Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eight’s a Crowd

Published: July 21, 2007

“I don’t take this personally,” says Dennis Kucinich.


“I take it as an assault on the democratic process itself.”

Well, just so it isn’t personal.

Kucinich — in what he said was his first interview since being hospitalized for food poisoning — was referring to The Whisper. This was a moment during a recent candidates’ forum at the N.A.A.C.P. convention. A microphone picked up John Edwards telling Hillary Clinton, sotto voce, that at some point down the line it would be nice to have debates “with a smaller group of people.”

That was so obvious it hardly needed mentioning. The presidential debates have come to resemble a police lineup with all the wrong suspects. The main action involves a moderator telling people that their 90 seconds are up. On Monday, the Democrats will be at it again on CNN — all eight of them.

The overcrowded debate platform is one of those minor, nagging irritants in American democracy that, like John Kerry, never seem to go away. The networks don’t want the responsibility of deciding who to exclude, especially since each candidate has, at some point, been elected something. They’re not like the guy in a lobster suit who used to run around New Hampshire.

The long shots say that the public has no other chance to hear their message, since the news media ignore them. (Kucinich is not actually the perfect person to make this case, having participated in 21 televised debates when he ran for president in 2004. You’d think word would have trickled down by now.)

But about The Whisper: Kucinich’s version is that it all began during the forum, when he talked (yelled, actually) about his bill on a single-payer health care plan. He claims that Edwards, who is extremely proud of his own, less sweeping proposal, felt threatened by this high-decibel truth-telling and instantly ran over to “collude” with Clinton. (“He RACED over to Hillary! The camera barely had time to catch him on the screen!”)

Edwards claims this is all a misunderstanding, that what he really meant was that he and his fellow debaters — those fine, upstanding, highly qualified and extremely serious debaters — should be randomly divided into two groups, each to be given its own 90-minute program. (Raise your hand if you would like to be responsible for watching twice as many debates as you feel guilty about missing now.) In what sounded like a case of mounting hysteria, Edwards also told ABC News that Mike Gravel, the most out-to-lunch of the group, was the candidate he’d most like to be stranded with on an island.

All things considered, this is pretty good drama for so early in the campaign. You’ve got conflicting versions of reality, alienated friends, secret tapes, an island ... but Clinton’s part is a little disturbing. The tapes of the incident, which are, of course, all over YouTube, show her agreeing with Edwards enthusiastically, and following him as he walked away, saying: “Our guys should talk.” But when asked about it, she acted as if Edwards had been wandering around the stage alone, talking to himself. “I think he has some ideas about what he’d like to do,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s campaigns are extremely disciplined. Back when she first ran for the Senate, reporters got on her bus thinking they had latched onto the dream job in political reporting. Three months later they were beginning to gnaw on trees and laugh hysterically at inappropriate moments. Nothing is ever said that is not on message, and it can sometimes make her seem like an automaton.

Right now, when her campaign is going so well that even the Pentagon is treating her like the most dangerous Democrat in town, she might take the opportunity to practice normal-person responses like: “Sure, it’s hard to have a debate with eight people.” This would not cause the voters to lose faith in her capacity to be commander-in-chief.

As to the debates, the answer is simple. The networks should just do what they always do these days: Let America Decide. After every debate, the viewers could go online and vote for who they want to see go home. Ratings will soar. You would see Chris Dodd on the cover of In Touch.

True, Internet voting is inexact and subject to manipulation. But we’re talking about a ticket to 90 minutes on CNN, not a seat on the Security Council. It’s not as if you let somebody be president without winning the popular vote.

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From Team Giuliani, a New Willingness to Tiptoe

Published: July 21, 2007

As the politician previously known as Rudy Giuliani, fearless maverick, trudged through primary states this week, he added a group of conservative lawyers to his virtual entourage, a Justice Advisory Committee.

Their job, it appears, is to smother traces of the politician who once declared a “Roe v. Wade 25th Anniversary Day” and offered to help Bill Clinton pass tough national gun licensing laws.

Looking back — not that his campaign encourages doing so without supervision — there was a time when Mr. Giuliani would not have been seen onstage with people holding views like those of some of his new justice advisers.

For instance, during the 1993 mayoral race, the National Abortion Rights Action League of New York tried to organize a forum for candidates, but hit a snag. In the maneuvering, the incumbent mayor, David N. Dinkins, insisted that a candidate from the Right to Life Party be allowed to take part.

Mr. Giuliani would not hear of it.

“He said, ‘I would never accept a Right to Life candidate at this forum,’ ” said Kelli Conlin, the executive director of the abortion rights group. Instead of endorsing Mr. Dinkins, a Democrat who was also a vigorous supporter of abortion rights, the group stayed neutral. Mr. Giuliani showed his gratitude.

“He felt we were dealing honestly with him, and he rewarded me by putting me on his transition team,” Ms. Conlin said. “How passionately he believed in this.”

He appointed leading advocates of abortion rights to the city’s Board of Health. He spoke at a Naral luncheon in 1997. A year later, he welcomed Ms. Conlin and her group to City Hall for the declaration of “Roe v. Wade 25th Anniversary Day,” marking the Supreme Court decision that lifted many restrictions on abortions.

“He warmly gave me a kiss and a hug,” Ms. Conlin said.

That was 1998, when the theater of his political life was New York State, where any hesitancy in support for abortion rights is practically a disqualification from statewide elected office.

Asked recently about the prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned, Mr. Giuliani skipped the warm hug. “It would be O.K. to repeal,” he said. “Or it would be O.K. also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as a precedent.”

He still supports abortion rights, Mr. Giuliani says, but actually hates abortion, an antipathy that he is now revealing to the abortion opponents who will be voting in the Republican primaries.

“He made his reputation on being forthright,” Ms. Conlin said. “Well, at least he’s standing in unreceptive crowds and saying, ‘I am pro-choice.’ ”

New Yorkers who thought they were familiar with what appeared to be Mr. Giuliani’s views after his two decades in public life are now discovering that some of his other passions have cooled.

In February 1997, after a man shot seven people on the observation platform of the Empire State Building, Mr. Giuliani spoke urgently about the need for national gun control laws.

That particular fever has also broken.

“You have a personal right to carry arms, to have arms,” he said at a recent town hall meeting. “That personal right is as strong as the right of free speech.”

Each state, he now says, should regulate guns as it sees fit.

But back in 1997, when the Empire State gunman established residency in Florida by staying in a motel for a few days, long enough to legally buy a .380-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun, Mr. Giuliani said Florida’s law was “absurd.”

Most guns used in New York crimes were bought in Southern states, so the country needed national regulation, Mr. Giuliani said in 1997.

“The United States Congress should have the courage to pass uniform licensing for everyone carrying a gun,” he said. “A gun is more dangerous than an automobile. You have to go through a rigorous test in order to drive an automobile. You should have to go through an even more rigorous test before you get a gun, much less an automatic weapon.”

Sure, he sounds a bit different these days. But as his campaign Web site explains, “Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.”

Or as Groucho Marx is believed to have said: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”


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A Crack in Team Bush

Published: July 21, 2007

It was a shock to see Defense Secretary Robert Gates battling tears Wednesday evening as he spoke about Maj. Douglas Zembiec, a Marine and father of a 1-year-old daughter, who was killed in May after requesting a second tour of duty in Iraq.

Shocking and yet somehow profoundly validating and cathartic.

Choking, pausing, visibly suffering and clearly fighting off an onslaught of unwelcome emotion as he addressed the Marine Corps Association’s annual dinner, Gates seemed, for a moment, to tap into national sentiment in a way that the Bush team has never before done.

Sure, they tapped into our anger, fear and hatred in the days and months after 9/11. Sure, their swagger stoked our desires for vengeance and soothed some of the terror that took up residence in our guts in the weeks following the attacks.

