Forget the Vietnam analogy that critics of the Iraq war usually toss out. A more trenchant analysis of Iraq-style adventures appears in the histories of Thucydides, written 2,400 years ago.
Great Athenian diplomats of the day, like Nicias, warned against military involvement in Sicily, calling it “a war that does not concern us,” according to Thucydides. But smooth-talking neocons of the day, like the brilliant Alcibiades, said in effect that the Sicilians would welcome the Athenians with flowers. He promised that they would be treated not as occupiers but as liberators.
“We shall have many barbarians ... join us,” Alcibiades declared, and he argued that the enemy would be easily defeated “rabble.” “Never were the Peloponnesians more hopeless against us,” he told the crowds.
So the Athenians rallied around the flag and dispatched a huge force. But as Thucydides notes, they had suffered a grievous intelligence failure: they did not get the support they had counted on, and the enemy was far larger and more organized than they had anticipated. The war went badly, and eventually Athens was forced to confront two options: withdraw or escalate.
The Athenians, deciding that defeat was not an option, went with the “surge.” They dispatched an additional 70-odd ships and 5,000 troops.
The result was a catastrophic defeat. Thousands of Athenians were killed far from home, and others were sold into slavery. The Athenian navy was destroyed, and the double-or-nothing gambit meant that other nonaligned states sided with the Athenians’ enemy, Sparta.
Within a few years, Athenian democracy had collapsed, and Athens, the great city-state of the ancient world, had been conquered by Sparta.
The Times Editorial of January 24:
The White House spin ahead of George W. Bush’s seventh State of the Union address was that the president would make a bipartisan call to revive his domestic agenda with “bold and innovative concepts.” The problem with that was obvious last night — in six years, Mr. Bush has shown no interest in bipartisanship, and his domestic agenda was set years ago, with huge tax cuts for wealthy Americans and crippling debt for the country.
Combined with the mounting cost of the war in Iraq, that makes boldness and innovation impossible unless Mr. Bush truly changes course. And he gave no hint of that last night. Instead, he offered up a tepid menu of ideas that would change little: a health insurance notion that would make only a tiny dent in a huge problem. More promises about cutting oil consumption with barely a word about global warming. And the same lip service about immigration reform on which he has failed to deliver.
At times, Mr. Bush sounded almost as if he’d gotten the message of the 2006 elections. “Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on — as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done,” he said.
But we’ve heard that from Mr. Bush before. In early 2001, he promised to bring Americans together and instead embarked on his irresponsible tax cuts, a divisive right-wing social agenda and a neo-conservative foreign policy that tore up international treaties and alienated even America’s closest allies. In the wake of 9/11, Mr. Bush had a second chance to rally the nation — and the world — only to squander it on a pointless, catastrophic war in Iraq. Mr. Bush promised bipartisanship after his re-election in 2004, and again after Hurricane Katrina. Always, he failed to deliver. He did not even mention New Orleans last night.
When Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, Mr. Bush’s only real interest was in making their majority permanent; consultation meant telling the Democrats what he had decided.
Neither broken promises nor failed policies changed Mr. Bush’s mind. So the nation has been saddled with tax cuts that have turned a budget surplus into a big deficit, education reform that has been badly managed and underfinanced, far-right judges with scant qualifications, the dismantling of regulations in order to benefit corporations at the expense of workers, and a triumph of ideology over science in policy making on the environment and medical research. All along, Americans’ civil liberties and the constitutional balance have been trampled by a president determined to assert ever more power.
Now that the Democrats have taken Congress, Mr. Bush is acting as if he’d had the door to compromise open all along and the Democrats had refused to walk through it.
Last night, Mr. Bush also acted as if he were really doing something to help the 47 million people in this country who don’t have health insurance. What he offered, by the White House’s own estimate, would take a few million off that scandalously high number and shift the burden to the states. Mr. Bush’s plan would put a new tax on Americans who were lucky enough to still have good health-care coverage through their employers. Some large portion of those are middle class and represented by the labor unions that Mr. Bush and the Republicans are dedicated to destroying.
Mr. Bush’s comments on Iraq added nothing to his failed policies. He did, at last, propose a permanent increase in the size of the Army and Marines that would repair some of the damage he has done to those forces. But that would take years, and it would do nothing to halt Iraq’s spiral. Mr. Bush failed to explain how he would pay for a larger force, which would almost certainly require cutting budget-busting weapons programs. That would mean going up against the arms industry and its lobbyists — something Mr. Bush has never been willing to do.
