Monday, November 21, 2005

Marines Quiet About Brutal New Weapon

Marines Quiet About Brutal New Weapon

War is hell. But it’s worse when the Marines bring out their new urban combat weapon, the SMAW-NE. Which may be why they’re not talking about it, much.

This is a version of the standard USMC Shoulder Mounted Assault Weapon but with a new warhead. Described as NE - "Novel Explosive"- it is a thermobaric mixture which ignites the air, producing a shockwave of unparalleled destructive power, especially against buildings.

smaw-ne sequence.JPGA post-action report from Iraq describes the effect of the new weapon: "One unit disintegrated a large one-storey masonry type building with one round from 100 meters. They were extremely impressed." Elsewhere it is described by one Marine as "an awesome piece of ordnance."

It proved highly effective in the battle for Fallujah. This from the Marine Corps Gazette, July edition: "SMAW gunners became expert at determining which wall to shoot to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms."

The NE round is supposed to be capable of going through a brick wall, but in practice gunners had to fire through a window or make a hole with an anti-tank rocket. Again, from the Marine Corps Gazette:

"Due to the lack of penetrating power of the NE round, we found that our assaultmen had to first fire a dual-purpose rocket in order to create a hole in the wall or building. This blast was immediately followed by an NE round that would incinerate the target or literally level the structure."

The rational for this approach was straightforward:

"Marines could employ blast weapons prior to entering houses that had become pillboxes, not homes. The economic cost of house replacement is not comparable to American lives...all battalions adopted blast techniques appropriate to entering a bunker, assuming you did not know if the bunker was manned."

The manufacturers, Talley, make bold use of its track record, with a brochure headlined Thermobaric Urban Destruction."

The SMAW-NE has only been procured by the USMC, though there are reports that some were 'borrowed' by other units. However, there are also proposals on the table that thousands of obsolete M-72 LAWs could be retrofitted with thermobaric warheads, making then into effective urban combat tools.

But in an era of precision bombs, where collateral damage is expected to be kept to a minimum, such massively brutal weapons have become highly controversial. These days, every civilian casualty means a few more “hearts and minds” are lost. Thermobaric weapons almost invariable lead to civilian deaths. The Soviet Union was heavily criticized for using thermobaric weapons in Afghanistan because they were held to constitute "disproportionate force," and similar criticisms were made when thermobarics were used in the Chechen conflict. According to Human Rights Watch, thermobaric weapons "kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area. In urban settings it is very difficult to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants, and the nature of FAE explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect."

So it’s understandable that the Marines have made so little noise about the use of the SMAW-NE in Fallujah. But keeping quiet about controversial weapons is a lousy strategy, no matter how effective those arms are. In the short term, it may save some bad press. In the long term, it’s a recipe for a scandal. Military leaders should debate human right advocates and the like first, and then publicly decide "we do/do not to use X". Otherwise when the media find do find out – as they always do -- not only do you get a level of hysteria but there is also the charge of “covering up.”

I'm undecided about thermobarics myself, but I think they should let the legal people sort out all these issues and clear things up. Otherwise you get claims of “chemical weapons” and “violating the Geneva Protocol.” Which doesn't really help anyone. The warfighter is left in doubt, and it hands propaganda to the bad guys. Just look at what happened it last week’s screaming over white phosphorous rounds.

-- David Hambling
November 14, 2005 10:22 AM | Ammo and Munitions

Why We Shouldn't Practice Torture

CIA Veterans Condemn Torture

By Jason Vest, Government Executive
© National Journal Group Inc.
Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005

Among the fundamental conceits of the architects of the Bush administration's war on terrorism is that heavy-handed interrogation is useful, even necessary, to get any information that will protect the American people, and that such interrogation techniques are devoid of negative consequences in dealing with real or suspected terrorists. One way this notion has played out in practice is the CIA's use of "extraordinary rendition," in which terror suspects overseas are kidnapped and delivered to third-party countries for interrogation -- which, not uncharacteristically, includes some measure of torture, and sometimes fatal torture.

In recent years officers have been getting the worst combination of no training plus ambiguous signals from management on the ethics of interrogation.

Details about the extent and excesses of the U.S. government's interrogation practices have been ably documented by the media and human-rights organizations. Many thought that extraordinary rendition would be the worst of the revelations, but on November 2, The Washington Post revealed that the CIA has been running its own system of secret overseas detention and interrogation centers, known as "black sites." Coming at a moment when both CIA Director Porter Goss and Vice President Cheney have been crusading to exempt the CIA from pending legislation authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would ban U.S. government personnel from using torture, and other abusive conduct, in interrogations, the story has been particularly resonant -- especially when at least one prisoner under CIA supervision at the now-defunct Afghanistan "salt pit" black site died as a result of abuse.

Although outrage has focused on the existence and symbolism of the black sites, comparatively little attention has been paid to the concerns -- if not outright objections -- of many distinguished CIA veterans about these sites and the use of torture in general. It's not just that such behavior is largely impractical, they say; it's that even by the morally ambiguous standards of espionage and covert action, the abuse is simply wrong.

Some perennially high-profile retired CIA officers like Bob Baer, Frank Anderson, and Vincent Cannistraro recently spoke out to Knight Ridder about their opposition to torture on practical grounds (Cannistraro said that detainees will "say virtually anything to end their torment"). But over the past 18 months, several lesser-known former officers have been trying, publicly and privately, to convince both the agency and the public that torture and other unduly coercive questioning tactics are morally wrong as well.

Speaking at a College of William and Mary forum last year, for example, Burton L. Gerber, a decorated Moscow station chief who retired in 1995 after 39 years with the CIA, surprised some in the audience when he said he opposes torture "because it corrupts the society that tolerates it." This is a view, he confirmed in an interview with National Journal last week, that is rooted in Albert Camus's assertion in Preface to Algerian Reports that torture, "even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy," represents "a flouting of honor that serves no purpose but to degrade" a nation in its own eyes and the world's. "The reason I believe that torture corrupts the torturers and society," Gerber says, "is that a standard is changed, and that new standard that's acceptable is less than what our nation should stand for. I think the standards in something like this are crucial to the identity of America as a free and just society."

The moral dimensions of torture, Gerber adds, are inextricably linked with the practical; aside from the fact that torture almost always fails to yield true or useful information, it has the potential to adversely affect CIA operations. "Foreign nationals agree to spy for us for many different reasons; some do it out of an overwhelming admiration for America and what it stands for, and to those people, I think, America being associated with torture does affect their willingness to work with us," he says. "But one of my arguments with the agency about ethics, particularly in this case, is that it's not about case studies, but philosophy. Aristotle says the ends and means must be in concert; if the ends and means are not in concert, good ends will be corrupted by bad means."