But here was something new: an acknowledgment, however unbidden, of the complex range of negative emotions — sadness and frustration and, yes, I think, guilt — that’s now weighing upon the nation’s soul after four disastrous years in Iraq.

We’d never seen anything like it in the “Henny Penny” brush-offs of Gates’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. We probably never will discern any inkling of it in Condoleezza Rice’s robotic equanimity. President Bush is known to meet privately with wounded soldiers and families of the fallen and is said, at those times, to become emotional, but little of that softness seeps into his often cocky — and defensive — public demeanor.

It’s hard to imagine much sympathy emanating from a man who admits to no soul-searching on Iraq, who vacationed through the panic and devastation of Hurricane Katrina and who recently shrugged off the issue of health care reform with the line, “I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room.”

Rice, I read in the recent biography, “Twice as Good,” is so incapable of empathy that, in her late teens, and after years of assiduous and ambitious practice, she was forced to give up her dreams of becoming a concert pianist because her teacher felt she didn’t have the “interest or inclination” to “make someone else’s thoughts and emotions [her] own.”

We’ve all seen by now where such emotional sterility, coupled with a ferocious attachment to ideology, leads. And I think, as a nation — as Gates just did so publicly — we’re starting to show cracks from the strain.

I kept waiting yesterday for signs that, after his almost tearful performance, Gates would be labeled a “nut” or a “wimp” or some kind of national disgrace.

They didn’t come.

Instead, on a discussion board at, an online organization for active members of the military and veterans, I found Gates referred to as “a man of honor and integrity” by a former Marine Corps officer, who admitted that he himself, hearing Zembiec’s story, had broken down and cried, for the first time, before his 9- and 11-year-old children.

“He is obviously a man who tries his best to serve his country as best he possibly can, and he isn’t afraid to show his emotions,” wrote another poster.

Another wrote of being moved to tears nightly by the evening news: “I ache when I think of America’s sons and daughters being killed in a distant land. I am so relieved that Robert Gates is the decent, caring man he is proving to be.”

I pictured Vice President Dick Cheney miming, “Gag me,” and Rumsfeld swaying with the motions of playing an imaginary violin. And I thought: how wonderful it is that someone, on high, has had the strength to own the pain that’s been caused by our disastrous course in Iraq.

One has to wonder, of course, what public opinion would have been if the first cabinet official to lose it — just a bit — had been not the stoic bureaucrat Gates but instead our female secretary of state. Had it been Rice up on that podium, and were she constitutionally capable of that degree of non-Bush-centered feeling, would she have been denounced? Would she have been belittled, punished politically, dismissed as too irrational and emotional — too girly — to deal with the ugly realities of war?

We’ll never know, because she — like all powerful women in politics — will never let us find out. They can’t afford to. Not unless much more of official Washington decides it’s man enough to truly feel our nation’s inner disarray.

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist.

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

Sean Hannity isn’t the only conservative who thinks Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican whose phone number was linked to Deborah Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam,” should resign. The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat writes:

Making use of a prostitution ring isn’t a private matter, and Vitter should not be sitting in the United States Senate while the “D.C. Madam” is facing up to 55 years in prison for selling what he was apparently interested in buying. I hope Deborah Jeane Palfrey does call him as a witness, so that he can explain how his phone number ended up on her call list, and whether the “very serious sin” he admits to committing includes, you know, breaking the law.

Unless Republicans are prepared to support “the repeal of laws banning prostitution - which I certainly hope they aren’t - then they shouldn’t be backing Vitter’s ‘it’s a private matter’ line,” Douthat writes. “It isn’t. It’s a crime.”

Douthat’s fellow Atlantic blogger, Matthew Yglesias (a liberal), adds, “Breaking the law is the quintessential public matter.” He writes, “When police officers — public officials — catch people committing crimes, they’re hauled before judges (public officials) by prosecutors (public officials) and sent to jails staffed by guards (public officials) or put under the supervision of parole officers (public officials).”

Yglesias concludes, “For the ‘D.C. Madame’ to be on trial, where her senator client gets off the hook because it’s ‘private’ is ridiculous. What about her privacy?”

National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, however, isn’t ready to say that Vitter should go, even if it turns out he did pay for sex. “Maybe one reason that Vitter hasn’t been more forcefully and widely condemned is that our law and culture don’t treat prostitution as simply ‘illegal,’ like drug dealing,” Ponnuru writes. “You can’t advertise for drug deals in the yellow pages, but you basically can for prostitution. And it’s not clear to me that anyone has the will to step up enforcement.”

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The Op

Sean Hannity isn’t the only conservative who thinks Sen. David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican whose phone number was linked to Deborah Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam,” should resign. The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat writes:

Making use of a prostitution ring isn’t a private matter, and Vitter should not be sitting in the United States Senate while the “D.C. Madam” is facing up to 55 years in prison for selling what he was apparently interested in buying. I hope Deborah Jeane Palfrey does call him as a witness, so that he can explain how his phone number ended up on her call list, and whether the “very serious sin” he admits to committing includes, you know, breaking the law.

Unless Republicans are prepared to support “the repeal of laws banning prostitution - which I certainly hope they aren’t - then they shouldn’t be backing Vitter’s ‘it’s a private matter’ line,” Douthat writes. “It isn’t. It’s a crime.”

Douthat’s fellow Atlantic blogger, Matthew Yglesias (a liberal), adds, “Breaking the law is the quintessential public matter.” He writes, “When police officers — public officials — catch people committing crimes, they’re hauled before judges (public officials) by prosecutors (public officials) and sent to jails staffed by guards (public officials) or put under the supervision of parole officers (public officials).”

Yglesias concludes, “For the ‘D.C. Madame’ to be on trial, where her senator client gets off the hook because it’s ‘private’ is ridiculous. What about her privacy?”

National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, however, isn’t ready to say that Vitter should go, even if it turns out he did pay for sex. “Maybe one reason that Vitter hasn’t been more forcefully and widely condemned is that our law and culture don’t treat prostitution as simply ‘illegal,’ like drug dealing,” Ponnuru writes. “You can’t advertise for drug deals in the yellow pages, but you basically can for prostitution. And it’s not clear to me that anyone has the will to step up enforcement.”

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

Saving children by marketing to them: How will budding consumers develop an appropriate — and magically delicious — skepticism for advertising and marketing without the training wheels provided by Toucan Sam and friends? They won’t, fears Joel Stein in his Los Angeles Times column.

Kellogg’s decision last month to stop advertising sugar cereals to kids under 12 is a disastrous mistake,” Stein writes. “I learned everything I needed to navigate our consumer culture from my close parsing of TV commercials for sugar cereals.”

Stein concludes: “Protecting kids is a natural instinct, but as soon as they learn to type, they’re going to be exposed to more temptations — edible and otherwise — than their parents can control. I’d rather risk some fat kids than a whole generation so naive about marketing that by middle age they can still be manipulated by a dancing leprechaun.”

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Friday, July 20, 2007

All the President’s Enablers

Published: July 20, 2007

In a coordinated public relations offensive, the White House is using reliably friendly pundits — amazingly, they still exist — to put out the word that President Bush is as upbeat and confident as ever. It might even be true.

What I don’t understand is why we’re supposed to consider Mr. Bush’s continuing confidence a good thing.

Remember, Mr. Bush was confident six years ago when he promised to bring in Osama, dead or alive. He was confident four years ago, when he told the insurgents to bring it on. He was confident two years ago, when he told Brownie that he was doing a heckuva job.

Now Iraq is a bloody quagmire, Afghanistan is deteriorating and the Bush administration’s own National Intelligence Estimate admits, in effect, that thanks to Mr. Bush’s poor leadership America is losing the struggle with Al Qaeda. Yet Mr. Bush remains confident.

