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Politics, Pageantry and Protest

Instead of enjoying my last two weeks of summer, I watched the political conventions with the help of a bottle of whiskey. To spare you from the same pain, I will summarize the festivities in brief.

The Democrats gathered in Denver to hear from their chosen one, who spoke with a combination of arena rock showmanship and thorough policy detail. Al Gore and John Kerry each displayed a vigor entirely lacking in their respective candidacies, leaving me to wonder where those speeches were when we needed them.

Hillary pretended she’s not still bitter, and tried to get the angry female contingent to unite around the uppity young man who dethroned her. When she rhetorically asked the crowd if they supported her to help the disenfranchised, or because she is a woman, they roared “for you”, confirming everyone’s fears that we truly live in a granny-ocracy.

Bill Clinton reminded us that some Democrats know how to run an economy, even though they decry NAFTA to woo blue collar voters. Jimmy Carter tottered around like a frumpy old man, but was denied a speech because he hates Israel. Joe Biden tried to get a call and response going with the crowd, but stumbled over himself trying to find the punch line. Ted Kennedy showed up just to convince everyone he is still alive. Michelle tried to portray herself as a loving mom, not a Harvard-educated, terrorist-fist-jabbing, honky-hater. She spoke passionately about her and Barack’s family story, all while wearing what is surely the tightest dress ever to grace a potential First Lady’s curves, with the possible exception of Arwen Kucinich notwithstanding.

Obama whistled for the last train to Hopesville, aiming to create change and a better future for the children of tomorrow. Naive hipsters formed lines miles long to get into the arena, only to be horrified by the sight of old white people dancing to Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and for hours. Louis Fernandes SB ’07, who attended the speech, said that “Obama gave me the audacity to hope that hope was enough to change. I found it incredibly moving… to my bowels.”

Across the plains, the Republican convention portrayed John McCain as a maverick, reminded everyone about his noble service when he got shot down in Nam, and put as much distance between himself and George Bush as possible.

Fred Thompson, displaying his classic Southern drawl, tried his hand as a stand up comedian, claiming Sarah Palin is the only vice presidential candidate who can dress a moose. I think he discounted Hannibal Hamlin, the 15th Vice President under Abraham Lincoln and a former Maine farmer, too quickly. And who knows what else Spirow Agnew was capable of.

George Bush phoned it in via satellite for a few minutes, because he was too busy trying to look busy as yet another hurricane barreled toward New Orleans. First Lady Laura took up the charge, reminding us that “our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship.” Unless you are a terrorist-coddling-freedom-hater, in which case the gloves come off.

Joe Lieberman, channelling the unholy combination of Chancellor Palpatine and the Joker, tried to sever his last ties with the Democratic party, wishing he was the vice presidential nominee all the while. Luckily for everyone, he already had his chance and he is now forever removed from the political gene pool.

Sarah Palin tried to show that she is a smart pick, not just because she is a vagina-American and Miss Alaska 1984 runner up, but because her executive experience in Wasilla is greater than that of anyone else on the ticket in either party. She also nominated her husband Todd for “first dude”, citing his qualification as a championship snowmobile racer. I think they just won over the NASCAR dad voting block en masse.

Rudy Giuliani bared his snaggle tooth and decried the cosmopolitan, effete nature of the Democrats, which is perfectly in character for a man who has been in drag on national television being felt up by Donald Trump. And then the big hero, John McCain came out, and sounded the clarion call for change. No one seemed to question the fact that the audience was entirely made up of the very bigwigs and fatcats that he pledged to throw out. They cheered all the same, because he’s the only chance they have to keep the party going.

While the confetti fluttered inside and blazered bigwigs gulped champagne, a different kind of conversation took place across the river in Minneapolis. Groups of Ronvoys rolled to Ronstock to disgorge their load of Paultards for three days of peace, love and liberty. They were serenaded by such political luminaries as Tucker Carlson, Grover Norquist and Jesse Ventura. And still, no one takes them seriously.

Also outside the mainstream political coverage, various groups of activists protested both conventions. Fox correspondent Griff Jenkins waded bravely into the fray in Denver, only to be surrounded by a group of masked Zapatistas. His interview prompt was “do you believe in freedom?” He didn’t get very far before being drowned out by chants of “fuck Fox News.”