A similar stance was articulated last year by Merle L. Pribbenow, a 27-year veteran of the agency's clandestine Directorate of Operations. Writing in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA's in-house journal, Pribbenow recalled that an old college friend had recently expressed his belief that "the terrorist threat to America was so grave that any methods, including torture, should be used to obtain the information we need." The friend was vexed that Pribbenow's former colleagues "had not been able to 'crack' these prisoners."

Pribbenow sought an answer by revisiting the arcane case of Nguyen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Vietcong prisoner captured and interrogated by both South Vietnamese and American forces during the Vietnam War. Re-examining in detail the techniques used by the South Vietnamese (protracted torture that included electric shocks; beatings; various forms of water torture; stress positions; food, water, and sleep deprivation) and by the Americans (rapport-building and no violence), Pribbenow reached a stark conclusion: "While the South Vietnamese use of torture did result (eventually) in Tai's admission of his true identity, it did not provide any other usable information," he wrote. In the end, he said, "it was the skillful questions and psychological ploys of the Americans, and not any physical infliction of pain, that produced the only useful (albeit limited) information that Tai ever provided."

But perhaps most noteworthy was Pribbenow's conclusion: "This brings me back to my college classmate's question. The answer I gave him -- one in which I firmly believe -- is that we, as Americans, must not let our methods betray our goals," he said. "There is nothing wrong with a little psychological intimidation, verbal threats, bright lights and tight handcuffs, and not giving a prisoner a soft drink and a Big Mac every time he asks for them. There are limits, however, beyond which we cannot and should not go if we are to continue to call ourselves Americans. America is as much an ideal as a place, and physical torture of the kind used by the Vietnamese (North as well as South) has no place in it."

Retired since 1995, Pribbenow spends most of his time writing on Vietnam War history and translating Vietnamese works. With the exception of participating in a documentary series on the Vietnam War, he has never spoken to the press. But last week in an exclusive interview with National Journal, he revealed that part of what prompted him to write his piece was his own experience in Vietnam, where as an interpreter participating in CIA interrogations, he had occasion to interact with South Vietnamese torturers and their victims.

"If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it," he said. "One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things. I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, 'Why didn't you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?' They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn't even bother to ask questions." Ultimately, he said -- echoing Gerber's comments -- "torture becomes an end unto itself."

Pribbenow also said he was moved to write down his thoughts out of concern for the current generation of intelligence officers. "I don't personally know of any cases where an agency officer ever [tortured] anyone; that was always taboo, something we just didn't do," he said. "But I had been seeing stuff in the news, on TV, TV commentators, that sort of thing, in favor of torture, and I thought, 'I know there are a lot of new intelligence officers, new guys who don't have a lot of experience,' and thought maybe something like this will help them make their own decisions as to how to handle themselves in these situations, especially when people in authority are saying things that are unclear."

Indeed, Pribbenow, Gerber, and other veterans interviewed all noted that one of their greatest worries is that the proposed exemption to McCain's legislation will institutionalize something that has historically been an exception in CIA culture: CIA officers actually doing physical harm to interrogation suspects. One longtime case officer asks, "Are there instances throughout history when we have known, and in some cases, at least, turned a blind eye to, that allied or friendly intelligence services are torturing people? Yes," he says. "Is it something our own officers have done? Almost never." What has many veterans worried, he said, is the fact that while case officers aren't actually trained in interrogation techniques ("I'm not sure I ever knew anyone who was a 'professional interrogator' in the agency," says Pribbenow), in recent years officers have been getting the worst combination of no training plus ambiguous signals from management on the ethics of interrogation.

From 1972 to 1975, Frank Snepp was the CIA's top interrogator in Saigon, where he choreographed elaborate, protracted sessions with Nguyen Van Tai and, at one point, seven other senior Vietcong captives. To the question of whether torture or abusive behavior by interrogators is justified, Snepp's answer is unequivocally no. And the fact that this point isn't understood at the agency today, Snepp says, is a sign of serious problems.

"One of the big lessons for the agency was that the South Vietnamese torturing people got in the way of getting information," he says. "One day, without my knowledge, the South Vietnamese forces beat one of my subjects to a pulp, and when he staggered into the interrogation room, I was furious. And I went to the station chief and he said, 'What do you want me to do about it?' I told him to tell the Vietnamese to lay off, and he said, 'What do you want me to tell them in terms of why?' I said, 'Because it's wrong, it's just wrong.' He laughed and said, 'Look, we've got 180,000 North Vietnamese troops within a half hour of here -- I can't tell them, don't beat the enemy. Give me a pragmatic reason.' I said, 'He can't talk. He's a wreck. I can't interrogate him.' He said, 'That, I can use with them.'

"The important lesson for me was that moral arguments don't work," Snepp says. "But if you have pragmatic reasons, that will work. But the most important thing is that the only time you can be sure that what you're getting from someone is valid is through discourse. In Tai's case, the idea was to develop absolute trust, which you do not do by alienating and humiliating someone. He liked poetry; I brought him books of poetry, and in many sessions we sat and discussed poetry, nothing else. The most extreme thing I did was a disorientation technique, where I would keep jumping from one subject to another so rapidly that he might not remember what he'd told me the day before, or not remember that he had not, in fact, told me what I was saying he'd told me. Little by little, I drew him into revelations. And I was highly commended for this work."

But today, according to case officers, younger CIA operatives have no formal training. No qualified old hands are around to informally mentor them, or to even swap collegial notes, on the practical or the ethical in interrogations. "We're not trained interrogators -- to be honest, in those situations I really had no idea what I'm doing, and I'm not the only one who has had this experience," says a decorated active case officer with nearly 25 years of experience, who on several occasions in recent years has participated in interrogations of Islamist radicals conducted by foreign intelligence services. "The larger problem here, I think, is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work.... I'm worried that this is becoming more institutionalized. There are other officers I know who I think are coming to take on faith that the only way to get anything out of a suspected terrorist is beating it out of him, because he's in an entirely different category, so fanatical that it's the only thing that'll work."

According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the "gloves-off" approach works -- but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn't be emulated today. "I have been privy to some of what's going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, 'The agency deserves every bad thing that's going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'" he said. "In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon -- technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations," he said. "I don't know how much violence was used -- it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.

