Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hugo Chávez and the opposition press

Venezuela's President, Hugo Chávez, appears to be working to consolidate his already nearly limitless power. He has refused renewal of the broadcast license of RCTV, the only nationwide television broadcaster that has opposed his government's policies, replacing it with a state-run channel. Venezuela does still have opposition media, including not only newspapers and radios, but also the Globovision TV channel. However, Chávez has removed the most prominent voice from the opposition, charging that RCTV was in violation of the law for refusing to broadcast pro-government programming during the 2002 coup attempt. What caught my eye, though, was an exchange on MSNBC's Tucker program this afternoon. The guest was Medea Benjamin, a prominent activist within the Green Party here in California, and co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. She was the Green candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000, but is now active with Progressive Democrats of America and Global Exchange, an anti-corporate globalization advocacy group. I found myself in the extraordinary position of agreeing with Tucker Carlson against my fellow PDA member.

I'm not going to transcribe the whole thing, but here's a quick summary with some key quotes. Over the weekend, Chávez shut down RCTV, sparking civil unrest in the capital, Caracas. Tucker quoted back a statement that Medea Benjamin made on 2006-03-04: "Another basic myth is that Chávez has limited freedom of speech and eroded civil rights."

Tucker Carlson: Do you want to revise that, given the news that Hugo Chávez has closed the last nationally broadcast opposition television station for criticizing him?

Medea Benjamin: Well, that's just not true, Tucker. What he did is, he didn't renew the license, but there still are television shows and television stations owned and run by the opposition media. I think you hear more opposition to the government in Venezuela than you would here in the United States — that's both in the TV, in the radio, and in the print media.

Tucker: I don't know what you've been smoking, Medea, but you're saying this president just closed a television station because it criticized him, but somehow Venezuela has a freer press than America?

Medea: He didn't close it because it criticized him. He closed it because it participated in a coup against a democratically elected government, his government. If a television station in the United States advocated and was part of an effort to topple a democratically elected government — the Bush administration, let's take; I don't like it —

Tucker: I'm actually reading now from the 360-page white book on RCTV, published by Chávez' government. It accuses RCTV of "showing lack of respect for authorities and institutions." I would think as a self-described liberal you would stand up for the right of people to "challenge authorities and institutions," and yet you're apologizing for the squelching of minority views. Why could that be?

Medea: Well, there are opposition TV press and print media all over Venezuela. I don't know if you've been there, Tucker, but you can go on a Reality Tour with us; you will see it everywhere you go. This is a television station, not that criticized the government, that tried to topple a democratically elected government.

Tucker: Let's be real here: you're throwing a very serious charge out there, a charge for which people have been killed there in Venezuela. I'm asking you a very simple question: explain how a television station can cause a coup. They said they didn't like the president; is that the same as pushing a coup? I mean, what the hell are you talking about?

Medea: They falsified information and got people out on the street. They falsified footage that showed pro-Chávez supporters killing people, which did not happen. They refused to cover any of the pro-Chávez demonstrations. When Chávez came back in to power after the coup, they even had a blackout on him coming back to the government.

Tucker: I wonder if you're even a tiny bit ashamed that you're apologizing for fascism on national television. Do you hear —

Medea: Well, I wonder if you're ashamed of calling a democratically elected government a fascist government.

Tucker: They just shut down a television station because that television station, as you put it, "didn't cover pro-government demonstrations"! You have got to be kidding. You are losing touch here, a little bit.

Medea: It participated in a coup against a democratically elected government. If it was done here in the United States, that television station would not only be not on the air, the people that ran it would probably be in jail right now. You're holding Chávez to a different standard. [Peru, Uruguay, etc.] Why are you holding Venezuela to a different standard?

Tucker: Medea, I think it's very clear that because Chávez hates the United States you are sympathetic to him and willing to make excuses for his anti-democratic, anti-liberal behavior, and it's a shame.

Medea: No, it's because he takes the oil money and doesn't give it to rich oil barons like in the United States, but gives it for literacy and health programs.
Personally, I would use the term "authoritarian" rather than "fascist" to describe the democratically elected government of Venezuela. However, the point remains that President Hugo Chávez did retaliate against a major media outlet for its support of his opponents. Even if RCTV did act illegally during the coup more than five years ago, it's a bit disingenuous to yank their license over that activity now. If RCTV's offense was so grievous as to justify what is effectively a death penalty, then it was certainly grievous enough to demand that RCTV be shut off immediately after Chávez regained power, with open trials of the individuals responsible.

Furthermore, as the EU has pointed out, even if refusing to renew RCTV's license had been justified, the logical next step in a nation with anything resembling freedom of the press would have been to decide by a neutral process who should get the license to replace RCTV. Simply handing it over to a puppet of the Chávez regime is intolerably autocratic; it undermines the cornerstone of free speech and free press.

Thus, while (as is often the case) I have serious problems with Tucker Carlson's views, and most especially with his leaping to "you must hate America" as an explanation, I have even stronger reservations about Medea Benjamin's position. Ignoring the fact that Hugo Chávez has a strong and deep dictatorial streak in his personality serves no useful purpose. It is intellectually dishonest and laughably naïve. Hugo Chávez is not much more a champion of open political dialogue than Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao; Reporters Without Borders lists countries like Gabon, Armenia, and Albania, and more than 100 others, as having greater freedom of the press than Venezuela; in fact, Venezuela is in the bottom third of the list.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Was Boehner drunk or just a bad actor?

By now, you've probably seen the video of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R–OH) sobbing on the floor of the House of Representatives, talking about the supplemental funding bill to continue the Iraq quagmire. It's not the first time he has cried on the floor of Congress, not by a long stretch. In fact, he's become known for it. However, watching his latest performance, I am left with only two possible conclusions: he's faking it, and faking it quite badly, or else he's drunk off his ass.

Here's the text of Boehner's remarks:

I know that there’s this — I know there are differences in this chamber. Members on both sides of the aisle who feel differently about our mission in Iraq and our chances of success there. I know when I came here and every two years since I’ve been here on the opening day we all stand here, we raise our right hands and swear to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States. There are a lot of my colleagues have heard me make this statement that I didn’t come here to be a congressman. [starting to choke up a little] I came here to do something. And I think at the top of our list [choking up much more] is providing [slurring like a drunken sailor] for the safety and security of the American people. That’s at the top of our list. After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, [plaintively] when are we going to stand up and take them on? When are we going to defeat them? [recovering his composure] Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, if we don’t do it now, and we don’t have the courage to defeat this enemy, we will long, long regret it. So thank you for the commitment to get the job done today. — Rep. John A. Boehner, R–OH 8th, on the House floor, 2007-05-24

There's not much more to say about the crybaby act than to say that I don't believe for a nanosecond that it's sincere — even by the lax standards of political rhetoric. As to the substance of his remarks, though, the real question is, When are we going to get out of Iraq so that we can take on the people who actually attacked the United States? That would be people like Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and the Taliban who gave them safe haven. When are we going to take on bin Laden and defeat him?

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Iraqi fmr-PM Iyad Allawi

The guest today on Al Jazeera English's weekly Inside Iraq discussion program was Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister of Iraq. Dr. Allawi was at one time a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, but he resigned from the party in 1975 because of Saddam's increasingly dictatorial governance. He lived in exile in London, surviving an assassination attempt. In the 1990's he began working actively to overthrow Saddam. During that time, he cooperated with American and British intelligence services, relaying to the British a report that Saddam's army could deploy its [non-existent] WMDs within 45 minutes.

Allawi became Minister of Defence under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, and became interim prime minister of Iraq in 2004, appointed by Paul Bremer. His close ties to the U.S. and British governments led many Iraqis to mistrust him. His domestic credibility was further weakened in 2004 when he authorized the U.S. military "coalition forces" to conduct major offensives in Fallujah and Najaf. He also closed the Iraqi operations of Al Jazeera. In the election in January 2005, Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, came in third with only 14% of the vote. In the December 2005 elections, Allawi's bloc, renamed the Iraqi National List, did even worse, losing almost 40% of its seats in parliament. However, he is now gearing up for an attempt to replace Nouri al-Maliki (نوري كامل المالكي), the current prime minister.

In today's interview, Allawi emphasized the need for a secular government in Iraq, with its institutions not structured around sectarian divisions (Sunni, Shia, Kurd, etc.). He even expressed optimism that Iraq will one day see a female prime minister. However, the picture of him is considerably more complex. There is a rumor, mentioned in the interview, that he personally shot six prisoners as a Saddam-esque show of strength. This rumor was printed in two Australian newspapers, claiming independent corroboration, and even naming some of the alleged witnesses. Allawi's checkered past, agitating for Saddam's overthrow with help from the U.S. and the U.K., his ties with other suspicious characters like Ahmed Chalabi, his forwarding of bogus intel to MI-6, and his sanctioning of U.S. military operations in Fallujah and Najaf, all must be taken into account in assessing the man, his credibility, and his potential future political career. In a perfect world, perhaps he could be a more even-handed "Saddam Lite," ruling with just enough of an iron fist to quell the civil war, and then retiring into the sunset as soon as basic security and the mechanisms of a stable democracy were established.

