Author Archives: Tom Joaquin

About Tom Joaquin

Tom Joaquin has been a professional musical director, an U.S. Naval Officer, a teacher, an attorney, and a provider of content for various purposes. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Indiana’s RFRA Really Is That Bad

Indiana’s RFRA Really Is That Bad

Lawmakers in Indiana have a real mess on there hands. Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has resulted in a cacophony of protests, not just from radical groups, but from companies like Anthem, American Airlines, Wells Fargo, Eli Lilly Levi’s and Walmart. Indiana’s governor and state legislators have been hard-pressed to respond to the criticisms, but they’ve been helped by hazy statements in the media that the Indiana law is essentially, more-or less, kinda the same as the Federal RFRA law and similar laws in the other nineteen states with their own RFRA’s.

It’s not true. Indiana’s law is unique, and uniquely dangerous. Indiana’s law makes it the only state in the country where individuals and corporations can refuse service to gays and lesbians (or others), because religious belief immunizes them from both civil and criminal penalties.

First, let’s dispense with the claims that Indiana’s law is the same as the Federal RFRA – which, apologists point out, was signed by no less a liberal icon than Bill Clinton. The Federal RFRA — 42 U.S. Code 2000bb, was specifically enacted to fix a problem arising from a holding by US Supreme Court that “virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion”. It’s purpose, explicit in the statute itself, was to “provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” The law is also explicit that it applies in cases “against the government.”  (In Gonzales v. Centro Espirita Beneficent Uniao do Vegetal, (2006) for example, the US Supreme Court found that RFRA protected member’s of a church using a sacramental tea containing a controlled substance from prosecution under federal drug laws.)

In contrast, Indiana’s RFRA explicitly applies to disputes between private citizens. As Brian Bosma, Indiana’s Speaker of the House, and Senate Pro Tem David Long admitted on April 1, the law allows a business owner to place a “No Gays Allowed” sign in the front window. While the focus has been on the anti-LGBT effects of the law, the law would also allow discrimination against people who have been divorced, or women the shopkeep believes have had an abortion, to provide just two examples.

These concerns aren’t hypothetical. Kevin O’Connor, owner of Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Indiana, recently told a local news crew that he would refuse to provide pies for a same-sex marriage celebration. Asked about other events he’d refuse, he mentioned that he was against abortion, and said he wasn’t certain what he’d do if asked to provide services for weddings involving a divorced bride or groom.

(As an aside, the First Church of Cannabis was formed in Indiana within days of the RFRA’s enactment.)

If protests against the expansion of RFRA to include disputes between private individuals seem familiar, it’s because the same thing happened when Arizona lawmakers tried to amend the state’s RFRA to apply to disputes between individuals. Governor Jan Brewer eventually vetoed the bill primarily because of a flood of protests similar to those now leveled against Indiana.

To make things worse, the expansion of the Indiana law explicitly applies to corporations as well as individuals, and is not limited (as was the Hobby Lobby decision) to closely-held or family owned corporations.

Indiana can expect a torrent of law suits if it leaves the bill in place. I don’t know how much cash is in the state’s coffers, or whether it’s court system is already overburdened, but I’d be willing to bet the added expense and workload won’t be welcome — especially with decreased revenue from corporations that choose to avoid the state rather than subject employees to the threat of discrimination, from cancelled conventions and sports events, and the unavoidable reduction in tourist trade.

Face it Indiana. You’re RFRA isn’t just offensive — it’s bad business. Cut your losses and dump the statute so all of us can move on.

Limbaugh could be between a rock and a place with universal health care.

Rush Limbaugh said today that he will leave the country if the health care reform bill passes. He said he’d go to Costa Rica, but if he’s principled, he’ll have to go somewhere else: Costa Rica has universal health coverage.

Rush could have some real problems finding a place to live in the style to which he has become accustomed. The US is the only developed nation that does not supply universal health coverage, and I don’t think he’ll be happy with most other options. He could choose anywhere in Africa, with the exception of South Africa, the last developed country (not including the U.S.) to institute universal coverage. South America has a very few places: Columbia and Bolivia spring to mind. He could go to Kazakhstan or Mongolia.

Iraq would certainly have homes and palaces that would meet Rush’s needs, and many of them are currently empty, but alas, Iraq has universal health care. Universal health care provided by the United States. Your tax dollars at work.

Good luck Rush. Don’t forget to write. Assuming you find a country with a post office.

A Fairly Clear Explanation Of Why People Like Sen. Tom Coburn Can Claim that America Has the Best Health Care in the World, Despite the Body of Evidence Against That Claim (In Which I Refer to Rush Limbaugh With Approval)

Opponents of health care reform claim that America has “the best health care in the world,” arguing that changing the present system threatens our nation’s primacy. This argument is so unfounded, so completely contradicted by reality as to raise my frustration and blood pressure to levels I hadn’t experienced since Alberto Gonzales last testified before Congress. I’ve finally come to some understanding about the basis for the “best health care” claim, and, as much as I hate to admit it, I have to credit Rush Limbaugh for helping me figure it out.

Rush,or course, experienced American health care first hand after going to a hospital emergency room with chest pains during a recent visit to Hawaii. During his hospital stay, which included an angioplasty that found nothing seriously wrong, Rush said he experienced the “best health care the world has to offer.” But he made a point of letting his audience know that he paid for it himself, and that he doesn’t have health insurance. According to Rush, his bill was “less than the cheapest car that you will go out and buy today,” and that using health insurance would have resulted in Rush paying an additional 30%. Because he paid cash, “there was not one bureaucrat determining whether or not [he] was gonna get treatment. There wasn’t a death panel here.”

(It’s not clear what Rush, who owns a number of cars, thinks is “cheap”. One hopes he wasn’t thinking about his Maybach 57S, which retails at about $450,000.)

You see Rush’s point. Medical care provided in an American hospital: “the best”; health insurance: expensive, bureaucratic, not so good. And his 30% figure is a good estimate of the additional amount he might have paid an insurance company for the same medical services, though the real number for Rush (who would likely pay the individual rate, as opposed to those in a group plan), might have been as high as 40%. In other words, had he used health insurance, only 60 to 70 cents of every dollar Rush paid would be used to actually pay for health services.

Rush, of course, isn’t concerned with fixing health insurance. In fact, he’s against doing anything with a system that works so well for him. But his basis for deciding we have the best health care system in the world is clear. There are good doctors and good hospitals in this country, available to those who have access. This is what all those politicians, Senators John Barrasso, Richard Shelby, Tom Coburn, Congressman John Boehner and the rest, mean when they talk about the quality of health care in America. It’s fine, great, the best, as long as you can pay for it. But don’t mess with it, because you might screw that up. It’s the reason Tom Coburn thinks it’s relevant that Canadian Danny Williams, the Newfoundland and Labrador premier, came to the United States for his heart surgery. It’s more proof that America provides some of the very best health care that (lots of) money can buy.

