Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Letters from Iwo" revisited

There's an interesting discussion of Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" in reaction to a post by Robert Farley on Lawyers, Guns and Money. In response to criticism of Eastwood's film by those who claim he romanticizes the Japanese Imperial Army and overlooks its atrocities, Farley argues that the film accurately presents the IPA's true nature and specifically depicts the qualities that led to well-documented Japanese atrocities in Nanking, Manila, Bataan and elsewhere in the Pacific Theater.

Farley goes on the state: "Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characteristics that make an army likely to commit atrocities also make it ineffective on the battlefield."

Maybe in Asia, but not so much in the European war. The German army of 1940-43 was hardly "ineffective" and, by late 1944, the Red Army had finally become a modern and irresistible force (thanks in part to an infusion of American weaponry and transport). The Red Army's notorious rapes and other atrocities in East Prussia and later, during the siege of Berlin, occurred at the peak of its military efficiency.

The difference, of course, is that the advancing Red Army was officially encouraged to seek revenge for years of atrocities perpetrated on fellow soldiers and citizens by the Germans in the Soviet Union. Catherine Merridale, in her fine book Ivan's War (2006), estimates that 7.5 million civilians died during the Nazi occupation of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and other areas of the Soviet Union between 1941-45. Altogether 8 million Soviet soldiers died, including more than 3 million Soviet POW's who were shot, starved, worked to death or died of disease or medical experiments in conditions so vile that they can scarcely be imagined. Only 900,000 Soviet POW's were still alive in German prison camps when the war ended, for a mortality rate of 73%. (Of 3.1 million Germans sent to Soviet POW camps, about 474,000 or 15% died in captivity.)

The desire to avenge these deaths, and the widespread destruction of Soviet towns and cities, was a powerful motivation for the Red Army as it campaigned through East Prussia and Germany, pillaging on a large scale. Rape was common despite official condemnations (and even some executions), though Soviet archives contain little reliable data on its scale.

By contrast, revenge was less of a motive for atrocities by Japanese troops when U.S. marines landed on Iwo. The firebombing of Japanese cities by American B-29's had barely begun by February 19, 1945, when the 35-day battle for Iwo began (1). Since the beginning of the conflict in the Pacific, summary execution of those attempting to surrender was routine and expected by both sides.

Under the code of bushido, it was a sign of moral weakness and disloyalty for anyone, including enemy soldiers and civilians, to submit to capture. Prisoners, therefore, lost all claim to respect and humane treatment in the eyes of their captors (2). The bushido tradition explains both the mass suicides of Japanese soldiers (and, on Saipan, civilians) and the atrocities inflicted on their military and civilian captives.

As for "Letters from Iwo Jima," I thought it was historically accurate and exceptionally well done, especially the acting and cinematography. It was a bloody but ultimately pointless battle fought by Japanese and Americans whose lives were grossly undervalued by their military leaders. Both Eastwood films present Iwo from their point of view as a kind of social history of a battle whose intensity and carnage was exceeded only by the U.S. invasion of Okinawa exactly 62 years ago today.


(1) The cataclysmic raid on Tokyo occurred on March 9-10, 1945, killing an estimated 72,489 civilians in what was likely "the most devastating single raid ever carried out by aircraft in any war including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombing of Dresden." The battle for Iwo Jima ended about two weeks later.

(2) The death rate for allied POW's in Japanese camps was about 37%, slightly higher than the death rate for German POW's in Soviet camps. By contrast, the rate for British and American POW's in German custody was 3.5% from 1939-45.

The punishment culture

In an article headlined "U.K. headed for prison meltdown," describing the rapid increase in prison populations in the U.K., the London Guardian notes:
"The last three years has seen a 26% increase in the number of children and young people criminalised and seven times as much is spent on youth custody as on prevention schemes."
The head of the U.K.'s prison service warns that:
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if by 2010 there were 100,000 people in prison. I think there is every chance that, at the end of the decade, we will look back nostalgically at a figure of 80,000. The US experience shows there is no end to this."
To see how far they still have to go towards adopting the U.S. model, the Brits might take a look at numbers like these (showing juvenile custody rates per 100,000 population):
  • U.S. custody rate - all juveniles ....307
  • White juveniles.......................190
  • All minorities........................502
  • Blacks................................754
  • Hispanic..............................348
  • Native Americans......................496
  • Asians................................113
Here are a few western European rates per 100,000:
  • U.K....................................23
  • France..................................6
  • Spain...................................2
  • Finland.................................0.2
This huge disparity isn't limited to juvenile inmates. Here's a sampling of incarceration rates for adults per 100,000 population:
  • U.S. .................................737
  • England/Wales.........................139
  • Canada................................116
  • Germany................................91
  • France.................................85
The U.S. currently has 2,193,798 inmates in its prisons and jails. China, with four times the population, comes in second with 1,548,498 prisoners.

These numbers begin to reveal the true dimensions of what Barbara Ehrenreich once described as the U.S. "punishment culture." And they raise a number of questions:
  • Are too many convicted criminals put in jail for offenses that merit lesser sanctions such as probation and drug and alcohol rehab programs? Is drug addiction fundamentally a public-health challenge rather than a concern of the criminal-justice system?

  • Does it make sense to lock people up for long periods when nothing is being done to prepare them for eventual release? (In Oregon, for example, 80% of all inmates are imprisoned for misdemeanors and will released within one year.) Should prisons focus more on education, job training, drug and alcohol rehab and counseling programs? Should more services be available to ex-cons after their release?
  • How should we interpret the data showing that black, Hispanic and Native American juveniles are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites? Are minority juveniles more likely to be charged with serious offenses? Are they more likely to be sentenced to longer terms in detention?
  • How does the huge increase in the number of adult ex-convicts, especially among minorities, affect their families, communities and job prospects? Should their civil rights, including the right to vote, be restored after they complete parole to give them a larger stake in their communities?