At both convention cities, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War conducted simulated exercises from their deployment experience. Holding their hands up as weapon surrogates, they patrolled urban streets in squad formation. Wearing full desert camouflage, they captured and hooded “Iraqi civilians” to the horror of passersby. The purpose of this street theater was to demonstrate the reality of the current occupation to the American public, delegates and elected officials. It’s not giant puppets or flaming effigies, but at least it was entertaining.

In the Twin Cities, massive preventive arrest sweeps were conducted against such dangerous radicals as members of Food Not Bombs, a bus full of environmentalists, and the National Lawyers Guild. As Glenn Greenwald at points out, this is exactly the same behavior that the mainstream media was decrying as China prepared for the Olympics. But when it happens in the United States the Washington Post hails it as law enforcement at work. Seemingly, those freedoms we all care so much about aren’t really respected when you want to do something so dangerous as hold an unauthorized street march.

After the balloons are cleared from the aisles, the tear gas canisters from the streets, and the bloggers all go back to their basements, the campaigns can begin their real work of putting obnoxious ads on television. Next week, everyone can go back to watching America’s Next Top Slut, but for two glorious weeks, the eyes of the world were fixed on our favorite whores in suits, and I watched it all so you didn’t have to.

Published in The Tech September 9, 2008

Four Years Later

Four years after entering the Second World War, the United States and her allies had responded to an existential threat by defeating the enemy on two fronts on opposite sides of the world. Four years after preemptively declaring war on Iraq, we are still mired in a conflict that has taken 3,211 American lives and those of at least 60,000 innocent Iraqi civilians. While the initial military defeat of the Iraqi army was relatively well-executed, there was a total lack of planning for the reconstruction of a functioning society. Senior Defense Department management expressed utter disdain for State Department plans to rebuild Iraq, and many of the problems faced today can be directly traced to the inept decision-making in the first days of the conflict. With this kind of track record, we must not allow President Bush to expand the war to Iran.

Today, American troops are fighting in the middle of a civil war, unable to prevent attacks on civilians, their very presence increasing the violence. We have lost in Iraq; there is no hope of the ‘surge’ working. The influence of an extra 21,500 troops will do little to secure Baghdad’s population of 4.5 million, particularly when sectarian elements are determined to kill each other. Estimates by retired General Jack Keane and Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute put the troop strength required to fully pacify Baghdad at 30,000 troops for 18 months. While the recently installed General David Petraeus claims the surge is working, in the last weeks there has been a chlorine bomb attack in Fallujah that injured 350 and killed eight, a suicide bombing at a college that killed 45 students and staff, and at least 113 bodies found tortured and executed in the Baghdad area.

I do not list these statistics to shock, merely to demonstrate the magnitude of the violence and the challenge posed to our forces. Until recently I argued against withdrawal, feeling that we owe it to the Iraqi people, having unleashed this violence, to do our best to contain it. But the continued slaughter, compounded by the anger at the indefinite length of our presence, leads me to believe that the best course of action is to bring our troops home. The forces at work in the region: the ancient religious hatred, the militias armed with weapons we did not secure in the invasion, and the seemingly endless supply of young men and women willing to blow themselves up in a crowd, all conspire to make our overwhelming military might completely ineffectual. This is not to disparage the efforts of our troops, only the politicians who sent them in harm’s way without sufficient armor, planning, or historical insight to make victory achievable.

In the midst of the current conflict, the Bush administration seems to be invested in provoking Iran into a war. It has publicly accused Iranian agents of supplying Shia militias with the expertise and material for roadside bombs, and has deployed the USS Stennis Carrier Battle Group to the Persian Gulf. Alongside the USS Eisenhower, there is now enough firepower in the area to maintain 24-hour aircraft operations, a capability unprecedented since the beginning of the Iraq war, and a clear warning signal to Iran. While the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims that we ‘are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran’, the White House maintains, as ever, that ‘all options are on the table’ to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Neoconservative author Andrew Roberts recently cautioned President Bush that his legacy will depend on whether he prevents the nuclearization of the Middle East. According to press accounts, Bush frowned and nodded gravely.

Four years after we began this war, we have little progress and much chaos to show for our enormous cost in blood and treasure. We cannot let President Bush maneuver us into another war of choice based on exaggerated evidence. Given the level of competence displayed in the pre- and post-war planning, it is lunacy to expect that we can salvage our current situation by doubling down and going to war with Iran. Any decent poker player, of which there are many here at MIT, knows that this strategy leads straight to ruin. Playing no-limit with the lives of our soldiers and innocent civilians isn’t just bad policy, it’s immoral. And a President who believes he is accountable only to God should take that to heart.