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that this point of view is held by so many opponents of changes to the present system. I was blinded though, by my assumptions about Senators and Members of the House. They’re public servants, after all, and I assumed they’d judge the quality of American health care the way most other people and organizations — the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the Center for Disease Control, me, and probably you — would judge it; by comparing the health of those who live in America to the health of people living in other countries. By that standard, our health care system is poor, at least when compared to other developed nations.

The proof is unassailable. According the CIA World Fact Book, America falls behind 47 countries in life expectancy of it’s citizens, and behind 44 countries, including essentially all countries in the developed world, in infant mortality. According to a 2008 report funded by the Commonwealth Group, America was 14th of 14 nations surveyed in the percentage of deaths that could have been avoided with proper health care for people under the age of 75. A 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that our primary care also falls short; the US has the highest number of hospital admissions for asthma and diabetes. Physicians in other countries manage chronic diseases so that they don’t become critical medical problems requiring expensive hospitalization. The OECD also point out in the same report that only the United States, Turkey and Mexico fail to provide universal or near universal care. Other OECD nations achieve better health care results for all citizens, allocating an average of about 9% of their GDP to health; in contrast, the United States gets substandard results for about 16% of GDP.

But there’s good news. Now that it’s clear what reform opponents mean when they talk about the “best” health care, we just need to explain what the rest of us think is important, and what we want them to do. So contact your representatives in Congress and explain that:

We agree that American medicine is fine. But we want everyone in the country to have access to it. Judge the quality of America health care by the health of Americans.

As to our children: some of you think they should have legal protection from the moment of conception on. Surely, we can all agree that our children’s health should be protected after they’re born, and that fewer should die in the first year of life.

Oh, and one more thing — cost. The rest of the world gets quality universal health care and pays a lot less than we do. Can’t America do as well?

Opponents to changing the economics of health care in American proudly proclaim their belief that America’s medical services are the best in the world. Tell Congress that we want them to do the work necessary to ensure that American citizens get the benefit of all that quality car, so we all have the chance to be as healthy as the citizens of the rest of the developed world. To fail to do this, to not even try seems, well, unpatriotic.

The Mostly Nice Nation and the Very Scary Person — A Cautionary Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a Nation. This Nation was very much like all nations: some people were rich and some were poor, some educated and some ignorant, some wise and some foolish.  As with all Nations, most of the people were well intentioned.

There came a time when the Nation’s economy was very, very bad.  The Nation had a very large deficit, mostly because the government had to pay for the wars it fought with other nations.  Many people were out of work and many were hungry. There were still Banks in the Nation that had lots of money, but they weren’t willing to lend it, even though lending it would have helped the people of the Nation.

The Nation’s government was like most nation’s governments..  Some of the politicians were rich and some were poor, some educated and wise and some ignorant and foolish.  As with all politicians, most were well intentioned.

Politicians and their advisers tried hard to solve the Nation’s economic problems, mostly by figuring out the Facts and trying to decide what was best to do. But the Nation’s money problems were made even worse by a world-wide economic problem that was caused by the failure of some Large Banks that had made foolish and risky investments.  The foolish Large Banks ended up making a very large Financial Bubble, which, like all bubbles, eventually burst.  The bursting Bubble, like all bursting bubbles, splashed all over.  Everywhere it splashed it caused more financial problems, and because the Bubble was a very large Bubble indeed, is splashed very far.

All of the Nation’s economic problems made everyone in the Nation very sad.  The smart people in the government still tried to solve the puzzle of the economy, so that the people would be happy again.  Mostly, they tried to solve the puzzle by thinking about Facts.  

After a while, many of the people in the Nation became angry that the smart people in the government hadn’t been able to fix that Nation’s problems. Some of them decided that trying to solve problems by making decisions based upon the Facts wasn’t working.  Almost all of these people were ignorant, because only an ignorant person ignores Facts, and they were all foolish, because even an ignorant person who ignores facts should be glad that the politicians in charge were trying to use Facts to solve problems, even when the problems were very, very large.

The foolish people were very mad, but they couldn’t do much about it.  Because they were foolish, they had no ideas about solving the Nation’s economic puzzle, so mostly they complained and said foolish and ignorant things, which were (mostly) ignored.

As it turned out, some of the politicians were much more interested in Power than they were in solving the Nation’s puzzle.  The Politicians who were interested in Power began telling the angry people about a time in the Wonderful Past, before there were economic problems and puzzles, and when everyone was happy. Those Politicians realized that the stories about a Wonderful Past gave all the foolish and angry people something to hope for, and that the foolish and angry people were angry enough to hope for anything, even if that something was a Magic story about a Wonderful and Make-Believe Past when everything was beautiful.  Many of the angry people supported the Politicians who told Magic Tales, which made the Politicians happy, because it made them more Powerful.

The days went by, as days always do, until one day a Very Scary Person began telling stories to the angry people. The angry people were told that the Nation was Special amongst all the other nations of the world, and that the people who were True Citizens of the Nation were also Special, and would do Wonderful Things.   But the Very Scary Person said that not all of the Nation’s people were True Citizens.  Some of the people living in the Nation belonged to evil groups that hated the Nation, didn’t believe the Magic Story, and wanted the Nation to fail.  Fortunately, the Very Scary Person said, these people were easy to identify. Many of these people looked different or belonged to a different religion than most of the True Citizens.  Some of these people were boys that loved other boys, or girls that loved other girls.  And, the Very Scary Person said, people who weren’t True Citizens believed in Facts and didn’t believe in the Magic Story.

The Very Scary Person said that if all of the people in the Nation believed with all their hearts in the Magic Story, and didn’t listen to Facts or to any people who weren’t True Citizens, the Magic Story would come true.  The Nation would once again be the most Special Nation in all the world, and the True Citizens would be recognized as the best and most Special people.  But they were warned that if there were too many people who doubted the Story or questioned the Very Scary Person, the Magic Story might never come true.

And the foolish people who were afraid of the Facts believed the Very Scary Person.  They tried their hardest to believe in the Magic Story and to chase away all doubts.  And when someone talked about Facts, or questioned the Very Scary Person, the foolish people would cover their ears, yell and sing songs about the Nation as loudly as possible, so that they wouldn’t hear any Facts that might make them doubt the Magic Story or the things the Very Scary Person told them.

It may be hard to believe that people could really think they could make something wonderful come true just by believing in it. But there have been people like this ever since there were stories to believe. And there are many stories that teach that belief can make wonderful things come true. There is the story of Peter Pan, who believed that fairies would be real if everyone believed that they were, and clapped their hands. And then there is the story of Dumbo, who believed that he had a magic feather that let him fly, and then found out that he didn’t even need the magic feather to fly because belief was enough! And there was Oral Roberts, who told people that a 900-foot-tall Jesus would kill him, unless enough people believed and showed their belief by giving Oral eight million dollars. There were enough people who believed that story that Oral got nine million dollars. And then there is the 700 Club. But there are far too many stories about foolish people to tell here, and, besides, we must find out what happened to the Nation and the Very Scary Person.

The Very Scary Person made the foolish people very happy. They liked to believe that problems could be solved by Belief, and they liked to believe the Magic Story would come true. They also liked knowing that there were some people who weren’t True Citizens who could be blamed when the Magic Story didn’t come true.