"But here's the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn't. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that's never been settled, one that crops up and goes away -- do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground? I think as late as a decade ago, there were enough of us around who had enough experience to constitute the majority view, which was that this was simply not the way we did business, and for good reasons of practicality or morality. It's not just about what it does or doesn't do, but about who, and where, we as a country want to be."

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Heinous! Cynthia McKinney Speaks about the WAR

Stop Playing Politics, Get the Troops Out Now
The Republicans Have Done a Heinous Thing


[The following is the text of Rep. McKinney's floor remarks on the November 18 debate over the "Murtha" withdrawal resolution.]

The Republicans in this House have done a heinous thing: they have insulted one of the deans of this House in an unthinkable and unconscionable way.

They took his words and contorted them; they took his heartfelt sentiments and spun them. They took his resolution and deformed it: in a cheap effort to silence dissent in the House of Representatives.

The Republicans should be roundly criticized for this reprehensible act. They have perpetrated a fraud on the House of Representatives just as they have defrauded the American people.

By twisting the issue around, the Republicans are trying to set a trap for the Democrats. A "no" vote for this Resolution will obscure the fact that there is strong support for withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. I am voting "yes" on this Resolution for an orderly withdrawal of US forces from Iraq despite the convoluted motives behind the Republican Resolution. I am voting to support our troops by bringing them home now in an orderly withdrawal.

Sadly, if we call for an end to the occupation, some say that we have no love for the Iraqi people, that we would abandon them to tyrants and thugs.

Let us consider some history. The Republicans make great hay about Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Kurds. But when that attack was made in 1988, it was Democrats who moved a resolution to condemn those attacks, and the Reagan White House quashed the bill in the Senate, because at that time the Republicans considered Saddam one of our own.

So in 1988, who abandoned the Iraqi people to tyrants and a thugs?

In voting for this bill, let me be perfectly clear that I am not saying the United States should exit Iraq without a plan. I agree with Mr. Murtha that security and stability in Iraq should be pursued through diplomacy. I simply want to vote yes to an orderly withdrawal from Iraq. And let me explain why.

Prior to its invasion, Iraq had not one (not one!) instance of suicide attacks in its history. Research shows a 100% correlation between suicide attacks and the presence of foreign combat troops in a host country. And experience also shows that suicide attacks abate when foreign occupation troops are withdrawn. The US invasion and occupation has destabilized Iraq and Iraq will only return to stability once this occupation ends.

We must be willing to face the fact that the presence of US combat troops is itself a major inspiration to the forces attacking our troops. Moreover, we must be willing to acknowledge that the forces attacking our troops are able to recruit suicide attackers because suicide attacks are largely motivated by revenge for the loss of loved ones. And Iraqis have lost so many loved ones as a result of America's two wars against Iraq.

In 1996, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on CBS that the lives of 500,000 children dead from sanctions were "worth the price" of containing Saddam Hussein. When pressed to defend this reprehensible position she went on to explain that she did not want US Troops to have to fight the Gulf War again. Nor did I. But what happened? We fought a second gulf war. And now over 2,000 American soldiers lie dead. And I expect the voices of concern for Iraqi civilian casualties, whose deaths the Pentagon likes to brush aside as "collateral damage" are too few, indeed. A report from Johns Hopkins suggests that over 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, most of them violent deaths and most as "collateral damage" from US forces. The accuracy of the 100,000 can and should be debated. Yet our media, while quick to cover attacks on civilians by insurgent forces in Iraq, have given us a blackout on Iraqi civilian deaths at the hands of US combat forces.

Yet let us remember that the United States and its allies imposed a severe policy of sanctions on the people of Iraq from 1990 to 2003. UNICEF and World Health Organization studies based on infant mortality studies showed a 500,000 increase in mortality of Iraqi children under 5 over trends that existed before sanctions. From this, it was widely assumed that over 1 million Iraqi deaths for all age groups could be attributed to sanctions between 1990 and 1998. And not only were there 5 more years of sanctions before the invasion, but the war since the invasion caused most aid groups to leave Iraq. So for areas not touched by reconstruction efforts, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated further. How many more Iraqi lives have been lost through hunger and deprivation since the occupation?

And what kind of an occupier have we been? We have all seen the photos of victims of US torture in Abu Ghraib prison. That's where Saddam used to send his political enemies to be tortured, and now many Iraqis quietly, cautiously ask: "So what has changed?"

A recent video documentary confirms that US forces used white phosphorous against civilian neighborhoods in the US attack on Fallujah. Civilians and insurgents were burned alive by these weapons. We also now know that US forces have used MK77, a napalm-like incendiary weapon, even though napalm has been outlawed by the United Nations.

With the images of tortured detainees, and the images of Iraqi civilians burned alive by US incendiary weapons now circulating the globe, our reputation on the world stage has been severely damaged.

If America wants to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, we as a people must be willing to face the pain and death and suffering we have brought to the Iraqi people with bombs, sanctions and occupation, even if we believe our actions were driven by the most altruistic of reasons. We must acknowledge our role in enforcing the policy of sanctions for 12 years after the extensive 1991 bombing in which we bombed infrastructure targets in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.

We must also be ready to face the fact that the United States once provided support for the tyrant we deposed in the name of liberating the Iraqi people. These are events that our soldiers are too young to remember. I believe our young men and women in uniform are very sincere in their belief that their sacrifice is made in the name of helping the Iraqi people. But it is not they who set the policy. They take orders from the Commander-in-Chief and the Congress. It is we who bear the responsibility of weighing our decisions in a historical context, and it is we who must consider the gravest decision of whether or not to go to war based upon the history, the facts, and the truth.

Sadly, however, our country is at war in Iraq based on a lie told to the American people. The entire war was based premised on a sales pitch-that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction menacing the United States-that turned out to be a lie.

I have too many dead soldiers in my district; too many from my home state. Too many homeless veterans on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

America has sacrificed too many young soldiers' lives, too many young soldiers' mangled bodies, to the Bush war machine.

I will not vote to give one more soldier to the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney war machine. I will not give one more dollar for a war riddled with conspicuous profiteering.

Tonight I speak as one who has at times been the only Member of this Body at antiwar demonstrations calling for withdrawal. And I won't stop calling for withdrawal.

I was opposed to this war before there was a war; I was opposed to the war during the war; and I am opposed to this war now--even though it's supposed to be over.