Here is the transcript of the interview between Al Jazeera English's Jassim al-Azzawi and Iraqi former prime minister Iyad Allawi. To make it easier to follow, since the names Azzawi and Allawi are so close, I have abbreviated the host's name to Jasim.
Jasim Azzawi: Hello, and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. He's ruthless, cunning, and brutally frank. He spent years in exile honing his political skills and survival instinct. My guest today, the former Iraqi prime minister, Dr. Iyad Allawi (اياد علاو), is building a new secular liberal bloc to challenge al-Maliki's government. Al-Maliki's sectarian government has failed, irrelevant, and must leave office, he says. But can Allawi succeed this time, and why should the Iraqi people give him a second chance? Nadim Baba reports.
Nadim Baba: A scene from another time. Some might say, another Iraq. Iyad Allawi became the head of the interim government, promising security and reconstruction, but he didn't have long to make his mark. Half a year later, general elections ushered in a new administration. Fast-forward to 2007, and Allawi's promising he can turn Iraq's lawlessness around. Earlier this month, he told Al Jazeera about his priorities, if he were back in power.
Iyad Allawi: [file footage] Dismantling the laws which have been divisive, including de-Baathification, including the laws which dismantled the Iraqi military and Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi institutions, and to move away from sectarianism and to get rid of militias.

[unknown]: I think many of the liberal people in Iraq, those who are not sectarian-oriented, will be ready to back, not precisely Allawi, but anyone who present[s] an equation that will preserve the Iraqi nationalist identity. If he will behave the same way, I think he will win the minds and hearts of the people.
Baba: But some minds were made up a long time ago, when Allawi, a former Baathist who spent years in exile, cooperated with the coalition. But it's not just his previous closeness with Washington that some take issue with. Iyad Allawi also made political enemies by going along with two major operations when he was interim prime minister. One was the assault on the Sunni city of Fallujah, which reportedly saw hundreds of civilians killed, as well as dozens of U.S. troops. The other was in Najaf; the Shia holy city witnessed fierce clashes between U.S. forces and fighters loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.
[unknown]: He should not have endorsed both the assaults on Fallujah and Najaf. Targeting people in a very wide-spectrum way, the way which the oppression powers are doing in the country, is what resulted what is there, the country now. You know, the hatred, which was grown.
Baba: But Allawi insists it's now time for the Iraqi government to talk to the various armed groups, and he believes most of the population agree with him. Nadim Baba for Inside Iraq.
Jasim: I am joined now from Amman, Jordan, by former Iraqi prime minister, Dr. Iyad Allawi. Dr. al-Allawi, welcome to Inside Iraq. You are very well known for being bold and frank, and let's hope today some of that boldness and frankness will come through at the expense of the politician and diplomat in you.

Dr. Iyad Allawi: Thank you.

Jasim: Let's start by the coalition and you are building the bloc you are trying to achieve. You are on record saying that Iraq needs a secular, liberal, nationalistic government. Will you succeed? Can you really pull it off?

Allawi: We have to succeed. There is no other route for Iraq but to succeed. I think sectarianism is a manifestation of extremism, and extremism is rejected mostly by the Iraqi people, by the Arabs, by the region, and we are very hopeful that this stand will continue to make way inside Iraq, and to build for a non-sectarian Iraqi government that could take Iraq and the region to the shores of peace, stability, and development.

Jasim: Does that mean you are a serious contender to be the next prime minister? Is this really in the cards, that you are coming next, or is this some sort of an American ploy to make you the scarecrow to scare al-Maliki to do what the Americans want him to do?

Allawi: I assure you, we respect to the Americans, we respect to our relations with the Americans, but what we are doing have nothing to do with the United States. It's an Iraqi aspiration. It's an Iraqi action by various people who believe in a non-sectarian Iraq, who want to build a national identity worthy of the Iraqi people of the region, and we want to move forward in this area, to salvage, frankly, our country, which is slipping away into catastrophe.

Jasim: The Iraqi president, Jalal Talibani (جه لال تاله با), two days ago was saying that, "We will crush any attempt, any coup-d'état, against the al-Maliki government." Was he referring to you, or was he referring to other forces, in the military, perhaps, that have had enough with this sectarianism?

Allawi: Maybe, I don't know to whom he was referring; I had some good meetings with him in London recently, and indeed nobody of us believes in military coups. He does not believe in a military coup, we don't believe in a military coup, what we believe in is that the bloodshed in Iraq should stop. The slipping of Iraq into complete and full anarchy and chaos should stop, and we should really change the whole political process into a non-sectarian political process which believes in all Iraq, as a wholesome Iraq, as one Iraq, as Iraq which belongs to all Iraqis regardless of the sect, region, or ethnic group that Iraq has come from.

Jasim: Unfortunately, that doesn't seem possible right now. The very coloration of the Iraqi government is sectarianism. It has become institutionalized, whether it's in the parliament or in the parties, or even in Baghdad, your beloved city, right now, [inaudible] is pretty much Shias and Sunnis. Now people are talking about in these terms, are you sure that you will be able to pull up enough nationalist Iraqis to say, "To hell with sectarianism! It is time to look after our own country!"?

Allawi: Well, Jasim, what I can use to convince you and to convince any person who is doubtful, that even some of the sectarian forces in the government are now calling for an Iraqi national program to save Iraq from sectarianism.

Jasim: Why is that? Because they've failed to get what they want now? They see nationalism, perhaps, as the way?

Allawi: They failed, number one. They not only failed miserably, but the country has been thrown into complete chaos, as you can see. Not only that, the region, what has happened in Iraq is spilling over to the region. The fact that this is causing a rebound phenomenon, where people now, even those who bought into sectarianism, now are trying to leave sectarianism and to embark on national reconciliation and a national program for the whole country. This is a very, indeed a very encouraging sign, and we should encourage this, and we are accordingly having dialogue with all members, all parties, all groups, to try and bring them to an Iraqi national program.

Jasim: Having said what you said just now, Dr. Iyad Allawi, still, as an observer from outside, people find it very difficult to say sectarianism will be out, because the very people who are in power, whether it's SCIRI, al-Majlis al-alalith-thaura l-islamiyya, whether it's al Tayar al-Sadri, the Sadrist movement, you know, their grass roots, since 2003, they accentuated this, they built on it, they pretty much invested all their rhetoric and all their political power to create that sectarianism which is giving them dividends. Now you think suddenly they're going to give it up and say, "We are all Iraqis"?

Allawi: Well, frankly, Jasim, there are important issues to remember. Definitely sectarianism, across the board, do[es] prevail in Iraq, and those who believe in sectarianism, unfortunately, have been taking the law into their [own] hands. One of the direct reasons, once the state of Iraq was dismantled, was that people had to revert to their clans, to their sects, to their tribes, to their neighborhoods, for protection. This was a grave mistake committed in Iraq, and this mistake led to various other mistakes that have been committed, leading and paving the way to sectarianism to prevail in Iraq. Now, after a few years of bloodshed, catastrophe, chaos, and damage, refugees, displacements, people have realized that sectarianism is not really the right path for Iraq.

Jasim: Let's spring forward, let's go to 2007. Now you are trying to put this coalition, this bloc, and people in Iraq, they have long memory. People don't forget what happened to them. People, they accuse you for the Fallujah bombing, for the Fallujah incursion, and people in the Sadris, you know, they remember 2004, the fighting in Najaf. How can you get Jabhat al-Tawafuq [Iraqi Accord Front, a Sunni Arab Islamist party], how can you get the Sunnis and the Sadris, in order to join you? People say, "He was the man who told the Americans to go after us."

Allawi: I was, frankly, even-handed with all those who tried to take the law into their [own] hands. Me, as a prime minister then, I had important tasks to perform. One of them was to build a modern state, a strong state, and to get the army back and the military, the police, and so on, and security, and secondly, really, to tackle the issue of law and order.

Jasim: Today, of all days, Moqtada al-Sadr (مقتدى الصدر), the firebrand cleric of al Tayar al-Sadri [Sadrist Bloc], appeared, and you know, he was [inaudible] of the mosque, he disappeared for quite a number of months. First of all, how do you look at his reappearance? What does it say? Is there some kind of agreement with the Americans that they are not going to target him?

Allawi: I don't think there's an agreement between him and the Americans. I think Moqtada al-Sadr was, all the way through, in Iraq, despite what had been said that he had fled the country. My information, he was in Iraq. I think his reappearance should give way to engage him in dialogue and constructive dialogue, like the rest of the groups who do exist in Iraq, and let us not forget that al-Sadr have about 30 members in parliament, representing him and he need to be accommodated, he need to be part of a national Iraqi program, and his people have been very critical of the government, and they have withdrawn from the government, from the cabinet, as well as making the right appeal in the parliament, by denouncing sectarianism.

Jasim: Dr. Allawi, before I take a break, a short answer if you would: because there is so much accusation against him, especially by the Americans, there is so much blood on his hands, can you really work with [Moqtada al-Sadr], can you really get him into your bloc?

Allawi: Well, we should not take the American accusation into account by talking to Iraqi people. We should talk to Iraqis, all Iraqis, but with very clear vision that Iraq is for all Iraqis, and we should all respect the law and order, and respect the basic rights of all Iraqis and refrain from using and embarking on militias, and allow the government, any government, to build the right forces for the country.

Jasim: Yes. Dr. Iyad Allawi, we will take a short break now. When we come back, I'm going to ask the former Iraqi prime minister about his views about the Iraqi resistance. Stay with us.