And so the Very Scary Person was elected leader of the Nation. But after a while, the Very Scary Person decided that maybe the rest of the world should be taught about how Special the Nation was and how Special the True Citizens were. And so the Very Scary Person got all the Nation’s soldiers together. And invaded Poland.


Even people who remember history can be forced to repeat it if enough people don’t remember, don’t care and don’t want to listen;


In the real world, elephants who think they can fly always come to a bad end.

Proposed Post-Birth Abortion Ban Could Shut Down Iraq War

Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed a bill that would legislatively create a twenty-year period of “Post-Birth Fetal Development,” during which abortion would be completely illegal. Rep. Roberta Goldwaithe, the bill’s primary sponsor, thinks this is an idea whose time has come. “Neurologists have established that the human brain isn’t completely developed through adolescence. This explains why many young people engage in irrational and dangerous behaviors; drinking and driving, date rape, signing up for the Marines… every parent has his or her own horror story. It’s time for those of us who believe in the sanctity of human life to put our principles before our politics. We must protect all human life, including those who have not yet fully developed into independent creatures.”

Republicans have concerns that the “Post-Birth Fetal Development Pro-Life Abortion Ban Act” is a legislative Trojan horse with potential consequences reaching far beyond the abortion clinic, perhaps as far as Iraq, but Rep. Goldwaithe dismisses these accusations. “A Republican who would vote against the Pro-Life Abortion Ban Act is clearly a closest pro-choice, anti-life satanist, and I know that voters will be smart enough to recognize that come election day.” Goldwaithe admits, however, that the new law would affect the war in Iraq:

It goes without saying that being placed in a war zone would threaten fetal life, but this is a secondary concern. President Bush recently pledged, ‘I believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.’

The President expressed these sentiments to explain why he vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funds for stem cell research. Embryos used for stem cell research consist of less than 200 cells. The vast majority will never develop into anything but freezer burn, and will eventually be destroyed. On the other hand, fetuses protected by the Post-Birth Act can be as much as six feet tall, and contain well over a hundred trillion cells. With proper care, all have the potential to become fully developed human beings. It’s inconceivable, pardon the phrase, that the President would refuse to protect the sanctity of life merely because it would interfere with military plans.

White House spokesman Tony Snow refused to comment directly on the proposed law, but did say that the administration would continue to support the right of a fetus to bear arms.

News from the Massachusetts State House — Marriage is Safe!


I’m proud that Massachusetts took the lead in recognizing the right to marry for same sex couples. The Massachusetts Supreme Court recognized that right on May 17, 2004. Despite dire predictions, the sky has stayed right where it is, and I’m not aware of any heterosexuals filing for divorce on the grounds that their marriage has been devalued. And now I’m proud again; yesterday, June 14, 2007, the Massachusetts legislature rejected a proposal that would have subjected the fundamental right to marry to a public vote.

 Under Massachusetts law, a proposal to amend the constitution must be approved by two consecutive legislative sessions, then by a majority of Massachusetts voters. The proposed amendment to ban same sex marriage was approved by the legislature in January 2007 with 62 votes, and would have been put on the ballot for a vote had the proposal passed again today. The proposal needed the support of 50 voters to pass. It lost, 151 to 45, thanks, in great part, to the leadership of Governor Deval Patrick, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, Senate President Terry Murray and House Speaker Sal DiMasi. The idea that a basic human right should be subject to the whim of the majority has been defeated.

I was outside the Massachusetts State House along with hundreds of others to encourage the legislature to make the right decision. (Photos are posted here.) People on the other side of the street — and the other side of the issue — were fewer and less enthusiastic. That’s to be expected, I guess. We were supporting a community of people, couples and families. We’ve seen marriage make a real difference in real lives. Folks on the other side were concerned about an abstract idea, and a corrosive one at that. Their sense of morality is offended by the idea that two men or two women can care about each other in a relationship recognized by the state. It must be hard to be cheery about hating strangers.

AG Gonzales Outed as Hologram

A highly placed government software developer revealed today that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is actually a sophisticated hologram. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, joined the Gonzales project when the Attorney General was still in beta. Her team of programmers, many of whom had prior experience at various Hollywood special effects studios, are responsible for Gonzales’ colorful and lifelike simulation of a human Cabinet level official.

“Attorney General Gonzales can be fully projected with voice and high-def 3D visuals anywhere in the Justice Building.” Appearing outside of a few blocks from his office, however, requires portable wireless equipment, and presents more of a challenge. gonzales-fades.jpg“Just projecting the Attorney General outside the building takes a lot of bandwidth, limiting his ability to connect with his central processor. That can really interfere with the AG’s ability to access memory. Plus, he can look a little grainy when there’s a lot of cell-phone traffic in the area.”

Despite these problems, the silicon-based AG has out-performed initial expectations. “Most of us worked in Hollywood, so we were concerned about Gonzales’ ability to simulate sincere emotions. But lacking a full emotional repertoire turns out to be a plus in politics. And we were really surprised to discover that other technical problems can also be turned to an advantage. Gonzales is programmed with a limited number of responses to inquiries. As programmers, we’d call this a problem with his ‘cognitive display,’ but in politics it’s called ‘staying on message.’ Gonzales can ‘stay on message’ for very long periods without displaying the shame or embarrassment that would be inevitable in a flesh-and-blood person.”

During today’s press briefing, Tony Snow would neither confirm nor deny the humanity of the Attorney General, but did point out the irrelevance of the issue: “The President has full confidence in the Attorney General, and that won’t change simply because General Gonzales may not be a sentient being. I mean, think about it. Alberto Gonzales overcame the obstacle of his Hispanic-American background to become the number one man in the Department of Justice. He’s even more worthy of admiration if it turns out he is a non-corporeal computer simulation of an Hispanic-American.”

The response from both sides of the political spectrum was immediate. Senator Leahy, who questioned AG Gonzales at length during a number of Congressional hearings, admitted he had not heard the news but seemed unsurprised, noting, “It would explain a lot.”

Meanwhile, former-mayor and 2008 Presidential candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, approved of the idea, but said he didn’t think the present administration had gone far enough. “Most, if not all, of the Cabinet could be replaced by holograms. In fact, I believe that the heads of some agencies — the EPA and the Department of Education come immediately to mind — could be replaced with a voice-activated digital telephone system at great savings to the public.”

Former-governor Mitt Romney’s campaign office had no comment, further fueling suspicions that he himself is a computer-based life form. Pundits have previously suggested that this rumor, if true, could actually help Romney in the primaries: “The Democrats are trying to raise excitement with the possibility of running the first black or female candidate. Running a computer-generated Mormon for the top job would really steal the their thunder.”

The Lie at the Heart of Gonzales v. Carhart

By now, most people are aware of the summary holding in Gonzales v. Carhart: for the first time since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court left standing a law proscribing a particular abortion procedure without an exception to safeguard a woman’s health. Standing alone, this is a terrible result, but understanding how the decision was made is more frightening still.

