Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Operation Iranian Freedom"? Seven reasons why it's not going to happen

"You cannot reason a man out of something that he did not reason his way into."
Jonathan Swift
Summarizing the confrontational trend in U.S. relations with Tehran, an anonymous blog commenter recently concluded: " all leads in one direction: war with Iran."

Just last week, John McCain received some rare bad press after he provocatively declared that it's "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known." Th
is gaffe was quickly corrected by his consort, Joe Lieberman (I-CT, or "R-CT" to be more accurate).

As the campaign intensifies, there's little doubt that this kind of counterfactual rhetoric from McCain and the administration will increase. After all, a confrontation with Iran would appeal to McCain's alleged strengths in national security and foreign policy.
Fear, along with tax cuts for the wealthy, is the foundation of the Republican party's dwindling appeal.

So the bombast from the right is likely to intensify. But an actual war with Iran? Regime change in Tehran? Absent some startling new development, followed by a military mobilization on the scale of Vietnam, it's simply not going to happen.

In the context of all the neocon bluster and the hysteria that it has incited among liberals, few things could be clearer than this reality: the U.S. lacks the military capability to launch a ground invasion or regime change in Iraq. In fact, force levels in Iraq are so precarious that Bush has been pressuring the U.K. to engage its small residual force near Basra to aid the Maliki government in the current fighting there.

The catastrophe in Iraq has amply shown that Bush, Cheney, and McCain are capable of defying overwhelming realities by favoring ill-prepared military adventures, and of course they should be constantly challenged for any displays of bellicosity. But it takes more than rhetoric to launch offensive operations on such a scale: you need to have the military infrastructure to accomplish it.

Iran's military has been weakened by lack of spare parts due to sanctions, but it's still quite formidable compared to Saddam Hussein's vestigial army in 2003. Here are seven reasons why a U.S. ground invasion or forcible regime change are not likely to happen:
  1. Military resources: Iran could quickly mobilize a well-armed force of one million, not to mention another 12 million in the Basij paramilitary groups. Due to sanctions, Iran has been forced apply its prodigious oil revenues to the development of its own armaments industry, which has produced thousands of missiles, many of them quite sophisticated.
  2. Popular resistance to invasion: While the Ahmadinejad regime of fanatical clerics certainly lacks the wholehearted support of the population, there's little reason to believe that Iranians wouldn't rally to vigorously resist a U.S. invasion. By contrast, Iraq's resistance in 2003 was limited to a few loyal units of the Republican Guards.
  3. Population and size: The population of Iran is three times that of Iraq and its landmass is nearly five times larger (and about three times the size of Texas). The scale and duration of operations would need to be adjusted accordingly.
  4. Iranian terrain favors defense. The invasion route from Kuwait to Baghdad crossed the flat floodplain of the Tigris-Euphrates ideal terrain for an armored blitzkrieg. The most likely overland route to Tehran, starting at Abadan (east of Basra), travels some 500 miles through a vast 11,000-foot mountain range whose passes could easily be defended by relatively small forces. (Recall Italy in 1943-44, when a mere 23 German divisions were able to stall the allied advance and inflict horrendous casualties.) An assault from Afghanistan isn't an option, nor is an amphibious landing from the Persian Gulf. A massive airborne assault in sufficient strength wouldn't be feasible, either, since much of the Pentagon's transport capability is heavily committed to resupply in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  5. Vulnerable supply lines: Iran has enough missiles, aircraft and heavy artillery to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, and access to the Persian Gulf, indefinitely. This would not only complicate the task of supplying a U.S. invasion force along lengthening supply lines: it would also have devastating economic effects by interrupting the flow of much of the world's crude oil.
  6. International opposition: Despite occasional confrontational rhetoric from Paris and London, it's very unlikely that the U.S. could expect any military or diplomatic support from its traditional allies. In fact, a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iran would generate massive worldwide condemnation. The U.S. would be entirely on its own, without the military or political support of even such former "Coalition partners" as the British, Australians or Poles.
  7. Decentralization of Iran's nuclear program: Like the North Koreans, the Iranians learned the obvious lesson from the crippling Israeli attack on Iraq's nuclear facilities at Osiraq in 1981. Those facilities have been dispersed across the landscape in "hard" targets to minimize the damage from airstrikes, special-forces incursions and other kinds of attacks. The U.S. would likely have to seize most of the Iran in order to eradicate its nuclear infrastructure.
If an invasion is out of the question, militarily and otherwise, why all the blather from the White House and John McCain?

