Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Historians as the "Deciders"

In a recent poll, only 5% expressed any confidence in the ability of George Bush to manage the war in Iraq. In the face of that reality, it's remarkable that this inept administration is still able to bully Congress and the MSM into parroting its positions on Iraq at every turn. As Frank Rich points out in the column mentioned in an earlier posting:

The Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate need all the unity and focus they can muster to move this story forward, and that starts with the two marquee draws, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's essential to turn up the heat full time in Washington for any and every legislative roadblock to administration policy that they and their peers can induce principled or frightened Republicans to endorse.


Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan ("Return on Success") Thursday night, is counting on the public's continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until Jan. 20, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can't afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can't be held hostage indefinitely to a president's narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them.

Rich makes some points that require a response...

First, Democrats can proceed with Rich's advice with or without the support of "principled or frightened Republicans," who may never be numerous enough to form the supermajority needed to get anything done in today's Senate.

Second, it seems unlikely that Bush will ever acknowledge any significant errors, even to himself in private. As he told Robert Draper, his official biographer, in an interview for Dead Certain: "You can't possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency - until I'm dead."

Bush's statement is very revealing on several counts. Most importantly, it allows Bush to evade passing judgment on his own conduct because, a priori, he lacks the historical perspective to do so. (Since there's little evidence that he possesses a conscience, this isn't much of a cognitive leap for him. ) Bush also declares that he will continue to ignore the judgments of everyone else, since they're similarly lacking in any long-term perspective.

In effect, Bush claims that he cannot be held accountable by anyone during his lifetime.

If no one can judge his administration until he's dead, Bush simply doesn't have to concern himself about anything he does or what people say about him. He can imagine that he'll be vindicated no matter what the reality-based community concludes during his lifetime. As Sidney Blumenthal (another indispensable columnist) writes in The Guardian:
History has become a magical incantation for him, a kind of prayerful refuge where he is safe from having to think in the present. For Bush, history is supernatural, a deus ex machina, nothing less than a kind of divine intervention enabling him to enter presidential Valhalla. Through his fantasy about history as afterlife - the stairway to paradise - he rationalizes his current course.
The more profound and compounded his blunders, and the more he redoubles his certainty in ultimate victory, the greater his indifference to failure. He has entered a
phase of decadent perversity, where he accelerates his errors to vindicate his folly. As the sands of time run down he has decided that no matter what he does history will finally judge him as heroic.
The greater the chaos, the more he reinforces and rigidifies his views. The more havoc he wreaks, the more he insists he is succeeding. His intensified struggle for self-control is matched by his increased denial of responsibility.
This is a fair description of delusional thinking, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary."

Getting it right

There are a few journalists in the notorious MSM who usually get it right, and now some of their columns are more readily available due to changes in the way the New York Times manages its online TimesSelect feature. Each of the following columns, now available for free, is well worth a look:
Until recently, TimesSelect was available only to paid subscribers. Since free lunches are unknown in the corporate media, will the tradeoff for "free" access be more intrusive advertising? Too soon to tell, but for now the Paper of Record deserves some credit for making these fine journalists more generally available online.

At the same time, the paper deserves plenty of criticism for its craven response to the fabricated uproar over MoveOn.org's recent ad criticizing General Petraeus' longstanding support of the Bush/Cheney line on Iraq.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday trail blogging: Mt. Adams

Last weekend brought the first cool fall weather to the Pacific Northwest, so of course Carol and I had to go camping with Max Da Mutt, our loyal companion. Our choice was an old favorite: Mt. Adams, the second highest peak (12,276 ft / 3,742 m) in the region after nearby Mt. Rainier. This massive stratovolcano is located east of the Cascade crest near the small town of Trout Lake in Washington State. Large glaciers stream down on all sides from the summit, which for a few decades was the site of a working sulfur mine.