In upholding the “Partial-Birth Abortion Act” (referred to here as just “the Act”), the Supreme Court’s new majority drew upon old lies about the emotional fragility of women, and the need to protect from their own decisions. The Court used this new/old lie to bypass forty years of precedent safeguarding reproductive rights. The Court allowed Congress to place political values over best medical practice, and to put women’s lives at risk. The lie at the center of Carhart could return to threaten our freedom to live according to our own values.

Read the rest of this post at Sex in the Public Square.

The Swiftian news

Dick Cheney’s jet, Air Force 2, was attacked by a suicide bomber, specifically a bird that threw itself into the right engine just before the jet’s landing at O’Hare airstrip. No particular group of birds has claimed responsibility for the attack, though analysts believe the VP’s favorite prey — farm-raised quail — were involved.

Cheney, unharmed but visibly shaken, said he would not alter his hunting strategy.

I will not give in to a few fowl terrorists. I will continue to shoot farm-raised birds released for my recreational pleasure from cages hidden behind bushes, and I will kill those birds. Quitting would render meaningless the sacrifice of my good friend, Harry Whittington, whom I shot in the face.

The Vice-President was in Chicago to speak at a function organized by the Heritage Foundation. The Vice President spoke about the importance refusing to set a specific date to withdraw from Iraq:

“It is impossible to argue that an unconditional timetable for retreat could serve the security interests of the United States. It would send a message to our enemies that the calendar is their friend, that all they have to do is wait us out, wait for the date certain, and then claim victory the day after.

Leaders of insurgency groups in Iraq responded with anger to the VP’s comments. “We must know the US withdrawal date in order to plan our victory-claiming celebration. The catering preparations alone will take forty-eight hours. And don’t even talk to me about making all those effigies.”

In other news, the President announced a plan to appoint a “war czar,” to finally achive victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. When asked for details, the President responded:

When I wish upon my czar;
Makes no difference who they are;
When I have a czar he’ll make my dreams come true.

President Bush then explained we could easily win in Iraq, but we all need to believe. He requested everyone present who believed in victory to clap their hands.

There were no additional questions.

Finally, on the human interest front, the winner of the Anna Nicole Smith baby contest was finally chosen from the group of finalists in the Bahamas. A disappointed crowd of men went home tanned, but empty-handed, when photographer Larry Birkhead was declared winner. Birkhead said he attributed his success to timing. “Anna asked me to set a definite time for withdrawal, but I refused.”

The Vice-President has not yet commented on Birkhead’s strategy.

So long, Mr. Vonnegut

The title of this blog, The Free Lance” is the name H.L. Menken used for a column of his; my son Samuel is named for Sam Clemens; and, I saw Spalding Gray four times in the six years before he died. These are my bona fides for writing about the loss I feel on the death of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

It’s not that I anticipated reading lots more from him, but there was something pleasant about knowing he was alive, still smoking filterless Pall Malls and undoubtedly bitching at someone about something. (He once described smoking as “a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.)
I first read Vonnegut as a teenager, as I suspect lots of others did. I read the wonderfully funny and sad Slaughterhouse Five, Or, The Children’s Crusade, at the suggestion of a favorite high school teacher. I loved it most for the odd way it mixed the story of the bombing of Dresden (which Vonnegut lived through as a prisoner of war), with the tale of a man living happily with a starlet in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five a number of times since, listened to a really great audio version, read by Ethan Hawke, and if there was a copy right here now I’d probably pick it up and read it again right away.

Vonnegut was, in many ways, as engagingly contradictory as his novel about war and Tralfamadore. He was famously pessimistic, but with a humanist warmth that Twain lacked. For example, he wrote:

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.’

A direct and palpable hit on the institution of love if there ever was one, but then there’s the grudging hope in a plea for common decency.

Another contradiction: He was a socialist, but wrote Harrison Bergeron, a short story with a barb aimed at the heart of the idea of absolute equality. The Wall St. Journal published Harrison Bergeron a few years ago in its editorial section; not the kind of place you’d expect an admirer of Eugene Debs to hang out. (You can read Harrison Bergeron here.)

Over the past few years, Vonnegut became embittered about the direction the Bush administration was leading America. Once during an interview, he said he was going to sue Brown & Williamson, manufacturers of Pall Malls, because: “they promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn’t work. Now I’m forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, ‘Colon'” But then in May of 2004 he wrote “Cold Turkey,” a diatribe about the follies of human beings generally and the US under President Bush specifically. In the middle of this bleak prognosis for mankind, he wrote about the inspiration of Confucius, Eugene Debs, Jesus, and of Vonnegut’s own his son, who, asked “what life is all about”, responded: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

So that’s my short tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who lived through the horrors of the bombing of Dresden, but still retained enough hope to rant pessimistically about a 21st century America, somewhat older, but not a whit wiser. Just one more favorite story…

Death was a subject Vonnegut wrote about a lot in that characteristically unimpressed way he had. In Breakfast of Champions, he described a short story written by one of his characters as:

..a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.

Typically Vonnegut, it’s not a very pleasant view of life or death. But then, right there at the end, there’s that champagne.

Cheney’s Empty Argument On Iraq

Using meaningless language is a standard tool of politics, brought to high art by the present administration. Dick Cheney has added a new gloss on the old game, repeating an old argument about Iraq that has lost all meaning.

Here’s the way Cheney put it recent speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee 2007 Policy Conference:

… when members [of congress] speak not of victory but of time limits, deadlines or other arbitrary measures, they’re telling the enemy simply to watch the clock and wait us out.

This argument was used by Bush for the first few years of the war in Iraq to avoid setting a time table for withdrawing troops. Agree with it or not, the argument meant something:

The situation is us versus the bad guys. “We” are the coalition and the fledgling democratic government in Iraq. Insurgency groups dedicated to destroying any US supported government in Iraq are the bad guys. If we tell the bad guys when we plan to pull our troops out of Iraq, the bad guys will hang back, save resources until our troops are gone, then come out of hiding to destroy the Iraqi government.

This argument allowed the Bushies to govern in their preferred way: completely ad hoc, no goals to meet, therefore no way to determine failure.

Whatever value this description of the war once may have had, it clearly doesn’t represent what’s going on in Iraq today. Even the Pentagon admits there is an internecine civil war in Iraq, fought among multiple groups with diverse interests. The Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (a non-governmental group of former intelligence specialists) provide a clear analysis in their recent memo Denouement on Iraq: First Stop the Bleeding:

The vast majority of the violence in Iraq is sectarian in nature and involves a multifaceted civil war mostly pitting Sunnis against Shias. However, the violence also entails secular Sunnis fighting Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda and secular Shias battling Shia extremists…. in other words, a rabid dog fight with our troops in between. The only thing the various factions share is unflinching opposition to US occupation. But the notion that there is a monolithic group of “insurgents” or “enemy” falls far wide of the mark.

The “we can’t set a time-table” argument falls apart under these conditions. There is no “them,” holding back waiting for us to leave. The various coalitions are in full-out battle against the provisional Iraqi government and against each other. We have met the enemy, and he is…. well, everybody.