First, it bears repeating that there's always a risk of limited military operations against Iran despite the severe strains on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A short-term
aerial campaign or special-forces incursions, for example, would not be out of the question. Those risks needs to be taken very seriously, as Iran certainly does, but such time-limited attacks are a very different matter than the kind of large-scale "regime change" operation that failed so dismally in Iraq.

The endless threats and bluster are part of a larger dynamic that falls into the realm of psyops psychological operations. As Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon demonstrated in the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, U.S. policy is often designed to cultivate the perception that our leadership is dangerous, unpredictable, irrational and likely to grossly overreact to any provocation. From that perspective, the administration's (and McCain's) extreme bellicosity is intended to serve as a plausible substitute for thirty assault divisions poised on the Iranian border.

While it would've been clinically insane and militarily out of the question to launch a third war on Iran or North Korea, Bush/Cheney (and now McCain) seek to create a credible perception that they're capable of anything. The clear purpose is to intimidate both the "axis of evil" and anyone else who might challenge the administration's basic operating principle: "Don't mess with the U.S."
This hegemonic strategy can be risky and provocative, but McCain and his neocon advisors have clearly embraced it in their threats against Iran.

Finally, the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq was an extension of the longstanding Israeli policy of responding to terrorism by attacking a known enemy, even if there's no evidence that this enemy was associated with the original incident. There's little reason to believe that McCain would be less likely to resort to retaliatory attacks of this nature.

For the overstretched U.S military, the bottom line is clear enough: no one in authority anticipated the demands of extended counterinsurgency campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
There already aren't enough boots to put on the ground in those conflicts. No one in Washington seems to be developing any plans that will elevate force levels to the point where forcible "regime change" becomes a realistic goal in Iran.

A renewed draft, or vastly increased financial incentives for recruits, would be necessary to create a force sufficient to take on the mullahs in Tehran. Even if the political will existed for such a mobilization, it's likely that at least 500,000
troops — equal to the number that invaded Iraq in 1991 would be required to invade Iran. In fact, the invading force would almost certainly need to be much larger [1].

It would take years to recruit, train and equip a force to undertake "Operation Iranian Freedom." Even if the regime in Tehran could be forcibly overthrown, there's no reason to believe that Iranians would be any more accepting of a U.S. occupation than the Iraqis.

Even if Bush/Cheney/McCain are convinced of the need to undertake regime change in Tehran, these realities are inescapable — as they need to be constantly reminded by citizens, voters, rational voices in the Pentagon, and possibly even the mainstream media.


[1] It hardly needs to be mentioned that another devastating attack within the U.S. could transform these political calculations, possibly generating support for conscription, a general mobilization to a long-term war footing and a major escalation in the "clash of civilizations" with Islam.

MAP: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 28, 2008

Blues Break: Cat Power - "New York, New York"

Cat Power (Charlyn "Chan" Marshall) covers Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" on BBC-2's Later. This song also appears on Jukebox, Cat Power's most recent album (2008). She'll be performing here in Portland at the Roseland on April 13th, but the cheapest ticket I could find costs... $193.

Monday, March 24, 2008

R.I.P. Rovers

The Bush/Cheney administration, in yet another demonstration of its contorted priorities, is cutting off funding for NASA's Mars Rovers. These two 'bots have been successfully exploring our twin planet since January 2004, producing solid science as well as stunning panoramas of the Martian sky and landscape.

It sounds like a done deal, even though the Rovers have proven their worth by exceeding their predicted three-month lifespans by more than four years. They offer real scientific value for the relatively low cost of $20 million per year. Yet Bush would rather send astronauts to Mars at an estimated cost of $230 billion over the next twenty years. Go figure. Bush has also proposed a costly base for astronauts on the moon, to be (conveniently) financed by his successors.

Launching humans into space is prohibitively expensive, especially considering the desperate and obvious needs on earth. But wandering robots on Mars and other planets are a sound and relatively small investment in basic science, and the construction (by robots) of a large array of radio telescopes on the far side of the moon also seems like a solid long-term goal.

Abandoning the Rovers would be yet another unforgivable blunder. After all, Mars is the only other planet that might be capable of supporting life once our species has finally rendered the earth uninhabitable.

Be sure to sit back and spend a few minutes watching Martian clouds drift by while you still have the chance.