[commercial break]
[Coming back from the commercial break, the program showed a photo of Senator John Kerry (D–MA), with the following quote: "Prime Minister Allawi's trip to the United States was filled with all the wrong lessons, lessons from an administration that just can't seem to tell the truth when it comes to Iraq." However, the quote is actually from John Edwards (D–NC). Note also that, contrary to many U.S. news reports at the time, Senator Edwards was criticizing the Bush administration, at least as much as the administration of Prime Minister Allawi.

Kerry: The prime minister and the president are here obviously to put their best face on the policy. But the fact is that CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story. — U.S. Senator John Kerry (D–MA, candidate for President), 2004-09-23, at a press conference after then-Prime Minister Allawi addressed the U.S. Congress.

Edwards: The administration's credibility on Iraq collapsed today. Over the past 24 hours, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense and the Under Secretary of State have all contradicted each other on elections in Iraq. For a President who is fond of saying we should not send mixed messages — you need a scorecard today to keep up with all the different and contradictory statements from the White House. The President also talked about the need to support Prime Minister Allawi. The best lesson for any fledgling democracy is that leaders should tell the truth, to always be straight with the people. Prime Minister Allawi's trip to the United States was filled with all the wrong lessons, lessons from an administration that just can't seem to tell the truth when it comes to Iraq. — U.S. Senator John Edwards (D–NC, Kerry's vice-presidential running mate), 2004-09-24

Sources: The Washington Times, 2004-09-25, "Bush slams Kerry over 'brave' Iraqi," by Bill Sammon; Daily Kos, 2004-09-24, "Edwards keeps up the heat," by Kos.
Jasim: Welcome back to Inside Iraq. Today, we are talking to the former Iraqi prime minister, and will he be the next man in Baghdad? Let me just quote you something from June 28, 2004, when you said that any attack against the Americans is terrorism. Do you still hold that view, and, before we started, you said this is a purely Iraqi issue, it has nothing to do with the Americans, but the Americans are in Iraq, they are the most powerful entity in Iraq; what are your views about Iraqi resistance?

Allawi: Well, to be very, very open on this topic, I just had a meeting a few days ago in a regional country with some of the resistance who had been asked by the Americans to go and negotiate in Baghdad on new terms and conditions to lay down their arms and to readjust the political process so it fits a non-sectarian Iraq, Iraq for all Iraqis. Those people came to seek my views and advice, and I said that it is important to have this dialogue, but let us remember all that we Iraqis will solve our own problems amongst ourselves, but since the Americans are there, it's very important to have a dialogue with them, and to continue this dialogue, and I encouraged them, and I think the dialogue is going to take place this coming week.

Jasim: Dr. Iyad, these are your views. The views of the Iraqi government, represented by Jalal Talibani and Maliki and as recent as two days ago by [Iraqi foreign minister] Hoshyar Zebari, they don't want the Americans out. They said the Americans should stay; as a matter of fact, when there was talk about a U.S. pull-out, Jalal Talibani raised his hand; he said, "If you want bases, come to the north! Bring your forces here and stay there." So how do you tally those two conflicting ideas?

Allawi: No, these are not conflicting. The Americans are there. We need to talk to them, all of us. We need to create the right environment for the United States to withdraw from Iraq, and to build our institutions, national institutions, capable of challenging and facing the threats that are posed on Iraq, and to keep the country unified. That's why I think it's a very important step that the American now have decided again, because there were discussions in my house, in Iraq, between Americans and the resistance, and now the resistance, or at least part of it, sought my views, and I encouraged them to have these discussions because I think such discussions —

Jasim: Unless the Iraqi government is on record, and more importantly the American government is on record, that they specify a date specific for the total withdrawal from Iraq, the resistance are not going to lay down their arms; that has become amply clear to everybody.

Allawi: Yes, that's correct, and that's why the negotiations now are very important, and the issue of withdrawal should come up in the negotiations.

Jasim: Okay, moving on, Dr. Iyad. Let's talk about this "building block," this new coalition in Iraq you are trying to achieve. One of the key components for that to succeed will be the Kurds. They have almost 75 members in parliament. You have about 25 votes, Jabhat al-Tawafuq [Iraqi Accord Front] has others; in order to topple al-Maliki, you definitely need the Kurds, but the Kurds drive a very hard bargain. They want Kirkuk (كه‌ركوو), and they want federalism, and that by itself is a recipe for future tension and perhaps even conflict, so how are you going to square this?

Allawi: It is definitely — the Kurds are a very important component of Iraq, and they are in fact now as it stands, hold the balance of power inside Iraq. It is extremely important for us to talk to them. On the issues you raised, there are discussions on the Kirkuk issue, federation —

Jasim: Will you give them Kirkuk?

Allawi: It's not a matter of give and take Kirkuk, it's a matter of discussing —

Jasim: Now it is. Dr. Iyad, now, as far as the Kurds are saying, you know, "We need Kirkuk; Kirkuk is going to be the capital of Kurdistan." As a matter of fact, [President of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq] Massoud Barzani (مه‌سعوود بارزان) is on record: he said, "If Kirkuk is not given to us, we will take it by force." You remember what happened: [PM of Turkey] Erdoğan called him all the way to Turkey, and he said, "Don't say this again, because it is going to hurt you."

Allawi: Massoud Barzani is a very dear friend of mine. I met him very recently, 10 days ago, and we spoke about various issues, including the Kirkuk issue. He was a very pragmatic person. I think we can reach to a common understanding.

Jasim: Let me stop you here for a just a second. How can he be pragmatic when he lets his militia, he lets the peshmerga go into Baghdad as recently as now, and there are many, many demonstrations that the peshmergas [Kurdish militias] are fighting in these cities. You know very well — we just started by saying that Iraqis don't forget and don't forgive. Can you see how the usage of the peshmerga, whether it's by the Americans or by al-Maliki, will it create a future conflict between the South and the North, between the Arabs and the Kurds? How can he be pragmatic and a diplomat by doing that?

Allawi: Well, Jasim, I am not sure whether it is the peshmerga —

Jasim: It is. It is.

Allawi: — or some of the Iraqi forces. We don't know what the rumors are. I'm not party, frankly, to solid information. But I know Massoud, I have known Massoud for a very long time. We have discussed, we have been through very difficult stages. I know that he is a compromising person, and I know that he is a person who believes in Iraq. This is to be very honest. I'm not saying this because I want to imagine things, but I know Massoud Barzani very well, I trust him a lot, and I talk to him very openly. There are areas where we differ significantly, but there are other issues that we share common views.

Jasim: A few questions, if you could answer them rather quickly. You are very well known against the turbans, against the theocracy, but yet the major forces in Iraq, whether it's Abdul Aziz al-Hakim [leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, formerly SCIRI] or Moqtada al-Sadr or even a Sistani, they are ruling in the name of religion. How do you get religion out of the formula?

Allawi: Sistani is saying — Sistani is different. He does not get involved in politics, and there are political groups who believe in Islam and the theory of Islam, and sectarianism. This is something which has caused a lot of problems in Iraq and will continue to cause problems in Iraq.

Jasim: One of the things that is causing a lot of problems in Iraq is corruption. The man in charge of reconstructing Iraq, Stuart Bowen, is saying that corruption in Iraq is the second insurgency. Billions of dollars are stolen by Iraqi politicians leaving Iraq, and nothing is happening. There is no construction and Iraq is teetering on the brink of failure.

Allawi: Iraq is at a complete standstill. The country is at a standstill. Services are nil. And corruption is extremely high. The way of tackling corruption is really by reinstating the institutions of the country and making them functional, but based on non-sectarian institutions.

Jasim: You are very well known, being frank, being tough; as a matter of fact, there are some rumors about you that on the eve of your becoming prime minister, you shot blindfoldedly six people. You must have heard the rumors.

Allawi: I have heard, but it's a rumor.

Jasim: How tough in Iraq would have to be in order to become the new prime minister of Iraq? Al-Maliki is viewed as very weak and he cannot achieve anything; will you be Iraq's next prime minister?

Allawi: I don't know, but I know any prime minister should be bold, should be courageous, should have vision, should be able to make decisions, and most importantly should be able to implement decisions. For this to be done in Iraq, you need a courageous man to be in charge, a man who believes in Iraq and the whole of the country — a man or a woman, in fact, but a man now — we are talking about boldness, about decisiveness, and this is very important for the country, otherwise the country is not going to function.

Jasim: We are way off, Dr. Iyad Allawi, from an Iraqi prime minister woman, but perhaps we can wait for that.

Allawi: Maybe. I hope so, maybe, one day.

Jasim: Former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi. Thank you very much.

Allawi: Thank you, Jasim.

Jasim: To access our show, and to send us your comments, please go to our website, AlJazeera.net/English. We have reached the end of our show for this week. Join me next week when we take another look Inside Iraq. Good-bye.
Copyright ©2007, Al Jazeera English.

You may also be interested in the interview with Ali Allawi (Iyad Allawi's brother, also a former member of the Iraqi government) on Comedy Central's Daily Show with Jon Stewart: transcript, or the video of Ali Allawi's appearance on Al Jazeera English's Riz Khan program 2007-05-09. You can also go to the Al Jazeera English home page, or visit their YouTube page, with a smattering of video clips from various programs. I particularly recommend the mini-series Mo and Me, about a pioneering African photojournalist, Mohammed Amin.