We are used to Cheney’s lies, but this is something different and worth attending to. It’s a concrete example of the administration using empty phrases to shore up support for a misconceived and unpopular war. “Support the troops!” “Democrats want to cut and run!;” smoke and mirror language used for effect rather than meaning. Sweeping aside empty language can raise the quality of the public debate about the war; and a debate based upon facts is precisely what the administration is trying to avoid.

Where’s a bit of irony when you need it?

Naomi Campbell, known for her terrible temper, recently spent one day of anger management following her conviction for throwing a phone at her housekeeper.

She has recently been asked by Jamaica to be their national “patron for abused women.”

What possible meaning of the phrase “patron for” applies here?

Speak out on General Pace’s disgraceful comments!

General Peter Pace, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced on Monday his personal opinion that simply being a gay or lesbian person is immoral, and that the military should therefore continue to refuse gays and lesbians the opportunity to serve in the military. Well, to be more precise, he supports the official military policy, that gays and lesbians can sign up, as long as they’re willing to crawl into the military closet and deny who they are.

The current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is immoral because it openly requires dishonesty, and treats gays and lesbians as second class citizens. It is unconstitutional because it punishes by exclusion gays and lesbians, not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are; this type of “status crime” was years ago determined unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

General Pace’s delicate moral niceties are archaic. Barry Goldwater, the bastion of all that’s conservative, and 37 year veteran of the military, announced years ago his support of the right of gays and lesbians to be in the military:

The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it…. why the hell shouldn’t they serve? They’re American citizens. As long as they’re not doing things that are harmful to anyone else.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, while Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush, called security concerns about gays and lesbians an “old chestnut” and referred to the idea that “a gay lifestyle is incompatible with military service” as “a policy I inherited.” These comments were made by Cheney just after his assistant secretary of defense, Pete Williams was outed as a gay man.

The world has moved on ahead of the US. There are at least 26 nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve, including Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Columbia, and every country in the European Union, which requires all members to abolish any bans on open service.

Pace’s comparison with adultery is specious. According to files received by Salon pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request the military, under General Pace, is currently providing waivers for at least 17% of incoming recruits, accepting recruits with civilian criminal records including domestic abuse, assault, breaking and entering and auto theft. An outstanding article by Helen Benedict, also published in Salon, documents the pervasive threat of rape and sexual harassment women soldiers in Iraq live with daily. Perhaps General Pace should focus his moral concerns on matters of real substance existing within the scope of his responsibility.

The Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has let the world know what he thinks Department of Defense policy should be, based upon his morals. He has also provided encouragement and cover for the continued harassment and abuse of men and women by their fellows and those in their chain of command. Sounds pretty damn immoral to me.

Please note: I am personally against the action in Iraq and support plans to withdraw troops now. I am not advocating for the war in Iraq, but for the right to openly serve in the military without regard to sexual orientation. Tom

IMPORTANT: If you agree with me, write your representatives in Congress and the Senate as well as General Pace, and write your local papers. Register your disapproval with General Pace’s remarks and your support for changing military policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. General Pace can be reached at:

Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chairman
9999 Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon
Room 4E873
Washington, DC 20318
Fax: (703) 697-8758

All or any part of this post can be used, with attribution, for any non-commercial purpose to help spread the word.

Anna Nicole Smith is still successfully dead; VP Cheney still unsuccessfully alive

It appears that Anna Nicole Smith, like any great artist, is more popular dead than alive — at least as measured by the continuing stream of stories about her in papers, magazines and news shows. The media’s mock self-reflection involved reaches new levels. There are stories about her, then stories about the media’s fascination with her, then meta-stories about the media’s tendency to report on it’s own reporting of stories about the death of Anna Nicole Smith. All are gratuitous, including my discussion here, which raises the bar of Anna Nicole Smith recursive reporting up yet another notch.

Still, it seems right, somehow, that her fame continues unabated after her death. Anna Nicole Smith, the person, had little to do with Anna Nicole Smith, the celebrity, and the former, if anything, tended to get in the way of the latter. Now, relieved of the burden of actual life, the flame of her celebrity can burn as pure and as hot as the sun.

Smith may still be dead, but vice-president Dick Cheney is very much alive. Cheney was completely unharmed when a bomb, apparently targeted at him by the Taliban, exploded near the compound he inhabited during his visit to Afghanistan. Twenty-three other people died in the attack, thereby strengthening the VP’s resolve to stay in the fight.

According to Cheney, the Arab bad guys plan on continuing to kill Americans, figuring that we’ll eventually tire of it and bring our troops home. But Mr. Cheney isn’t going to let us fall into that trap. Let ’em kill as many Americans as they can, we’ve got plenty more. I’m not making this up, really. During his flight back from Afghanistan, Cheney was asked why he says nasty things about Speaker Pelosi and Representitive Murtha. Cheney replied:

They [the al Qaeda] know they can’t beat us in a stand-up fight. But they do believe — and I think there’s evidence to support this — that they can, in fact, force us to change our policy if they just kill enough Americans, create enough havoc out there. And they cite Beirut in 1983; Mogadishu, 1993, kill Americans, America changes its policy and withdraws. And Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri believe this. They talk about it. It’s not a mystery.

And my point was that if we follow what I believe Speaker Pelosi really wants to do in terms of withdraw, that that would validate the al Qaeda strategy.

And so, absent a real plan, we stay in Iraq for brinkmanship. They think they can kill and wound enough soldiers for us to back down? We’ll show ’em.

I wish someone would tell Mr. Cheney: Adamantly refusing to consider loss of life in making military decisions is not good policy; and playing chicken with people willing to blow themselves up to kill us is not an effective strategy.

Schlesinger v. Rove — a comparison of Presidential Special Assistants

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historian, author and special assistant to President John F. Kennedy died February 28, 2007.
Presidential special assistants fill a unique role in an administration. Presidents choose individuals they believe have the experience, abilities and wisdom necessary to provide guidance during difficult times. A special assistant must share the presidents’ values and his vision for America.

The following is a short comparison of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, with Karl Rove, special assistant to President George W. Bush. I hope that viewing this comparison is as enlightening for you as writing it was for me.






Harvard University, 1938-42

Left following Pearl Harbor, without completing his PHD

University of Utah 1969-71

University of MD — completed half a semester, 1971

George Mason University, 1973-75

University of Texas at Austin, 1977

Never received his bachelor’s degree


Volunteered for combat during WWII, turned down due to bad eyesight; spent 1942-45 in the
Office of War Information, and the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA.

Maintained a student deferment during his semester and a half of college in Utah and MD; lost his deferment just prior to the end of the draft.


Won the Pulitzer Prize at 29 for The Age of Jackson, a history of Andrew Jackson’s presidency.

Stole stationary from the offices of a democratic candidate for Illinois state treasurer, used them to produce handbills advertising “free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing” at the opening of the candidate’s
new campaign headquarters, and distributed the handbills at rock
concerts and homeless shelters.


Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian theologian, proponent of the use of Christian values as a basis for politics and diplomacy, and one of the architects of modern
“just war” theory.