[H/T to Tristero at Hullabaloo.]

PHOTO: Exploration Rover Spirit's panorama of the West Valley. It landed near the horizon in the center of this picture. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Blues Break: Shredmeister Jeff Healey - "Roadhouse Blues"

The late Jeff Healey and his band do a cover of The Doors' Roadhouse Blues in Baden-Baden, Germany, back in 1989. The band had just completed the soundtrack for Road House, released the same year. Before his untimely death on March 3rd at the age of 41, few people realized that Healey had been blind from infancy. He first picked up a guitar at the age of three and developed his unusual playing style as a child.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Bush/Cheney Endgame - Part II

There's a widespread perception that, for the last seven years, the Bush/Cheney administration has been reeling from one crisis to another improvising rather than pursuing any grand strategy. While it's hard to disagree with this conclusion, there are a couple common threads that bind the administration's domestic and foreign policies to the point of obsession. These are rarely articulated in any coherent way, but they provide common denominators.

The Bush/Cheney legal endgame on torture, including the veto of the congressional prohibition on waterboarding, fits neatly into a larger scheme for the final ten months of the regime. As Bush continues to seem unconcerned about his legacy, it seems clear that he values just two outcomes for his eight years in office:
  1. No additional attacks on the homeland: Bush and Cheney will deem their regime a great success if they can declare that their national-security decisions were necessary to keep the U.S. safe since September 11th. That result, they'll claim, justifies everything they did: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of torture, the illegal detentions and renditions, the degradation of civil liberties at home.

  2. Increased corporate hegemony over the economy and national politics: Bush can accurately claim that he did everything possible to eliminate restraints on corporate profits and freedom of action in the post-industrial economy. For example, his administration has presided over the aggressive dismantling of the federal regulatory apparatus, with predictable effects on the mortgage industry, environment and elsewhere. To the extent that the administration had an economic strategy at all, that was it.
In a political system that struggles to look beyond the two-, four- and six-year terms of its leadership, this sort of short-term (or two-term) thinking has again yielded nothing but disaster. The difficulties are compounded when the lack of strategic vision is combined with Bush's a priori, ideological approach to problems. In the mental world of George Bush, all assumptions are immune from empirical testing and revision.

If no further terrorist attacks occur in the U.S., even on the scale of London or Madrid, it would be quite a leap to agree with the Bush/Cheney claim that their policies deserve all the credit. The harsh context for such a claim shouldn't be overlooked: 3,993 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Iraq, another 29,314 have been wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured in an illegal war of aggression [1].

Meanwhile, the long-term security of the U.S. has been deeply compromised as world opinion has turned dramatically against the Bush/Cheney regime. Any claims to U.S. moral authority are now laughable, as even our British allies seem to recognize. The next administration will have to act dramatically to repair the damage by distancing itself from Bush/Cheney and their policies (for which there's a modest 12-step program).

The economic cost of Bush's short-term thinking is a deepening recession that has already imposed hardships and may require years of recovery. While expanding federal power through the growing National Security State, Bush/Cheney have been aggressive proponents of the Reagan "revolution's" hostility towards domestic programs, even including disaster relief, and regulation. [2]

The administration is staggering towards the exit, deferring the resolution of these crises and doing everything imaginable to escape blame. The next occupant of the White House will be greeted by piles of steaming turds in every closet, under all the furniture, in every heating duct and in other places that we can't even imagine yet. The stench will be in the air for years, and no disinfectant is powerful enough to remove it.


[1] Source: Iraq Coalition Casualties.

[2] On the other hand, they've been very selective in adopting the principles of Reaganism. In his famous "Star Wars" speech in 1983, Reagan declared: "The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor." [Seven months later, he ordered the unprovoked invasion of Grenada.] And: "History teaches that wars begin when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap."

PHOTO: Bush/Cheney join the celebrations at the end of their terms (Wikimedia).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some retirement options for Dubya

During a teleconference on Thursday with U.S. personnel stationed in Afghanistan, George Bush reportedly said:
"I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed."

"It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."

Forty years later, the man clearly regrets his decision to remain home when he could've easily arranged a tour or two in Vietnam after he finished college. Apparently he hasn't been able to persuade his two daughters into signing up for gigs in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's not too late for him to vicariously witness the excitement and romance of combat.

Consider, for example:
The nature and sheer extent of American casualties [in Iraq] — officially in the tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands have sought medical help — has caught the U.S. government off guard.