  • Has a politician ever met a harsher punishment that he or she didn't like—and vote for? (But, here in Oregon, the legislature recently declined to lower the blood-alcohol threshold for drunk driving from 0.08% to 0.05%.) Should the discretion once given to judges in sentencing be restored?

  • To what extent did the increase in prison populations affect declining (but now rising in some categories) crime rates since 1990?
  • Should prison be the placement of last (or first) resort for the 300,000 inmates who are mentally ill in the U.S.—or the other 700,000 mentally-ill inmates on probation or parole?
For a detailed response to these and related questions, take a look at the current New York Review of Books article, "The American Prison Nightmare."


Juvenile custody rates in the U.S.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), U.S. Department of Justice. Custody rates by state are also shown in detail, along with a vast wealth of related data about the juvenile justice system. One example: the custody rate for blacks in California is six times higher than the rate for whites.

Custody rates in Europe: London Guardian, March 31, 2007

Comparative rates for adults: International Centre for Prison Studies, London. Only Russia comes close to the U.S. in terms of adult incarceration rates, estimated at 613 per 100,000 in 2007.

New York Review of Books article, "The American Prison Nightmare," April 12, 2007. The article notes that:
By the late 1990s, 60 percent of federal inmates were in for drug offenses. The result is an ever-growing prison system, populated to a significant degree by people who need not be there. It was no liberal advocate but Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who offered a damning view of criminal justice in the United States: "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long."
The definitive statistical source on juvenile crime is Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

PHOTO: A holding cell for juveniles in the maximum-security Wood County (Ohio) detention center.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Blues Break: John Lee Hooker And Bonnie Raitt - "I'm in the Mood"

This fine version of the classic also demonstrates Raitt's talent as a slide guitarist.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Zbig is back

In the six years it has been in office, the Bush administration has managed to elevate the reputations of its predecessors, even causing some people to become nostalgic for that staunch liberal, Richard Nixon.

Some thirty years ago, I considered Zbigniew Brzezenski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, to be a hard-core cold warrior dedicated to confrontation with the Soviet Union and mindless support for that notorious anticommunist despot, the Shah of Iran. Lately, with his new book and various public appearances (including an interview last week on The Daily Show), Zbig has emerged as an elder statesman worthy of a close look. His Sunday column in the Washington Post is a powerful indictment of six years of Bush's "suicidal statecraft." You should read the whole column, but here's a lengthy excerpt to entice you:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

But the little secret here may be that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a "war on terror" did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Support for President Bush in the 2004 elections was also mobilized in part by the notion that "a nation at war" does not change its commander in chief in midstream. The sense of a pervasive but otherwise imprecise danger was thus channeled in a politically expedient direction by the mobilizing appeal of being "at war."

To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own -- and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.

That is the result of five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror, quite unlike the more muted reactions of several other nations (Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, to mention just a few) that also have suffered painful terrorist acts. In his latest justification for his war in Iraq, President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging it lest al-Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.

Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.

That America has become insecure and more paranoid is hardly debatable. A recent study reported that in 2003, Congress identified 160 sites as potentially important national targets for would-be terrorists. With lobbyists weighing in, by the end of that year the list had grown to 1,849; by the end of 2004, to 28,360; by 2005, to 77,769. The national database of possible targets now has some 300,000 items in it, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and an Illinois Apple and Pork Festival.

Just last week, here in Washington, on my way to visit a journalistic office, I had to pass through one of the absurd "security checks" that have proliferated in almost all the privately owned office buildings in this capital -- and in New York City... Yet such "security" procedures have become routine, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and further contributing to a siege mentality.

Government at every level has stimulated the paranoia. Consider, for example, the electronic billboards over interstate highways urging motorists to "Report Suspicious Activity" (drivers in turbans?). Some mass media have made their own contribution. The cable channels and some print media have found that horror scenarios attract audiences, while terror "experts" as "consultants" provide authenticity for the apocalyptic visions fed to the American public. Hence the proliferation of programs with bearded "terrorists" as the central villains. Their general effect is to reinforce the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that is said to increasingly threaten the lives of all Americans.

The entertainment industry has also jumped into the act. Hence the TV serials and films in which the evil characters have recognizable Arab features, sometimes highlighted by religious gestures, that exploit public anxiety and stimulate Islamophobia. ..

The atmosphere generated by the "war on terror" has encouraged legal and political harassment of Arab Americans (generally loyal Americans) for conduct that has not been unique to them...

The record is even more troubling in the general area of civil rights. The culture of fear has bred intolerance, suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that undermine fundamental notions of justice. Innocent until proven guilty has been diluted if not undone, with some -- even U.S. citizens -- incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without effective and prompt access to due process... Someday Americans will be as ashamed of this record as they now have become of the earlier instances in U.S. history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the few.

In the meantime, the "war on terror" has gravely damaged the United States internationally. For Muslims, the similarity between the rough treatment of Iraqi civilians by the U.S. military and of the Palestinians by the Israelis has prompted a widespread sense of hostility toward the United States in general. It's not the "war on terror" that angers Muslims watching the news on television, it's the victimization of Arab civilians. And the resentment is not limited to Muslims. A recent BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries that sought respondents' assessments of the role of states in international affairs resulted in Israel, Iran and the United States being rated (in that order) as the states with "the most negative influence on the world." Alas, for some that is the new axis of evil!

The events of 9/11 could have resulted in a truly global solidarity against extremism and terrorism. A global alliance of moderates, including Muslim ones, engaged in a deliberate campaign both to extirpate the specific terrorist networks and to terminate the political conflicts that spawn terrorism would have been more productive than a demagogically proclaimed and largely solitary U.S. "war on terror" against "Islamo-fascism." Only a confidently determined and reasonable America can promote genuine international security which then leaves no political space for terrorism.

Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, "Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia"? Even in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some sense. Let us be true to our traditions.

Not surprisingly, this latest round of public appearances has a lot to do with the release of Brzezinski's new book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.