Donald Segretti, a Nixon political operative. Rove worked under Sergretti during Nixon’s campaign, when Segretti obtained letterhead stationary from Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie and used it to produce a bogus letter falsely claiming that Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson had fathered an illegitimate child with a 17 year old woman. Segretti was later convicted as a Watergate conspirator.

What he said about his President

“… urbane, objective, analytical, controlled, contained, masterful, a man of perspective…”

“Huge amounts of charisma, swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile, just charisma – you know, wow!

significant achievements

Wrote twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, three national book awards, the Four Freedoms Award and the Paul Peck Award. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961.

Served as Special Assistant for Latin America affairs and speech writer for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, 1961-64.

Ran George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, including
during the S. Carolina primary, when a whisper campaign falsely claiming that opposing candidate John McCain was mentally unstable, had been a stoolie
during the time he spent in a Vietnamese POW camp, and had fathered a black, illegitimate child.

Rove, a political operative, served Bush as assistant to
the president, deputy chief of staff, and senior adviser.

Rove outdoes his mentor Segretti, giving testimony in the investigation of the Valerie Plame affair, and is not even indicted


“If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual
and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.”

“As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.”

An historical description of PTSD

Playboy Magazine’s site contains an excellent, recent article on the Bush administration’s efforts to minimize the existence and human costs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) left untreated in troops returning from Iraq.

Mental health problems tend to be easy to ignore. There are no physical scars, or missing limbs. The public prefers to believe troops come home healthy and heroic, and the government is happy to encourage those beliefs. As a result, the long term costs of untreated PTSD are played down in both the press and in the federal budget.

War is a Racket, a short work written by former General Major Smedley Butler in 1935, contains a powerful description of Butler’s observation of the emotional damage caused by war :

Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and, through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed.

Then, suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time they had to do their own readjustment, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice and sans nation-wide propaganda. We didn’t need them any more. So we scattered them about without any “three-minute” or “Liberty Loan” speeches or parades. Many, too many, of these fine young boys are eventually destroyed, mentally, because they could not make that final “about face” alone.

In the government hospital in Marion, Indiana, 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around outside the buildings and on the porches. These already have been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically, they are in good shape; mentally, they are gone.

Smedley ButlerSmedley Butler served in the Spanish American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the first World War and in US military actions in Honduras, Haiti and Veracruz, Mexico. He was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor. After leaving military service he became a strong critic of the US administration and it’s willingness to use war to benefit industry.

Q: When is a vibrator more dangerous than a gun?

A Court of Federal Appeals held yesterday (Feb. 14), that an Alabama law prohibiting the sale of sex toys is constitutional. If only they’d treat the sale of guns the same way.

Take a look at my discussion of the case at Sex in the Public Square, an excellent blog by a thoughtful academic and activist. (And, full disclosure — a good friend).

Ed Henry, My Valentine

Ed, I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but today you’ve won my heart.

Today you had the nerve to ask Bush why the hell anyone should trust his accusations that Iranian weapons are being used against Americans in Iraq. Bush was clearly shocked that anyone would suggest his administration would fabricate evidence about weapons. Watching the exchange was better than chocolates or roses.

If you’d like to see the video, check out Think Progress here. Here’s the transcript:

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to follow up on Iran one more time. Are you saying, today, that you do not know if senior members of the Iranian government are, in fact, behind these explosives?

That contradicts what U.S. officials said in Baghdad on Sunday. They said the highest levels of the Iranian government were behind this. It also — it seems to square with what General Pace has been saying, but contradicts with what your own press secretary said yesterday. What…

BUSH: Can I — let me — I can’t say it more plainly: There are weapons in Iraq that are harming U.S. troops because of the Quds Force. As you know, I hope, the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don’t think we know. But we do know that they’re there. And I intend to do something about it. And I’ve asked our commanders to do something about it. And we’re going to protect our troops.

QUESTION: But given some of those contradictions, Mr. President…

BUSH: There’s no contradiction that the weapons are there and they were provided by the Quds Force…

QUESTION: What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?

BUSH: Ed, We know they’re there. We know they’re provided by the Quds Force. We know the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. I don’t think we need who picked up the phone and said to the Quds Force, Go do this, but we know it’s a vital part of the Iranian government.

What matters is, is that we’re responding. The idea that somehow we’re manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous. My job is to protect our troops. And when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we’re going to do something about it, pure and simple.

Now, David says: Does this mean you’re trying to have a pretext for war? No. It means I’m trying to protect our troops. That’s what that’s means. And that’s what the family members of our soldiers expect the commander in chief and those responsible for — responsible for our troops on the ground.

A Short Primer on Select Enemies of the United States

Germany — An enemy of the US during the early 1940’s. At that time, Germany was led by Adolf Hitler, a very bad man. America and its allies (including the USSR, led at the time by Joseph Stalin) fought and defeated Hitler.

USSR — An enemy of the US during Cold War, from the mid-1940’s until early 1990’s. At the start of the Cold War the USSR was led by Joseph Stalin, now a very bad man. Starting in the late 1970’s until 1989, the US financed, armed and trained a group called the mujahideen to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. The mujahideen was a group of Muslim “freedom fighters” (according to Pres. Reagan) subscribing to militant Islamic ideologies.

Afghanistan — An enemy of the US from 1996 until the present day. Starting in 1996, Afghanistan was led by the Taliban, very bad men who follow a doctrine of militant Islamic ideologies. The Taliban supported Osama bin Laden, a very bad man, leader of the Al-Qaida, a group of very bad men, primarily consisting of former mujahideen, (previously known as “freedom fighters”). The Al-Qaida is a terrorist organization subscribing to militant Islamic ideologies. The Al-Qaida, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, are responsible for the 9/11/01 suicide bombing attack on the World Trade Towers.

Iraq — An enemy of the US, invaded by the US in 2003. As a secular state with no connections to the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaida, or the 9/11/01 suicide bombing attack on the World Trade Towers, Iraq has no connection whatsoever to do with anything above. I’m sorry I added it to this list. My bad.

This Just In

In case you haven’t heard the really big news: Anna Nicole Smith died on February 8, 2007.

Of course you probably have heard all about it. A quick Google news search of her name and the word “died” indicate over 3,000 hits at this time, 8 p.m. Eastern, Feb. 9.

In other news, 33 Americans were killed in Iraq, 50 wounded as of this month. It’s not possible to find numbers of Iraqi dead in the first 8 days of February, but a quick news review indicates at least 50 reported deaths just yesterday alone. No one seems to collect information on Iraqi wounded.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a passion for celebrity news, but I do worry when we’ve reached the point when the death of a someone like Ms. Smith is front page excitement while the number of US dead and injured in Iraq is, well, let’s say, not front page. I don’t think people are small-minded. But I get afraid that thinking about numbers of dead and wounded becomes so difficult to face on a daily basis that we build up psychic scare tissue, we let the numbers pass before ours eyes like a partial score of a game that’s gone on too long in a sport we never cared for anyway. But if we don’t pay attention nothing will change for the better.

In 2004, during the worst of the siege of Fallujah, someone asked Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit about the images of death appearing daily on Iraqi TV. He replied: “My advice is to change the channel.” Cynical, inhumane, a disappointment for those of us who believe our military leadership requires ethics; nonetheless, his statement is based on a bitter truth about people, and bread, and circuses.