Sorry, but that’s not reassuring; it’s terrifying. It doesn’t demonstrate Mr. Bush’s strength of character; it shows that he has lost touch with reality.

Actually, it’s not clear that he ever was in touch with reality. I wrote about the Bush administration’s “infallibility complex,” its inability to admit mistakes or face up to real problems it didn’t want to deal with, in June 2002. Around the same time Ron Suskind, the investigative journalist, had a conversation with a senior Bush adviser who mocked the “reality-based community,” asserting that “when we act, we create our own reality.”

People who worried that the administration was living in a fantasy world used to be dismissed as victims of “Bush derangement syndrome,” liberals driven mad by Mr. Bush’s success. Now, however, it’s a syndrome that has spread even to former loyal Bushies.

Yet while Mr. Bush no longer has many true believers, he still has plenty of enablers — people who understand the folly of his actions, but refuse to do anything to stop him.

This week’s prime example is Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who made headlines a few weeks ago with a speech declaring that “our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests.” Mr. Lugar is a smart, sensible man. He once acted courageously to head off another foreign policy disaster, persuading a reluctant Ronald Reagan to stop supporting Ferdinand Marcos, the corrupt leader of the Philippines, after a stolen election.

Yet that political courage was nowhere in evidence when Senate Democrats tried to get a vote on a measure that would have forced a course change in Iraq, and Republicans responded by threatening a filibuster. Mr. Lugar, along with several other Republicans who have expressed doubts about the war, voted against cutting off debate, thereby helping ensure that the folly he described so accurately in his Iraq speech will go on.

Thanks to that vote, nothing will happen until Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, delivers his report in September. But don’t expect too much even then. I hope he proves me wrong, but the general’s history suggests that he’s another smart, sensible enabler.

I don’t know why the op-ed article that General Petraeus published in The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004, hasn’t gotten more attention. After all, it puts to rest any notion that the general stands above politics: I don’t think it’s standard practice for serving military officers to publish opinion pieces that are strikingly helpful to an incumbent, six weeks before a national election.

In the article, General Petraeus told us that “Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously.” And those security forces were doing just fine: their leaders “are displaying courage and resilience” and “momentum has gathered in recent months.”

In other words, General Petraeus, without saying anything falsifiable, conveyed the totally misleading impression, highly convenient for his political masters, that victory was just around the corner. And the best guess has to be that he’ll do the same thing three years later.

You know, at this point I think we need to stop blaming Mr. Bush for the mess we’re in. He is what he always was, and everyone except a hard core of equally delusional loyalists knows it.

Yet Mr. Bush keeps doing damage because many people who understand how his folly is endangering the nation’s security still refuse, out of political caution and careerism, to do anything about it.

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A Partnership of Minds

Published: July 20, 2007

Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they’d just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.

A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol. He describes what he felt in his recent book, “I Am A Strange Loop”:

“I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!’

“And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”

The Greeks say we suffer our way to wisdom, and Hofstadter’s suffering deepened his understanding of who we are, which he had developed as a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University.

Hofstadter already understood that the mind is not a centralized thing. There are dozens of thoughts, processes and emotions swirling about and competing for attention at any one time. It’s like a quantum mechanics light show.

Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world. Even though Carol was dead, her habits and perceptions were still active in the minds of those who knew her.

Carol’s self was still present, Hofstadter sensed, even though it was fading with time. A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol’s selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.

I bring all this up in an Op-Ed column because most political and social disputes grow out of differing theories about the self, and I find Hofstadter’s social, dynamic, overlapping theory of self very congenial.

It emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it’s not one of those stifling, collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.

It exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve through their own genius and willpower.

It exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being. There is no self that exists before society.

It explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. Human beings are permeable. The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust.

It illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty. That universal hunger may exist in the abstract, but we’re embedded creatures and the way specific individuals perceive liberty depends on context.

It lampoons political zealotry. You may be a flaming liberal in New York, but it’s likely you’d be a flaming conservative if you grew up in Wyoming.

Finally, it points toward a modern way of understanding how people fit into society. In the 19th century, Marx thought that people were organized according to their material interests and their relationship to the means of production.

In the information age, it seems fitting that we’d see people bonded by communication. It’s not exactly new to say that no man is an island. But Hofstadter is one of hundreds of scientists and scholars showing how interconnectedness actually works. What’s being described is a vast web of information — some contained in genes, some in brain structure, some in the flow of dinner conversation — that joins us to our ancestors and reminds the living of the presence of the dead.

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

Republican political consultant Patrick Ruffini thinks it’s plausible that Ron Paul –­ the Texas congressman who, as Reason’s David Weigel pointed out earlier this week, “has the most cash of any Republican outside the first tier and more cash than the bottom three Democratic candidates” in the presidential race –­ could finish second in the Ames straw poll next month. Ruffini writes on his personal blog:

Romney, given his dominant position organizationally in Iowa, should still win. Even with the rest of the top tier not participating, he won’t be able to let his guard down, lest he be ambushed by one of the second tier. Should Romney underperform against someone not even playing at Ames, or against someone not taken seriously, that’s a blow to his Iowa inevitability.

Does Paul placing a close second make the straw poll and its winner into a laughingstock? Do benched McCain or Giuliani supporters direct people to vote for Paul to ensure that outcome? Or does this portend something bigger? I see that Ron Paul is up to 3% in the Gallup poll, above Huckabee and Brownback.

On the other hand, the Ames straw poll is just the sort of shakedown of presidential candidates that Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen says has become too common in Iowa politics. Squeezing the candidates for dough is one of the reasons that “Iowa will lose its first-in-the-nation caucuses some day,” Yepsen writes. Among his complaints:

Pay the state GOP to rent space for booths and tents at the party’s big straw poll in Ames. They did that through an auction. Primo spots went for $25,000. Crummy ones for $10,000. That’s in addition to spending millions to buy tickets and hire buses so their people can vote in the thing.

“[W]hat’s happening now goes beyond simply defraying the costs of staging events. Caucus campaigns have become political profit centers,” Yepsen adds. “Many of the 2008 legislative and congressional campaigns in both parties in Iowa will be financed with money squeezed from presidential candidates.”

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

If freedom isn’t free, how can it be a gift from God?: David Brooks’s Tuesday column reported that President Bush admitted last week to having a self-described “theological perspective” on foreign policy (”It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist”).

Conservatives seem to be growing tired of Bush’s rhetoric about his Higher Father’s international agenda. National Review editor Rich Lowry, who attended the same sit-down with the president that Brooks did, says that “Bush’s theology of freedom” is “something that has long bothered me.” Lowry writes at The Corner:

You can believe freedom is a gift from the Almighty and still recognize that some cultural soil is more or less compatible with supporting political systems that protect liberty. But Bush believes the spread of liberty is “inevitable.” If that is the case, why not spare ourselves all the effort and let the inevitable flowering of liberty take hold? Now, he does say that there will be different expressions of liberty and a different pace—”but we’ve all got the same odds of achieving the same result.” That strikes me as flat-out wrong, an otherwordly leveling of all the culture and history that separates various societies. In my view, people don’t desire freedom first and foremost, but order, and after that probably comes pride (liberty can be an important expression of pride—because people, as a matter of pride, want to govern themselves, and free systems are the most apt to produce the sort of outcomes in which people can take justifiable pride).

The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat says he is “fed up with the President’s messiah complex” and his “world-historical delusions.”

“The gift of freedom that Christ promises is far more real than anything else in this world, if Christian teaching on the matter is correct. On the other hand, there’s nothing that’s political about that promise,” Douthat writes at his blog. He adds that “Christians and conservatives alike ought to be appalled” by the President Bush’s “attempt to transform God’s promise of freedom through Jesus Christ into a this-world promise of universal democracy.”