Mr. Bush almost certainly didn’t intend it, but his speech did reinforce one vital political fact — that it’s not just up to him anymore. There was a big change last night: the audience. Instead of solid Republican majorities marching in lock step with the White House, Congress is controlled by Democrats. It will be their task to give leadership to a nation that desperately wants change and expects its leaders to work together to deliver it. The Democrats’ challenge will be to form real coalitions with willing Republicans. If they do, Mr. Bush may even be forced, finally, to compromise.
Say what you will about the flaws and shortcomings of the two-party system. After six years of the Bush presidency, at least we know it’s a lot better than the one-party system.
From Bob Herbert:
The rest of the evening was a study in governmental dysfunction. The audience kept mindlessly applauding — up and down, like marionettes — when in fact there was nothing to applaud. The state of the union is wretched, which is why the president’s approval ratings are the worst since Nixon and Carter.
If Mr. Bush is bothered by his fall from political grace, it wasn’t showing on Tuesday night. He seemed as relaxed as ever, smiling, signing autographs, glad-handing.
I wanted to hear him talk about the suffering of the soldiers he has put in harm’s way, and the plight of the residents of New Orleans. I wanted to hear him express a little in the way of sorrow for the many thousands who have died unnecessarily on his watch. I wanted to see him slip the surly bonds of narcissism and at least acknowledge the human wreckage that is the sum and substance of his sustained folly.
But this is a president who runs when empathy calls. While others are monitoring the casualty lists, he’s off to the gym. At least Lyndon Johnson had the decency to agonize over the losses he unleashed in Vietnam.
. . .
There’s a hole in the American system where the leadership used to be. The country that led the miraculous rebuilding effort in the aftermath of World War II can’t even build an adequate system of levees on its own Gulf Coast.
The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement — were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo.
It’s time for thoughtful citizens to turn off their TVs and step into the public arena. Protest. Attend meetings. Circulate petitions. Run for office. I suspect the public right now is way ahead of the politicians when it comes to ideas about creating a more peaceful, more equitable, more intelligent society.
The candidates for the most part are listening to their handlers and gurus and fat-cat contributors, which is the antithesis of democracy. It’s not easy for ordinary men and women to be heard above that self-serving din, but it can be done.
Voters should listen to Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1954:
“Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”
And I really like this one:
At Ease, Mr. President
By GARRY WILLS
Published: January 27, 2007
We hear constantly now about “our commander in chief.” The word has become a synonym for “president.” It is said that we “elect a commander in chief.” It is asked whether this or that candidate is “worthy to be our commander in chief.”
But the president is not our commander in chief. He certainly is not mine. I am not in the Army.
I first cringed at the misuse in 1973, during the “Saturday Night Massacre” (as it was called). President Richard Nixon, angered at the Watergate inquiry being conducted by the special prosecutor Archibald Cox, dispatched his chief of staff, Al Haig, to arrange for Mr. Cox’s firing. Mr. Haig told the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to dismiss Mr. Cox. Mr. Richardson refused, and resigned. Then Mr. Haig told the second in line at the Justice Department, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus refused, and accepted his dismissal. The third in line, Robert Bork, finally did the deed.
What struck me was what Mr. Haig told Mr. Ruckelshaus, “You know what it means when an order comes down from the commander in chief and a member of his team cannot execute it.” This was as great a constitutional faux pas as Mr. Haig’s later claim, when President Reagan was wounded, that “Constitutionally ... I’m in control.”
President Nixon was not Mr. Ruckelshaus’s commander in chief. The president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: “The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.”
When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.
But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.
There has never been an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy than the Bush-Cheney one. The secrecy has been used to throw a veil over detentions, “renditions,” suspension of the Geneva Conventions and of habeas corpus, torture and warrantless wiretaps. We hear again the refrain so common in the other wars — If you knew what we know, you would see how justified all our actions are.
But we can never know what they know. We do not have sufficient clearance.
When Adm. William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the gulf war under the first President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker said that the admiral was not qualified to speak on the matter since he no longer had the clearance to read classified reports. If he is not qualified, then no ordinary citizen is. We must simply trust our lords and obey the commander in chief.
The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements. We are reminded, for instance, of the expanded commander in chief status every time a modern president gets off the White House helicopter and returns the salute of marines.
That is an innovation that was begun by Ronald Reagan. Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of order. (George Bush came as close as he could to wearing a uniform while president when he landed on the telegenic aircraft carrier in an Air Force flight jacket).