I’m guilty, I admit it. So I’m going to try to be aware of people behind the numbers, and think about the men and women lost or grievously injured, and about the futility of those losses and my place in all this. And only then will I turn the page, click the link or change the channel. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Anna Nicole Smith is dead. I wonder if Paris will be at the funeral.

Mum’s the Word

I recently had the opportunity to interview the Director of the Executive Non-Communications Office in Washington, D.C. It had been trying to contact ENCO for years, but they never returned my calls, so you can imagine my pleased surprise when I received the invitation.

I arrived at the State Department HQ at the appointed time, and was guided to ENCO’s office, down in the labyrinth of the sub-sub basement. The director was at his desk when I arrived. He wore mirrored aviator sunglasses and held a small bull-horn shaped voice-scrambler that he spoke through during our conversation. His voice coming out of the machine was metallic and flat, bearing eerie resemblance to the voice of Dick Cheney.

I shook his hand and was invited to sit down.

“I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me,” I began eagerly. “I hope I can give the public some insight into ENCO’s achievements.”

“I’m more than happy to speak with you. As you probably know, our work is confidential, but a decision was made to leak information to the public. This conversation is entirely off the record. Feel free to take notes and publish whatever you’d like. We’ll just deny this interview ever took place. Given your place in the journalistic pecking order, everyone will believe you made it all up, but, with luck, the regular press will cover the story of your deceit, and the information will get out, unconfirmed. So you see, we’ll all get what we want. I only mention this to provide an example of ENCO expertise in matters of non-communication.”

“Uhhh… thank you… Maybe you can start by telling me about your organizational responsibilities. I take it from your address that ENCO is part of the State Department?”

“Oh no, not at all. Our office is located here to maintain our confidentiality. We hide behind the cloud of irrelevancy surrounding the State Department, but we have very little to do with them — to be honest, we’ve pretty much replaced the State Department. As head of the Office, I report directly to the President, who in turn keeps Vice-President Cheney apprised of our activities. We’re funded under through FEMA’s budget for providing emergency hurricane relief to New Orleans.”

“Wait a minute…. your budget comes from Katrina relief funds? Is that legal?”

“Of course it’s legal” The Director’s mechanized voice seemed to grow even colder. “The President authorized the reallocation of funds in a signing statement that accompanied his approval of the emergency budget. Then the Attorney Genera wrote a memo assuring the legality of the President’s signing statement. After all, our office is dedicated to protecting the country — including New Orleans — from terrorism.”

“I’m surprised none of this came out in the press. At least I don’t think I’ve heard anything.”

“Of course you haven’t!” the Director snapped. “The reallocation, the signing statement and the AG’s memo are all classified, Executive Eyes Only. This is just the sort of information that would encourage our enemies and demoralize the troops were it to get out.” He peered at me again. “Say, you’re not one of those traitors who wish Saddam was still in power are you?

“N-No.. of course not! I’m just amazed… the whole plan is so… diabolical.”

The Director leaned back in his chair again and smiled. “Thank you. The entire plan came out of this shop. It was the first official recommendation of the Non-Communication Office.”

“Is that the sort of work the Office routinely does?”

“Oh no, our primary mission is international diplomacy management. We’re constantly reviewing the international situation and recommending where to focus the nation’s diplomatic efforts.”

“I see. I’ve noticed…” — I decided to tread carefully on this ground — “I’ve noticed the liberal media complains that the administration hasn’t accomplished much through diplomacy.”

“There’s actually quite a bit going on — we’re currently engaged in diplomatic efforts with a number of countries —- Canada, Australia, Norway…. oh, and let’s not forget Poland.”

“Those really don’t seem to be nations where diplomacy is needed to resolve problems….”

The director smiled broadly. I could almost hear pride in his electronic voice. “That’s where ENCO’s planning has really paid off. US diplomatic efforts are now focused on countries where there aren’t any problems to resolve. It makes the work so much easier. And more social. We like to call those nations the ‘coalition of the chillin’.” His synthesized laugh made me shiver. “…you get it, right? “chillin’? It sort of rhymes with ‘willin’? Like willing, only….”

I tried to keep my forced laugh from sounding as flat as his mechanical giggle. “Yes, I see. Very good joke. But I can’t help wondering…. what about places where diplomacy might solve real problem? Shouldn’t we be spending more time in, oh, I don’t know… Iran, say? Or Syria… Lebanon… maybe Palestine?

“The President has a very strict policy about those countries. Being allowed to talk with the United States is a privilege, and the President will not reward countries who are engaged in activities we don’t approve of. It just gives them the attention they want.

“So we’ll never have talks with Iran?”

“Of course we will! We’ll open talks with Iran as soon as they start behaving.”

“Which means…..”

Well, we’ve placed a Presidential attention embargo on Iran because of their nuclear power program and their interference with Iraqi freedom. All Iran has to do is to stop doing those things, and the President will open negotiations with them.”

“But…… aren’t those issues the reason why we need talks?”

“Of course.”

“But we won’t talk with them….

“….until the stop doing the things that are problems. Exactly. Then we’ll send in all the diplomats they’d like. You have to admit it’s a perfect policy. By the time talks start, the really big issues are solved!”

“I have to admit, I’m awed. What other nations is the President punishing with silence?

“Well, the list is changing all the time. Let’s see… we won’t talk with Syria or Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the President was so upset about the Palestinian elections, we may not even speak with them when they get rid of Abbas. Not until the people themselves apologize for misusing their precious freedom to put the Hamas in power in the first place. And .. let’s see… there’s Venezuela, Darfur…

“Wait a minute — we have a policy of purposely ignoring Darfur?!”

“Of course! Haven’t you read about what’s going on in that country? It’s a mess! People are being killed, tortured…. I admit it’s been a tough nut to crack. We’ve been ignoring them for three years now, and there hasn’t been much improvement. But the President believes if we stay the course, the leaders in Darfur…. whoever they are….will eventually accede to our unspoken demand to fix everything up so that diplomatic relations with the United States can begin. Darfur has probably been on our list longer than anyone else. Except maybe Antarctica…”

By this point, I felt nothing would shock me. “You’re saying we refuse to engage in diplomatic relations with a continent. You do know there isn’t a government there?”

“Well, yes, but there have been a lot of problems in Antarctica, all that snow melting and global warming talk. The President feels we should be prepared to do our best to encourage Antarctica to pull itself up by it’s bootstraps, should there be any Antarcticans to encourage. It’s an example of the President’s long-range vision for America. Be sure to mention that in your article, should you ever be tempted to write one about this off-the-record discussion.

The Director went on: “The President wanted to add the Arctic to the Non-Communication list, until someone in the office pointed out there’s really no land there. Did you know all those polar bears and seals and things live on huge chunks of ice with nothing underneath? It’s no wonder they’re having problems up there. Anyway, we didn’t think it would be worth the President’s effort to ignore a bunch of icebergs. And really, the problem seems to be taking care of itself, doesn’t it?”