Douthat elaborates in a follow-up post:

[N]either Christianity nor Anglo-American conservatism is necessarily [incompatible] with the following propositions: That human beings have political rights that are a gift from Almighty God, that democracy is to be preferred to tyranny, and that the U.S. has a moral obligation to support human rights-recognizing, democratic governments abroad.

But what Bush seems to believe is something more sweeping - that the fact “a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom” means that the universalization of “forms of government that are based upon liberty” are historically “inevitable.” This may be true, but it is not Christianity, and it is not conservatism.

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Compelled to Remember the Big One

Published: July 20, 2007

We in New York are getting pretty good at assuming the worst when something out of the ordinary happens, like the steam pipe explosion that shot vapor and muck into the air on Wednesday.

For most of us, terrorism is as bad as it gets. When things go wrong, fear of terrorism is the city’s default position. It’s no wonder, given our recent history and given that federal officials and certain presidential candidates flash incessant warnings of doom. They are the opposite of F.D.R., those politicians, cautioning us that we have everything to fear, including fear itself.

Anything short of terrorism somehow becomes bearable. We saw the phenomenon on Wednesday: Yes, a woman died, and others suffered bodily harm, and life turned upside down for many thousands. But at least it wasn’t a terrorist act. Whew!

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave voice to those feelings while trying to reassure the citizenry. “There is no reason to believe that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Only an infrastructure failure. Why that should be a comfort is a mystery. It meant that death could reach up from below and grab hold of us at any time.

But at least it wasn’t a terrorist act. Whew!

Years ago, people who heard an explosion routinely told reporters later that they felt as if an atomic bomb had been dropped. Never mind that none of them had a clue what a nuclear attack looked or sounded like (unless they happened to have been in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945). That was how they described it all the same: like an atomic bomb. The cold war was on, and nuclear holocaust was the cosmic fear.

You don’t hear A-bomb references too much anymore. You didn’t hear them on Wednesday from people at the blast site, near Grand Central Terminal. The cold war is long over. We have moved on to new fears and, inevitably, new metaphors. Now, 9/11 is the template. Events either fit into it or they do not.

In a sense, that is natural in this city, especially with scenes at Grand Central that slightly resembled that terrible day in 2001, among them people running from clouds of debris that billowed behind them.

But not everyone had 9/11 in mind. Those who didn’t could count on news gatherers to tell them to get with the script.

Even after it had been made clear that this was not an act of terrorism, some news organizations refused to let go. “If you look at these scenes,” one television broadcaster said on the air, “you can understand why people were so emotionally disturbed, because it is evocative of 9/11, and that was of course the most traumatic event to occur in the city’s history.”

On another local station, a witness to the disaster was interviewed by phone. As he told his story, he made no reference to Sept. 11. For him, the situation was scary enough without that embellishment. But for his interviewer, it wouldn’t do. He felt obliged to nudge the witness onto 9/11 terrain. “At first,” he asked, “did you think it was a terrorist attack?”

Appeals to fear almost invariably produce skeptics in a populace that has endured its share of orange alerts that proved dubious and, conversely, assurances of safety that proved flimsy.

People who feel they were lied to about Lower Manhattan’s air quality after the 2001 attack were not likely yesterday to accept at face value the official statements that no asbestos was found in the air after the Midtown explosion. Asbestos was found in the muddy debris, officials said, but not in the air. In any event, they said, brief exposure to asbestos should not create a long-term health problem.

Early blogosphere reactions to those statements suggested strongly that doubters abound. How, went a recurring theme, can the government be unblinkingly trusted, given its post-9/11 record? A few people went so far as to ask why we should even believe the official assurances that this latest disaster was not a terrorist act.

At least others could set them straight on that score.

Writing to City Room, one of this newspaper’s blogs, a Queens woman who had been near the explosion, and who gave her name only as Adrienne, said she called her father to tell him she was fine.

“But terrorists could have blown up the steam tunnel,” he said to her.

“Relax,” Adrienne replied. “New York is falling apart without their help.”


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Market Shock: AAA Rating May Be Junk

Published: July 20, 2007

The great stock market rally of 2002 through 2007 has been built on liquidity — and much of the liquidity has been based on financial engineering that allowed highly risky investments to be financed by investors who thought they were taking no risks.

They were wrong.

Now the question is whether the market can continue rising as investors learn that the financial innovations that helped to build the boom were constructed on sand.

When Bear Stearns admitted this week that two hedge funds were expected to lose, in round numbers, 100 percent of their value, it blamed “unprecedented declines in the valuations of a number of highly rated (AA and AAA) securities.”

Those securities were nothing like the bonds issued by companies with triple-A or double-A ratings. Such bonds almost never plunge in value because the companies borrowing the money are financially solid.

But the money invested by the hedge funds went to finance mortgage loans to subprime customers, borrowers as close to being a triple-A credit as Moscow is to Maui as a beach resort.

By the magic of securitization, sow’s ears could become silk purses, or at least look like them. Most subprime mortgages would never default, went the theory, and rising home prices would minimize losses when there were defaults. So if a security was protected from the first 10 or 20 percent of losses in a mortgage portfolio, then it was as safe as a loan to General Electric. Such securities got AAA ratings.

Securities with a greater exposure to loss could still get investment-grade ratings. All told, the vast majority of the money that financed risky loans appeared to be invested in investment-grade paper.

Those who made the mortgage loans — or who made junk-rated loans to leveraged buyout companies — found that they could securitize the loans and sell the highly rated securities for enough money to assure themselves a profit before any homeowners could default. Any profit that came later from the riskier securities, which the lenders often kept, was icing on the cake.

The buyers of this supposedly safe paper in the subprime mortgage market are now suffering not so much because of the defaults that have already occurred but because of the defaults that investors fear.

The rating agencies are threatening to downgrade some AAA-rated paper, and there is rising nervousness about bonds issued by companies like MBIA and Ambac that guaranteed some of those AAA securities. The shares of a smaller insurer, ACA Capital, have lost half their value in a few weeks. An index of shares in six financial insurers has lost a tenth of its value since the end of May.

For stock market investors, the important question is whether a chain reaction will follow. Investors are already backing away from securitizations of packages of subprime mortgages, making such mortgages more difficult to obtain.

At a minimum, it seems likely that securitizations to finance junk corporate loans will be harder to put together, and that buyers will demand higher yields on even the supposedly safe parts of them. That will make leveraged buyouts more expensive.

This week the Dow Jones industrial average traded above 14,000 for the first time, and the Standard & Poor’s 500 traded at more than double the low it reached in the fall of 2002. It is clear that many stock buyers think troubles in the securitization market are of no concern to them.

In his Congressional testimony this week, Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, said, “Credit spreads on lower-quality corporate debt have widened somewhat, and terms for some leveraged business loans have tightened.”

But, he added, “Credit spreads remain near the low end of their historical ranges, and financing activity in the bond and business loan markets has remained fairly brisk.”

He is right, at least so far. But if those who are putting up the money for all those risky loans conclude that there is a lot of risk — despite the magic of securitization and despite reassuring ratings from the bond-rating agencies — that could change. And such a change would be very bad news for stock market investors who expect to have their companies acquired in the private equity boom.

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History, Principle and Affirmative Action

Published: July 14, 2007

On its face, the affirmative action case decided on June 28 by the Supreme Court turns on whether two school districts in Washington and Kentucky violated the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection guarantee when they assigned children to schools on the basis of race.

But the underlying issue is whether the court should be attentive to history and the societal consequences of its decision, or should turn a blind eye to those consequences and attend only to the principled protection of individual rights. The plurality opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, strongly affirms the latter position, citing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s declaration (in Metro Broadcasting Inc. v. F.C.C., 1990) that: “Our Constitution protects each citizen as an individual, not as a member of a group.”

