But even some of his fellow Democrats are shaking their heads over Mr. Spitzer’s ferocity in taking on Mr. Bruno. Not that the Republican Senate leader is without blemish. He is under federal investigation, and he, too, has a mouth on him. For years, he has been one of the reasons that “Albany” and “dysfunctional” often appear side by side in political analyses.

Turning the hard-edged Mr. Bruno into a sympathetic figure is quite a trick. But Mr. Spitzer has managed to pull it off. When you are 48 and born to wealth (that would be the governor) and you harshly attack someone who is 78 and self-made (that would be Mr. Bruno), rounding up a large cheering section doesn’t come easy.

A few days ago, The New York Post quoted an unidentified state senator as saying that Mr. Spitzer, in a phone conversation, described Mr. Bruno as “old” and “senile” in singularly vulgar language. On Saturday, the governor said the conversation was not “as described,” but yesterday, he sidestepped the question entirely.

This might be dismissed as a case of he said/he said, except that it is hardly the first time that someone has told of Spitzerian unpleasantness only to run into denials from Mr. Spitzer or his aides. The pattern is unmistakable, and not easily ignored.

John C. Whitehead, the former Goldman Sachs chairman, said in 2005 that he had been threatened by Mr. Spitzer for defending a business leader under investigation by the attorney general. “ ‘It’s now a war between us, and you’ve fired the first shot,’ ” Mr. Whitehead, now 85, said Mr. Spitzer told him. “ ‘I will be coming after you. You will pay the price.’ ”

On that occasion, too, Mr. Spitzer denied uttering those words, though he later acknowledged that he might have handled the situation “more judiciously.”

William J. Larkin Jr., a Republican state senator, said Attorney General Spitzer had once threatened during a dispute to cut Mr. Larkin’s head off. An aide to Mr. Spitzer called the story untrue.

Last week, Mr. Bruno said that during a particularly angry exchange, the governor threatened him by saying, “ ‘I’m going to knock you down so that you will never get up.’ ” Presumably, Mr. Spitzer was speaking metaphorically. Mr. Bruno may be 78, but he is a former Army boxing champion.

And then there is Mr. Spitzer’s often-quoted warning to a Republican assemblyman that he is a “steamroller” who will run over opponents. He modified “steamroller” with an all-too-familiar profanity, apparently to show what a tough guy he can be. On this one, there were none of the usual denials from the governor or his staff.

IN defense of his temperament, Mr. Spitzer has said, “You will not change the world by whispering.” Maybe not. But you also might not change it if the people whose support you need write you off as “a bully” and an “overgrown kid,” prone to “tantrums” and “mean-spirited” behavior. The words in quotation marks are from Mr. Bruno.

Of course, the governor may not care what Mr. Bruno says, and instead may find comfort in this advice: “You must guard against arrogance,” but also “accept that maybe you really do know better and can see a little further down the road than others.”

Those words are from a 2002 book called “Leadership,” by a fellow named Giuliani.


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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts are wrapped up, and the numbers are in. According to the pollsters at Rassmussen Reports, they aren’t the sort that send concert promoters — or political advisers — into states of rapture:

Most Americans tuned out. Just 22 percent said they followed news stories about the concert Somewhat or Very Closely. Seventy-five percent did not follow coverage of the event. By way of comparison, 8-in-10 voters routinely said they were following news coverage of the recent Senate debate over immigration. Fifty-four percent said they followed news coverage of the President’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence … Skepticism about the participants may have been a factor in creating this low level of interest. Most Americans (52 percent) believe the performers take part in such events because it is good for their image. Only 24 percent say the celebrities really believe in the cause while another 24 percent are not sure. One rock star who apparently shared that view is Matt Bellamy of the band Muse. Earlier in the week, he jokingly referred to Live Earth as “private jets for climate change.”

Tahira Yaqoob at the Daily Mail in London calls the part of the event held at Wembley Stadium “a foul-mouthed flop,” noting that according to the BBC, “the peak audience, which came when Madonna sang at Wembley, was a dismal 4.5 million. Three times as many viewers saw the Princess Diana tribute on the same channel six days before. Two years ago, Live 8 drew a peak television audience of 9.6 million while Live Aid notched 10 million in 1985.”

Over at Right Wing Nut House, Rich Moran asks, “What does it say about you dilettantes that 140,000 people showed up at a NASCAR race in Daytona to watch carbon-spewing automobiles race around an oval track while a less than impressive 52,000 showed up at Giants stadium to watch rocker Bon Jovi (local boy) and that paragon of restraint and virtue Kanye West?”

Les Jones at Rock Stars Against Live Earth points out the most obvious irony: “Live Earth officials in Johannesburg are blaming poor attendance on unseasonably cold weather, which included the first snow in 25 years. The most likely cause of the cold weather? The Gore Effect, in which a visit by Al Gore to raise awareness of global warming causes cold.”