From wounded soldiers who faced dilapidated conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to troops whose mental problems have been overlooked, Iraq veterans have paid the price.

"The government was not ready for the casualties to come home," says Brad Trower, 29, a Marine Corps veteran from High Ridge who was injured twice in his tour in Iraq.

When Trower returned to St. Louis in 2005, suffering from traumatic brain injury after two vehicles he was riding in were blown up within a month of his arrival, he got "zero response" initially from local Veterans Affairs officials, though he is now doing well.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says the nation has failed to heed the lessons of Vietnam, a war whose veterans constitute half of the 400,000 people sleeping on America's streets tonight.

Though the number of veterans today is smaller, the percentage of veterans who become homeless, commit suicide or face other social problems, partly because of a lack of treatment, is similar to that of the Vietnam era, Filner says.

"We know how to deal with it," he says, "but we apparently don't want to deal with it."


Of the 1.7 million service members with recent combat experience, some 800,000 are now veterans entitled to VA health care and benefits. Of those, 300,000 have had treatment; 40 percent were diagnosed with a mental health problem, more than half with PTSD, according to Veterans Affairs figures released as a result of a lawsuit by Veterans for Common Sense, a nonpartisan veterans advocacy group. Paul Sullivan, the group's executive director, says the patient figure could eventually reach 700,000.


Thirty-one percent of the veterans have filed disability claims, waiting on the average more than six months for them to be processed. Delays are pronounced for those who returned to small towns or rural areas in the Midwest or South far from VA facilities, as happens with many reserve troops.
There are an estimated 10,000 veterans who have suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan from roadside bombs and other causes, and many of them will require intensive lifelong medical and personal care. Another 800 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan lost limbs due to amputations since 2001.

This tragic situation [1] offers many volunteer opportunities for Bush, even if he's not eager to relocate to Iraq or Afghanistan. After all, he won't be "employed here" after next January 20th. So let me offer a few modest suggestions for how he might spend his spare time after clearing brush on the Crawford ranch:
  • He can volunteer for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Auxiliary, which offers "the opportunity for fun and friendship, for networking and sharing, as well as a chance to support our hospital and its patients."
  • If he has a little spare change after paying his dues at his golf club in Waco, he can contribute to Walter Reed Hospital's Army Emergency Relief Fund , which provides for veterans' "emergency financial needs such as food, rent, utilities, emergency transportation and vehicle repair, funeral expenses, medical/dental expenses, or personal needs when pay is delayed or stolen." And he doesn't even have to wait until he qualifies for unemployment.
  • Dubya might also join Stephen Colbert in cutting some generous checks for the Fisher House veterans' program, which provides "'a home away from home' that enables family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful time -- during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury."
Bush may be denied the "fantastic experience" and "romance" of Iraq and Afghanistan due to his age, but they can vicariously take part in those wars through the accounts of returning veterans by volunteering at Walter Reed, the Waco VA Medical Center or any other VA hospital across the land.

And keep those checks coming, too, George. A recent Harvard study predicts that "taxpayers' cost for the care of injured veterans will run up to $700 billion."


[1] The Veterans for Common Sense website is brimming with valuable but underreported information about the plight of veterans. For example, the site cuts through the Pentagon's statistical games: "There are nearly 61,000 non-fatal casualties from Iraq, plus 8,000 non-fatal casualties from Afghanistan. A grand total of 69,000 battlefield casualties from the two wars." Meanwhile, the 3,988 U.S. troops have lost their lives in Iraq, 487 in Afghanistan.

[2] To help him prepare for his new career as a volunteer, Dubya might take a look at Elizabeth Reuben's article on the current situation in Afghanistan in the New York Times Magazine (February 24th).

With a tip o' the hat to Fred Kaplan at Slate and Digby at Hullabaloo. A commenter on Hullabaloo came up with this highly-relevant quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
"They were careless people... they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness... and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."
PHOTO: George Bush playing soldier at the DMZ in Korea (note the covers still on the binoculars).

UPDATE - 3/16/08:

When I mentioned these volunteer options for Dubya on Hullabaloo, a commenter pointed out: "My God, haven't they suffered enough?" The point is well taken, but somehow I don't think anyone needs to lose any sleep over his showing up at a clinic for TBI victims. Bush has already declared his retirement goals: clearing brush, riding his mountain bike and making incoherent speeches for big money.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Blues Break Double Header: Robert "Wolfman" Belfour

Robert Belfour jams on a back porch during the Centrum Blues Workshop, Port Townsend, Washington State, in August, 2007. This is an instrumental version of Old Black Mattie. The sound quality is only marginally better than in an earlier Wolfman Blues Break, but it's well worth a listen anyway.