A vote on war is the single most important vote we can make in this House. I understand the feelings of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who might be severely conflicted by the decision we have to make here tonight. But the facts of US occupation of Iraq are also very clear. The occupation is headed down a dead end because so long as US combat forces patrol Iraq, there will be an Iraqi insurgency against it

I urge that we pursue an orderly withdrawal from Iraq and pursue, along with our allies, a diplomatic solution to the situation in Iraq, supporting the aspirations of the Iraqi people through support for democratic processes.

Bankruptcy Laws Hurt All Americans

November 15, 2005
Talking Points

Nicholas Kulish, an editorial board member, writes on business issues.

There was a long line of people wrapped around the corner of New York's hundred-year-old granite Custom House at the foot of Broadway one Friday last month. Most of the people in it had little more than cheap black convenience-store umbrellas to protect them from a torrential downpour. But they had good reason to wait for hours in the driving rain. The following Monday, October 17, a much-disputed new federal bankruptcy law took effect.

Similar scenes played out across the country. People living on the economic brink rushed to declare themselves insolvent under the old law, rather than become guinea pigs of the new regime. A surge in filings in the run-up to the deadline was expected, but the sheer quantity that gray Friday dwarfed most expectations.

The new law makes it much harder for people in financial distress to make the "fresh start" that has long been the promise of American bankruptcy law. It requires most people who earn more than the median income in their state to pay off their debts on a five-year repayment plan. Poorer filers can still avail themselves of Chapter 7's debt-erasing provisions, but they face an array of new hurdles, including mandatory credit counseling, greater paperwork requirements, and rising lawyers' fees.

America has always been ambivalent about bankruptcy. It has been stigmatized as a refusal to make good on one's obligations. But at the same time, the laws governing bankruptcy have been credited with contributing to the flexibility of the American economic system, and has been a key ingredient in its success over the last century.

News stories about the new law have largely focused on how it will make life more difficult for people on the economic margins, including those who ended up there as a result of illness, divorce, or other life crises. That focus is understandable - the changes will have a devastating impact on many of the most vulnerable Americans. What is less understood, however, is how the new law could hurt the entire United States economy, and consequently, the financial wellbeing of all Americans.

The traditionally more lenient approach in past laws to the discharge of debt was not primarily intended to make life easier for the poorest Americans. It was designed to help create the kind of risk-taking, dynamic economy that has been critical to America's success. But the new rules could well chip away at two of the main pillars of the American economy - the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses, and robust consumer spending.

While the bankruptcy regulations that apply to big businesses were left pretty much the same, the new law is likely to cause hardships beyond those of individual filers by putting a damper on small businesses. Unlike large corporations, small businesses are often established and financed by their owners, with money from their own bank accounts. As a result, people whose enterprise fails often file for personal bankruptcy. The new law is likely to inhibit them.

The clear winners are the credit card companies and other lenders who pushed the law through Congress. The losers, though, are not just the poor people who will have more trouble declaring bankruptcy. We may all be worse off because of the way in which the new law weakens American economic life.

I. The Blame Game: Reckless Spenders vs. Victims of Circumstance

Personal bankruptcy filings have increased sharply in recent years, more than doubling between 1994 and 2003, when they reached 1.6 million. There has long been agreement that something had to be done, but creditor and debtor interest groups differed sharply over why bankruptcies were soaring, and how to respond.

Public policy debates often produce stock characters that aim to cut through the statistics and complexities - like the welfare queen, living the high life on government largesse. Both sides of the consumer bankruptcy debate have their preferred symbol.

Supporters of tougher restrictions conjured up the image of the luxury-loving overspender, living beyond his means, with a flat-screen television at home and a Porsche Carrera in the driveway. Just when the creditors begin snapping at his heels, the deadbeat hides behind consumer-friendly bankruptcy laws, shielding his ill-gotten gains while ordinary suckers - the ones who pay their bills - absorb the cost of his irresponsibility.

Consumer advocates, on the other hand, paint the picture of a poor, honest family, barely scraping by with both parents working, who then suffer an unavoidable setback, such as the loss of a job or a sudden illness. Bankruptcy is the only salvation for these hardworking victims of circumstance, the argument goes, and the new law condemns them to permanent debt slavery.

There are, of course, examples of both. But the statistics show that there are many more hard-luck cases than footloose overspenders.

In the end, this debate was resolved not by the power of either side's arguments, but by Capitol Hill politics. The financial services industry, one of the nation's biggest campaign contributors, persuaded Congress to enact a law that was a virtual industry wish list. The lawmakers ignored the concerns raised by consumer groups, who wanted the law to address the lenders' role in the debt crisis - the explosion of credit-card offerings to poor people, students, and others who are likely to end up with bills they cannot pay, and the outrageous level of interest levied by many credit card companies.

The lenders have tried to frame bankruptcy purely as a story of irresponsible borrowers. But in many cases, it is the creditors who have been irresponsible, by lending money to people they have reason to know may be unable to pay the money back. In the name of holding debtors more accountable, lenders asked the federal government to let them off the hook for their own bad lending decisions.

Neither borrowers nor lenders are, as a group, entirely without blame when debts go unpaid. But of the two groups, the lenders - who are almost invariably large banks and credit card companies - are in a better position to absorb the loss, since they can spread it over many borrowers. Individuals don't have that luxury. When deciding where to place the burden of a bankruptcy law, Congress should have given the benefit of the doubt to vulnerable individuals.

II. The All-American Second Chance

The United States may be far less charitable than European countries when it comes to social welfare programs like health insurance and unemployment benefits, but it has long been generous in giving debtors a second chance.

Bankruptcy is a legal status that in America must be determined by a judge. In Chapter 7 or so-called "fresh start" cases, once bankruptcy is declared, the debtor's remaining assets and all but a few, exempted possessions are divided up among creditors. But any remaining debts are discharged and do not have to be paid back in the future.

Bankruptcy laws were not always so forgiving. In Roman times a debtor could be sold into slavery and the selling price divided among his creditors. In extreme cases, the debtor could literally be chopped into pieces for divvying up among the same group. England's debtors' prisons were only slightly more humane.

Treating debtors punitively can be cruel to the individuals involved, as those unlucky Romans might have pointed out, but it is also harmful to society as a whole. In our own system, tough bankruptcy measures can discourage people from taking the sort of financial risks that lead to innovation and economic growth. And even those in relatively stable enterprises could be driven out of business by harsh economic climates. American legislators recognized long ago that some measure of protection would benefit the economy.

In 1841, the United States passed its first bankruptcy law that allowed debtors to declare bankruptcy on their own initiative, rather than because their creditors demanded it. Congressman Eugenius Nisbet of Georgia said at the time, "The public will be the great gainers by discharging the bankrupts, because thereby you throw into activity a large amount of intellectual and professional capital which otherwise would be forever lost." In other words, don't leave the best and brightest on the sidelines just because they got burned in a market collapse or an economic downturn.