From this it follows that while groups may suffer disadvantages in the course of history, race-conscious efforts to ameliorate those disadvantages sacrifice constitutional principles, which are timeless, to the achieving of a result that is considered good by the ephemeral standards of the time.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the motives for race-conscious policies may seem benign, but he quoted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s admonition (again in Metro Broadcasting) that “ ‘Benign’ carries with it no independent meaning, but reflects only ... the current generation’s conclusion that a politically accepted burden, imposed on particular citizens on the basis of race, is reasonable.” By “independent meaning,” Justice O’Connor meant a meaning independent of history.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens accused the majority of ignoring history and thereby obscuring what is at stake both now and when the 14th Amendment was passed. He is particularly incensed at Roberts’s invoking of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in the concluding paragraph of his opinion. “Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and not go to school based on the color of their skin.” Now, the chief justice said, it’s happening again.

Stevens retorted with irony and anger: “The chief justice fails to note that it was only black children who were so ordered.” That is, Brown and the 14th Amendment were not responses to an abstract principle of equality, but efforts to redress a historical injustice inflicted on one race by another. You don’t redress that injustice by barring attempts to mitigate its consequences.

The plurality, according to Stevens, failed to see that “a decision to exclude a member of a minority because of his race is fundamentally different from a decision to include a member of a minority for that reason.”

No it isn’t, replied Justice Clarence Thomas. “Every time the government uses racial criteria to bring the races together, someone gets excluded, and the person excluded suffers an injury solely because of his or her race.” He equates the minority’s arguments with those traditionally made by segregationists, who, he says, “repeatedly cautioned the court to consider practicalities and not to embrace too theoretical a view of the 14th Amendment.”

The conflict between the accidents and practicalities of history and the principle that race consciousness should not drive government policy is restaged around the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. The distinction, Roberts explains, is “between segregation by state action and racial imbalance caused by other factors.” The results of these other factors — individual choice, economic inequalities, historical biases — may be regrettable and include de facto segregation, but in Roberts’s view, they should not be remedied by law.

Why? Because history, not government did it, and what history has done, history, not legislation, should undo.

That’s all very nice on paper, declares Justice Stephen Breyer in dissent, but it simply ignores “the long history and moral vision” that stretches from the 14th Amendment to Brown and beyond — the vision of “true racial equality,” not as “a matter of legal principle but in terms of how we actually live.” In other words, my principle — true equality — is more principled than yours.

This move of Breyer’s shows that while I have framed the opposition as one between history and principle, the identification of principle is itself the work of history, and history can always go the other way. This is Stevens’s point when he slyly reminds Roberts of one of his own recent pronouncements: “history is written by the victors.” In short, there will be another day. Count on it.

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

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

McCain’s Double Feature

Published: July 19, 2007

Is there a less rewarding political task in America today than carrying the president’s water on Iraq? But there was poor John McCain yesterday in the Senate, slogging all through the night and into the morning, beating back the Democrats’ attempt to impose some kind of timetable.

“I cannot be certain that, even if I could convince Americans to give General Petraeus the time he needs to determine whether we can prevail, that we would prevail in Iraq,” he said. This is what amounts to his sales pitch, when followed by a promise that the awfulness that will transpire if we leave would be even worse than the awfulness that we created when we arrived.

Lately, the senator has been dividing his time between the American mission in Iraq and his presidential campaign, and they are going equally well. The campaign has pretty much retreated to New Hampshire, where a small group of volunteers and a rapidly shrinking staff are trying to live out one of those old movies where everything falls apart and then Andy and the gang decide to just put on a show in the barn.

“We will do lots of town hall meetings as we have in the past,” he assured the Concord Chamber of Commerce last week. It was for the most part a subdued event, at which McCain talked for a long time about Iraq while the crowd ate their Asian pasta and sandwiches in respectful silence.

“It’s not like a rally speech. Let’s face it, it’s pretty serious stuff,” said Michael Dennehy, whose title, this week, is senior national adviser to the campaign.

Yesterday in Washington, the McCain movie was the one where the old soldier is stuck with a feckless commander who messes everything up and then orders his men to take the hill anyway. “The verdict of the people will arrive long before history’s. The public’s judgment of me I will know soon enough,” the senator from Arizona said with an interesting mixture of passion and gloom.

This is not the worst possible outcome for John McCain. His presidential campaign is falling apart and everyone is debating whether it’s due to his principled stand on Iraq or his principled stand on immigration. But the alternate plotline was the one in which the stalwart maverick senator sells out to everybody from the irrational religious right to the irresponsible tax-cut crowd, and then loses the nomination anyway.

McCain campaigns have a history of misjudging the public. His advisers firmly believed his heroism as a prisoner of war would win him piles of votes. While that sounds perfectly rational, the fact is that with the exception of a few generals who actually ran a war, voters haven’t awarded points for military valor since we stopped having Whigs.

They also thought voters wanted a president who had the gumption to stick to his convictions. We like to imagine that’s true, but in fact we only love politicians who stick to our convictions. There’s actually nothing we hate more than a leader who insists on doing something we don’t like and tells us it’s a matter of principle. We’ve got one of those now, and look how well things are turning out.

During yesterday’s debate, a 6 a.m. traffic jam around the microphone forced some of the other presidential candidates to content themselves with submitting remarks for the record. Hillary Clinton, however, managed to get 20 minutes at 4:15 a.m. It was a measured recitation of Bush failures, the virtues of the Democratic proposal and the impossibility of knowing what would happen in Iraq if we left.

The most notable thing, really, was her staying power. When you consider that Mrs. Clinton may well be the most famous woman in the world, it’s amazing how much punishment she’s willing to undertake.

Last weekend she voted in the Senate, then flew to New Hampshire and did six events around the state before dark, not including massive doses of handshaking and interview-giving. She looked absolutely exhausted backstage; you’d think she’d have bailed out somewhere around the third “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead” rally. But no, there she was.

If success really is 90 percent about showing up, she is the next president of the United States. But the constant complaint about Mrs. Clinton is that she never takes an unpopular principled stand.

And now you know why.

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Cheney’s Long-Lost Twin

Published: July 19, 2007

Could Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth?

The U.S. vice president and Iranian president, each the No. 2 in his country, certainly seem to be working together to create conflict between the two nations. Theirs may be the oddest and perhaps most dangerous partnership in the world today.

Both men are hawks who defy the international community, scorn the U.N. and are unpopular at home because of incompetence and recklessness — and each finds justification in the extremism of the other.

“Iranians refer to their new political radicals as ‘neoconservatives,’ with multiple layers of deliberate irony,” notes Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University, adding: “The hotheads around President Ahmadinejad’s office and the U.S. foreign policy radicals who cluster around Vice President Cheney’s office, listen to each other, cite each others’ statements and goad each other to new excesses on either side.”

So one of the perils in the final 18 months of the Bush administration is that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad will escalate provocations, ending up with airstrikes by the U.S. against Iranian nuclear sites.

Already we’re seeing a series of leaks about Iran that echo leaks in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The reports say that Iran is turning a blind eye to Al Qaeda, is using Hezbollah to wage a proxy war against U.S. forces in Iraq, is transferring bomb-making skills to Iraq insurgents and is handing out armor-piercing bullets to fighters in Iran and Afghanistan so as to kill more Americans.

Yet the jingoists aren’t all in our government: These leaks may well all be accurate, for Mr. Ahmadinejad is a perfect match for Mr. Cheney in his hawkishness and contempt for the international community.

It’s worrying that Iran has just recalled its most able diplomat — Javad Zarif, ambassador to the U.N. — and sent him out to pasture as an academic. Hard-liners always hated Mr. Zarif; goons from a mysterious Iranian security agency detained me on my last trip to Tehran and accused me of being a C.I.A. or Mossad spy, apparently because they were trying to get dirt to use against Mr. Zarif (who had given me my visa).

Mr. Zarif’s departure last week suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn’t plan to solve his nuclear confrontation with the West through diplomacy.