Can't seem to get enough of this guy—he's the real deal. Too bad I missed him when he was here in the Pacific Northwest. Here he is again, with somewhat better acoustics, performing his classic Done Got Old (date and location not available):

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The legal endgame

After he vetoed H.R. 2082, the “Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008,” George Bush submitted the following explanation to the House of Representatives:
"Section 327 of the bill would harm our national security by requiring any element of the intelligence community to use only the interrogation methods authorized in the Army Field Manual on Interrogations. It is vitally important that the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) be allowed to maintain a separate and classified interrogation program... While details of the current C.I.A. program are classified, the attorney general has reviewed it and determined that it is lawful under existing domestic and international law, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."
Forgive me for taking no comfort in the claim that the Attorney General has "reviewed" and approved the classified program.

Veto or not, "harsh interrogation practices" like waterboarding will be discontinued after next January 20th if a Democrat is elected.

So all this gets curiouser and curiouser, legally speaking. Why all the fuss, if the torturers might only be in business for another ten months?

The federal criminal code (18 USC 2340A) already prohibits acts of torture "committed by a person acting under color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering... upon another person within his custody or physical control." Additional provisions describe in some detail the forms of "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" that are encompassed by the prohibition:
"(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

"(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

"(C) the threat of imminent death; or

"(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality..."

It would take a prodigious feat of dissembling to convince a sober juror that this statute doesn't prohibit "harsh interrogation techniques" like waterboarding. (Although that's what lawyers often try to do, obviously.)

The existing law further provides for "federal extraterritorial jurisdiction" if the perpetrator is a U.S. national or the alleged offender is "found within the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or the alleged offender."

If convicted, defendants can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison or, if the victim was killed, the death penalty. Any person who conspires to commit torture is subject to the same term of imprisonment, but not the death penalty. A conspiracy charge could certainly be filed against any official who authorized acts of torture.

Here's the heart of the mystery: why enact a measure like HR 2082 when the legal toolbox is already adequate to prosecute torturers and those who authorize it?

By passing this bill, Congress implies that there's some ambiguity about whether waterboarding constitutes "torture" within the meaning of the existing statute, which was adopted in 2000. [1] It's stupid, unnecessary and plays into the legal strategy for Bush's endgame, which is to preempt prosecutions of administration officials who authorized torture and create ambiguity about what the law permits.

While one can appreciate Congress' interest in using its funding authority to limit torture, a Bush veto was inevitable. There's no hint that Bush/Cheney have any concern about how the U.S. is perceived in the world, or how his position on torture may affect U.S. troops who themselves become prisoners. These are issues for future administrations, and therefore irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has initiated an internal ethics investigation of attorneys who approved the use of waterboarding—a process that, at best, would result in nothing more than removal from office. [2]

The far better course for Congress is to aggressively pursue the appointment of an independent counsel to prosecute administration officials who authorized torture. An in-depth congressional investigation is also long overdue [3]. Until those things happen, the Democrat "majority" will be dancing to the Bush/Cheney playbook.


[1] The media have uncritically bought into the administration's notion that waterboarding falls into some gray area under existing law. Witness today's NYT article on the veto, which downplays waterboarding as "a technique in which restrained prisoners are threatened with drowning" [my emphasis].

[2] Mukasey has declined to prosecute waterboarders and administration officials on the ground that they relied on legal advice from DOJ attorneys. This is a variation on the "only following orders" defense, which wasn't received very well at Nuremberg. The Uniform Code of Military Justice permits U.S. troops to refuse orders that require illegal acts. Subordinates have a duty to disobey laws requiring them to commit criminal offenses under federal statutes. Once again: there is no ambiguity in the federal law, and it's a mistake to imply any.

[3] As the Bush veto again illustrates, the next administration will have to take very drastic measures to disassociate itself from the Bush torture regime (as noted in more detail here, here and here). A few exemplary prosecutions of war criminals would be a good start.

PHOTO: Water torture in Antwerp, 1556 (Wikimedia).

