Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Coalition of the Unwilling?

December 8, 2004
A Call to Arms

ALLINN, Estonia — With Iraq still in upheaval, I thought I'd lend President Bush a hand and visit some of our loyal partners in the "coalition of the willing" to drum up more troops.

As Mr. Bush pointed out in a presidential debate when John Kerry complained that the U.S. was going it alone in Iraq, we have 30 countries standing with us in Iraq. Actually, by next month we'll be down to 27, but if each of those nations sent 5,000 additional troops, we would nearly double the foreign forces in Iraq.

Oops. Estonia, this lovely postage-stamp-size member of our coalition, has armed forces with a grand total of only 4,000 troops.

Still, I tried.

In his splendid office in the picturesque old quarter of Tallinn, Prime Minister Juhan Parts told me how much Estonians treasure American support. So I suggested that Estonia show its appreciation by sending, say, 1,000 more troops to Iraq.

The prime minister looked stricken.

"Estonia is small," he said, arguing that the 55 Estonian soldiers in Iraq isn't bad for a country the size of his. He added: "Concerning public opinion here, of course, nobody is for war - this is quite obvious - and 60 percent were not very much in favor of Estonian participation. ... We contributed as much as we can at this moment."

My mission had suffered a setback.

One has to respect the contributions of countries like Estonia, which has already had two soldiers killed and 15 injured. Maj. Sten Reimann, who recently returned from a posting in Iraq, said that each Estonian soldier wondered before going out on patrol each day, What am I doing here? His own answer, he said, was that bringing security to Iraq is a worthy goal.

Many others I interviewed offered a more troubling answer. A student named Sven Kukenelk put it like this: "It's like an investment for us."

By this logic, Estonia invests troops in Iraq, and then the United States will be morally bound to rescue Estonia if it gets in trouble with Russia.

Triin Tael, who was out with her baby along the cobblestone streets of Tallinn, said that many Estonians considered the U.S. and Russia to be equally bad. But, she said, they want to cultivate ties with distant Washington to protect them from neighboring Moscow.

"It is in our interest to be friendly to the U.S.," she said, "because we are hoping that the U.S. and NATO will protect us if Russia attacks."

So, on the basis of those 55 soldiers in Iraq, the U.S is now committed to using its full economic and military force to back Estonia?

"Yes," she said. "That's exactly what we think."

It was my turn to look stricken.

Estonia's contribution is not unusual. Eight of our partners in Iraq have fewer than 100 soldiers there.

I'm afraid that my campaign to assist Mr. Bush in raising troops is, so far, proving no more successful than my past missions to help Mr. Bush find W.M.D. in Iraq or Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. No wonder Mr. Bush never calls, never writes.

I started my present search for troops in Ukraine. The departing dictator, Leonid Kuchma, sent 1,600 troops to Iraq, apparently in the hope that Mr. Bush would ignore the tendency of Mr. Kuchma's opponents to end up dead.

These days, Ukraine's pro-democracy leader, Viktor Yushchenko, is promising to pull Ukraine's troops out of Iraq. A Ukraine that is responsive to public opinion, it seems, will not be a member of our coalition.

And that's the problem with our coalition: it's mostly made up of leaders counting on rewards, rather than of nations that are really behind us. Tony Blair genuinely believes in the Iraq war as a matter of principle, but the other members of the coalition are mostly opportunists trying to buy good will in the Bush administration.

That's because a White House that proved immensely sensitive to public opinion in Ohio has been oblivious to public opinion abroad. To his credit, Mr. Bush has tried to mend relations lately, but the damage is done: Americans are dying in Iraq, largely on their own, because Mr. Bush's bulldozer approach has so alienated potential allies.

But don't give up. I'll continue my mission on behalf of Mr. Bush by traveling to two more giants in our coalition: Latvia and Lithuania. Will I find more troops for Iraq? Stay tuned.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times CompanyC

What Are You, On Drugs?

What Are You, On Drugs?
With so many Americans popping prescription meds, who needs nature and sex and exercise?
- By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

The odds are very good that you are on drugs.

Right now. This minute. As I type this and as you read this and as false Texas dictators rise and sad empires crumble and as this mad bewildered world spins in its frantically careening orbit, there's a nearly 50/50 chance that some sort of devious synthetic chemical manufactured by some massive and largely heartless corporation is coursing through your bloodstream and humping your brain stem and molesting your karma and kicking the crap out of your libido and chattering the teeth of your very bones.

Maybe it's regulating your blood pressure. Maybe it's keeping your cholesterol in check. Maybe it's helping you sleep. Maybe it's helping you wake the hell up. Maybe it's opening your bronchial tubes. Maybe it's brightening your terminally bleak outlook.