PHOTO: Zbig and Jimmy in the White House, back in the day (1977).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Either way

The evidence of impending climate change is now so overwhelming and incontrovertible that those who reject it can only be compared to flat-earthers and the handful of people who still insist that cigarettes don't really cause cancer. But if the remaining skeptics are right, improbable as it seems, then a massive international program to stop or reverse global warming would, in addition to being unnecessary, have adverse economic effects on the U.S. economy.

For present purposes, I'll assume
contrary to all the evidencethat human activity has negligible effects on natural processes that are producing rapid climate change. If that hypothesis were somehow proven true, I submit that there are other valid reasons for curtailing the emission of greenhouse gases, even if the earth's climate is evolving on its own in ways that we don't yet understand.

The reason: greenhouse gases are intimately associated with human activities that need to be restricted for other reasons having nothing to do with global climate change.

The primary greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, though methane is a potent contributor as well (1). CO2 contributes anywhere from 9-26% of greenhouse gases, methane 4-9%, ozone 3-7% (2). Carbon dioxide is directly produced and consumed by living organisms through respiration, of course, but the following human activities are among the major causes of greenhouse gases and air pollution:

  • Burning fossil fuels like oil and coal, which also produces particulates and soot, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ozone and other air pollutants. Industrial societies are heavily dependent on polluting fossil fuels for everything from generating electricity to their transportation systems.

  • Deforestation, including slash-and-burn agriculture that emits large volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere through fires and the gradual decay of wood. The loss of forest cover and vegetation also reduces the earth's ability to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. Slash-and-burn agriculture also produces particulates, soot, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. Urbanization is associated with concentrated pollution and the large-scale loss of wetlands, farmland, forests and vegetation cover.

  • Livestock farming practices, including giant industrial hog farms, can produce methane and many noxious pollutants, from toxic wastes to foul odors.

  • Giant landfills contribute methane and other greenhouse gases along with water pollution and noxious odors. They also consume large tracts of land and rely on the transportation grid to transport waste at great expense, often over large distances.
Note that there are compelling independent reasons for reducing known pollutants (3) from all these sources apart from the greenhouse gases they produce—even if they played no role whatsoever in global climate change.

So, for example, a reduction in oil consumption would not only reduce greenhouse gases from that source; it would have numerous other benefits, including:
  • A reduction in other forms of pollution such as particulates and soot, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and ozone.

  • Less dependence on foreign sources of oil, which has led to various wars and interventions as countries act to protect their energy.
  • Development of alternative energy sources that don't pollute.
  • An improvement in the U.S. balance of trade deficit, which has increased in proportion to rising oil prices.

  • The development of alternative transportation systems that are more efficient than urban freeways and less dependent on the automobile.
A large-scale investment in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions would help cleanse the planet of known pollutants and produce massive long-term benefits even if humans contribute nothing to planetary climate change. The point is: these are things we should be doing anyway (4), for other reasons, even if climate change is a myth.

But, of course, it's not.


(1) Water vapor, not including clouds, causes 36-70% of the greenhouse effect on the earth's atmosphere. Human activity doesn't affect water vapor levels on a planetary scale.

(2) All these estimates are taken from Wikipedia's articles on greenhouse gases.

(3) Only the brain-dead would argue, for example, that particulates pose no health risk to humans or animals. Air quality here in the western U.S. is already being affected by upwind sources in China, whose growing economy generates vast quantities of soot, particulates and other aerosols.

(4) Last month I proposed a Car-Free Day for Oregon drivers as one baby step in the needed direction. Since the scope of this posting is relatively narrow, I'll defer until later any discussion of related issues like population growth, poverty and Third-World economic development.

GRAPH: Changes in global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from 1870 to 2000.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Blues Break: Salif Keita - "Folon"

A moving performance by Salif Keita on the Corey Harris documentary "From Mali to Mississippi."

Geaghan: Demanding a recount

"Each United States attorney is subject to removal by the President."

--United States Code, Title 28, Section 541 (c)

Last month, in a posting on John McCain's policy on Iraq, I wrote in passing that Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post "has built his entire career as a columnist on being unerringly wrong." This morning, though, I took a look at Krauthammer's latest column on the Washington scandal du jour involving the forced resignations of eight U.S. attorneys. Krauthammer's first sentence, to my surprise, read: "Alberto Gonzales has to go." The column went on to describe the AG's inept handling of this matter, which has steadily compounded his difficulties. His resignation will soon add his name to the list of those recently purged from DOJ's payroll.

But Krauthammer can't avoid slipping into familiar rhetorical practices. He goes on to write:
"And why did Gonzales have to claim that the firings were done with no coordination with the White House? That’s absurd. Why shouldn’t there be White House involvement? That is nothing to be defensive about. Does anyone imagine that Janet Reno fired all 93 U.S. attorneys in March 1993, giving them all of 10 days to clear out, without White House involvement?
"The Bush administration fired eight.
This is disingenuous in the extreme. It implies that the Bush administration showed great restraint, politically speaking, by only firing 9% as many U.S. attorneys as the Clinton administration. So why the uproar, he wonders (if only to himself)? In fact (as Karl Rove has admitted), the Bush administration also fired all 93 U.S. attorneys after it schemed its way into office in 2000, then fired the other eight in December 2006. It's now common knowledge, of course, that this has been the customary practice of presidents for a very long time, though it's arguably bad for the country if talented USA's of either party are automatically forced out of their jobs with each change of administration (1).

An accurate count of deposed USA's would show that Clinton fired 93 USA's and Bush fired 101, including the eight who were deposed for political reasons after the 2006 mid-term elections.

As noted in the epigram to this post, federal law provides that "each" U.S. attorney is "subject to removal by the President." The obvious exception, which goes to the heart of this controversy, is that removal for political reasons may amount to obstruction of justice or, at best, an unethical intrusion of partisan motivations into criminal prosecutions (2).