I also have transcripts of Inside Iraq for these dates: 2007-05-18 [Capt. Frank Pascual, Abd al-Bari Atwan, Rohan Gunaratna]; 2007-05-11 [Hamid Al-Bayati (Iraqi UN amb.), Anas Altikriti], 2007-04-27 [Larry Wilkerson (Colin Powell's fmr chief of staff)], and 2007-01-26 [Capt. Frank Pascual, Shaikh Yusuf al-Nasri (aide to Moqtada al-Sadr), Mohammed al Douri (fmr Iraqi UN amb.), Brad Blakeman (fmr advisor to Pres. Bush)]

And of course, if you found this content interesting, please check out the rest of my blog.

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Al Gore on The Daily Show

Al Gore was the guest on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Thursday night, talking about his new book, The Assault on Reason, and discussing the breakdown of the "conversation of democracy" because we have shifted from reasoned arguments and serious discussion to sound bites and 30-second TV ads.

Here's the annotated transcript of the interview, for the purpose of facilitating that "conversation":
Jon Stewart: Welcome back. My guest tonight, a former Vice President of the United States, and a former Presidential candidate, his new book is called The Assault on Reason. Please welcome to the show Al Gore.

[humorous banter elided; watch the video via the embedded link above]

Stewart: The book is called The Assault on Reason; has something happened to Reason that I haven't heard about? What's going on?

Al Gore: Well, Reason had it coming. Yeah, logic, reason, facts play less of a role now in the way we make decisions in America, and that's really what the invasion of Iraq has in common with the climate crisis. In both cases, there were all these facts, all this evidence, enough to convince any reasonable person that, hey, by the way, Saddam Hussein was not the one responsible for the attack on 9/11, so maybe [audience cheers] maybe we shouldn't have withdrawn most of our troops from the search in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was, to invade a country that did not attack us. And in the same way, all the scientists tell us that, hey, the climate crisis is the most serious that we've ever faced, and yet our official policy in the country is still that, you know, we're not going to do anything serious about it, and there are lots of other similar examples.

Stewart: How is reason — you know, you lay out that case and people say that's very reasonable. So how is it that, as a group, we continue to go, "Ah, I see: let's do the unreasonable thing"? What is it about the arguments, and why then are the people not using reason doing so much better arguing than the reasonable people? Even in the Senate, you have people — you know, they were just saying, we're going to, the Senate and the House are going to send a bill to the President, it's gonna stop the war and do the thing, and just recently they went, "Ah, you know what? Forget it, let's just go away for the weekend."

Gore: Well, you know, before the vote to go to war in the first place in Iraq, our longest-serving Senator, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, stood in an empty chamber, and he said "Why is this Senate silent? Ominously silent?" There was no effort to lay out the pros and cons, and in fact that was the case. I think the answer to his question is, People don't care that much any more about what's said on the floor of the Senate because the news media doesn't cover it any more —

Stewart: You haven't seen C–SPAN 5.

Gore: — and the Senators are often not there, because the system that we have now makes them feel like they have to go out and spend all their time raising money to buy 30-second television commercials, because that's the principal way that political dialogue takes place now. And when you have a conversation that's still mainly over television, it's a one-way communication. The average American is watching television 4½ hours a day —

Stewart: Although we have great respect for you, and that in no way insinuates that it's not a good use of your time. [cheers] It is a passive medium.

Gore: Yes, and my position is that all television is bad except my network, current_ TV, and The Daily Show, and whatever show I happen to be watching at the time.

Stewart: Exactly.

Gore: But in all seriousness, the television news programs have probably spent a lot more time on Britney Spears' shaving her head, and Paris Hilton going to jail, and Anna-Nicole Smith's estate lawyers and Joey Buttafuoco, and all this stuff, than they have spent giving us the facts — for example, telling us before the invasion of Iraq, that actually Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack of 9/11.

Stewart: You keep coming back to this: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11?

Gore: It's shocking, isn't it? 70% of the American people were convinced at the time of the vote that Saddam Hussein was primarily responsible for the attack, 50% still think he was involved with the attack.

Stewart: But isn't that because — I think the reason that always strikes me that that is because the people that want you to believe something are actively manipulating information, and the people whose responsibility it is to filter through that manipulation, don't seem to be doing that. Is that where the disconnect is?

Gore: I think that's part of the problem. I think that the boundary between entertainment and news has been blurred — not on this show!

Stewart: Why are you looking at me? [pause] You know what's sad? On this show, I've actually blurred the line between entertainment and entertainment. We gotta take a commercial break, but when we come back, tell me what is actually wrong, and you can even use my name if you want to. We'll be right back with Al Gore.

[commercial break]

Stewart: Welcome back. We're talkin' to Al Gore.

Gore: I want to say something about your show.

Stewart: Please, say something about our show.

Gore: I want to say something about your show, and not just to flatter you, but it makes a point. I know that there are a lot of people here who feel the way that I do [audience cheers], that actually if you want to get through a lot of the nonsense and get to the heart of what the most important news of the day is, this is really one of the places to go to get the straight story, and it's ironic. I mean, it's true, it's true, Jon. You know, back in the Middle Ages — this'll sound a little weird, high-fallutin', but — the court jester was sometimes the only person who was allowed to tell the truth without getting his head cut off, and in the current media environment, making jokes about serious stuff is about the only way you can get past the —

Stewart: Let me ask you something: that's a compliment, right?

Gore: You're in this book!

Stewart: Thank you. Let me ask you this, though: why is it that the news media — and they're clearly being manipulated by government, by other — why don't they push back just as hard? In terms of, why do they feel that they have to be symbiotic with government? Why do they feel they have to be in a close, mutual relationship?

Gore: First of all, the networks have made the news divisions part of the cash-generating machine, and they have to meet the bottom line, first and foremost. That didn't used to be the case. The line between entertainment and news, as I said earlier, has been blurred badly, and also they can be intimidated. For example, in the run-up to the Iraq War, a lot of politicans, but also a lot of newscasters, were actually scared that they would be branded as unpatriotic —

Stewart: — or lose access —

Gore: — or lose access, or lose ratings. Some of the businesses that advise television networks on how to build their ratings, advised them point-blank, do not put on opponents to this invasion of Iraq, because the others are waving the flag and saying, "Let's go."

Stewart: But isn't the Internet, then, the great equalizer? The Internet is a much more populous — they're the ones that can generate the momentum that put these opposing viewpoints and these other truths into the marketplace, and by keeping that momentum up, isn't the Internet then maybe the counterbalance?

Gore: It is the single greatest source of hope that we will be able to fix what ails the conversation of democracy. And yes, for all its problems and excesses and abuses, and there are a lot of them —

Stewart: Porn.

Gore: Not just that, but the Internet has low entry barriers for individuals, who are then able to join the conversation. And even now, even though it's not at the point where it can really seriously compete with television, even now, the television broadcasters are getting feedback over the Internet that blows the whistle on them. If the Internet had been as strong 6 years ago as it is now, maybe, maybe there would've been a lot more attention paid to the real facts, and we would not have had our troops stuck over there in the middle of a civil war.

Stewart: I'm with you: I blame the Internet. [laughter] Hey, wait a minute!

The Assault on Reason: it's really a fascinating book, and between that and Inconvenient Truth, you need to write something funny. This is really.... Something about five dogs that go to heaven. Al Gore!

[commercial break]

Stewart: Hey, everybody, that's our show. For those of you at home who wonder sometimes, like, hey, what happens when they run out of time, what didn't they get to, what did they miss? Here's what we didn't get to: I was going to say to Al Gore, "Are you running for President? And if you're not running for President you can prove it by putting this hat [a beer helmet] on." Because clearly, somebody who's running for President is not going to do this, and I thought we'd have a great funny thing there, and then he started making so much sense I was like, "Nah, fuck it," and so that's our show; here's your Moment of Zen.
Reporter Jim Axelrod, CBS News: The phrase you just used, "a different configuration in Iraq" that you'd like to see, is that a "Plan B"?

President George W. Bush: Uhhh, we'll, let's see, actually, I would call that [pause] a plan recommended by Baker–Hamilton, so that would be a "Plan B–H."
[Full text of the press conference is available on the White House website; search for "config" to find the quoted passage.]
I can't help remarking on how much more comfortable Gore looks in public speaking than he did just a few short years ago. Still and all, to get an idea of what's really going on, beyond what The Daily Show brings you, you need a variety of sources, including places like Al Jazeera, C–SPAN, MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and a big dollop of PBS.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Constituent's Open Letter to Nancy Pelosi

By an accident of geography, it happens that I live in the 8th Congressional District of California, where I am represented by Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives. I was inspired by Keith Olbermann's "Special Comment" on yesterday's MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olbermann to write this constituent letter to my Congressperson. The Congress has already passed President Bush's supplemental spending bill, no strings attached, so my letter won't do any good on that vote, but at least it makes clear what I as a constituent expect from my Representative.

Madam Speaker,

I trust that you are aware of Mr. Keith Olbermann's "Special Comment" segment on Wednesday's "Countdown" on MSNBC. If not, I suggest that it is imperative that you see it, at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18831132/ if your staff somehow did not TiVo it for you. I add below my own comments, as a constituent not only of your country and of your party, but of your district as well.