Since that 1841 law, America has gone even further to establish a system that gives businesses and individuals leeway to fail. "This country has long had the most debtor friendly of bankruptcy laws, designed to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, and it worries me that we're moving away from that tradition," says David Moss, a professor at Harvard Business School. "Generous bankruptcy laws encourage us to take risks, and this is a country that does well on risk taking."

III. Message to Entrepreneurs : Don't Take the Plunge

When most people think of American business, they think of Fortune 500 companies and other behemoths. But small, entrepreneurial businesses also help drive the American economy.

According to the Small Business Administration, small companies provide roughly three-quarters of the net new jobs added to the economy and employ half of the private workforce. Of course, not all small companies stay small. American business history is full of stories like that of Stanford graduates Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who founded Hewlett-Packard in 1939 out of a Palo Alto garage, or Ray Kroc, who transformed a single hamburger restaurant owned by the McDonald brothers into a global phenomenon.

These once-small businesses, and many others, were the result of a leap of faith on the part of their founders. It is far less of a hassle to work for a big company, and certainly less of a risk. It takes a particular kind of personality to sink one's life savings into a venture that statistics have proven will most likely fail. In 2004, about 581,000 new firms were founded and 576,000 closed.

This entrepreneurial spirit has long been part of the American economic ideal. And bankruptcy has long been a safety net for entrepreneurs. According to government statistics, there were about 37,000 business bankruptcies in 2003. But a recent study by bankruptcy experts Elizabeth Warren of Harvard and Robert Lawless of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas estimated the actual number at between 260,000 and 315,000 bankruptcies annually. Lawless calls the government numbers "divorced from reality," in a release accompanying the study.

The government figure does not include the personal bankruptcies of small business owners whose enterprises have failed. It can be difficult to separate the individual from the company, when personal credit cards are the first source of venture capital and garages, attics, and dorm rooms serve as the company headquarters. The new bankruptcy law will make things far tougher for hundreds of thousands of small businesses, something entrepreneurs are likely to take into account when they consider whether to take the plunge. Michelle J. White, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, found that states with higher homestead exemptions - which allow bankruptcy filers to keep some amount of home equity after filing - had much higher rates of business ownership. Her conclusion: Entrepreneurs take bankruptcy, and the degree to which they are likely to be punished for failure, into account.

That is logical. Entrepreneurs have to evaluate a wide array of possible outcomes, and one of these is the worst-case scenario, the failure of the company. The bankruptcy debate focuses so much on lower-income groups - and correctly so from a social justice standpoint - that the business side is ignored. When discussed at all, it's usually to debate the justice of big, old concerns like the auto parts manufacturer Delphi slashing wages.

With the bar raised for personal bankruptcy, and particularly the costs associated with failure, fewer people may decide to start businesses. Instead of losing almost everything but being able to start anew, would-be business owners now must spend up to five years living on a system of allowances developed by the Internal Revenue Service.

Professor White writes in an article that this "would make the U.S. small business environment more like that of Germany, where bankruptcy law has never included a "fresh start," risk taking is frowned upon, there are many fewer entrepreneurs, unemployment is higher and economic growth is slower."

IV. Driving the Poor Out of the System

The changes to the law affecting the poorer half of the population appear modest, but seemingly little changes can do a lot of damage to those on the economic edge. Poor debtors will have to pay for mandatory credit counseling and furnish more pay stubs and tax returns. Lawyers now have to certify their filings and assess their average incomes over the previous months, which in turn is leading to higher fees.

The upshot is that bankruptcy is becoming more of a hassle and more expensive. One Harlem native waiting in line in downtown Manhattan on that wet October afternoon said she was shocked at the price tag. "I couldn't go to a lawyer," said the woman, who preferred that her name not be used. "I tried that first and it was $790. There was no way I could afford that." With the help of the low-cost filing service "We the People," she managed to get it done for just over $500, including court fees. She was embarrassed to admit that she had to borrow much of the money from her sister and a friend. Being too poor to declare bankruptcy sounds like the ultimate Catch-22, but it can be a reality for people in economic distress - and it is likely to become far more common under the new law, which hikes the costs of bankruptcy considerably.

The answer for many people who are too poor to be bankrupt is what academics call "informal bankruptcy." "If you erect barriers, more people will opt not to file," says Lawrence Ausubel, a University of Maryland economics professor who has studied the phenomenon. Rather than pay the high costs of a formal bankruptcy, poor people may choose to hang up on creditors when they call, change their phone numbers, and even change addresses. In a study he co-authored, Mr. Ausubel found that half of the delinquent accounts written off by credit card companies were from debtors who had not filed for bankruptcy.

Worse still is what can happen after that. To avoid having their wages garnished, debtors may begin to turn away from mainstream financial institutions and credit arrangements. They may turn to the sort of high-cost payday loans and check-cashing outlets that some illegal immigrants rely on, and work for cash-only businesses. That hurts them by driving up their cost of borrowing money and limiting their employment options. It also hurts the wider economy, because it means they stop paying taxes.

V. A Blow to Consumer Spending

A final likely result of the new bankruptcy law is that many consumers may do what has become unthinkable: stop spending. If small businesses are important for the economy, consumer spending is absolutely essential.

While proponents of creditor-friendly bankruptcy laws harangue consumers for living beyond their means, economists say that exuberant consumer spending is crucial if the American economy is going to keep growing at its current pace. For manufacturers and service providers to continue to thrive, consumers have to keep buying what they are offering up.

Americans have shown a strong, and ever-growing, commitment to spending: average household credit card balances have risen to over $9,000. A change in the bankruptcy law alone is not enough to change these consumer spending patterns. But the new bankruptcy law is not an isolated occurrence. It comes at a time when a number of forces are all working against consumer spending. This winter, the combination of these forces may finally break the back of United States demand.

The rapid rise in real estate values over the past few years has been an important factor in driving up consumer spending. The "wealth effect" of soaring property values has given Americans the confidence, and in many cases the home equity loans, to spend on consumer goods. There are signs, however, that the real estate market is finally beginning to cool, which means that home equity as a cost-free ATM for homeowners may be about to stop.

At the same time, consumers are facing an array of fast-rising expenses. Health care costs are skyrocketing, with employee shares of deductibles and premiums increasing far faster than in the past. Gasoline prices have jumped and home heating costs are expected to soar this winter. Americans who make less than the median income already spend well over 10% of their budgets on energy, according to That percentage is likely to rise sharply in the days ahead.