Published in the March 20th issue of The Tech

Studying for Midterms

In one month, the future of the country will once again be up for grabs. And while legislative control is not as exciting as the presidency, it’s still the duty of every citizen to pay attention. If you feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, here’s your opportunity to demand that we pull over and ask for directions.

Here’s a quick recap for those who haven’t been keeping score: Iraq is devolving into a civil war. The CIA has revealed that Iraq has become a fertile jihadist recruiting ground. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. One of the fundamental tenets of Western law, habeas corpus, the right of the imprisoned to challenge their detainment in a court of law, has been suspended for aliens classified as enemy combatants or awaiting classification. This essentially allows the President to detain anyone, anywhere in the world, and hold them indefinitely without trial, forever. The Geneva Convention prohibition against “outrages upon personal dignity” against prisoners of war has been stripped from unlawful enemy combatants and those who have “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States” or its allies.

Don’t think this applies to you, because you’re a law abiding citizen who has nothing to hide? Better to fight them over there than over here? Remember that the steady erosion of rights always starts with someone else. It’s not so bad when it’s a suspected terrorist being held in a cell, tortured until he confesses. But when the United States drops all pretense of being the land of the free, we all suffer. It puts our fighting men and women in further danger if they are captured, and it foments international anger. It’s bad enough that the Middle Eastern street thinks that America is the great Satan, we don’t need to confirm it for them. If we’re really in a great clash of civilizations, shouldn’t we show our enemy what we really stand for?

On the home front, things aren’t much better. Yes, gas prices have fallen significantly over the last month, and the Dow is back near its historic high. But the Federal debt is over $8.5 trillion. That’s $28,541 per citizen, even more to add to your college payments. Foreign central banks have begun selling their shares of our debt, getting out of a bad investment before it gets worse. New proposed air pollution standards lower restrictions on particulates. New historical climate data reinforces the scientific consensus on global climate change. Senator Mark Foley sent explicit emails and instant messages to a sixteen year old page, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert knew for years.

I’m assigning everyone homework. Think of it as a one unit course for the next month. First, read a real newspaper. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Find out if your senator is up for reelection, and look at their platform and that of their opponent. Then decide who you want to run the country. And maybe look at your local house race. Register to vote in your home district with the National Mail Voter Registration form. Request an absentee ballot; links to every state election office are available.

It is critical that you participate this year. In 2002, the Republicans parlayed their midterm victory into a mandate for total governance. Remind everyone in power that a slim margin of victory is not a writ for dominance by either side, but a reminder that there are two sides to this debate. It’s your country too; fight for it.

Published in the October 13 Tech

Pottery Barn Foreign Policy

Less than a year ago, Vice President Cheney remarked that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes.” He may have been right. In the intervening months, the conflict there has transformed from mere random violence to the brink of a full-blown civil war. What happens when Iraq passes the tipping point? Whose side will we be on in the impending conflict? Or will we “cut and run”, leaving a bigger mess than we found?

The trigger for the recent violence was the bombing of the Shiite shrine at Samarra on February 22nd. This attack, presumably carried out by Sunnis trying to foment sectarian violence, lead to days of protests and riots that killed over 200 civilians. Reprisal killings of journalists, professionals, and government officials have claimed at least 1,000 in the last two months. These are throes all right, but far from the last.

A generally accepted social science definition of civil war is: “Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance…” (Henderson and Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” Journal of Peace Research, May 2000). Iraq fits every clause of this definition. While there are foreign fighters, the majority of the violence is perpetrated by Iraqis against Iraqis. We cannot blame this violence on Iran, or Syria, or al-Qaeda, only ourselves. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi notes that “We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more.” This is a significant increase over the baseline rate of about 30 Iraqi military casualties per day during 2004 (Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” 17 February 2006, p27). The insurgent force is clearly capable of offensive actions against the government, and they have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus so thoroughly that they are often aware of American counter-attacks as soon as the order is issued to move.

Why is the Bush administration trying so hard to maintain the aura of control over this rapidly disintegrating situation? Because the moment it becomes clear that this is indeed a civil war, our mission to promote democracy becomes null and void. When democracy fails to take root, and protracted sectarian violence takes hold, American and allied public support for an winnable war will plummet. Spending blood and treasure to fight a civil war is not quite the mission we signed up for.