The Director didn’t seem to need more encouragement to talk about ENCO’s accomplishments. “There are lots of people and things that aren’t nations that fall under ENCO’s jurisdiction. I guess you could say Antarctica is only the tip of the iceberg,” he grinned. That’s sort of an office joke.” I grimaced politely and nodded him on.

“Other targets of punitive non-communcation include groups and individuals. For example, the President will talk with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but he’s made a commitment to not listen to him. He absolutely won’t speak with anyone at the United Nations. In fact, President Bush was so upset with Kofi Anan that he considered locking him in the UN building without supper.

He’s never listened to Congress, of course, and recently he went so far as sticking his fingers in his ears and singing loudly during a policy discussion with Nancy Pelosi.

He was very upset, even hurt, by the Iraqi Study Group, and has ignored them entirely. Except for Mr. Baker, of course, though he often pretends he’s not in his office when he knows Baker is coming.

Our most recent recommendation, made just after the last election, led to he President’s decision to refuse to listen to the American people. This was really a tough decision for him. I think it really hurts him more than it hurts the people, but the President knows that a leader must stand firm on doing what he knows is right.”

“Wait a minute! How can he do that? Isn’t there any concern that ignoring Congress and the American people might hurt Republicans badly in 2008?”

“That did come up, but the President feels strongly that this is a crucial moment of change in the history of the country. He used to think God elected him to the Presidency to fix Iraq, but for various reasons he’s decided that his real holy mission is to teach the American people that they have to listen to their leaders if they expect their leaders to listen to them. So he’s decided to ignore the 2008 election and continue as President until the electorate learns their lesson. We’ve run the idea by focus groups, and we’re pretty sure that the American people will do anything he wants if he promises to listen to them in 2012.”

Bush takes a do-over

The upcoming escalation…. excuse me, “augmentation”… of 21,500 US troops in Iraq has been reduced to political football. Most of the press concentrates on the political battle, which begs the question — is Bush right? Is there evidence that additional troops at this time will make some significant difference? Bush defined the strategy of the surge during an interview with Jim Lehrer on January 16, 2006:

Well, the – the purpose of the strategy, Jim, is to settle Baghdad down, is to secure neighborhoods, is to give the Iraqi people a chance to live in peace, which is what they want. And the way to do that is to send troops into neighborhoods to clean the neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, and it’s to hold the neighborhoods. And the problem in the past, there weren’t enough troops to hold the neighborhoods after neighborhoods had been cleared. And then to build is to have a political process behind it that will work.

But will an additional 21,500 troops make such a large difference?

The surge won’t result in the largest force we’ve had in Iraq during the insurgency. At present — or at least at the end of November, 2006, — 158,000 troops were in Iraq, 140,000 Americans and an additional 18,000 Coalition troops. An additional 21,500 troops will result in a total of 179,000. But twelve months ago, in November and December of 2005, there were 183,000 troops, including 160,00 Americans and 23,000 coalition troops — the highest troop strength in Iraq since the start of the war. What can we expect to accomplish with 179,000 troops that we could not do one year ago with 183,000? (Numbers are from the Sabin Center for Middle East Policy.)

President Bush claims the additional forces will allow us to clean up Baghdad neighborhoods and then to hold them. (Five of the additional brigades — 17,500 troops — will be assigned to Baghdad.) In the past, insurgents moved into cleared neighborhoods as soon as troops withdrew.). But how long can we hold them? Can we really believe Iraq forces will be capable of taking over this task in anything like a reasonable amount of time?

The President seems to thinks so — requiring Iraq to meet benchmarks is part of the President’s plan. But this might be an overly optimistic basis for bringing more American troops into danger. As the Iraq Study Group pointed out, the Iraqi military forces have significant problems: shortages of equipment; troops who refuse to deploy outside their own area of the countries; and a readiness level that’s often at 50% or less.

Does the threat of a US pullout mean anything to Iraqi leaders? The Iraqi parliament is split on the question (Iraq is in a civil war, let’s remember), the President and Vice-President of Iraq seem ambivalent at best, and the Iraqi people just want the US out. Will the threat of a US pullout energize the factions supporting our presence to unify Iraqi military forces?

Finally, why are American forces acting as police for the city of Baghdad in the midst of a civil war? We’ve created a mess in Baghdad and we have responsibility to improve the situation. But perhaps we should learn something from our errors. We bumbled ourself into this mess — putting more American lives at risk is more of the same. And hey, didn’t we vote for someone to do something smarter?

How do we know we’re done?

I’ve become confused about some pretty basic facts concerning the “War in Iraq”. And I’m concerned I might not be the only one. Who are the parties to this war? Who is the enemy? Perhaps most importantly, to paraphrase Colin Powell, how do we know when we’re done?

I know that whatever we’re doing in the Middle East has mutated from whatever we thought we were doing there in the first place, and I know there has been lots of talk about what we’d like in the middle east, but the word “war” has a specific meaning, and I think the question is important enough to be considered.

In 1992, Colin Powell wrote an article in “Foreign Affairs,” and some of what he wrote became known as the “Powell Doctrine.” The Powell Doctrine sets up some pretty good things to think about before deciding to go to war. Bush, et al, never pretended to have any interest in Powell’s article (or in Secretary or State Powell himself, come to think of it), but maybe we’d be better off if they did.

One of the questions posed by Powell was this: “Do we have a clear attainable objective?”.

When I was in the USN I worked with and for officers who had experience in Viet Nam. Powell’s concern about a clear objective resonated with them and was echoed in management. Suddenly, proposals for projects and initiatives had to meet this test. The question came up at nearly every meeting. “If we do this, how do we know when we’re done?” It’s a question that wasn’t answered before our involvement in Viet Nam, and a question that’s often ignored in legislation.

We never had a real objective in Iraq. The issues about weapons of mass destruction, Iraq’s phantom nuclear program, and connections with the 9/11 terrorists have long been debunked. We did have a goal of taking down Saddam Hussein. Hussein was a terror to Iraqis and other groups, and his removal, in and of itself, and targeting his removal was a worthy goal. But it’s a goal that’s been accomplished, and the devastation we’ve brought to Iraq has tarnished that victory. But my questions remain: Who are the parties to this war? Who, exactly, are we fighting? How do we know when we’re done?

Powell famously provided another, less formal rule: “You break it, you own it.” But we haven’t been very good to Iraq. With thousands of Iraqi dead, much of the countries’ professional class taking flight, and years of broken infrastructure, the Iraqi’s themselves want us to go. Our military isn’t fighting an enemy. Their trying to clear Baghdad’s neighborhoods of the civil war that has flowed into the city. Clearing up Baghdad! What benefit do we bring the rest of the country?

Iraqis shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves after the devastation the country has experienced. But military troops don’t fix infrastructure. They can’t keep the countries’ various groups from trying to destroy each other. Perhaps we should admit that we’re done, at least done with the war. Maybe it’s time to work with other countries and with the UN to pick up the pieces of the Middle East and perhaps create an diplomatic environment that will be better than we started. Who is the enemy? Perhaps we should consider the possibility that we are.