We used to take pride in civilian leadership of the military under the Constitution, a principle that George Washington embraced when he avoided military symbols at Mount Vernon. We are not led — or were not in the past — by caudillos.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescient last book, “Secrecy,” traced the ever-faster-growing secrecy of our government and said that it strikes at the very essence of democracy — accountability of representatives to the people. How can the people hold their representatives to account if they are denied knowledge of what they are doing? Wartime and war analogies are embraced because these justify the secrecy. The representative is accountable to citizens. Soldiers are accountable to their officer. The dynamics are different, and to blend them is to undermine the basic principles of our Constitution.
Garry Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, is the author, most recently, of “What Paul Meant.”
And this one:
The Bait-and-Switch White House
Published: January 27, 2007
We often wonder whether there is a limit to the Bush administration’s obsession with secrecy, its assault on the rule of law, its disdain for the powers of Congress, its willingness to con the public and its refusal to heed expert advice or recognize facts on the ground. Events of the past week suggest the answer is no.
In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush stuck to his ill-conceived plans for Iraq, but at least admitted the situation was dire. He said he wanted to work with Congress and announced a bipartisan council on national security.
That lasted a day. By Wednesday evening, Vice President Dick Cheney was on CNN contradicting most of what Mr. Bush had said. We were left asking, once again, Who exactly is running this White House?
While Mr. Bush has been a bit more forthright lately about how badly things have gone in Iraq, Mr. Cheney spoke of “enormous successes” there and refused to pay even curled-lip service to consulting Congress. Whatever votes Congress takes on Iraq, Mr. Cheney said, “it won’t stop us.”
Whenever the vice president does this sort of thing, and it’s pretty often, Americans are faced with an unpleasant choice: Are Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney running a bait-and-switch operation, or does the vice president simply feel free to cut the ground out from under Mr. Bush?
All of that was distressing enough. But in Friday’s Times, Adam Liptak gave an account of the way the administration — after grandly announcing that it was finally going to obey the law on wiretapping — is trying to quash lawsuits over Mr. Bush’s outlaw eavesdropping operations by imposing outrageous secrecy and control over the courts.
Justice Department lawyers are withholding evidence from plaintiffs and even restricting the access of judges to documents in cases involving Mr. Bush’s decision to authorize the warrantless interception of e-mail and phone calls. In one suit, Justice Department lawyers tried to seize computers from the plaintiffs’ lawyers to remove a document central to their case against the government.
In response to these and other serious concerns, the Justice Department offered only the most twisted excuses, which a federal judge rightly compared to “Alice in Wonderland.”
When government lawyers tried to take back a document that has circulated around the world, the judge asked a Justice Department lawyer, “Who is it secret from?” The answer: “Anyone who has not seen it.”
These are not isolated events. The government has made the same Orwellian claims of secrecy in a lawsuit over the president’s decision to create secret C.I.A. prisons for terrorism suspects. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales routinely stonewalls legitimate Congressional requests for documents and information on a wide range of issues. He negotiated a secret agreement to give supposed judicial oversight to Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program, with a court that does not permit anyone into its hearings to argue against the government.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney claim that they are protecting the powers of the presidency. At least that’s the bait they use to explain their trampling on civil liberties and the constitutional balance of power. But by abusing the government’s legitimate right to claim secrecy in court hearings, they will make it harder for other presidents to do that when it is actually justified. And with that switch, they have done grievous harm to the credibility of the Oval Office and the country.
It looks like the State of the Union really pissed off a lot of people. I'm almost - almost - sorry I missed it.
Today we went shopping, bought some bathroom rugs we did need, and went to Ross to buy clothes we didn't need. I found a snazzy pair of jeans (which don't fit yet), some pretty pink blouses, and an awesome pair of cowboy boots, all for less than $60. Then to the grocery store for soda and a few other needful things. I fired up the grill and put on a pork tenderloin and some beef ribs, let them sit while baking chocolate chip cookies. Barb made guacamole (world's best!), and we had corn, and all was delicious (although the ribs got a little charred - my old Weber is a good grill, but I don't regulate my heat as well as I should).
Back to jeans that don't fit. I'm hoping that the now three pairs of pants that don't fit well will get me off my butt and back to the gym, as well as force me to regulate my calories properly. I gained back three or four pounds in Las Vegas (I have to check at the gym where a proper scale is), but I had such a good time, well, there it is. Plus... chocolate chip cookies. But I WILL behave now, I vow!
I will also get myself back to work. Now that the holidays are really, finally over - including vacation - I must settle down to serious work. I mailed my package to the agent on Monday, so... Another wait! And while I wait, work!