Due to a late arrival, we had limited time after setting up our tent in a subalpine forest. So we hiked up a climber's trail to timberline for spectacular views of the sunset behind Mt. St. Helens. The night was cool (around 40º F / 4º C) and breezy in our empty campground on Morrison Creek. The night sky was dazzling, with more stars visible than I had seen in years (a blatant plug for the mission of the International Dark-Sky Association).

The wind increased by Sunday morning and clouds from a weak Pacific front moved across the peak, finally obscuring it above 8,000 ft / 2,400 m. In light rain, we hiked the Round the Mountain trail through Bird Creek Meadows in the half of the mountain that is within the Yakima Nation's reservation. These lush meadows were already showing rich autumn colors as some species of wildflowers were just starting to blossom. Eventually the trail climbed across a lava flow and entered the Mt. Adams Wilderness, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. We encountered just three other hikers all day in meadows that are usually crowded on weekends from mid-July through August, when trails are generally clear of snow.

The Mt. Adams Wilderness occupies just 47,000 acres, a tiny portion of the 1.3 million acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Gifford Pinchot extends from Mt. Rainier National Park all the way to the Columbia River Gorge. Adams is relatively pristine, with clearcutting and other signs of logging limited to its lower slopes. Most of the Gifford Pinchot, by contrast, has been extensively degraded by industrial logging and the associated patchwork of clearcutsthe scourge of the Pacific Northwest. (To see what I mean, open Google Earth and "fly" from Mt. Adams to Mt. St. Helens.)

Meanwhile, the Yakima Nation, to its great credit, has declined lucrative offers to develop a destination resort on the wild eastern side of Adams. Though the rough tribal road to the Bird Creek Meadows trailhead still deserves its legendary reputation, the Yakimas are doing a far better job than the U.S. government in maintaining campgrounds and trails. The Bush administration is much more interested in funding road construction for logging ancient forests than in any recreational uses.

Top photo: Mt. St. Helens from South Climb trail on Mt. Adams.
Middle photo: Bird Creek Meadows and Suksdorf ridge, Mt. Adams.
Bottom photo: Bird Creek Meadows.
(All photos by M.J. O'Brien.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Breaking The Clinch: A 12-Step Program for Distancing Ourselves

The Democrats in Congress have adopted a basic defensive strategy from boxing: The Clinch. By repeatedly backing down from confrontations over Iraq and other issues, they hope to avoid being attacked for betraying the troops and undermining U.S. security by cutting the Pentagon's funding for the war.

Predictably, Democrats seem no more capable of responding to these attacks than they did during the months before the 2004 election. Instead, they've sought a "bipartisan" alliance with Republican moderates that would impose loose but veto-proof limitations on the U.S. commitment to Iraq.

The strategy has failed dismally. The Democrats don't appreciate the depth and intensity of public rage and hostility towards the war. In boxing, the "clinch" strategy requires one opponent to embrace the other to avoid hard punches. In politics, it becomes difficult to distinguish one party from the other, so the Democrats are now identified all too closely with an unpopular war. Like the Republicans, they fret endlessly but seem incapable of resolute action.

Yet another poll has brought home this point:
Fifty-eight percent, a new high, said they want to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And most of those who advocated a troop reduction said they want the drawdown to begin either right away or by the end of the year. A majority, 55 percent, supported legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of American combat forces. That figure is unchanged from July. Only about a third believed the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq... [emphasis added.]
In the face of such hostility, Democrats should be gaining major ground. They're not:
Going forward, the public trusts Democrats over Republicans to handle Iraq by an 11-point margin, but two in 10 now trust "neither" party on the issue. In previous polls, congressional Democrats had wider advantages over President Bush on Iraq, with that gap as high as 27 points in January.
These numbers explain why even "antiwar" Democrats returning to the Pacific Northwest for "town halls" have been met by large, vocal and openly hostile crowds. The victims include antiwar Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Darlene Hooley of Oregon and Brian Baird of Washington State (who opposed the war but inexplicably voted to support the surge).

A more vigorous party, with a real sense of direction and assertive leadership, would figure out that a new strategy is long overdue. Otherwise the hapless Democrats will stagger through another series of lost electoral opportunities.