James Wolcott at Vanity Fair has no problem with the politics of the event, but feels the theatrics were another story: “I watched about ten minutes of Live Earth and what struck was how dated, how last century, all the titanic rigamarole and mob rituals of arena rock are: the Jumbotron screens, the banks of Borg-cube amplifiers, the stage choreography and lip syncing, the muscular drummer pounding away in the back, the cilia of audience arms and hands waving in unison, the inane calls and responses (‘Everybody say heh-oh’ — ‘HEH…OH!’), all those boring microphone-stand Ahab maneuvers…it all looks so encumbered.”

Edward Morrissey at Heading Right finds a more nuanced political significance:

On one level, this news may not be at all bad for the organizers of Live Earth. In this fragmented entertainment sector, a 22 share would be pretty good ratings for a televised event. Plenty of TV execs would consider that a successful show, and might be lining up sequels.

Politically, though, this tends to refute certain assumptions about the viability of this issue in the U.S. Many thought that climate change would create momentum for a Draft Gore movement in the Democratic primaries. Although the topic gets plenty of play in the left-leaning punditocracy and blogosphere, it looks as though the resonance ends there …

Having long been steeped in the celebrity culture, Americans tend to note the superficiality of celebrity causes quickly. Less than a quarter believe that the same celebrities who take private jets to these extravaganzas are credible spokespeople for the cause of energy reduction. …

The climate-change issue appears played out, at least politically, here in the U.S. If Gore wants to run for President (which I rather doubt), he had better find a better issue and tackle it with less hysteria.

If Morrissey is right, it brings up another irony: Al Gore, the Tin Woodsman of American politics, done in by an overabundance of heart.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Sweet Cakes With a Terrorist

Published: July 8, 2007

The West Bank town of Nablus sits in a valley, baking in its amphitheater, its white apartment buildings climbing hills, its central market a maze of alleys. Carts carry watermelons, cucumbers, green and red tomatoes. From dark interiors seep the smell of falafel frying and the sweet tobacco of hookahs.

Rubble from buildings destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, nourishes rose bushes that somehow rise from the stones. The city's haunting, troubled beauty makes the senses swim. Nablus stays with you. I was there a few weeks back and am haunted still.

Throughout the town, as elsewhere on the West Bank, Palestinian ''martyrs'' and prisoners are remembered. One poster in Jericho showed a young man from the Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades, a terrorist group, with the words: ''My enemy, do not think that I will forget the day of my being killed and occupied. If you put me in jail as a prisoner, please know that I am a prisoner in my own house. And in my prison I will find people who will avenge my situation.''

The words chilled me: The gyre of killing keeps widening. A friend suggested she could arrange an introduction to Mahdi Abu Ghazali, the leader of Al Aksa in Nablus.

On the principle that looking someone in the eye is the path to understanding, I accepted. The war on terror is a phrase that has agglomerated terrorists — those fighting for national goals like a state, and nihilists intent only the destruction of the West. It is important to distinguish between them. There are answers to national struggles.

A shoe salesman named Ahmad Hassan Al-Assi led me through the labyrinth of the market. ''I think the West Bank will go to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt,'' he said. ''How are we supposed to make a state?''

We met an Al Aksa operative who took us here and there before climbing a maze of stairs and ushering me into a room with battered chairs. A toy pistol lay on one.

Direct and clean-shaven, with a weary gaze, Abu Ghazali speaks some Hebrew, having spent three years in Israeli jails. He described a life of hide-and-seek in a city plied every night by the IDF. Claiming that more than 1,000 Palestinians have died on the West Bank since 2003, he said: ''Israel calls Palestinians terrorists. But it is a terrorist state. End the occupation, give us what we own, and we'll stop everything.''

Unctuous sweet cakes were served and a rifle brought in for Abu Ghazali. ''The situation in Gaza makes me sad,'' he continued. ''Fatah is divided into an Americanized group and the old guard, and Hamas has an Iranian faction and a Haniya faction'' — a reference to Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, whose Hamas-led government has been fired by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. ''We need one umbrella, like the Palestine Liberation Organization.''

Aged 34, he talked about a life lived in its entirety under Israeli occupation. I asked him why he fought. ''It's in the blood,'' he said. ''I opened my eyes to this reality.''

His older brother, Maher, was killed during the first intifada in 1987. ''Three bullets from the IDF,'' he said. But it was not just his brother. The death of friends, and of what he called ''the whole nation,'' produced ''an internal need to fight them.''

And what about suicide bombings, blowing up Israeli women and children? ''The suicide bombing was right,'' Abu Ghazali said, ''because it balanced the fear scale for a while. This was the result of their aggressions. I see a 4-year-old killed and I have to react. They call it terrorism. We call it reaction.''

For now, however, suicide attacks were suspended, he said. ''We fight soldiers on the West Bank. We could do operations in Israel, but we choose not to.''

Abu Ghazali smiled. I was unsure what to make of his claim. Braggadocio? Probably.

In the moment when he justified suicide bombings, I felt a surge of anger. Still, I could not help feeling that if you could just get a group of Israelis and Abu Ghazali in the same room, let the Israelis talk about their fears and him about his slain brother, the Israelis about Zion and him about the olive groves of Palestine, the Israelis about the Holocaust and him the Nakba, the Israelis about a fence that keeps them safe and him about a wall of confinement — in short let them duel it out with their respective pain, more good than ill would come of the encounter.


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