The people of the United States did not send a Democratic majority to both houses of Congress for the purpose of asking President Bush politely, if it's not too much trouble, if he wouldn't mind thinking about eventually drawing the Iraq War to a close. The American people were sold a war that would be over in less than 6 months, but this war is well into its fifth year. The American people believe — I would say "realize" — that the war in Iraq is not making America or the world any safer. Mr. Bush's war in Iraq has created for our enemies a safe haven, a recruiting poster, and a training camp with real live American soldiers as targets to sharpen their aim. Mr. Bush could have created an al Qaeda training facility at Camp David, and it would have done no more damage to America's national security than this war in Iraq has already done and is continuing to do. Mr. Bush continues to make the specious claim that somehow fighting them "over there" makes it less likely that we will have to fight them "over here," even while our continued presence in Iraq clearly makes it more likely that we will have to fight them on our own soil.

It is long past time for the Democratic leadership to exhibit leadership in redirecting the focus to a different question: How does the United States withdraw from Iraq with a minimum of further damage to the Iraqi people and to our own soldiers? We need to do some serious planning for that goal: Yankee Go Home. That is also the goal that the Iraqi government must use to unite its people, because it is the one thing on which they have a broad consensus. Any Iraqi leader who cannot tell the U.S. Army to start packing its bags, will never be strong enough to hold his or her nation together. (If Nouri al-Maliki is not that leader, then the Iraqis need to find someone who is.) We need to redefine "success" to put some kind of dignity into our withdrawal, but we also need to recognize the limits of what we can hope to accomplish. Acknowledging our limits will not make us appear weak in the eyes of the world — at least, not nearly so much as our continuing to writhe in quicksand — but rather will show that America's appetite for controlling other countries at any cost is not insatiable. We need to remind Mr. Bush of his pledge to lead a "humble" foreign policy, for the sake of our standing in the community of nations.

We, the people of the Eighth Congressional District, "the Fightin' Eighth," did not send you to Congress nearly twenty years ago (happy anniversary, by the way) to be a timid player. You have shown time and again that you are tough and determined and committed to the well-being of America, but those qualities are not shining brightly through on the subject of the Iraq War. The American people overwhelmingly reject this war, but what about the people of the 8th District? There are probably about 30 people in our entire district who would admit publicly to favoring continuing the war. Even those of us who are willing to recognize the need for some damage-control work in the process of withdrawing our military from Iraq, reject and repudiate any "blank check," most especially for an administration that has shown so little effectiveness and so much loyalty to the man over the office of President of the United States and the Constitution that limits that office. We sent you back to Congress, not merely because your Republican sacrificial lamb opponent was so laughable, but because we wanted someone with the chutzpah to look George W. Bush in the eye and say, "Given that choice, sir, I will take 'the highway.'"

The Democratic majority in Congress must act immediately to rein in Mr. Bush and his ruinously delusional military aspirations. We must bring home the National Guard and Reserve, to be ready for natural disasters at home and also for the day that will inevitably come when we have another terrorist attack in the United States. We must wind down the American military presence in Iraq, pausing only long enough to minimize the disruption caused by our leaving. We must leave only those forces needed to combat al Qaeda, not to combat every faction in the Iraqi civil war. We also must not provoke a war with Iran, or with any other country, but rather return to a less bellicose posture on the world stage.

Please, for the sake of the nation, for the sake of the Democratic Party, and even for the sake of your own political future, you must do better than this capitulation under the guise of compromise. You must make the case to the American people that it is President Bush, not the Democrats in Congress, who fails to support our troops. The Republicans clearly have a solid advantage in their ability to spin the news, but you have the advantage that the facts are overwhelmingly on your side.

Specifically on the subject of Iran, you must make it unambiguously and unmistakably clear to the President and to the American people that the Authorization for Use of Military Force of September 18, 2001, cannot possibly be interpreted to give the President authority to act against Iran, since Iran was not one of "those nations, organizations, or persons [who] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." (Of course, it is also unmistakably clear that the language of that resolution does not give the President authority to attack Iraq, either, since it also did not authorize, commit, aid, or harbor the 9/11 terrorists.) Mr. Bush cannot be allowed to fully cripple our military capability by starting another war even as he refuses to end the one he has already started.

Lincoln Madison

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Gay NBA on Colbert

Last night's Colbert Réport on Comedy Central featured a guest interview with John Amaechi, the first (former) player in the National Basketball Association to publicly reveal his homosexuality. (Update: The video clip from the Comedy Central website is now embedded above.) As a homosexual myself, as well as a former resident of England, I found the exchange spiffing.

John Amaechi on The Colbert Réport, 2005-05-22. Copyright ©2007 Comedy Partners.
Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.: Welcome back, everybody. My guest tonight is a former NBA player who wrote a book about coming out of the closet. "Top of the key," "In the paint," "Out of the closet" — I don't understand these basketball terms. Please welcome John Amaechi! [walks over to the interview set] Thank you. Thank you very much. Welcome aboard. Mr. Amaechi, thanks for coming on.

John Amaechi: Thank you.

Colbert: Can I start off here, would you feel comfortable if — I don't do this with all my guests. Are you comfortable with a man telling you, you're very handsome?

Amaechi: Thank you.

Colbert: You're okay with that?

Amaechi: Absolutely fine.

Colbert: Okay, fine. Now, your book is called Man in the Middle, and your journey, if I can describe it this way, through the NBA, was different from other athletes, because you are English. Was it hard being in a locker room with other men who don't know how to play cricket?

Amaechi: I don't think that's my major concern, wasn't my major concern. There were others.

Colbert: Okay, we'll get straight to the — I'm burying the lead here. You also recently came out and said that you're homosexual, that you're gay.

Amaechi: This is true.

Colbert: I assume those are the same thing. And, um, when did you choose to be gay?

[audience laughs]

Amaechi: This is — that's not how it works.

Colbert: No?

Amaechi: Genetic, biological — lots of different reasons, but not a choice.

Colbert: But did you choose to be a basketball player?

Amaechi: That I chose.

Colbert: You chose to be a basketball player? You chose to be this tall?

Amaechi: That part, no.

Colbert: 'Cause I think it's, you know, more likely to be biologically a basketball player than biologically a gay person. I just think that, you know, God wouldn't make gay people, because God says you're not supposed to be gay, but God would make basketball players, 'cause there's nothin' in the Bible about bringing the rock to the hole. [pause] Right? You grant me that? You grant me that? Nothing in Leviticus about driving the lane.

Amaechi: No, no, God doesn't say that He's —

Colbert: He doesn't say that.

Amaechi: Well, that depends how you look at that, I suppose.

Colbert: I guess not, yeah, how you describe "the lane." [audience cheers] Now, but, getting back to the point here, you are the first openly gay NBA player; what is the book about?

Amaechi: Well, there are about 30 pages in the book that have anything gay in them; the rest of them is about my life.

Colbert: How does someone with an English accent play basketball? Let me ask you that.

Amaechi: Well, I mean, there are a lot of difficulties. I talk trash very badly.

Colbert: Really?

Amaechi: Yes.

Colbert: What's English "smack talk"?

Amaechi: You see, I don't even want to try to attempt it.

Colbert: Really? "I say, I say, this is a dry crumpet."

Amaechi: Well, that would be bad form.

Colbert: "You! You there by the rim, queue in the line, or I will not drive the lorry of my ball up the lift."

Amaechi: You can see how it would be difficult.

Colbert: It would be tough. Why did you decide to come out and say that you are a homosexual. I mean, for years you didn't, everything was jim-dandy. (It's an American phrase.)

Amaechi: Thank you.

Colbert: But why come out and say it? Everything was just fine. Why flaunt it? Isn't the rule of professional sports "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

Amaechi: No, that's the military.

Colbert: They're very similar.

Amaechi: They are similar. No, I think it's important: people need to know that there's diversity in sports as well as other areas of life, and I want to be the person to kind of bring that to the forefront.

Colbert: Okay, but if we end up being open and accepting of homosexuals in sports, will we not then begin to become open and accepting of homosexuals in other walks of life? I mean, I'm just saying, it's a slippery slope. You'll admit it's a slippery slope?

Amaechi: I'm hoping it's a very slippery slope, yes.

Colbert: Did your decision — when you came out and said yes, I was a professional basketball player and I'm a gay man — did that surprise people, or did the English accent throw them off?

Amaechi: To be honest, the English accent threw them off.

Colbert: The English accent jams America's gaydar.

Amaechi: I think that's very accurate, yeah.

Colbert: We just — to be safe, we assume everyone from England is gay until further notice.

Amaechi: That is the #1 thing that I hear.

Colbert: Really? Is it the #1 thing you hear?

Amaechi: It is.

Colbert: Not like, "Great game"?

Amaechi: No, none of that stuff.

Colbert: None of that stuff? You are in the Hall of Fame, though.

Amaechi: I am in the Hall of Fame.

Colbert: And what are you in the Hall of Fame for?

Amaechi: Complete luck, actually: I scored the first basket of the millennium.

Colbert: Okay. Was that in 2000 or 2001?

Amaechi: Technically, the first basket of the new millennium would be 2001, but it was in 2000.

Colbert: In 2000? So you didn't actually score the first basket of the new millennium?

Amaechi: This is true.

Colbert: Is there a special different nootche — I call it a "nootche": a nook, a niche, a nootche — for the guy who actually did it?

Amaechi: I'm hoping so. I'm hoping I don't get booted out at the end.

Colbert: Okay, fantastic. You once said that the players in the NBA, they flaunt their bodies in front of mirrors and compare necklaces, rings, designer suits: "Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was the gay one."

Amaechi: I think it's true. I mean, you would stand in a locker room, and I've been in locker rooms with people who were painting their toenails in seasonal colors.

Colbert: Really? You played with Dennis Rodman.