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Denver's perfect storm

During the tense weeks following the 2000 election, every new development seemed to fall neatly into a pattern that would inexorably place the final determination before the Florida legislature or the U.S. House of Representatives. If the result in Bush v. Gore had been different, that "perfect storm" might've been realized. [1]

And so it seems once again, seven years later, as the cumbersome nominating machinery grinds toward a possible contested Democratic convention in Denver starting on August 25th.

The Democratic primaries have failed to produce an early winner even though the whole electoral system was redesigned to avert a long, internecine conflict that might produce a divided party on Labor Day. With two compelling candidates and an electorate that seems evenly split in many states, the delegate selection process could easily produce a nightmare scenario in Denver that may yet deliver the presidency to John McCain. The irony of that result, after two terms of the worst administration in U.S. history, would be overwhelming.

The doomsday scenario for Democrats seems more plausible today than it did on Monday. Hillary Clinton emerged from Tuesday's four primaries with a net gain of only 12 delegates, leaving her behind in the current count by 111 (according to CBS). Yet she has clearly blunted the impressive momentum that Obama has built up after twelve straight wins during the last month. She has exploited vulnerabilities in Obama's resume and, incredibly, argued that only she and John McCain are qualified to serve as commander-in-chief. [2] Obama remains in a very strong but weakened position.

So imagine the following sequence:
  1. Clinton wins Pennsylvania on April 22, but not solidly enough to capture the lead in delegates.
  2. The candidates split the remaining primaries, but due to proportional voting neither one emerges with anything approaching the 2,024 delegates needed to win the nomination.
  3. The superdelegates who haven't yet committed to either candidate agree to withhold judgment until all the primaries are over.
  4. A nasty fight develops over seating the Michigan and Florida delegates, who would support Clinton and possibly even put her over the top. But neither the party nor the courts are likely to seat delegates elected in primaries that weren't supposed to count. That result would be grossly unfair to Obama and all the other candidates who didn't campaign (or even get on the ballot) in those two states. [Variation on nightmare scenario: a lawsuit captioned Obama v. Clinton that's resolved 4-3 by the U.S. Supreme Court.]
  5. Florida and Michigan vote again in July but neither candidate wins decisively.
  6. Obama goes into the convention with slightly more popular votes in all the primaries combined, but the total difference is less than 1%. [Until yesterday, he led Clinton by about a million votes nationally.]
  7. Obama wins the most states (27 so far), but Clinton has carried the most populous states (including California, New York and Texas) along with several swing states (like Ohio) that Democrats need to carry in November.
  8. Neither candidate—understandably, in such a close competition—is willing to withdraw for the sake of party unity
  9. All the while, both candidates attack each other relentlessly and raise each other's negatives, turning off many voters and demoralizing party activists.
Now imagine that you're one of the 794 superdelegates in Denver (and, technically speaking, none of the superdelegates is legally bound to any candidate). Here are your options if this perfect storm scenario exists:
  • You could choose whom you'll support based on the total popular vote, but our assumption is that it's very evenly split. (It would be equally complicated if Clinton increases her percentage of the popular vote, or even emerges with a majority).
  • You could choose based on the number of states carried by the candidate, which would favor Obama but ignore many of the larger states.
  • You could go with your instincts and vote for the candidate you deem most likely to win in November. Or,
  • The party leaders could negotiate a deal that results in the withdrawal of one candidate with the understanding that he or she would be the vice-presidential candidate (or perhaps majority leader of the Senate or secretary of an important cabinet post).
Any one of these choices will be denounced as "undemocratic" by loyalists to the losing candidate and a large segment of the voting public, and the mainstream media will have a feeding frenzy over the inevitable smoke-filled-room metaphor.

If there's an upside to all this, it pales in comparison with the dangers. But a few points are worth mentioning:
  • McCain and the Republicans won't be able to focus their attack on either candidate (but see item #9 above).
  • Participation in the primaries could remain very high, with unprecedented numbers of people taking part as voters and campaign workers (item #9 again).
  • The candidates will have extended opportunities for free media as public interest in the campaigns remains high.
  • Both candidates will be tested to the limit and forced to refine their messages for the fall campaign.
With the focus off McCain, he gets something like a free ride (with a few exceptions) while the Democrats spend money attacking each other. And McCain may have relatively little money to spend, thanks to his current dispute with the FEC. Though he wouldn't get as much free media as the Democrats, an adoring press is unlikely to ignore him.