So the danger is that the pragmatists on both sides will be sidelined, while the extremists will embolden and empower each other. The ultimate decision-makers may be President Bush and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Mr. Cheney may find a sympathetic ear when he makes an argument to Mr. Bush that goes like this:

How can we leave a nuclear Iran as our legacy? Tehran’s arms program will encourage Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to seek nuclear weapons as well — and then there’s the worst-case scenario that Iran actually wants to destroy Tel Aviv. We just can’t bet on Iranian restraint.

These are real arguments, but a strike is no solution. For starters, it would delay the Iranian nuclear program by only about three years — and when it came back, the regime might be more likely than ever to use the weapons. And for Mr. Bush to launch a third war against a Muslim country would undermine Islamic moderates and strengthen radicals around the world.

Iran is also more complex and sophisticated than it pretends to be — and the fact is that standard deterrence has constrained it. Iran has a huge stockpile of chemical weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community suspects that it has sleeper agents in the U.S. who could be activated for terrorism. But we have deterred Iran from unleashing terror attacks against our homeland, and the best bet for eliminating the threat altogether is the collapse of Iran’s own neocons under the weight of their incompetence.

A recent opinion poll in Iran found that 70 percent of Iranians want to normalize relations with the U.S., and 61 percent oppose the current Iranian system of government. Any visitor to Iran knows that it is — at a people-to-people level — the most pro-American Muslim country in the region, and the regime is as out of touch and moribund as the shah’s was in the late 1970s.

The ayatollahs’ only hope is that we will rescue them with a military strike, which would cement them in place for many years to come. But look out, because that’s what may happen if bilateral relations are driven by those jingoistic twins, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

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

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Hardy Trail and Its Fans Age Together

Published: July 19, 2007


As a newlywed, married two weeks ago, Paul Dodson may have been skating on somewhat thin ice by leaving his bride behind so he could attend the conference of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the 80-year-old group that supports America’s most famous hiking trail.

But then, two months after he had his left knee replaced a few years back, he was out hiking mountains in New Zealand, which says something about Mr. Dodson, 70, and about the demographic that turned out over the past week at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., for the 36th biennial conference of the conservancy (it used to be called the Appalachian Trail Conference).

Completed in 1937, maintained by hardy volunteers and rendered fleetingly trendy by Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods,” the A.T. is one of the true wonders of American life, even if no one really knows how long it is (the conservancy now puts it at 2,175 miles).

But if the image that comes up is of footloose granola-heads badly in need of a shower trekking from Georgia to Maine, the reality this week turned out to be another snapshot of the graying of America. The biggest age group at the conference was 60 to 69. The entertainment was the venerable folk-rock duo Aztec Two-Step and (yikes!) 1910 Fruitgum Company, and, in addition to the glories of the trail, the frailties of the flesh was a common theme.

“Old men, old boats and old cars are a pain,” muttered Glen Pyles, 74, after a mild tumble during a 5.5-mile hike Monday. He’s done 875 miles of the trail but figures doing the whole thing is probably out of reach.

Attendance was 855 people, down a bit from recent years, which organizers ruefully attributed to anti-New Jersey prejudice. Apparently many hikers think the A.T. in New Jersey wraps around the New Jersey Turnpike.

At the conference, held every two years, the faithful attended sessions on nature and history. But most sessions, held all day and into the evenings, had to do with the varieties of the trail experience (Hammock Hiking, What’s New in Tents, What to Do if Lost in the Woods, Beginning G.P.S. Usage) or staying healthy (Orthopedic Injuries on the Trail; Care of the Feet, Infections and Other Medical Problems on the Trail).

And mostly they hiked — a mile to 20 miles. The group that included Mr. Dodson and Mr. Pyles on Monday did Section 11 of the trail in New York, a lovely slice of Harriman State Park, about 15 miles from Mahwah, filled with abandoned iron mines, which date back to the 1730s.

They scaled Fingerboard Mountain, passed by the old Greenwood Mine, navigated the Lemon Squeezer — a narrow passage between mammoth chunks of rock — passed by Island Pond, reached the summit of Green Pond Mountain, turned onto Old Arden Road, which once connected the estate of the Harriman family to the town of Tuxedo, and ended at the Elk Pen parking area near the place where the Harrimans had unsuccessfully tried to establish an elk herd.

If you didn’t bring enough to eat, there were plenty of wild blueberries. There are many, many worse ways to spend a day. Many of the hikers are part of the 5,500 volunteers who essentially maintain the trail, which meanders through 14 states. Whether a generation raised on Xboxes and video games will do the same thing is a question that people are beginning to wonder about.

LEST it seem that only those with an AARP card hike, the highlight of the day was running into the through-hikers headed toward Maine, working on finishing all 2,175 miles.

First came Aaron Faust, a 25-year-old graduate student at Bard College, then Sharon Petersen, a quilter from Vermont, who is a 57-year-old grandmother of two. Then came a middle-aged couple barreling through as if they had a train to catch, and finally three hikers in their 20s: an Iraq war veteran, a guy lugging his guitar and a woman whose trail name was Singe.

These days, they do the trail with iPods and cellphones, so even the A.T. isn’t the ultimate wilderness experience. Still, only about a quarter of those who start finish. Mr. Faust said the hiking itself was the easy part. “You miss your friends, you miss your family, you overthink every aspect of everything,” he said. “I’ve been out here a quarter of a year, and it takes its toll.”

Mrs. Petersen said it’s still a cruel world on the trail. “We women don’t even lose weight out here,” she said. “You eat so much junk food; there are 240 calories in all those energy bars. You eat one and you’re hungry again in a half hour.”


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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hey, W! Bin Laden (Still) Determined to Strike in U.S.

Published: July 18, 2007


Oh, as it turns out, they’re not on the run.

And, oh yeah, they can fight us here even if we fight them there.

And oh, one more thing, after spending hundreds of billions and losing all those lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re more vulnerable to terrorists than ever.

And, um, you know that Dead-or-Alive stuff? We may be the ones who end up dead.

Squirming White House officials had to confront the fact yesterday that everything President Bush has been spouting the last six years about Al Qaeda being on the run, disrupted and weakened was just guff.

Last year, W. called his “personal friend” Gen. Pervez Musharraf “a strong defender of freedom.” Unfortunately, it turned out to be Al Qaeda’s freedom. The White House is pinning the blame on Pervez.

While the administration lavishes billions on Pakistan, including $750 million in a risible attempt to win “hearts and minds” in tribal areas where Al Qaeda leaders are hiding and training, President Musharraf has helped create a quiet mountain retreat, a veritable terrorism spa, for Osama and Ayman al-Zawahiri to refresh themselves and get back in shape.

The administration’s most thorough intelligence assessment since 9/11 is stark and dark. Two pages add up to one message: The Bushies blew it. Al Qaeda has exploded into a worldwide state of mind. Because of what’s going on with Iraq and Iran, Hezbollah may now “be more likely to consider” attacking us. Al Qaeda will try to “put operatives here” — (some news reports say a cell from Pakistan already is en route or has arrived) — and “acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material in attacks.”

(Democrats on cots are ineffectual, but Al Qaeda in caves gets the job done?)

After 9/11, W. stopped mentioning Osama’s name, calling him “just a person who’s now been marginalized,” and adding “I just don’t spend that much time on him.”

This week, as counterterrorism officials gathered at the White House to frantically brainstorm on covert and overt plans to capture Osama, the president may have regretted his perverse attempt to demote America’s most determined enemy.

W. began to mention Osama and Al Qaeda more recently, but only to assert: “The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th.” His conflation is contradicted by the fact that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, as the Sunni terrorist group in Iraq is known, did not exist before 9/11.

Fran Townsend, the president’s homeland security adviser, did her best to put a gloss on the dross but failed. She had to admit that the hands-off approach used by Mr. Musharraf with the tribal leaders in North Waziristan, which always looked like a nutty way to give Al Qaeda room to regroup, was a nutty way to give Al Qaeda room to regroup.