Amaechi: You guessed well.

Colbert: Okay, thanks very much. By the way, when you said that you had to remind yourself that you were the gay one, how did you remind yourself? Was it like a flash card? Or do you not want to talk about it?

Amaechi: No, I don't think I should talk about it.

Colbert: Okay, thank you, John Amaechi, thank you so much. The book is Man in the Middle; we'll be right back.

[commercial break]

Colbert: Well, folks, that's it for the show tonight. You know, I learned something very valuable in tonight's guest interview, but I forgot it during the last commercial break; I have got to remember to write that stuff down. Good night.
It seems that America is unable to get past the issue of "choice": why do people choose to be sexually aberrant moral deviants? It's a question that has no answer — at least in the case of normal, well-adjusted homosexuals — because it isn't a choice. No one, not one single person ever in the history of humanity, has ever woken up one day and decided to become a homosexual. Nor has any person ever woken up and decided to be heterosexual or bisexual or omnisexual or asexual. You can change your nationality, your religion, your hairstyle, and even your sex, by willful conscious choice, but not your sexual orientation. Maybe you're born with it, maybe it's genetic, maybe it's hormonal, or maybe it's the environment of your preschool years, but by the time you reach kindergarten, you're either predominantly homosexual or you're not. Even the people who claim to have changed to heterosexuality by some form of "therapy" generally don't list having "been" homosexual as a choice. Oh well; I don't want to get too preachy in a footnote on a humor piece.

For the record, though, I am often mistaken for heterosexual, and I have only once ever allowed someone else to paint my toenails (never done it myself). Even though I'm 188 centimetres tall, I'm lousy at basketball, and I'm not much better at smack talk. When I lived in London, I bought a book on cricket, but still haven't the foggiest idea how it's played, or for that matter why anyone bothers. I most certainly do believe in slippery slopes.

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Now it's Michelle from Cardholder Services

I just got a call, with no caller ID, from an automated recording featuring "Michelle" from "Cardholder Services," offering me my "final notice" of my eligibility — "expiring soon" — to lower the interest rate on my (unspecified) credit card, provided I meet their (unspecified) eligibility requirements. At the end of the illegal recorded message, I was offered the choice to press 9 to speak to a live operator about lowering my interest rate, or press 8 to discontinue further notices. I pressed 8, but was told that was an "invalid option"; the entire spiel then repeated. Again I pressed 8, and again was told it was an invalid option, so the third time I interrupted "Michelle" and pressed 9. After being on hold for probably not quite a minute, an apparently live, apparently human being came on the line, asking me if I was holding to lower my interest rates. I said, "I need to know who I'm dealing with," to which the woman replied, "Uh huh," and then hung up on me.

I wrote previously about my encounter with "Rachel" from "Cardholder Services," including the specific federal laws (plural) that were violated when "Cardholder Services" (whoever that may be in real life) initiated that call. It turns out that "Cardholder Services" has bothered a lot of people, including using intentionally fake caller ID (as opposed to just "out of area," meaning that no caller ID data was sent at all). The best guess — and I emphasize the word guess — is that "Cardholder Services" is really American Debt Negotiators, located in Palm Bay and/or Coral Springs, Florida, telephone 1-866-969-4236.

Update 2008-03-13: there is a new blog devoted just to our good friends with "Cardholder Services," "Account Services," or whatever they're calling themselves this week. It's called "Stopping Heather with Account Services"

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Inside Iraq, 2007-05-18

Last Friday's episode of Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English featured an interesting panel discussion, with a U.S. military CENTCOM spokesperson squaring off with a Sri Lankan "terrorism expert" in Singapore and the Palestinian-exile editor of an Arabic-language newspaper in London, talking about the Iraq War. I've got a transcript below the fold, but first I should introduce the characters. Your moderator is Jasim al-Azzawi, who worked as a translator for the U.S. State Department before joining Al Jazeera English. He spares no one in his direct and pointed questions. The U.S. military spokesperson is Captain Frank Pascual, who has been on this show before, and who has said openly that America's fear of letting Al Jazeera English onto our cable TVs is ludicrous, because we have nothing to fear from a diverse expression of freedom of the press. The other two characters are a bit more colorful in their backgrounds. Rohan Gunaratna (via satellite from his terrorism institute in Singapore) is an "expert" on international terrorism (because he says so, and because he's from Sri Lanka and they have had terrorists there almost non-stop for 32 years now). He was shown much more often on Australian TV news than on ABCBNBCNN-MTV, but he was a diehard apologist for Australian involvement in the Iraq conflict. Tony Blair gets all the press for being George W. Bush's female "poodle," but John Howard is far more of a spineless kiss-ass. Lastly, we have Abd al-Bari Atwan, also known as Abdul Bari Atwan, but always عبد الباري عطوان to his friends. He's the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based, Arabic-language newspaper which has taken a strong editorial stance that Arab governments are to be faulted for being too obedient to America and Britain and Israel. He is viewed by some as an apologist for Saddam Hussein's regime. Each of the panelists has some bias and an agenda; keep that in mind as you read what he had to say.

Transcript of Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English, original airdate 2007-05-18. Copyright ©2007 Al Jazeera English.

Jasim al-Azzawi: Hello, and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. Before 9/11, Iraqis never heard of al Qaeda. Today, their country is the epicenter of a holy war. The US invasion of Iraq is a great unexpected gift to bin Laden, reviving the fortune of his terror operation and shifting the center of global terrorism from Afghanistan to Iraq. The question on the mind of everyone now is, what do you do next, and how do you get al Qaeda out of Iraq? Here is Nadim Baba.
Nadim Baba: A huge search underway south of Baghdad after al Qaeda in Iraq abducted three U.S. soldiers. Many Iraqis are wondering how long their country will remain the key battlefield between America and Osama bin Laden's network. Baghdad's links with al Qaeda, along with weapons of mass destruction, were the pretext for the invasion. Various U.S. reports have since said there was proof of neither.

[unknown]: And now, I think they are holding a very strong position in Iraq, and also they are dealing with the other scattered parts of al Qaeda in other parts of the world, and this is very, very serious matter for the Iraqi, but before that one, before the invasion, there was no possibility for al Qaeda to be in Iraq.

Baba: The death of Abu Mussab al Zarqawi in a U.S. air strike last June prompted national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie to proclaim the beginning of the end of al Qaeda in Iraq. The surge in sectarian violence over the last year would suggest otherwise. In recent months, it's become clear some Sunni groups in what's referred to as "the resistance" are breaking away from al Qaeda. One of those groups is the Anbar Awakening [PDF], an alliance of tribal leaders in western Iraq. They claim to control 15,000 fighters, and they've told al Qaeda bluntly: they disagree with their tactics.

[unknown]: The splintering is important for the future of Iraq, no doubt, and that's, of course, the thing we ought to be most concerned about, but it doesn't mean that the United States' military efforts are necessarily going to be any easier.

[unknown]: I think what they are doing, they cannot work with any Islamic movement in Iraq, whether they are Shia or Sunni. They are both [inaudible] by the invasion of their country.

Baba: In 2002, antiwar activists issued a warning, depicting an invasion of Iraq as the perfect recruitment drive for the al Qaeda leader. Intelligence agencies around the world would now tend to agree. What's not clear is the extent to which a U.S. withdrawal would put paid to al Qaeda's aims in the region. Nadim Baba for Inside Iraq.
Azzawi: To shed some light on al Qaeda in Iraq, I'm joined from London by Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor in chief of al-Quds al-Arabi, and one of only a handful of journalists who interviewed bin Laden in Afghanistan, and from U.S. Central Command by spokesman Captain Frank Pascual, and from Singapore by international terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, and an author of Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror. Gentlemen, welcome to Inside Iraq. Rohan, the center of terrorism has shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. The U.S. has won the war, but they have won it for bin Laden.

Gunaratna: The epicenter of international terrorism has certainly shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, particularly after the death of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, his organization has now taken full control over al Qaeda in Iraq.

Azzawi: Frank Pascual, what have you done? I mean, this center has shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. The former chief of MI-6, the British intelligence officer Sir [Richard] Dearlove says it has become the holy ground for a holy battle. What has the U.S. done? What has it achieved by shifting it into Iraq?

Capt. Frank Pascual: Well, I think there are a number of exaggerations in a number of comments in the opening, but to talk about al Qaeda, I think what we have to take a look at is what their purposes are, what their goals are, what in fact that they're doing. To suggest that Osama bin Laden has won something, I think that's quite an overstatement. I think when you look at it, the man is still in hiding. Yes, al Qaeda is there, yes, al Qaeda has an influence, and yes, we're fighting them at the same time, but I would not look at that as something that is gaining influence — in fact, the point I think that was made earlier about al Anbar province, which pretty much everybody about a year ago wrote off as an impossible place, has changed dramatically. We've seen a tremendous amount of participation on the part of the sheikhs, the tribal leaders, and those who are joining the Iraqi government, the Iraqi police force, and the Iraqi army, and trying to contribute to solving the problem of al Qaeda in that part of the country.

Azzawi: Abd al-Bari Atwan, despite the American denial, as represented by Frank Pascual, the reality is, al Qaeda has been entrenched in Iraq. Is this a result of perhaps a Cold War thinking, a Cold War theory that all terror networks are linked together, and subsequently Saddam and al Qaeda are one and the same?