So here's a modest suggestion: the focus now should be on distancing ourselves and the country, in the strongest possible terms, from the barbarians who've misruled the country for the last six and a half years. The strategy should begin immediately with the following six steps, followed by six more after the 2008 election:
  1. Pass needed legislation, on subjects as diverse as Iraq and health care, even (or especially) if a veto is inevitable. Force the veto, force an override vote, and show exactly who is obstructing solutions to serious national problems.
  2. Launch vigorous congressional investigationsat last!of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the use of torture and the many other instances of overreaching by a lawless administration.
  3. Refuse to approve Bush nominations for all regulatory, judicial and executive vacanciesfrom the Supreme Court to Deputy Undersecretary of State for Eastern Caribbean Affairs. Bipartisanship has meaning to Republicans in D.C. only when they're in the minority.
  4. Fiercely denounce the Bush/Cheney project in Iraq in every available international forum from the U.N. to NATO and beyond. While the U.S. traditionally has just "one foreign policy at a time," the present crisis demands otherwise.
  5. Declare that ample legal grounds exist to impeach and remove the Bush/Cheney cabal from office based on their war crimesespecially crimes against peace, waging an aggressive war, and crimes against humanity. Not to mention their assault on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  6. Then impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney. Force a vote in the House and a trial in the Senate, even if 1/3 or more of the Senators vote for acquittal. This isn't a distraction, as Nancy Pelosi seems to believe, nor is it frivolous. (After the Clinton farce, can any Republican claim with a straight face that an impeachment of Bush/Cheney is a total waste of time?)
Maybe the Democrats will finally get their act together, retain Congress and win the White House in 2008. Then what? In terms of repairing some of the damage to its international stature, the U.S. will urgently need to distance itself from the criminal behavior of the Bush/Cheney yearfor moral reasons, ultimately, but also to rebuild lost goodwill around the world and become a member in good standing of international organizations. For example, a new administration and Congress could:
  1. Initiate domestic war crimes prosecutions against the perpetrators, assuming there are no presidential pardons. [1] (As discussed elsewhere, international war crimes prosecutions are almost inconceivable because the U.S. would never consent, and it wouldn't extradite.)
  2. Appoint a special prosecutor to convene a grand jury and prosecute those in the government who legitimized and authorized torture and other war crimes. (A special prosecutor is necessary because some Dems were undoubtedly involved.)
  3. Aggressive diplomacy to show people around the world that Americans renounce the actions of the part administration.
  4. Organize an international conference of religious leaders to open and expand a dialog in order to prevent the "clash of civilizations" that causes neocons to salivate.
  5. Propose a summit conference of secular leaders for the same purpose.
  6. Expand cultural exchanges to improve communications with the rest of the world and demonstrate that the U.S. can play a positive role in international affairs. Increase foreign aid to bring the U.S. closer to the mainstream in terms of percentage of GPA devoted to that purpose.
No doubt the list could go on, but it's a start. In a time of national crisis, it's absolutely vital to have a genuine opposition party that is willing to distance itself and (more importantly) the country from the outrages of the current administration.


[1] Impeachment and conviction would only remove Bush/Cheney from office. To hold them fully accountable, a criminal prosecution is necessary.

PHOTO: Two boxers in a clinch (Wikimedia Commons).

UPDATE (September 10th):

The latest New York Times poll has more bad news for Democrats:
The poll found that both Congress, whose approval rating now stands at its lowest level since Democrats took control from the Republicans last year, and Mr. Bush enter the debate with little public confidence in their ability to deal with Iraq. Only 5 percent of Americans — a strikingly low number for a sitting president’s handling of such a dominant issue — said they most trusted the Bush administration to resolve the war, the poll found. Asked to choose among the administration, Congress and military commanders, 21 percent said they would most trust Congress and 68 percent expressed most trust in military commanders.
"Commanders" like General David Petraeusthe same "military professional" who testified today that the surge is working and the U.S. presence in Iraq should continue indefinitely?