(1) Kris Olson, Oregon's well-regarded U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, challenged this practice and publicly pleaded to retain her position after the 2000 election, perhaps under the mistaken impression that George W. Bush was not the ideologue he quickly proved himself to be.

(2) Earlier this month I commented on a recent study (originally brought to my attention by Paul Krugman's column), as follows:
"Of the 375 investigations or indictments of candidates and elected officials, only 17.8% involved Republicans. Either the process is rigged, as Krugman charges, or Republicans are 5.6 times less likely to be corrupt than other politicians. "
PHOTO: U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spitting on familiar ground

"They use thought only to reinforce their prejudices, and speech only to disguise their thoughts."

—Voltaire (1694-1778), Dialogue XIV

More than three decades after the end of the war in Vietnam, the far right has launched another savage and dishonest campaign against the antiwar movement for its alleged disrespect of U.S. soldiers and veterans, including this week's shrill denunciations of a small group of anarchists who burned a U.S. soldier in effigy during a massive antiwar demonstration here in Portland. The focus, not surprisingly, is on the thirty anarchists rather than the 15,000 people who demonstrated peacefully. Only 14 arrests, on relatively minor charges, were made.

Now there are reports, since discredited, of incidents involving demonstrators who alleged spat on, or near, veterans in New York and Washington, D.C.

This loathsome strategy is already too familiar from the Vietnam years and their aftermath, as discussed on the very first post to appear on Runes in December, 2006. In each case, the reported incidents were either grossly exaggerated or didn't occur at all. As Jack Shafer writes at Slate, in reference to a Newsweek article that perpetuated this pseudohistory:
"Like other urban myths, the spit story gains power every time it's repeated and nobody challenges it. Repeated often enough, it finally sears itself into the minds of the writers and editors at Newsweek as fact."
Shafer continues:
"The myth persists because: 1) Those who didn't go to Vietnam -- that being most of us -- don't dare contradict the "experience" of those who did; 2) the story helps maintain the perfect sense of shame many of us feel about the way we ignored our Vietvets; 3) the press keeps the story in play by uncritically repeating it, as the Times and U.S. News did; and 4) because any fool with 33 cents and the gumption to repeat the myth in his letter to the editor can keep it in circulation. Most recent mentions of the spitting protester in Nexis are of this variety."
An anonymous comment on my earlier posting added:
"What I find particularly troubling about seeing headlines and articles like this is that I don't think the journalists involved even realize they're saying something that anyone would disagree with or take issue with in any way. The propaganda here is so thick and constant it's become unconscious. Only through decades of repetition can something so utterly false become this assimilated into our everyday discourse."
Meanwhile, right-wing hysteria—and the resort to such desperate tactics—seems to increase in direct proportion to public opposition to Bush's illegal war in Iraq.

PHOTO: Part of a large antiwar demonstration in Portland, Oregon, in March, 2006. (Photo by author.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blues Break: Keb Mo and Corey Harris - "Sweet Home Chicago"

Keb Mo (born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles) and Corey Harris perform a fine duet version of this classic. Corey Harris distinguished himself in "Feel Like Going Home," directed by Martin Scorcese. This documentary is one of seven installments in 2003 PBS series called "The Blues." Harris demonstrates that he's a capable anthropologist as well as a fine blues musician.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Geaghan: Monday snippets

Politicizing justice

Politics and the legal system are hardly strangers, but the Bush administration seems unable to distinguish the two. With congress investigating, Paul Krugman has also picked up this theme in some of his recent columns. Some excerpts:
"The Gonzales Eight were fired because they wouldn’t go along with the Bush administration’s politicization of justice. But statistical evidence suggests that many other prosecutors decided to protect their jobs or further their careers by doing what the administration wanted them to do: harass Democrats while turning a blind eye to Republican malfeasance.

"Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny.
In other words: Of the 375 investigations or indictments of candidates and elected officials, only 17.8% involved Republicans. Either the process is rigged, as Krugman charges, or Republicans are 5.6 times less likely to be corrupt than other politicians. I wonder which it is...

Krugman continues:
"How can this have been happening without a national uproar? The authors explain: 'We believe that this tremendous disparity is politically motivated and it occurs because the local (non-statewide and non-Congressional) investigations occur under the radar of a diligent national press. Each instance is treated by a local beat reporter as an isolated case that is only of local interest.'

"And let’s not forget that Karl Rove’s candidates have a history of benefiting from conveniently timed federal investigations. Last year Molly Ivins reminded her readers of a curious pattern during Mr. Rove’s time in Texas: “In election years, there always seemed to be an F.B.I. investigation of some sitting Democrat either announced or leaked to the press. After the election was over, the allegations often vanished.” [March 9, 2007]
UPDATE: The full Shields/Cragan study is available online thanks to e Pluribus Media. Unlike the Krugman article, which requires a NYT subscription, it's free.

Swiss imperialism on the march

Early this month, meanwhile, an international incident occurred in the Alps that was shockingly ignored by media everywhere: Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein, its neighbor. Peter Stamm, writing from Winterthur, Switzerland, comments on the Swiss incursion in the NYT:

"MOST Swiss newspapers didn’t even bother to report that on March 1, 170 Swiss Army troops crossed the border into Liechtenstein.

"Not that we see that many invasions here in the Alps, but it soon became clear that this was simply an error in orienteering. The incident occurred in bad weather and in the middle of the night, when Switzerland is hard to tell apart from its neighbors. 'It was all so dark out there,' said one of the misdirected recruits.

"The incursion caused no political stir, and was played down by the civil authorities as well as the army. Aristocratic titles may be forbidden in Switzerland, while the head of Liechtenstein is a hereditary monarch; and Liechtenstein does let people get behind the wheel who would classify as drunk in Switzerland. But there remain far more commonalities than differences between our two countries.