Perhaps most significant of all is an expensive but little-noticed rule change by the nation's banking regulators, who decided back in January 2003 to require credit card companies to ask for higher minimum payments. The change was intended to ensure that customers paying the minimum would eventually pay off their full balance and get out of debt. It's a great rule that happens to be hitting at exactly the wrong moment. Some banks have already made the switch, but between now and January 1, more and more customers carrying high balances on their cards will see their minimum payment requirements double.

With consumers under financial pressure from so many directions, we could have expected a surge in bankruptcies. Credit-card delinquencies reached a record of 4.81 percent of accounts in the second quarter - and that was before Hurricane Katrina hit and drove prices up.

(Sidebar: "A Bankruptcy Lawyer Visits the Gulf")

It is clear that the new bankruptcy law will, as critics have long argued, make the lives of debtors far worse. It's not as clear how severe the effect on economic growth will be. But consumer spending adjusted for inflation fell in September for the second month in a row. That's the first time that's happened in 15 years. Instead of a White Christmas, we may - thanks in part to the new bankruptcy rules - have one deep in the red.

Readers are invited to respond to Mr. Kulish with their thoughts on the new bankruptcy regulations.
Diane Gaffney, Washington: "The new bankruptcy laws are a travesty of justice and decency. Many honest and hard-working and taxpaying Americans will be devastated. ..."

Ah....Sickened by the Right - Billmon

Posted by billmon at 09:04 PM
November 19, 2005
The Salvadoran Option II

They really ought to send John Negroponte back to Iraq. It would be just like old home week:

Baghdad's Medical Forensic Institute - the mortuary - is a low, modern building reached via a narrow street. Most days it is filled with families of the dead. They come here for two reasons. One group, animated and noisy in grief, comes to collect its dead. The other, however, returns day after day to poke through the new cargoes of corpses ferried in by ambulance, looking for a face or clothes they might recognise. They are the relatives and friends of the 'disappeared', searching for their men. And when the disappeared are finally found, on the streets or in the city's massive rubbish dumps, or in the river, their bodies bear the all-too-telling signs of a savage beating, often with electrical cables, followed by the inevitable bullet to the head.

It's apparent -- both from this story and from reports by human rights groups (note the date on that one) -- that the U.S. and U.K. embassies have been aware for some time that Iraq's Ministry of the Interior has been turned into what the old National Guard used to be in El Salvador, or the Presidential Intelligence Unit in Guatemala, or the National Directorate of Investigation in Honduras, which is to say: death squad central.

And it's more than a bit noteworthy that something like this was predicted -- boasted about, really -- by anonymous Pentagon sources earlier this year:

The Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. . . . One military source involved in the Pentagon debate . . . suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."

One of Sy Hersh's sources was a little more picturesque about it:

"Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. "We founded them and we financed them," he said. "The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it." A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon's commando capabilities, said, "We're going to be riding with the bad boys."

Indeed. Not that the "bad boys" of SCIRI and the Badr Organization particularly needed any encouragement from Uncle Sam.

But now that the Salvadoran Option is up and running -- very smoothly, by all accounts -- one can wonder why the Americans suddenly changed their mind, and busted down the doors of one of SCIRI's secret prisons the other day.

Did things get out of hand, ala Abu Ghraib? (Ala the entire war, for that matter.) Or was the Death Squad Program-Related Activities Bureau ordered to switch gears, once the Finding a Political Solution to the Insurgency Department finally realized that sending Shi'a death squads out to torture and kill Sunni politicians, their bodyguards and their supporters was a bit counterproductive? These kind of bureacratic snafus happen.

Personally, I think it probably just dawned on the architects of the Salvadoran Option that while they thought they were riding with the bad boys, the real bad boys were out riding with the Iranian secret police, who don't need any Spanish lessons on how to run a dirty war.

And so now we have Iranian-backed Shi'a death squads hunting their political enemies through the slums of Baghdad under the pretext of fighting the insurgency, while Sunni Baathists (and/or their jihadist allies) blow up Shi'a mosques at prayer time under the pretext of fighting the American occupation.

Meanwhile, back here in the good old U.S. of A (the A is for assholes) the ruling party is reliving Joe McCarthy's glory years, while the leaders of the so-called opposition party try to hide their worthless carcasses behind an ex-Marine congressman who finally saw one too many broken bodies warehoused at Walter Reed and suffered a temporary fit of sanity, causing him to blurt out the ugly truth that the war is hopelessly lost. For which crime he will now be the subject of an ethics investigation by the same people who made Jack Abramoff an honorary member of the House Republican Caucus.

Truly, to quote Leonard -- the psychotic recruit in Full Metal Jacket -- we are in a world of shit.
Posted by billmon at 11:24 PM

Peak Oil and Its benefits

Thanksgiving Day 2005
Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 21 November 2005

Peak oil and Thanksgiving Day are now linked. Eminent geologist Kenneth Deffeyes predicted two years ago that the peak moment of world oil production would occur on Thanksgiving Day 2005.

One thing that is not in doubt is that the oil age will end. Geology and physics tell us that much. But because so many governments and corporations have not shared honest information about their oil reserves, they have not presented a reliable timeframe for the depletion of the oil resource.

The official agencies, the US Energy Information Agency and the European International Energy Agency, have said that world oil production will not peak until sometime around 2030. But last year after Royal Dutch Shell got caught inflating its reserve numbers in order to keep its share prices from plunging, the world suddenly started questioning the official numbers, and new reports have emerged from every quarter showing that peak oil is much closer than 2030. Most of these reports put the peak somewhere between 2006 and 2012. Others say we have already passed it.

One thing to remember about oil supply is that its peak will not resemble the Matterhorn. Instead it will look like a long rumbling plateau, bouncing around for a period before it slopes inexorably down. This is because, as oil prices go up, it becomes economical to produce oil that was bypassed as too expensive until now. This is dirty, heavy oil, oil that comes from tar sands or oil that is difficult to reach like arctic and deep off-shore oil.

Contemplating the end of oil is frightening, even terrifying. Every bit of our economy depends on cheap oil to function properly. No viable substitute lies waiting the wings. The end of oil means a radical change in our way of life. But since it is Thanksgiving, let's take a clear-eyed look at our situation and see if there is anything that we can be thankful for.