Apparently there's a misconception on this point: politically speaking, generals are marionettes of the White House, and they're purged on the spot if they're not. Ask generals like Eric Shinseki, Antonio Taguba and George W. Casey what happens if you deviate from the party line. It's no coincidence that Petraeus exactly parrots the White House position (and at the same time praises his own performance).

The confidence in Pentagon "professionals" also elides the larger issue: the military is an instrument of policy whose efforts always need to be placed in the context of policy. As in Vietnam (where the U.S. "won all the battles"), military successes in Iraq lack long-term value if they don't further political objectives.

The policy is what finally matters, not the competence or professionalism of the soldiers, sailors and Marines who carry it out.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti (1932-2007)

The great Pavarotti in a live performance of Puccini's Nessun Dorma ("Let no one sleep") in Paris (1998), from the opera Turandot. During the last century, there have been a precious few vocalists whose voices could soar with such purity and expressiveness.

Thursday quiz

A quiz: who in U.S. politics matches this description?

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Answer: if you haven't already figured it out, give it one more try.

SOURCE: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-IV), 4th edition, American Psychiatric Association (2000), and a tip of the hat to

NPD is notoriously resistant to treatment. It accounts for a great deal of the therapeutic treatment in the U.S., not because those with the disorder seek treatment, but because those who are victimized by them do. The disorder wrecks families, organizations, and it seems, entire countries.

Bloviation of the day

"I think part of what we've got to do with regard to the global terrorist problem I talked about is for all the forces of civilization, all of our friends and people who love freedom need to understand that this is a battle against freedom and tyranny worldwide, that the good guys need to be on one side."
—Fred Thompson, announcing his candidacy on the Tonight Show (emphasis added).

Query: Will we ever have another president who can speak coherently on any subject? Or one who can at least distinguish concepts like between and against?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Monday trail blogging: Bald Mountain

Portland, Oregon, has the distinction of being the only city that has a last name, as Don DeLillo points out in his latest novel. But it's also surrounded by some of the finest hiking terrain on the continent, including the Oregon coast, Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade range.

Last weekend we took our adult daughter up to Bald Mountain ridge on the west side of Mt. Hood (11,239 ft / 3,426 m), the highest peak in Oregon. Though she's an avid and experienced hiker, for some reason we'd never taken her there before. Besides, it was a good way to celebrate a family birthday.

Saturday was a near-perfect day: the sky was clear just about everywhere except on Hood itself, and the temperature was about 70F / 11C. It was breezy on the ridge, but higher up the winds must have been fierce.

Orographic clouds formed on Hood through the day, especially in the lee of the summit ridge. Sometimes most of the mountain was obscured, but not for long. The clouds changed rapidly, adding to the drama of the mountain landscape. But hikers on high northerly ridges like McNeil Point, Barrett Spur and Cooper Spur were inside a cloud for much of the day.

This is one of my favorite places on the planet, but it's hardly a secret to Oregonians—as demonstrated by the three dozen cars at the trailhead. Not surprising for Labor Day weekend. But on most days, even in good weather, the trail population is sparse and there's a lot of wild terrain where hikers can disperse. (The area in the photograph is part of the designated Mt. Hood Wilderness.)

Stunning views of Hood's west face begin to open up after just a mile or so, and about 500 vertical feet, from the trailhead. The rewards for such a minimal effort are stupendous. The trail goes on for many miles, including the rough climber's route up to McNeil Point and the round-the-mountain Timberline Trail (now closed in some places due to washouts).

Prospective hikers should get a good trail map and description, since there are several junctions that can be confusing without them.

PHOTOS: Mt. Hood and the Sandy River headwaters from Bald Mountain Ridge trail. Reid Glacier on the right, below the spire of Illumination Rock. The second photo also shows the large Sandy Glacier in the center and the Little Sandy Glacier above it to the left. (M.J. O'Brien)