"We speak the same dialect and spend the same francs, and we go from one country to the other as though there were no border. Many Swiss view Liechtenstein as a kind of 27th canton, even if the principality has acted more and more independently in recent years: it joined the United Nations 12 years before we did and became part of the European Economic Area ­ which we Swiss have yet to do.

"But there’s really no reason to invade, especially considering that Liechtenstein possesses neither a nuclear program nor any weapons of mass destruction. In fact, it hasn’t even had an army in nearly 150 years.

"The fact that our infantry units lost their bearings will hardly surprise anyone familiar with the Swiss Army. Nor should it come as a shock that although the invaders were armed with rifles, they had no ammunition. As a rule, the assault rifles (every soldier keeps his weapon at home) are used only for suicides and the occasional violent crime. In the service, they mostly function as ballast for long marches ­ one of the Swiss Army’s most popular pastimes.

"Switzerland has been neutral for 500 years, and these days it’s hard to imagine who might attack us or what enemy the army should prepare to fight. Thus over the course of the past several decades the army has acquired an increasingly quaint character. Carrier pigeons were used until 1994, and the bicycle units were disbanded only four years ago. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that the high command realized that two-thirds of the more than 20,000 fortifications scattered throughout the country were unnecessary and could be closed.
In addition to these 20,000 "fortifications," there are 261,418 bomb shelters in Switzerland. During the cold war years, Swiss law required these elaborate 8-by-11-foot shelters in every home, complete with filtered ventilation. Since 1990 or so, the number of new shelters has fallen dramatically (though 6,000 were installed last year). My friends in Geneva and Zurich, like many Swiss families, have always used their shelter as a wine cellar, for which it is perfectly suited. As they liked to joke, they could always go into their shelters and get drunk while awaiting nuclear armageddon.

Stamm continues:
"The Swiss Army has really been in crisis ever since a 1989 plebiscite in which more than a third of voters declared that Switzerland no longer even needed a military. That was the same year we lost our one halfway credible enemy ­ Communist Eastern Europe, which the army liked to call Redland during exercises.

"Nowadays, the army tries to legitimize its existence by offering emergency relief and auxiliary support at sporting events. But compulsory military service remains as inviolable in Switzerland as the monarchy is in Liechtenstein, and so the only way to decrease the number of troops has been to shorten the time of service or declare as many draftees as possible unfit for service.

"This has enabled a substantial downsizing of the army during the past 12 years, from 600,000 personnel to a still respectable 240,000. Likewise, since the cold war, military spending has declined to 9 percent of the national budget from 35 percent.

"Because Swiss politicians are giving the army increasingly less money, economical means must be found to keep the troops occupied. Shoes being cheaper than ammunition, the rank and file just keep on marching. Switzerland may not have the most powerful army in the world, but it does have the most stalwart marchers. If the planet ever runs out of oil, our soldiers will be the last ones moving.

"Invading Liechtenstein was admittedly a foolish thing to do, but at least the Swiss Army has shown it knows how to bring a failed military action to a happy conclusion. You just turn around and sneak back home as quickly and quietly as you can before anybody notices.

"And the next day you call on the head of the foreign territory and offer a formal apology."
George, are you listening? It might just be that simple...

PHOTO #1: George and Al yucking it up.

PHOTO #2: The Swiss army on maneuvers. And next... Monaco?

Blues Break: Bettye LaVette - "Joy"

The great soul singer Bettye LaVette covers Lucida Williams' "Joy" at a concert in The Netherlands. For a much better audio version, plus an interview and more of her music, visit NPR's American Routes for March 11, 2007. (To go directly to "Joy," start the audio at 10:00 minutes.)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

IWD + 3

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Volume II)
Thursday, March 8th, was International Women's Day and Blog Against Sexism Day. Since I was out of town for part of the week, I'm getting to this topic three days late. But I certainly don't want to overlook it.

The various forms of sexism have already been described, with his usual flair and insight, by our friend Ellis at Disambiguation. My focus will be on the ultimate goals of the women's movement, which from my perspective go far beyond such familiar issues as legal and economic equality and freedom from discrimination in employment, although those and similar goals remain vital and, far too often, unfulfilled.

International Women's Day (IWD) has been celebrated since 1909. Its organizers were deeply involved in the labor movement, and the women's suffrage movement would soon move back to the center of the national political debate (leading to final ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920). It's revealing that only two countries, Canada and Australia, formally recognize IWD (perhaps due to its early association with socialist women's movements).

More than two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and more than forty years after "second wave" feminism emerged, many of the significant goals of feminism remain elusive. Major pieces of legislation have failed to gain enough political support in the U.S., including:
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): To date, 185 countries have adopted this international treaty. The U.S. remains the only country in the industrialized world that has not adopted the Convention, which is the first "to comprehensively address fundamental rights for women in politics, health care, education, economics, employment, law, property, and marriage and family relations." The Convention has been considered several times by the U.S. Senate since 1980, and was approved by a 12-7 vote in the Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 2002. But the full Senate has never voted on it. Action is long overdue (1).

  • The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which simply provides: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." The ERA has a very long and complicated history that reveals much about the extent of sexism and recent conservative dominance in U.S. politics. By 1979, the ERA has fallen just three states short of ratification by the necessary 38 states. The current strategy is to seek passage in three additional states, though it's unclear whether such action would come too late to salvage the ERA.
As essential as these (and related) political and economic goals are, the women's movement will finally succeed when gender no longer makes any cultural difference. This goal includes not just legal and economic equality, but a deeper recognition that women are (in the words of Ellis) "fully autonomous agents." No a priori (2) expectations should be imposed on women unless they are based on actual physical differences, notably the biological fact that only women (barring major medical breakthroughs) can get pregnant and bear children. But the real implications of those physical differences are minimal, and the role of men in raising children also deserves legal recognition (in the form of paid parental leave).