The biggest thing to be thankful for is that there is not more oil than there is. More oil would just dig us deeper into the climate change hole. Climate change appears to be accelerating more rapidly than predicted. We can live without oil and coal. We cannot live without a habitable climate. The worst-case scenarios for climate change involve dying, acid oceans and an atmosphere full of methane. The not-so-bad scenarios could still wipe out agriculture over large regions and drown every coastal city.

We are like the addict who would have died of an overdose if he hadn't run out of smack first, so let's be thankful that our supply is being cut off.

The next thing to be thankful for is that our human population has not grown any larger than it has before we have to deal with the post-oil transition. When my parents were born, in the 1920s, world population was about 2 billion people. By the time I came of age it had more than doubled, and it is now nearing 6.5 billion.

We cannot feed these billions without diesel-powered farm machinery and fertilizer produced from oil and gas. In the future, population will contract. There will be either a higher death rate from starvation and disease or there will be a lower birth rate from conscientiously applied birth control. There may be both, and our best hope for relieving suffering will be to tilt the balance as far as possible to a lower birth rate.

If peak oil was not to be reached until 2050, say, human population would have ballooned to 9 or 10 billion. The chances of contracting to a sustainable population without massive human die-off would have been nil.

One more thing to give thanks for is our elders. As oil prices go up, we are going to do some belt-tightening and we still have grandmothers and grandfathers who remember what that is like. We still have people among us who remember how to pluck a chicken, sew a dress, build a pole barn and produce any number of things that most of us would just go buy at Wal-Mart.

When you cook your Thanksgiving meal this year, give a moment's thought to your stove. My mother recently told me a story about my grandmother. When Grandma moved off the farm back in the 1940s, she had to buy a new stove. Her choice was an all-gas cook stove or a hybrid stove with a wood firebox. "Which one did she buy?" I asked my mother.

"You remember Crystal," my mother replied, "she was such a practical woman. Of course she got the one with the wood firebox. I don't think she quite trusted that the gas would always be there."

I must have inherited my own skeptical nature from my grandmother, and I'm confident that there is still a large reservoir of independent thinking and practical common sense in the American population. It will just take a new, post-oil reality to encourage us to ask our elders for help.

In some parts of Africa, a generation is being lost to HIV infection. This is tragic, not just for the lost lives but for the lost ability to pass on knowledge from parents to children about how to live. Grandparents are filling in the gap as best they can.

In America, we have nearly lost a generation to consumerism. Too many of us work without producing anything. Our labor goes to grease the wheels of commerce and globalization that break the backs of workers overseas and float an endless train of goods to us on an ocean of oil.

We Americans have become like plants basking in our own oil sun: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin."

Plants and photosynthesizing algae are the only life forms that don't need to compete for food. Because they get their energy directly from the sun, they only compete with other plants for space to unfurl their leaves and soak up the endless radiant power of our star. This is how we have been in America, competing for space to build bigger and bigger houses to hold all of our oil-soaked bounty.

Living as plants has not been healthy for us. We are junk-food-consuming couch potatoes entertained by mass media living in exurbs with no sense of community. We are alienated, and we turn to pharmaceuticals to relieve our depression and anxiety. Our bodies are loaded with a thousand different manufactured chemicals soaked up from the goods we buy. We are dying of cancer.

But ultimately we are not plants, and our oil sun is about to burn out. We will return to our animal existence and remember how to make hay when the sun shines and abandon the idea that we could just buy a hundred thousand BTU gas heater to make the hay sometime when it's more convenient for us.

The final thing I am thankful for is just to be here, participating in this moment. It is a fantastic planet that we live on. She wastes nothing; everything is recycled and turned into new life. Oil itself is an example of the Earth's awesome power.

Colin Campbell is a petroleum geologist who has worked for governments and major oil companies. He predicts that we will start seriously sliding down the oil production curve in 2010. Here is his explanation of how oil was formed:

"Advances in geochemistry over the past twenty years have made it possible to relate the oil in a well with the source-rock from which it came.... In fact, the bulk of the world's oil comes from only a few epochs of extreme global warming, which caused the proliferation of algae, effectively poisoning seas and lakes. The resulting organic material was preserved in favourable plate-tectonic settings. Thus, most of the oil from the United States to northern South America, including the vast degraded deposits of Venezuela, comes from a few hundred meters of clay, deposited 90 million years ago. Another such event, 140 million years ago, is responsible for most of the oil in the North Sea, the Middle East, and parts of Russia."

Our oil was produced during previous episodes of global warming. Now that we have released it into the atmosphere, it is warming the planet and creating the conditions for new algal growth that could be again trapped as oil.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of New Hampshire and elsewhere are growing oil-rich algae in shallow ponds and turning it into biodiesel. Growing algae in ponds fed by sewage or other kinds of waste could produce a signifcant amount of biodiesel.

Perhaps we will be smart enough to take a basket of technologies that include this kind of biodiesel along with photovoltaics, wind power and ocean energy and build ourselves a new energy infrastructure that we can base a new kind of civilization on. It won't be easy, and it won't replace oil. We will have to conserve and cut back as well.

Perhaps we will also be smart enough to refrain from burning up all of the coal we can dig out of the ground and to keep our hands off the methane hydrates now locked up in various places along the continental shelves. Going after every last hydrocarbon to fuel our wasteful vegetative ways would do untold damage to our future prospects on the planet.

Above all, I am thankful that there is still time to avoid the worst.

Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. She is also a mechanical engineer and does technical writing for the solar power industry. She has been a leader in the campaign to protect ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and was the executive director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project. Her first novel, Primal Tears, has been published by North Atlantic Books.

Paul Krugman: Time to Leave

November 21, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
Time to Leave
Not long ago wise heads offered some advice to those of us who had argued since 2003 that the Iraq war was sold on false pretenses: give it up. The 2004 election, they said, showed that we would never convince the American people. They suggested that we stop talking about how we got into Iraq and focus instead on what to do next.

It turns out that the wise heads were wrong. A solid majority of Americans now believe that we were misled into war. And it is only now, when the public has realized the truth about the past, that serious discussions about where we are and where we're going are able to get a hearing.

Representative John Murtha's speech calling for a quick departure from Iraq was full of passion, but it was also serious and specific in a way rarely seen on the other side of the debate. President Bush and his apologists speak in vague generalities about staying the course and finishing the job. But Mr. Murtha spoke of mounting casualties and lagging recruiting, the rising frequency of insurgent attacks, stagnant oil production and lack of clean water.

Mr. Murtha - a much-decorated veteran who cares deeply about America's fighting men and women - argued that our presence in Iraq is making things worse, not better. Meanwhile, the war is destroying the military he loves. And that's why he wants us out as soon as possible.