Abd al-Bari Atwan: No. I believe Saddam Hussein was a secular leader. Actually, he hated Islamic fundamentalism. While the Americans actually were training and financing Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world to fight the Soviet Union, actually, Saddam Hussein was supporting liberal groups, Arab nationalist groups, so I believe the American, actually, who created Islamic fundamentalism, financed it, and prepared the ground for them. This is one thing. Second thing, I believe Osama bin Laden managed to outfox the Americans. He told me personally in November 1996, he cannot go and fight the Americans inside the United States, on the American mainland, but if he managed to drag them to the Middle East, where he can fight them in his own terms and his own turf, I think this would be a great victory to him. The Americans actually fulfilled, as you said in the beginning of this program, fulfilled the wish of Osama bin Laden when they invaded Iraq, when they occupied Iraq. Al Qaeda flourishes in failed states, and if you look at Afghanistan, Iraq, you know — failed states, the best environment for al Qaeda, and I'm sorry to say it, but America actually created this right atmosphere for al Qaeda.

Azzawi: Frank, why would Osama bin Laden welcome the invasion of Iraq? We saw a little poster in the package that says, I Want You to Invade Iraq, because he simply cannot cross the oceans and go to the U.S., so he would like some hostages inside Iraq.

Pascual: Well, I would disagree. I think September 11th, al Qaeda managed to pull off a remarkable terrorist activity in New York City, and that's my home town. I was there that day. I would also say —

Azzawi: [overlapping] They cannot do it on a daily basis, Frank, I mean, this big, spectacular —

Pascual: [overlapping] — hindsight, in these types of discussions, as well, where people start to form things. I would suggest to you that we're talking about a Cold War era here, back in the period when the Soviet Union, then Soviet Union, attacked and invaded, if you will, and occupied Afghanistan, we were not arming Islamic fundamentalists for that purpose. I'm even concerned about the use of that phrase: we were arming people who lived in that country to oppose the Soviet invasion at that time. To look at it the other way, is through the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, and a rather distorted view, I would say.

Azzawi: If that is the case, Rohan, why are we exaggerating the importance, the nature, and the achievement of al Qaeda in Iraq? Is it simply because people who have vested interests in this to continue — is al Qaeda trying to promote itself by getting the mantle of anti-Americanism? Why are we giving too much emphasis to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Gunaratna: In Iraq, there are a number of groups, nationalist groups as well as there are Islamist groups. Certainly al Qaeda is one of the groups operating in Iraq, but this group poses a very significant danger because of the scale of attacks al Qaeda had mounted, like 9/11, like the East Africa [U.S. embassy] attacks, the [U.S.S.] Cole attack, also, even the attacks inside Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq has been the most deadliest of the groups. It has conducted the most amount of suicide attacks, so I think that it is important to pay special attention to the presence of Abu Ayyub al-Masri's al Qaeda in Iraq organization. This group poses the single biggest challenge, not only to the security of Iraq, but also to the security of the Middle East and international security.

Atwan: Well, actually, let me just say something to Frank, here. I would like to say that, when I said al Qaeda managed to outfox the American, yes, 11th of September was a provocative move or attack by al Qaeda in order actually to trap the Americans, to engage them, to push them to invade Iraq or other places in the Middle East so they can fight them. I would like to ask Frank, if al Qaeda, for example, bombed the World Trade Center in Peking, do you think China would go and invade Saudi Arabia or Iraq or Afghanistan as a retaliation? I believe the Americans were provoked, and they actually fell into the trap of al Qaeda, and they are paying a very heavy price for that. They lost their image, they lost their reputation, they lost about 3,000 of their soldiers, 20,000 were injured, they lost more than $600 billion, so I believe, when I said Osama bin Laden managed to outfox the Americans, this is the outcome. It is written on the wall. So I think —

Azzawi: What would you have them do, Abd al-Bari Atwan? You want the most powerful nation on earth, the only superpower in 2001, to be attacked in the very heart of its financial center as well as the military complex, and just say, "Please give us Osama bin Laden," and Mullah Omar said no — what would you have them do? You just wait and see until somebody will have a notion to say, okay, let's kick them out of Afghanistan?

Atwan: Yes, but they were in Afghanistan. They managed to destroy 85 to 90% of al Qaeda infrastructure. They deprived al Qaeda of its safe haven in Tora Bora. Also, they removed Taliban, the protector of al Qaeda. So, I think they should have said, this is enough, but to go and invade Iraq, actually, this plays into the hands of al Qaeda.

Azzawi: So, you fell for it, Frank. In fact, you fell into a trap set up all along for you by Osama bin Laden, and you are suffering for it.

Pascual: I don't believe he's quite that smart. I mean, forgive me if I disagree with Abd al-Bari. You know, I look at this, and I remember that day so vividly. I stood in that neighborhood in lower Manhattan, which is where I worked, traditionally, and the thought that this was the key to Iraq is preposterous, quite frankly.

Azzawi: If that is the case, let me stop you for just a second, Frank.

Pascual: What we did was, we went after al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Azzawi: Frank, hold on just a second —

Pascual: Let me finish, Jasim, just because —

Azzawi: Just before the break, I want to say this —

Pascual: Hold on, Jasim — before the break? Okay.

Azzawi: If 9/11 was not the pretext for invading Iraq, in that case, all along the invasion of Iraq was in the planning, regardless of September 11. That's exactly what you are saying.

Pascual: No, I'm saying quite the opposite. What we looked at there, on that particular day, was where the source of terrorism was, and it was certainly in Afghanistan. You will remember that September 11 was 2001; the invasion of Afghani — excuse me, of Iraq, took place in March 2003. These were not connected events immediately; this was not a knee-jerk reaction or anything like it. There were a number of different factors, and I'm surprised that everybody on the panel here seems to have forgotten, but there were a number of things that were expressed as concerns. We certainly had the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction, okay, and we've talked about that endlessly. We also talked about the violation of U.N. sanctions, Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow the weapons inspectors in, and a number of other things that had happened that were the cause there. To suggest that Osama bin Laden had concocted this whole thing and dragged us into it, is pretty close to preposterous.

Azzawi: Frank, we will continue this discussion, but first we will take a break. and when we come back, we are going to ask Rohan to tell us what was the reason for September 11 and Iraq and al Qaeda. Stay with us.
President Bush: There are some who, uh, feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on.
[commercial break]
President Bush: I was saying, "Bring it on." Kinda tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people, that, umm, uh, I've learned some lessons about, uh, umm, expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner.
Azzawi: President Bush perhaps regretting an earlier call to "bring it on." We are discussing al Qaeda in Iraq with three experts. Rohan, the Bush administration actually never stated on the eve of the war that Saddam Hussein is responsible for 9/11. They never made that link, but in the same sentence, whenever they talked about 9/11, they mentioned Saddam and they mentioned the regime. They created that kind of illusion, that kind of insinuation. Somehow, Saddam Hussein was linked, or in one way was responsible for that. Was that deliberate, or was that simply part of the environment of post-9/11?

Gunaratna: U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was fully justified, because al Qaeda had made Afghanistan into a terrorist Disneyland, and they were mounting attacks in a number of countries, using Afghanistan, but if we look at Iraq, in Iraq the evidence that al Qaeda was operating in Iraq, al Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussein, that Saddam was working on weapons of — developing weapons of mass destruction, all of these, we had no evidence, and I think that the American invasion of Iraq was a mistake. And today there is wide acknowledgement, even in the United States, that it is a mistake. But where should we go from now onwards? Now we believe, now there is a belief that if the United States and the coalition forces withdraw from Iraq, they may have to go back to Iraq after a few years. Very much the same way, after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, we saw that Afghanistan became a very important center for a number of terrorist groups. That same —

Azzawi: Rohan is very politely saying, this is a mistake, this is nothing short of a blunder. And now, the question he was asking, How do you get out of here? Is there a way for Iraq to be put back together, to extract al Qaeda out of Iraq, and for the Americans to leave a semblance of normality?

Atwan: Well, I think the Americans broke Iraq, and they are not actually able to fix it again. This is the problem: they destroyed the country, they killed more than 665,000 of its population, the middle class, which is the most important class in Iraq, they are running away —

Pascual: [overlapping] That number has never been demonstrated to be valid. That number is not valid. That is a number that is based on a guess. It's a fake number. It has absolutely never been validated. Never.

Atwan: Frank, it is not my number.

Pascual: [overlapping] I agree. It's nobody's number.

Atwan: This number actually given by the Lancet [PDF] medical magazine, which is a highly reputable British magazine —

Pascual: [overlapping] Its reputation does not matter; that number is a false number. Nobody has ever come [inaudible] to defend that number.

Atwan: The research, you know, these figures were reached by Johns Hopkins researchers, it wasn't by Arab researchers, so I think it is very accurate, and the number could be much higher. But anyway, this is one of the problems, one side of the problem. I believe that these talks about al Qaeda being linked to Saddam Hussein is absolutely non-existence. We know that al Qaeda considers Saddam Hussein as atheist infidel, and also Saddam Hussein actually never accepted Osama bin Laden or never worked with Islamic fundamentalism. But anyway, we can see the outcome now. What's the American are going to do? Absolutely they can do nothing when the means of the truth —

Azzawi: [inaudible] the Americans, Abd al-Bari. What are you going to do, Frank?

Atwan: Let me say just one thing: you know, it is an unwinnable war in Iraq, and the Americans have to admit that, and the Congress actually said it clearly. President Bush should declare defeat in Iraq and start to pull out of there.