One of the most common a priori expectations about women is that they are physically less able than men and must be protected from certain dangers. Conservatives opposed to the ERA argued, for example, that its passage would require women to register for the draft and be assigned to combat duties. With 76 American women killed in combat in Iraq and hundreds more wounded, this argument is even less persuasive than it was thirty years ago. One of every seven U.S. soldiers in Iraq is female and many of them have seen combat. Women can function very effectively in combat roles, as they have demonstrated for decades in the Israeli Defense Force and the Russian army during World War II.

Despite the widespread cultural assumption that women are weak, women are subjected to violence by men on an enormous scale across the planet. For example, consider the following:
  • "Globally, women between the age of fifteen and forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined."

  • "At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her. Domestic violence is the largest form of abuse of women worldwide, irrespective of region, culture, ethnicity, education, class and religion."
If women are weak, why must they be beaten or intimidated so often into submission?

One of the conservatives' favorite, and most frivolous, arguments against the ERA was that it would require unisex bathrooms that would violate the privacy of both men and women. However, case law has long recognized and allowed for certain gender distinctions, and a right to privacy, based on actual physical differences.

What about affirmative action
would it have to be abolished in a regime of strict equality? No, not until that regime becomes more of a reality. Affirmative action is a form of reparations for centuries of oppression of women, African Americans, Native Americans and others. Affirmative action is a transitional strategy to bring us to a more egalitarian society as quickly as possible.

But what happens to sexuality if, as suggested above,
"gender no longer makes any cultural difference"? The forms of sexuality that are so pervasive in our popular culture are degrading to both genders, but especially to women. Women are encouraged to exploit their status as sexual objects to find a mate, manipulate men, promote their careers and achieve other social goals. On television and in the movies, in magazine ads and thousands of other images, the message is that women are powerful in large part because they can confer or withhold sexual favors. In my work, I often meet teenagers who feel compelled to shoplift clothing (often including items like thong underpants), jewelry and cosmetics in pursuit of the "look" that would allow them to successfully compete in the sexual marketplace.

Despite the gains women have achieved in advancing their legal and economic standing, this cultural perception of female sexuality degrades and limits their options. Women's roles are still defined, in part, by their sexuality and their ability to conform to male definitions of conduct and sexual desirability.

Third-wave feminism, exemplified by the "girl power" movement, attacks some of these cultural stereotypes head on, often with heroic and intelligent cultural icons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill films of Quentin Tarrentino (3). Both characters, however, operate on mythic levels, and the actors who play them certainly conform to popular standards of youthful female beauty. Still, third-wave feminists recognize that the goals of the women's movement can be expressed in a language that is neither legalistic nor academic, and that its potential beneficiaries aren't limited to white, middle-class women. Third-wave feminism often confronts cultural stereotypes about the autonomy of women and their relationships to each other.

As the character Gale Weathers says in Scream 3, "popular culture is the politics of the 21st century." The radical feminism of the sixties and seventies led the way in deeply examining the role of popular culture in perpetuating women's oppression, including the role of language (4) and visual imagery, but mainstream feminism's focus was on ending legal (de jure) and de facto discrimination. Those objectives have still not been reached, but only a thorough confrontation with popular culture will allow feminists to achieve the deepest goals of the movement.

None of this is meant to suggest that sexuality should be banished from popular culture, or that the exploration of sexual themes automatically degrades women. If both men and women can be liberated from rigid stereotypes, a more enlightened sexuality
freed of exploitation and objectificationmight blossom. It hardly needs to be said that sexuality is a vital human activity that deserves the serious attention of artists, writers, poets, sociologists, psychologists and everyone else.

To take all this a step farther, our long-term goals as a political culture should include banishing
all distinctions based on physical characteristics over which we have no control, including:
  • Gender
  • Race (whatever that is), ethnicity, national origin or any related physical features
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation: Though it's unclear whether homosexuality is the result of genetic or environmental factors, the rights of gay men and women shouldn't depend on the final resolution of that scientific question. As Gore Vidal once said, "homosexuality" should only be used in its adverbial form to describe a kind of activity, not a state of being.
  • Physical limitations: Blind people, for example, may need to be treated differently, but to their advantage (as in special classes and guide dogs).
People need not be defined by the physical attributes that they possessed at birth. Those attributes don't have to be totally ignored, of course, but our essentialist culture tends to emphasize them and define people by them (5). In so doing, everyone loses.


Once again the U.S. distinguishes (and isolates) itself by dragging its feet on an important international treaty. It's a long tradition, involving administrations from both parties, that has recently shunned the Kyoto Protocols and treaties on land mines and the International Criminal Court. This revolutionary nation, founded on principles of human rights, has become the principal bastion of the global status quo.

Article I of CEDAW provides that:
"[A]ny distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."
(2) Here's a quick definition of the term: "A proposition is knowable a priori if it is knowable independently of experience." In other words, it's a rigid assumption or expectation.

(3) See, for example, the fine essay Scream, Popular Culture and Feminism's Third Wave: I'm Not My Mother, by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. She notes that women, in the conservative era from which we may be emerging now, are often apologetic about having feminist views: "I'm not a feminist, but..." She writes:
"This resistance to thinking collectively... has serious political consequences at a time when collective action remains necessary not only to advance feminist goals in an age of globalization but to protect its still-vulnerable achievements in the areas of abortion rights, affirmative action, education and healthcare."
(4) It's distressing to see how often even self-identified feminists, not to mention nonfeminist men, still refer to women as "girls." And "chicks" has still not been relegated to the barnyard where it belongs.

(5) Or, to put it another way, sex is "socially constructed:" the culture has added meanings to gender that far transcend mere physical differences.

GRAPHICS: Taking Place and the United Nations

Friday, March 09, 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly

"The long-standing preoccupation with automobiles has degraded our communities to such a degree - physically and otherwise - that our destinations are no longer places worth reaching."
World Watch Institute
With a nod towards my upcoming post on the Portland region's successes and failures, it's worth noting that sprawl isn't just a phenomenon of large urban areas. I was reminded of this reality during a trip this week to the Oregon coast south of Lincoln City.