Maybe it's adjusting your hormone levels or controlling your urge to weep every minute or relaxing the blood vessels in your penis or cranking the serotonin to your brain or pumping carefully measured slugs of alprazolam or fluoxetine or sertraline or atorvastatin or esomeprazole or buspirone or venlafaxine or any number of substances with Latin-rooted jawbreaker names through your flesh in a bizarre dance of miraculous vaguely disturbing death-defying scientific wonder.

Forty-four percent of all Americans. That's the latest number. Almost half us are popping at least one prescription drug and fully one in six are popping three or more, and the numbers are only increasing and this of course doesn't count alcohol or cigarettes or bad porn and it doesn't count the mad megadoses of jingoistic flag-waving God-slappin' fear -- which is, as evidenced by the last election, a stupendously popular FDA-approved drug in its own right. But that's another column.

Have a teenager? She's probably on drugs, too. One in four of all teens are, according to new research. And we ain't talking pot or ecstasy or meth or fine cocaine or Bud Light or any of those oh-my-God-not-my-baby devil drugs that are so demonized by the government, but that by and large are no more (and are often far less) toxic and addictive and caustic than any of your average 8-buck-a-pop silver-bullet chemical bombs shot forth from the likes of Eli Lilly and Glaxo and Pfizer, et al. Ahh, irony. It's the American way.

All of which means one of two things: either it's the goddamn finest time in history to be an American, living as we are in the age of incredible technology and miracle medicines and longer life expectancies and $5 coffee drinks and a happy synthetic chemical to match any sort of ache or pain or lump or rash or spiritual crisis you might be facing.

Or it's the absolute worst, what with so many of us heavily drugged and over half of us massively obese and IQs dropping like stones and our overall quality of life deteriorating right under our noses and shockingly huge numbers of us actually finding Shania Twain somehow interesting. Which perspective is right for you? Ask your doctor.

It's become so you can't crack a joke about Prozac or Xanax at a party without at least three or four faces suddenly going still and unsmiling and you're like, whoops, as you suddenly realize that you can, as you walk the streets of this fine and heavily narcotized nation, imagine at least one very expensive drug pumping through the time-ravaged body of nearly every other person you pass. It's a bit like knowing their secret fetish or favoritest dream or on which nether part they want to get a tattoo. Except totally different.

And you might say, well, so what? So what if pharmaceuticals help us cope, relieve the pressure, help us survive this ugly and irritating world? Better living through chemistry, baby, so long as you don't mind the numbness and the glazed eyeballs and the heart palpitations and the lack of true feeling in your fingertips and the nightmares about snakes. Right?

So long as you don't mind the slightly nauseating sense that you have lost some sort of vital and perhaps irreplaceable link to the animal world and the luminous organic planet. But, as Dubya says, who the hell cares about that crap when you got baseball and war and apple pie?

Because here's the nasty truth: it's a highly toxic BushCo world right now and we've set it up so it's only getting worse, darker, more poisonous and unsettled and unsanitary. Maybe all our meds just help us maintain some sort of jittery and numbed balance, some sort of sad equilibrium. The BushCo doctrine dictates detachment, exploitation, abuse of every known ecological resource and profiteering from every known loophole and caring not a whit for nature and organic systems and balance? Hey, like nation, like body.

But let's be fair. It must be said right here that many of these drugs indeed help an enormous number of people and restore lives and bring light where only darkness once reigned and far be it from me to begrudge anyone his or her chemical-assisted reprieve from genuine suffering.

But here's the thing: it's still only a fraction. Only a small number of people whose doctors prescribe these meds like candy actually need them, and as for the rest there are these things called lifestyle change and dietary change and perspective change and even spiritual shift that can affect the overall health of your life like a goddamn miracle, like a thousand drugs combined, changes that millions simply refuse to undertake because, well, it's just too damn hard.

We don't want to know. We don't want to understand deeper, complex natural systems. We want pills, not awareness. We want magic bullets, not true magic. We want to eat what we want and exercise not at all and pay no attention to our bodies and our quality of life and expect it all to work sufficiently well until we die at 90 and they forklift us into our refrigerator-size coffins. After all, we're Americans. We're not supposed to care.

Nevertheless, it bears repeating: maybe what's lacking most in this society is a true and thoughtful and nuanced connection to and understanding of the natural systems, soil and sunlight and sustainability, lunar rhythms and whole food and maybe knowing where the hell your water really comes from. You think?

Because the truth is, it's not all that hard to get informed. It's not all that hard to affect serious change in your life and eat better and kiss better and require less chemical crap in your bloodstream and slowly but surely reduce the need for medication in your life. It is far from impossible to clear out the toxins and flush the BushCo-endorsed crap and defy the demonic corporate pharmaceutical PR and reevaluate just how you tread this life. They just want you to think it is.


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