Azzawi: And then what? And then what?

Atwan: The Iraqis will sit together and they will sort out their problems. They will reach a solution. They will reach a reconciliation. But —

Azzawi: And leave Iraq for al Qaeda? Leave al-Anbar, Ramadi, and all this area, and perhaps even come into Baghdad?

Atwan: No! Look: al Qaeda is in Iraq because the Americans are there. Once the Americans, the foreign elements, pull out of Iraq, I believe al Qaeda is not justified to be there. The Iraqi people will say, "Please leave our country."

Azzawi: If the Americans leave, al Qaeda simply will just say, "Thank you very much. Now they have left, we're going to pursue them perhaps in Saudi Arabia, or somewhere else"? Is that —

Gunaratna: In my opinion, al Qaeda will grow stronger in Iraq. It would be a fatal mistake for the United States to withdraw from Iraq at this point of time. The United States should strengthen the Iraqi security forces. The United States should strengthen the Iraqi police forces. And it is only after that, the U.S. and the coalition forces should withdraw. If the United States withdraws from Iraq today, what will happen is, the U.S. will have to come back after 2 or 3 years, back to Iraq to fix Iraq, because Iraq will be used by al Qaeda to mount attacks.

Atwan: Rohan, Rohan, Rohan, why the Americans should go back? This is Iraqi territories. This is not American satellite state. This is not American colony. This is independent Arab state. The American invaded it illegally and illegitimate invasion —

Azzawi: Abd al-Bari Atwan, the dual goals of al Qaeda in Iraq, as declared by them, is not only to fight the Americans, but also to fight the Iranians. As a matter of fact, they look at Iran as a long-term goal enemy, and then the United States. The whole idea of al Qaeda is to establish an Islamic state, as well as to generate some sort of sectarian civil war in Iraq, so that's the reason Rohan is saying America cannot afford to leave.

Pascual: Jasim, the most important thing that everybody's forgetting here, everybody's losing sight of the fact, what we're talking about here is the Iraqi people. That's the most important thing here. What we're doing right now, what we're working on right now, is trying to give them the chance for a future. You can debate all you want — and we have debated for years now — the causes of the invasion, why we're there, and so forth, but the fact of the matter is, he's right: al Qaeda is there. Rohan is exactly right: if we were to leave right now, it would be calamitous. If the al Qaeda people that were in Afghanistan used that as a base until they were forced out or forced away, now you find them in Iraq, do you think they're just going to leave? That's absolutely naïve. I can't imagine somebody seriously saying that. In addition to, they're the ones that fomented sectarian violence. They coldly and calculatedly did exactly that. I mean, that's their purpose. When you talk about what al Qaeda's goals are, you never talk about them in terms of anything that has anything to do with anybody's dignity or the future of the Iraqi people.

Atwan: We cannot blame al Qaeda only for this sectarian civil war. I think the Americans started, they started this sectarian division among the Iraqi people —

Pascual: [overlapping] That is absolutely ridiculous.

Atwan: — when they [inaudible] this governing council. Actually, when they incorporated one side of Iraqi and the new American-Iraqi army, when they incorporated them in the security forces and the police, so the Americans actually started these sectarian problems, and al Qaeda, many believe that [inaudible] advantages, so we cannot —

Pascual: [overlapping] Sectarian violence started in February 2006 with the [al-Askari or "Golden" Mosque of] Samarra bombing. That's when it started. It was instituted, it was initiated by al Qaeda in a very cold and calculated way.

Atwan: No, it started, perhaps, before.

Azzawi: Rohan, this is the last word for you.

Pascual: [overlapping] [inaudible] the Samarra bombing in February 2006: to suggest the United States did that is ridiculous.

Azzawi: We are almost out of time. Rohan, to what extent did the lack of knowledge of Iraq lead to the calamitous situation we are right in? We have only less than one minute.

Gunaratna: I believe there was a lack of understanding of Iraq and its neighbors on the part of the United States, and I believe that now we must look towards the future. We must ensure that Iraq does not come under al Qaeda control. We should encourage Arab governments to send troops. We should encourage European governments to send troops and stabilize Iraq. If we do not do this, Iraq will come increasingly under al Qaeda control.

Azzawi: Rohan, Frank, and Bari, gentlemen, thank you for being guests on Inside Iraq. To access the show and to send us your comments, please go to our website, AlJazeera.net/English. We have reached the end of this show. Join me next week when we take another look Inside Iraq. Good-bye.
First of all, note that — to his credit — Captain Frank Pascual did not even try to rebut the claim that the whole Iraq War was a huge mistake. He does put up a fight, though, for the (only slightly less absurd) proposition that somehow Osama bin Laden is unhappy with the way things have turned out since 9/11. Say what you will about Abd al-Bari Atwan, but he's right on one core point: Saddam and Osama were not only not friends, they were mortal enemies. The United States, fresh from taking out al Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan, decided to go create a new one for them in Iraq, with plenty of Americans as practice targets for training. Frank Pascual says he doesn't think that Osama bin Laden was smart enough to think of drawing the United States into a protracted ground war in the Middle East, despite the fact that al Qaeda talked about it openly before 9/11. Conversely, I don't think that George W. Bush is stupid enough, crazy enough, coked out enough, corrupt enough, or criminal enough to have deliberately created a disaster in Iraq, despite the fact that he says he's the "Decider," even while his decisions are wreaking havoc that will take generations to heal.

Rohan Gunaratna's record, by the way, is a bit mixed. There is the demonstrated and admitted fact that he puffed up a couple of job titles a little bit, but really pretty slightly, in fact. He didn't invent multiple, wholly fictional college degrees, and he didn't claim to have worked anywhere that he didn't, he just added a bit of a flourish on "assistant underling, first class." More worthy of your attention are the disputes about some of his analysis and his chumminess with certain governments. Having said that, I do believe that the United States cannot just snap our fingers and pull out of Iraq, not just because it will take weeks to coordinate all the necessary flights, but also because, as badly as we have fucked up Iraq, we can still make it worse. It is for that reason that I believe the central focus of American policy in Iraq needs to be finding the fastest way to get us out of there with a minimum of further damage. The Iraqi government needs to focus itself on the necessity — not so much for our sake as for its own political survival — of focusing its policy on the same goal: Yankee Go Home.

I do want to challenge both Frank Pascual and Abd al-Bari Atwan about the 665,000 number. Captain Pascual, if your argument is that the Iraq War is okay because we killed only half that many — or even one-tenth that many — then you won't be going to the debate finals this year. On the other hand, Abd al-Bari set you up by pushing the number instead of the reality behind whatever the real number might be. The bottom line: not only has the United States fucked up the occupation, we have fucked up a lot of people's lives, far more than just the ones we've killed. Add in the people who sympathize with the Iraqis more than with the United States, and you've got an enormous population of people pissed off at the United States of America. You have an even larger population who have no faith whatsoever that the U.S. can do anything to make the situation better, much less good. We cannot fix Iraq. Not with 160,000 troops, not with 200,000 troops, not even with 500,000 troops. Not with a year or a decade or a century. The young Octavian (the future Augustus Caesar) in HBO's Rome said, after learning that a careless slip of his tongue had contributed to Caesar's death, "The jug is broken; I cannot mend it with regret." On the other hand, we cannot mend Iraq without showing our regret for how badly we fucked up their country and their lives — kinda like how Osama bin Laden fucked up (one small part of) our country and seriously fucked up several thousand lives, only worse.

Of course, I don't want to sound like Barney the purple dinosaur, saying that we just have to start with "We're sorry" to make everything all better, nor even like Abd al-Bari Atwan, saying that, when the U.S. leaves Iraq, the Iraqis will ask al Qaeda to please leave and poofEKTÒ they'll disappear, leaving the Iraqis to just work out all those pesky centuries-old blood feuds. As far as the political will necessary to get the U.S. out of Iraq, that's going to have to come from the Iraqi government, because we saw today that the Democrats in Congress don't have the will to do what needs doing, and President Bush certainly doesn't. Our politicians are willing to let you twiddle your thumbs in a rising tide of blood — you take your time, now; no hurry — but the American people aren't, and the Iraqi people aren't. "Sovereignty" means "taking responsibility for the decisions that define your nationhood," not "taking a two-month summer vacation in the middle of a civil war."

Lastly, on the issue of who started the sectarian violence, I need to lay out some middle ground between Captain Pascual and Abd al-Bari Atwan, because they're both wrong. The truth is that the United States did contribute to the sectarian tensions in Iraq, from the beginning of the occupation. On the one hand, we tried to be even-handed in dealing with the factions, but at the same time we started off by saying, essentially, "Okay, all you Sunnis over here, Kurds next door, and Shia in the Grand Ballroom," instead of, "Okay, liberals over here, conservatives over there, and moderates in the middle." From the beginning, we sought out "leaders of the Shia community" and "leaders of the Sunni community" and so forth. We undermined the very concept of Iraqi national unity to which we paid such fervent lip service. On the other hand, the bombing of the Askariya Mosque (مرقد الامامين علي الهادي والحسن العسكر) really did mark a watershed in the sectarian violence. It didn't start it outright from total calm, but it certainly ratcheted things up sharply. But to be clear, Captain Pascual, no one ever suggested for a moment that the United States bombed the golden mosque, or even started the sectarian violence. Let's hope you were just knocking down a strawman, rather than hiding a guilty conscience.

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