“It hasn’t worked for Pakistan,” she conceded. “It hasn’t worked for the United States.”

Just as we outsourced capturing Osama at Tora Bora to Afghans who had no motive to do it, we outsourced capturing Osama in Pakistan to Mr. Musharraf, who had no motive to do it.

Pressed by reporters on why we haven’t captured Osama, especially if he’s climbing around with a dialysis machine, Ms. Townsend sniffed that she wished “it were that easy.” It’s not easy to launch a trumped-up war to reshape the Middle East into a utopian string of democracies, but that didn’t stop W. from making that audacious gambit.

The Bushies, who once mocked Bill Clinton for doing only “pinprick” bombings on Al Qaeda, now say they can do nothing about Osama because they can’t “pinpoint” him, as Ms. Townsend put it. She assured reporters that they were “harassing” Al Qaeda, making it sound more like a tugging-on-pigtails strategy than a take-no-prisoners strategy.

We’ve had it up the wazir with Waziristan. Surely there are Army Rangers and Navy Seals who can make the trek, even if it’s a no-man’s land. If it were a movie, we’d trace the saline in Osama’s dialysis machine, target it with a laser and blow up the mountain.

W. swaggers about with his cowboy boots and gunslinger stance. But when talking about Waziristan last February, he explained that it was hard to round up the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders there because: “This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West.”

Yes, they shoot with real bullets up there, and they fly into buildings with real planes.

If W. were a real cowboy, instead of somebody who just plays one on TV, he would have cleaned up Dodge by now.

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TimesSelect Help Wanted: Peacemaker

Published: July 18, 2007

I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I were the parent of a soldier in Iraq and I had just read that the Iraqi Parliament had decided to go on vacation for August, because, as the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, explained, it’s really hot in Baghdad then — “130 degrees.”

I’ve been in Baghdad in the summer and it is really hot. But you know what? It is a lot hotter when you’re in a U.S. military uniform, carrying a rifle and a backpack, sweltering under a steel helmet and worrying that a bomb can be thrown at you from any direction. One soldier told me he lost six pounds in one day. I’m sure the Iraqi Parliament is air-conditioned.

So let’s get this straight: Iraqi parliamentarians, at least those not already boycotting the Parliament, will be on vacation in August so they can be cool, while young American men and women, and Iraqi Army soldiers, will be fighting in the heat in order to create a proper security environment in which Iraqi politicians can come back in September and continue squabbling while their country burns.

Here is what I think of that: I think it’s a travesty — and for the Bush White House to excuse it with a Baghdad weather report shows just how much it has become a hostage to Iraq.

The administration constantly says the surge is necessary, but not sufficient. That’s right. There has to be a political deal. And the latest report card on Iraq showed that a deal is nowhere near completion. So where is the diplomatic surge? What are we waiting for? A cool day in December?

When you read stories in the newspapers every day about Americans who are going to Iraq for their third or even fourth tours and you think that this administration has never sent its best diplomats for even one tour yet — never made one, not one, single serious, big-time, big-tent diplomatic push to resolve this conflict, but instead has put everything on the military, it makes you sick.

Yes, yes, I know, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to make one of her quick-in-and-out trips to the Middle East next month to try to enlist support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the fall. I’m all for Arab-Israeli negotiations, but the place that really needs a peace conference right now is Iraq, and it won’t happen with drive-by diplomacy.

President Bush baffles me. If your whole legacy was riding on Iraq, what would you do? I’d draft the country’s best negotiators — Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, George Shultz, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross or Richard Holbrooke — and ask one or all of them to go to Baghdad, under a U.N. mandate, with the following orders:

“I want you to move to the Green Zone, meet with the Iraqi factions and do not come home until you’ve reached one of three conclusions: 1) You have resolved the power- and oil-sharing issues holding up political reconciliation; 2) you have concluded that those obstacles are insurmountable and have sold the Iraqis on a partition plan that could be presented to the U.N. and supervised by an international force; 3) you have concluded that Iraqis are incapable of agreeing on either political reconciliation or a partition plan and told them that, as a result, the U.S. has no choice but to re-deploy its troops to the border and let Iraqis sort this out on their own.”

The last point is crucial. Any lawyer will tell you, if you’re negotiating a contract and the other side thinks you’ll never walk away, you’ve got no leverage. And in Iraq, we’ve never had any leverage. The Iraqis believe that Mr. Bush will never walk away, so they have no incentive to make painful compromises.

That’s why the Iraqi Parliament is on vacation in August and our soldiers are fighting in the heat. Something is wrong with this picture. First, Mr. Bush spends three years denying the reality that we need a surge of more troops to establish security and then, with Iraq spinning totally out of control and militias taking root everywhere, he announces a surge and criticizes others for being impatient.

At the same time, Mr. Bush announces a peace conference for Israelis and Palestinians — but not for Iraqis. He’s like a man trapped in a burning house who calls 911 to put out the brush fire down the street. Hello?

Quitting Iraq would be morally and strategically devastating. But to just drag out the surge, with no road map for a political endgame, with Iraqi lawmakers going on vacation, with no consequences for dithering, would be just as morally and strategically irresponsible.

We owe Iraqis our best military — and diplomatic effort — to avoid the disaster of walking away. But if they won’t take advantage of that, we owe our soldiers a ticket home.

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The Imperative of War: A Life Recruited at 17, Taken at 18

Military members transported Pfc. Le Ron A. Wilson’s coffin in Queens.
Kitra Cahana/The New York Times

Published: July 18, 2007

A little more than a year ago, Le Ron A. Wilson, not yet 18, walked into the military recruiting center on Jamaica Avenue in Queens and signed up to serve in the Army. He had the kind of brains and drive that make a good soldier, the persistence that wears down parents. His mother, Simona Francis, gave her permission.

Yesterday, not far from the recruiting center, the short, happy life of Le Ron Wilson was recalled at a funeral Mass in Christ the King Church. Twice named soldier of the month in his platoon, a specialist in the repair of weapons, a correspondent with scores of friends on his MySpace page, Private First Class Wilson and another soldier were killed on July 6 by a roadside bomb.

Many of those in the church yesterday wore buttons with his image. The pictures that show him fresh-faced do not lie. He was born on Nov. 16, 1988. He was not yet 13 during the attacks of Sept. 11 and never voted for a president. He barely had to shave.

He is among the youngest soldiers killed in Iraq. Of more than 3,600 soldiers who have died in the war, about 30 have been 18. Tens of thousands of Iraqis young and old have also lost their lives.

In the pews, his classmates from Thomas Edison High School dabbed their eyes.

“Me and Danielle, one of our friends, tried to talk him out of it,” said Lilibel Araullo, 19, recalling when he enlisted. “A few others signed up. Justin. Derrick. I went to see him down in Savannah, before he left.

“Last time I heard from him was in June, a phone call, he was telling me it was hot over there,” she said. “I told him: ‘Message me on MySpace. Let me know you’re O.K.’ So I would get messages from him — ‘I’m alive, I’m okay.’ ”

These are the rites of connection for the young. Rituals for the dead are woven into the church and the military. For the church, a bishop came; for the Army, a general. The bishop, Octavio Cisneros, recalled the suffering of the mother of Jesus, and prayed that she would bring peace to Private Wilson’s mother. The general, Bill Phillips, spoke of the fellowship of soldiers, their care for one another and their mission.

He read the citations for the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star and the Combat Action Badge for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the name given to the invasion that started more than four years ago as a mission to eradicate weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, and in retribution for the Sept. 11 attacks, which the Iraqis had nothing to do with.

The name of the operation is not heard so often these days.

The medals and a framed flag were presented to his mother. Ms. Francis handed them to relatives. Then the bishop, stood to begin the final prayers in the church.