It's also worth noting, by way of introducing this topic, that white settlers here in the west had grandiose visions of ever-expanding "cities" everywhere. Lincoln "City" is a good example, with a current population of just 7,849. (Tiny Mill City, Oregon, with 1,546 souls, and Canyon City with 670, are even better.) Less than 90 miles from Portland, Lincoln City has some major advantages that make it a popular destination for beachlovers and retirees, including spectacular Cascade Head to the north (see photo) and (not surprisingly) a broad seven-mile beach.

Unfortunately, Lincoln City has been a long-term victim of unregulated strip development along Highway 101 all the way down to Siletz Bay. This major highway is a nightmare of snarled traffic during the summer months (1). Highway 101 is simply unable to accommodate heavy volumes of tourist traffic, which only increased with the construction of a popular tribal casino on the northern edge of town. The traffic lights aren't synchronized, giving drivers plenty of opportunities to observe sprawl at its worst: a seemingly endless array of gas stations, fast-food emporia, convenience stores, motels, tourist boutiques, factory-outlet strip malls and all the other paraphernalia of unrestrained automobile culture in the U.S. Thousands of signs and billboards, all competing for the attention of numbed drivers, deface the highway corridor in all directions.

Summer cottages and motels line the beach from one end of town to the other (photo, left). A beachcomber might as well be on the Jersey shore, though the surf is higher on this side of the continent. Yet people keep coming, and building: the population of Lincoln County increased by 50% between 1970 and 1990 alone.

Apparently the newcomers were unconcerned about the practical and aesthetic deficiencies of this overbuilt portion of the coast. For generations, Lincoln City's political leadership accepted and applied the received model for economic development: more is better, even if uninhibited growth begins to undermine all the natural advantages of scenic areas. (As one member of my town's city council once said: "If you don't grow, you die"—the ideology of the cancer cell, as novelist Edward Abbey pointed out much earlier.)

Lincoln City, like many other Oregon towns, has an Urban Growth Boundary that is designed to contain sprawl and confine it to designated areas. It also has detailed zoning codes and all the other accoutrements of Oregon's land-use planning system (2). Yet it's clearly not working on any level, and the final result seems little better than unplanned coastal development in places like Connecticut, Alabama and Maryland.

Lincoln City's present city leadership shouldn't bear the blame for this chaos, which is the result of decades of inadequate transportation planning and a lack of sensitivity to aesthetic issues. In fact, Lincoln City seems to grasp the scope of the problem created by that sad legacy, and is trying to address it.

Clearly this is more than a local problem, and it runs far deeper than familiar liberal/conservative disputes over government regulation of land-use planning and design.

During the early phases of the long national decline in educational standards, many public schools abandoned art classes completely. The inevitable result is that Americans have become ever more visually illiterate and desensitized to questions of design. Sprawl seems irresistable, even in the state with the nation's most sophisticated land-use planning scheme (until the passage of Ballot Measure 37, that is). As with clearcuts, Oregonians barely seem to notice the cumulative effects of autocentric development.

The uglier our built landscape becomes, the less likely we are to imagine—much less demand—an alternative. Aside from a relatively small group of new urbanists, few people have undertaken an in-depth critique of the autocentric model and its pernicious effects on our inner life as a culture. As a nation, we're caught in a vicious feedback loop that permeates, and degrades, both our national landscape and our imaginations. There's nothing unusual about Lincoln City except its location: its visual motifs are endlessly repeated across Oregon, from McMinnville to Gresham to Pendleton, and across the country.

The problems caused by dependency on the automobile go far beyond our notorious addiction to oil, and those problems won't be solved by ethanol additives or hybrids.


(1) Producing one of the worst traffic jams I've ever seen one hot day last summer when we were driving to a trailhead on Cascade Head. Traffic was so immobilized that the trip took three hours longer than usual. And, having lived in the New York area for many years, I'm no stranger to colossal traffic snarls. As Leonard Cohen writes in Boogie Street, "I'm wanted at the traffic jam / They're saving me a seat..."—lines that can apply to many places in Oregon, and not just the Portland region. (The large town of Bend in central Oregon deserves special mention as one of the worst examples of rampant unregulated growth.)

(2) Displaying a gift for bureaucratic understatement, Lincoln City's comprehensive plan notes the following: "The public and private forests of the Coast Range provide additional recreational activities, although the forests are primarily managed for the intensive harvest of timber." Whenever you read a phrase like "intensive harvest of timber," imagine large clearcuts (as previously noted here and here). And you can safely substitute "primarily" with "exclusively." Take a virtual tour of the Coast Range east of Lincoln City via Google Earth and you'll see what I mean.

Final note: Yes, I traveled to the coast by automobile—and no, there's no other way to get there. Despite everything, Cascade Head remains a place worth reaching.

PHOTO #1: Hart's Cove on Cascade Head, Oregon Coast (my photo, 2006)

PHOTO #2: Highway 101 in northern Lincoln City, Oregon, from 9,000 feet (Google Earth).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Blues Break: Lightnin' Hopkins - "Questionnaire Blues"

Texas bluesman Sam (Lightnin') Hopkins (1912-82) grew up in rural Texas but spent his later years in Houston. He was a protege of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Diplomatic non-recognition

As plans develop for a regional conference in the Middle East, initiated by the Iraqi government, the U.S. faces the prospect of sitting down at the table with Iran and Syria, two governments that it regularly denounces in terms usually reserved for the naughtiest children. Since the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979, the U.S. has had no diplomatic relations with Iran at all. American "interests" there have been represented by the Pakistani government.

Despite its radical approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, the Bush administration's understanding of diplomatic relations is strangely consistent with most of its predecessors, from Kennedy through Clinton. In brief, that policy has been based on the notion that diplomatic relations can be withheld and thereby used as a kind of "sword" to punish or coerce an unrecognized government. Some prominent examples include:
  • Cuba, most notably, since its 1959 revolution. The "sword" in this case includes another potent and crippling economic weapon, the embargo.
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • The Palestinian Authority
Nonrecognition is usually combined with economic sanctions in an effort to destabilize, or at least delegitimize, governments that have lost Washington's favor (or never had it).