As in 2000, a lot of contingencies have to fall into place in order to produce a perfect storm in Denver. But so far events seem to show an uncanny ability to do just that.


[1] As I interpreted the situation back then, the constitutional process would've still produced a Bush victory, and it would've been even more protracted and controversial.

[2] The red phone ad may be counterproductive for Democrats. If the question is "who would you rather have answer the phone at 3:00 a.m.?" a lot of voters might respond "John McCain."

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The postpartisan vocabulary

As the allegedly "postpartisan" John McCain scurries to make peace with the hardcore conservatives in his party, it comes as no surprise to hear him indulging his audience's preferences in political nomenclature. A case in point was a speech on Friday in which McCain denounced the two "Democrat candidates" for opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) [1].

Nowadays there's nothing unusual about McCain's ungrammatical conversion of the familiar noun Democrat into an adjective. Many Republican politicians use it routinely and without hesitation, as do conservative talk-show hosts on television and radio. It's slowly infiltrating the language, exactly as intended.

The origin of this particular usage of Democrat isn't clear to me, but it's the first time I've heard it from McCain's mouth. The problem facing Republicans is made illustrated in a speech that Dubya made in February 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq: "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values..." So how do you talk about "democratic values" without associating yourself with, or even glorifying, your political opposition? The solution is to drive a linguistic wedge between them by dropping the -ic suffix.

The first references to the "Democrat party" likely came long ago from ideologues like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich or Tom Delay, or maybe even from an earlier generation [2]. But the current attempt to turn Democrat into an openly pejorative term represents a systematic application of propaganda theory. This campaign has some distinctive features:
  1. It subtly disassociates the "Democrat party" from the "democratic" principles that, by implication, Republicans like Bush feel uniquely qualified to claim as their own. The reference to Democrat refers to individuals rather than concepts, and in so doing it tries to invoke traditional stereotypes about liberals, congress and corrupt machine politicians.
  2. Through endless repetition, Republicans hope that "Democrat party" will infiltrate the political vernacular, eventually replacing "Democratic party" in popular usage. The ultimate goal is for the media to reflexively apply Democrat to the party, its candidates and its platform.
  3. It really, really pisses off Democrats—to the point of apoplexy in some cases. At the same time, the targets are rendered helpless and defensive: they don't want to appear petty by challenging the misuse of the noun Democrat as an adjective. Besides, the same word serves them and their party perfectly well as a noun.
  4. The campaign largely remains off the radar screen for the media, which at most views it as a minor irritant to overly-sensitive Democrats. On the rare occasions when a reporter challenges the usage, the speaker simply laughs and claims that it's just a habit or maybe a slip of the tongue, but in any case no offense was intended.
While this campaign may seem subtle and comparatively innocuous, the constant misuse of Democrat is designed to demonize and belittle the party and its candidates. If they can create a linguistic barrier between the "Democrat party" and "democratic" principles, Republicans can finally appropriate the adjective as part of the quasi-religious construct that Bush/Cheney used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Progressive bloggers have responded in kind by adopting Repubs or repugs (short for repugnants) as a regular part of their vocabulary.

The manipulation of language for ideological ends is hardly a new phenomenon in politics, but the process has been especially pernicious during the Rovian era—which is far from over. With McCain facing either a woman or an African American nominee, the process of linguistic swiftboating has barely begun.


[1] McCain argued that NAFTA, like the escalation in Iraq, was a grand idea, and opposing it would be insulting to "our friends" like the Canadians. Whenever I hear a politician refer to "our friends" in other countries these days, I have to wonder whether there's any basis for that characterization--even when the "friends" in question are Canadians or Aussies. By associating himself so closely to the war in Iraq and NAFTA, McCain may again be hitching his wagon to two of the wrong horses, depending on the fate of the economy and the surge.

[2] A 2006 article in Media Matters notes that Hendrik Herzberg of the New Yorker can trace this usage "as far back as the Harding administration." It was routinely applied by Republican luminaries like Joe McCarthy and, not surprisingly, Bob Dole. The article states: "Hertzberg wrote that 'among those of the Republican persuasion, the use of Democrat Party is now nearly universal' thanks to 'Newt Gingrich, the nominal author of the notorious 1990 memo [and here] Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, and his Contract with America pollster, Frank Luntz.'" The intent, Herzberg writes, is "to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation."

PHOTO: Newt Gingrich (wearing no flag pin!) and Trent Lott in happier times. (Wikimedia)