“Into your hands, father of mercies, we commend our brother Le Ron,” Bishop Cisneros said.

When he was done, Ms. Francis strode behind her son’s coffin, composed but struggling.

The young people did not bother. They wept openly, then pooled together in cars, ready to join the procession to Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, where they would lay their friend down.

“A girlfriend? Not in high school,” said Ms. Araullo. “He went to Hawaii, on recreation; there was a girl named Roxanne he met that he liked. That was before he went to Iraq.”

A few blocks away, as the funeral procession moved east, it was break time at the military recruiting center where Le Ron Wilson declared that he would become a soldier.

Two girls cantered streetward, down a flight of stairs, out into the sunshine. They paused beneath a sign for the center, where they are working through August.

“We go leafleting, we call people up about recruitment,” said one of the girls. “A lot of people say ‘no’ right away because they think they have to go straight to Iraq, but that’s not true, there’s other things they could do.”

She was 14. Her companion was 15. All told, they said, nine teenagers, paid $7.15 an hour by the city’s summer job program, are working at the Jamaica recruiting center.

Military recruiting, of course, is the work of professional soldiers, not teenagers in a summer program to learn how to hold a job.

Still, it is not surprising that they would be drawn into the search for new soldiers. Just as youth must be served, so, too, must the needs of a country at war.


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Fear of Disability the Same on a Course or a Track

Published: July 18, 2007

They uttered the preface of false sensitivity — “with all due respect” — as the sport’s officials launched into an insolent logic that ended with a warped depiction of a disabled athlete as the lucky one:

Your technology is such a gift that it cheats our human triumphs. Our image of courage is undermined by your annoying persistence. Now, if you could kindly retreat to the Island of Misfit Toys so our vision of an athlete will remain unthreatened.

Oscar Pistorius is the latest recipient of the Casey Martin treatment.

“This is the same kind of rhetoric,” Martin said when he was reached Monday, adding: “When they see something different, they put up resistance. It happened to me and now to this gentleman.”

Martin was born with a painful circulatory disorder that left his right leg atrophied and vulnerable to fracture. After ascending in his sport despite his disability, he fought intractable PGA officials for years to use a cart on tour.

Pistorius was born without a fibula in his lower legs, which necessitated a double amputation when he was 11 months old. After breaking Paralympic records, he is seeking a chance to qualify among able-bodied runners for the 2008 Beijing Games on the might of his talent and j-shaped prosthetic legs.

The sports and disabilities of Pistorius and Martin differ, but there are many parallels in ignorance and duplicity. In the late 1990s, the PGA’s lawyers argued for courts to reject Martin’s cart needs, declaring that fitness and stamina were competitive parts of an 18-hole round. And they did so without a note of satire during the John Daly era.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Martin’s favor under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Within minutes, incredulity settled over some Tour players.

“Now there’s the question, what is a disability?” Stuart Appleby said at the time. “My concern is that they’ve opened a can of worms, and how big is that can?”

An Altoids mint tin, at most. The predicted ant line of players who would claim a disability in order to use a cart never materialized.

There are fears of irrational levels swirling about Pistorius, too, with track bloggers and academics wondering if athletes will schedule elective amputations to be the next Bionic Man. Don’t they know Olympic athletes can’t so much as use a wart remover without a medical explanation?

“There’s not one runner in the world that would give up his legs to have what this runner does,” said Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon. “That’s the situation I went through. I’d say, yes, having a golf cart would be nice at times for anyone, but no one would be willing to swap legs with me to have it.”

Martin is not offering naïveté here. Just reason. He, like everyone, would like to see the scientific findings on whether Pistorius’s prosthetic is fair and square. So far, it seems his carbon legs, called Cheetahs, may produce less wind resistance, but natural legs return more energy per stride. His footing may be spring bound, but his traction is poor on moist lanes.

It’s also worth pointing out that if Pistorius’s miracle legs were such an advantage, then all Paralympic runners would finish with times rivaling those of the best able-bodied athletes. In the debate of what’s fair, Pistorius has been diminished as an athlete.

This is the real failure of track leadership. The fear of the disabled athlete has become an obstruction to inspiration and a hindrance to track’s self-interest. For months, track officials have worried that the sanctity of their sport could be put at risk by Pistorius.

“It affects the purity of sport,” Elio Locatelli of the International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, has said. “Next will be another device where people can fly with something on their back.”

First, George Jetson is not trying out for the Olympics. Second, a track executive’s claim on integrity is disingenuous given the history of doping scandals that have left track as a kissing cousin to cycling.

Track needs Pistorius to be seen, not shooed away. Track needs Pistorius to restore its image, not to be cast away in a squandered moment of inspiration.

“You think about all the people who come back from the war, and anyone in a situation where they lose a limb,” Martin said. “And then to see this guy run, do you know what that would do for people? They can say: ‘Hey, even if I don’t run in the Olympics, I can get out there and be active, be athletic. My life doesn’t have to come to an end.’ ”

Track officials should inspect the science and push for fairness but end a defiance that only illuminates their deficit of enlightenment. If research proves a competitive edge for Cheetahs, track’s caretakers can look for ways to modify Pistorius’s advantage. But they should do whatever it takes to make Pistorius a potential fit as an Olympic athlete.

Track’s insular officials should see Pistorius as someone who opens doors, not as a gate crasher to an Olympic ideal. His disability is an opportunity for track, not an absurd ally in cheating.


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

How did Elizabeth Edwards become the most interesting spouse of the 2008 presidential campaign? As NBC News’s First Read puts it, “We knew it was possible that a spouse might become the story in this presidential race. But [we] thought it would be Bill, not Elizabeth Edwards.”

At Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein proposes “three possible theories about why Elizabeth Edwards is erupting with increasing frequency.” They are:

1. That’s just who she is. (I can attest to the veracity of this one, and love that quality in her.)
2. She’s in what-the-hell mode, given her chronic illness. (Who knows?)
3. Edwards is slipping in non-Iowa polls, slipping behind Bill Richardson in New Hampshire, and the campaign believes it’s time to start taking the front-runners down, using its most potent, bullet-proof cannon. (A real possibility.)

Can the shoot-from-the-hip appeal of Mrs. Edwards save Mr. Edwards’s campaign? He’s fallen to fourth place ­ behind No. 3, “No One” in the decidedly unofficial rankings of the Democratic field, written by Chuck Todd and Marc Ambinder for National Journal.

The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat thinks not. “Frankly, I’ve always thought that the media has given too much credit to Edwards — and in the process, artificially inflated his candidacy — by consistently lumping him in a ‘top three’ with Clinton and Obama,” Douthat writes. “He’s a one-term Senator with no significant constituency in his home region who didn’t exactly dazzle in his previous national audition - failing to capitalize on a broken-field chance at the nomination after Howard Dean imploded in the ‘04 primaries, and then failing to distinguish himself as John Kerry’s running mate in the fall.”

O.K., Ross, but tell us what you really think:

He has no foreign-policy experience whatsoever, and he admits to badly flubbing his biggest test on that front, the Iraq War authorization vote — a test, incidentally, that his similarly-inexperienced rival Obama passed with flying colors. And while his policy proposals may be admirably detailed, he’s preaching what often feels like a “war on poverty” populism to an electorate that seems to be looking for more of a Jim Webb-style “save the middle class” populism; his “wealth versus work” ‘04 campaign, ironically enough, seems like it would be better-suited to the present moment than the “lift-up-the-underclass” themes he’s emphasizing this time around.

Finally, he oozes smarm: He’s got all of Mitt Romney’s inauthenticity problems with hardly any of the substantive achievements. Everyone who’s met him or worked for him thinks the world of him, and no doubt he’s just as lovely as they say — but when he talks, I cringe. And to judge by the polls, I’m not alone.

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