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. finally conferred the "gift" of diplomatic relations on various other states that were formerly isolated and demonized, including Libya (recognized in 2006), Vietnam (1995), Iraq (2003) and China (1979, seven years after Nixon's "opening" in 1972).

Wikipedia's handy definition of "diplomatic relations" describes the concept as a "political act by which one state acknowledges an act or status of another state, or government, thereby according it legitimacy and expressing its intent to bring into force the domestic and international legal consequences of recognition."

"Domestic" consequences of recognition? This definition is flawed because it's far too ambitious, suggesting as it does that recognition is a tool for modifying the behavior of an errant government. I'd offer a more minimal version: diplomatic recognition is a means of establishing a channel for communications between two governments in order to reduce the risk of conflict and facilitate long-term peaceful interaction. The premise here is that talking, or at least the option of communicating, is always better than an atmosphere of threats, perpetual antagonism and bullying.

In 1961, the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations declared that the goals of diplomatic relations are to acknowledge "the sovereign equality of States" and "contribute to the development of friendly relations among nations, irrespective of their differing constitutional and social systems..."

The Nixon-Kissinger opening to China was far more modest in scope than Wikipedia's definition would suggest. After three decades of refusing to officially acknowledge mainland China's existence, the U.S. finally yielded to the reality principle and, in 1979, belatedly established formal relations. At the same time, it abandoned the fiction that the Nationalist Chinese government, confined on the small island of Taiwan, represented the vast population on the mainland. The U.S. refusal to recognize China was an utter failure if its goal was to undermine the legitimacy of the communist government and produce eventual regime change. The "silent treatment" has not proven to be a very effective tool of statecraft.

By the same standard that it applied to China nearly three decades ago, the U.S. could justify extending diplomatic relations to the de facto regimes in Cuba or Iran. Both countries have established relatively stable governments that have been in power for decades—48 years in the case of Cuba. Despite years of open hostility, threats and economic sanctions, regime change is still elusive in both places. In fact, the antagonism and contempt of the U.S. government may have had the paradoxical effect of reinforcing popular support for both regimes.

Diplomatic recognition should not, and need not, indicate approval. The U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, fifteen years after it came to power and long before the two became allies in the war against Hitler's Germany. Britain recognized the Soviet government even earlier, in 1924, despite its obvious and very deep disapproval of the communist regime.

It's widely recognized that the isolation of Cuba is a result of domestic political considerations having a lot to do with the politics, and 27 electoral votes, of Florida. During the long embargo of Cuba, the U.S. has vigorously supported many regimes with far worse human-rights records than Castro's: the regime of the House of Saud in Arabia, the Shah's Iran, Somoza's Nicaragua, South Vietnam under numerous dictators, Pinochet's Chile, and other countries too numerous to mention.

South Africa during apartheid is worth special consideration. As with China, the U.S. justified its close relationship with the atrocious regime of the National Party under the theory of "constructive engagement." The U.S. and Britain saw South Africa as a profitable trading partner and an ally against communist penetration of southern Africa.

If trade and other forms of "constructive engagement" were useful tools in relations with South Africa and China, why doesn't the same logic apply to Cuba, which poses no military threat whatsoever to the U.S.? The real reason is that U.S. policy there, as in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, is designed to create enough hardship among the general population to undermine the government and produce regime change.

As for the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf war, a 1999 report prepared at the direction of the U.N. Security Council found that:
"In marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-91, the infant mortality rates in Iraq today (1999) are among the highest in the world, low infant birth weight affects at least 23% of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under five years of age, only 41% of the population have regular access to clean water, 83% of all schools need substantial repairs."
Despite the mayhem visited on the Iraqi people by the sanctions, it was still necessary to launch an invasion to accomplish regime change. The use of sanctions against an entire population to effect regime change, whether the target is Iraq or Cuba or any other country, is both immoral and ineffectual. Economic sanctions, including bans on trade in armaments and spare parts, can be effective and appropriate, but they shouldn't include prohibitions on food or medicine required by the general population.

Diplomatic relations with Iran may seem problematic in light of mutual hostility, its despicable leadership and the seizure of the U.S. embassy by student radicals in 1979. However, the steady deterioration in the U.S.-Iranian relationship is a good reason to increase communications rather than cut them off altogether.

Last year, President Ahmadinejad wrote a long letter to George Bush that, among other things, challenged whether the Holocaust ever occurred. Bush ignored it, though there was much outrage against Ahmadinejad from Israel to western Europe to the U.S. and elsewhere. What would have been the harm in responding to that letter, in English and perfect Farsi? No doubt George would need a lot of help with both languages, but it would give him a chance to challenge Ahmadinejad's preposterous statements and communicate directly with the Iranian people, who are reported to be much less hostile to the U.S. than their government.

Iran would be a good candidate for informal "Track II" diplomacy that, as greater confidence develops (perhaps requiring regime changes in both the U.S. and Iran), could eventually produce normal diplomatic relations.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. must automatically extend diplomatic recognition to every de facto government on the planet, no matter how outrageous its conduct. Some regimes have leaderships that can only be described as insane: for example, those engaged in genocide or mass murder, or those (like Iran in 1979) that can't be trusted to protect American embassy personnel. There's no bright line, beyond which recognition can't be extended, but at least the U.S. should develop, for the first time in its history, consistent standards for extending diplomatic relations.


(1) While the outrage in the U.S. back in 1979 was understandable and justified, few Americans, then or now, have appreciated the role of that embassy in the CIA's overthrow of the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. A brief but thorough account of the U.S. role in the coup can be found in Overthrow (2006) by Steven Kinzer.

PHOTO: U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece (subjected to a rocket attack in January, 2007).