I'd add that the war is also destroying America's moral authority. When Mr. Bush speaks of human rights, the world thinks of Abu Ghraib. (In his speech, Mr. Murtha pointed out the obvious: torture at Abu Ghraib helped fuel the insurgency.) When administration officials talk of spreading freedom, the world thinks about the reality that much of Iraq is now ruled by theocrats and their militias.

Some administration officials accused Mr. Murtha of undermining the troops and giving comfort to the enemy. But that sort of thing no longer works, now that the administration has lost the public's trust.

Instead, defenders of our current policy have had to make a substantive argument: we can't leave Iraq now, because a civil war will break out after we're gone. One is tempted to say that they should have thought about that possibility back when they were cheerleading us into this war. But the real question is this: When, exactly, would be a good time to leave Iraq?

The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.

Mr. Bush never asked the nation for the sacrifices - higher taxes, a bigger military and, possibly, a revived draft - that might have made a long-term commitment to Iraq possible. Instead, the war has been fought on borrowed money and borrowed time. And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.

So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose."

And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.

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Mark Morford On Hope....a TINY GLIMMER

George W. Bush Gives Me Hope
The astonishing collapse of the Bumbling One surely means healthy change is imminent, right?
- By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Friday, November 18, 2005

Here's the good news: It really can't get much worse.

We cannot afford any more wars. The environment has been sold to the bone. The national spirit has been beaten like an Alaskan baby seal and the GOP has worked our last nerve, passed through the karmic blood-brain barrier, reached saturation to the point where even moderate Repubs and gobs of intelligent Christians are finally saying, Oh my God, what have we done, and how did it all go so wrong, and how much Prozac and wine and praying to a very disappointed Jesus will it take to fix it?

Which is why I'm here to tell you hope abounds. In fact, George W. Bush gives me hope. He gives me hope because he has led the country into a zone where the only way to go -- morally, spiritually, economically -- is up. Is out. He gives me hope because after it has all appeared so bleak and ugly and lost for so many years, it would now appear that all laws of karmic and poetic and moral justice still hold true. And how reassuring is that?

It is the eternal formula: When all is at its darkest, you cannot help but feel that some sort of transformational upswing must be just around the corner, one that maybe, just maybe contains the seeds of something resembling health and progress and revolution. Darkest before the dawn, baby, and don't you see the sky getting just a little bit lighter?

George W. Bush gives me hope. He gives hope because his narrow and myopic political ideology is right this minute being proved wildly unsound across the board, and his vicious leadership circle is revealing its true bloodstained colors and his party is crumbling at the center due to some of the worst policy decisions you will see in your lifetime.

Simply put, the collapse of BushCo represents the intrinsic unworkability of a war-hungry, thuggish ideology. It is the failure of the bully, the innate defect in any political philosophy that has at its heart dishonesty, and fiscal irresponsibility, and death.

See, Bush has run out of options, of mumbled half-excuses, and many in his own party are abandoning him as they fear huge losses in next year's congressional elections. Bush's nauseating pro-torture policies are appalling even his staunchest pals in Congress, not to mention just about every remaining international ally, and even "mastermind" Karl Rove is on the ropes and there appear to be no genius strategies to help Shrub recover. Yes indeed, hope drips from the boughs like honey.

I know, it ain't over yet. You could easily argue that there are three toxic years left and there are plenty of other countries we can vilify and invade (we'd be bombing Iran right now if we weren't fresh out of both disposable U.S. soldiers and cash reserves) and there will be plenty of opportunities in the next 1,000 days for Bush to suck up to his terrified fundamentalist base and cause even more damage as he hunkers down and pretends to know how to go about the business of running the nation.

But in many ways, it feels as though the most severe damage has been done (yes, Samuel Alito excepted), and there now appears to be a hint of a wisp of a spark of imminent upheaval. Can you smell it?

Do you feel the hope? Not yet? Look closer: It's been over four years now that the GOP has had it all locked down tight, the stranglehold to end all strangleholds, owned Congress and stacked the courts and shut down the media and demonized all voices of dissent and ran the president the way a pimp runs a prostitution ring.

No light escaped. They had masterminded one of the most brutal and mean-spirited and thoroughly effective subjugations of the American idea in 100 years, and it looked as though their power and reach knew no limits. It was astounding: No matter what atrocity or torture or war or violent abuse of nature, they would simply gloat and the media would cower and the people would merely look on, beaten and glazed and tired, and accept it as dark manna.

But now something has shifted. The iron grip is slipping, sooner and more quickly than any of the right's political architects predicted, surely sooner than Rove had strategized, far sooner than the 20-year master plan the GOP had in place.

What happened? Simple: The horrible policies, the lies and the lies on top of the lies (if "we do not torture" doesn't beat "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" as the impeachable BS of the century, we are lost) became just too much. The center could not hold. The atrocities are now paying their moral dividends. The GOP is now reaping what it has sown. Which is another way of saying: The system works.

After all, you cannot keep pumping junk food into the body and expect it to stay upright and functional. You cannot force so many toxins into the planet and not expect it to break out in rashes and pimples and heat waves and violent storms. Eventually, the body recoils. The spirit shudders and throws off. The disease runs its course and, barring any permanent scars and mental derangement, the fever breaks.

Look, I shall not argue that this hope, this light is coming from millions of people finally waking up to the progressive truth. I shall not be so foolish as to suggest that a grand anti-war pro-sex pro-intelligence happily spiritual but deeply nonreligious enlightenment is taking place. I am not so naive, and as I said, there are three treacherous years left. The reality is less pretty than that.

But there is a hint of a whisper of a possibility of a deeper change, of the pendulum swinging back, finally, to humanity and love and something resembling progress, which is more than we've had in five years, and certainly more than many of us expected, given the alleged strength of the GOP choke hold.

So thank you, George, for bringing such delicious sips of renewed hope. Thank you for reminding us all, through such a litany of painful and nauseating policies and lies, that the universe still repays such abuse with well-deserved slaps upside your aw-shucks head. You give us hope. Because as you and your administration careen and implode and sputter and stutter and fail, well, the world is only the better for it.

Thoughts for the author? E-mail him.

Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate and in the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle. To get on the e-mail list for this column, please click here and remove one article of clothing. Mark's column also has an RSS feed and an archive of past columns, which includes a tiny photo of Mark probably insufficient for you to recognize him in the street and give him gifts.

As if that weren't enough, Mark also contributes to the hot, spankin' SF Gate Culture Blog.


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