Sadly, because we started this conflagration, we bear the responsibility for what happens when, not if, we leave. While a permanent American presence in Iraq is being built and planned for, it is not our long term goal to patrol the streets. A friendly Iraq was supposed to be a check against Iran, and a beacon of liberty in a region darkened by autocracy. An Iraq mired in civil war doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the righteousness of the American way.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated this dilemma as the “Pottery Barn Rule”: You break it, you buy it. We certainly broke this vase, but do we have the skill or wherewithal to fix it? In the coming Iraqi civil war, whose side will we be on? We have placed our faith so far in the Shia, but do we dare trust the young rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr? His Mahdi Army was responsible for the uprisings of August 2004 and our subsequent siege of Fallujah. Or perhaps the ruling Sciri party (Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq), which was founded in the intellectual heritage of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. This is the party of the current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is currently in the process of being forced out by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Under his leadership, the Parliament has failed to form a government for the last three months. Remember that election in Janurary? They still haven’t actually formed a coalition. Could we back the Kurds, who we helped save from Saddam with our Northern No-Fly Zone during the inter-war containment? But they are now self sufficient, with their own private army, the Pershmerga. If they can control Kirkuk, and its oil wealth, they have no need for a united Federal Iraq. An independent Kurdistan would infuriate the Turks, who continue to repress their eastern Kurdish minority.

Clearly none of our putative allies are convincing champions of democracy, and we have no horse to back in this race. Even if you’re not up on your Iraqi politics, there’s no denying that the situation looks abysmal. Every ethnic group has their own agenda, and none are entirely friendly to the United States. Even if we were to choose a side, no one wants to be on ours.

As Iraq slowly crumbles, we will continue to pass the buck. In the eyes of the Bush administration, it’s the Iraqi’s fault that they couldn’t create a modern society out of the wreckage Saddam left them. Never mind that we never gave them the security or the support they needed, or that the one crucial decision of disbanding the Iraqi army essentially created the insurgency.

Leaving Iraq in a civil war will have profound repercussions in the region, none of them good. Iran may exert it’s influence more directly, creating another state ruled by sharia. Turkey may invade to stop the creation of a Kurdish state. And Israel won’t be happy about yet another unfriendly pocket of violence in their neighborhood.

We have failed the Iraqi people. When we pull out and leave them with a country in pieces, perhaps even worse than before the our ill-planned invasion, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Published in the April 7, 2006 edition of The Tech.

Roberts’ Confirmation

In case you missed last week’s CSPAN-3 coverage of Judge Roberts’ nomination hearings, let me recount them for you here:

> Sen Specter (R-PA, Chairman): I’m a moderate Republican, and am slowly being edged out of my party. Will you respect the constitution right to privacy that underlies the Roe vs. Wade decision?

> Judge Roberts: I’m cold, logical and calculating. A legal machine, devoid of any feeling, despite my all-American looks and picturesque family. If the words “right to privacy” aren’t in the Constitution, they’re dead to me.

> Sen Durbin (D-IL): I’m running for President, and have a big neck.
> Judge Roberts: As that question regards issues that may come before the court, I don’t believe it would be proper for me to answer.

> Sen Kennedy (D-MA): I’m an elder statesman, and still haunted by the ghost of Chappaquiddick. Will you defend the civil rights I fought for half a century ago?

> Judge Roberts: I have no respect for the march of time, and the progress of human values. If slavery were still legal, that would be the precedent I would uphold.

> Sen Feinstein (D-CA): As the only woman on this panel of old white windbags, will you answer my questions?

> Judge Roberts: Not a chance.

> Sen Brownback (R-KS): I’m also running for President. May I kiss you?

> Judge Roberts: On the cheek only; the mouth would cross the line between adoration and Satanism.

> Sen Hatch (R-UT): Will you answer my sycophantic questions?

> Judge Roberts: With pleasure.

> Sen Biden (D-DE): I’m also running for President, I also co-authored the Violence Against
Women Act, which is unconstitutional. Do you feel that men and women deserve equal protection under the law?

> Judge Roberts: I think women should be barefoot and pregnant, just as God intended.

> Sen Graham (R-SC): I think we can all agree to that.

> All, sans Feinstein: (laughter)

Now that the panel has adjourned, Roberts has returned to his squirming children and doting wife, Bush has returned to ignoring the plight of the poor, Congress can get back to their tense partisan standoff, and the nation can return its attention to things that really matter, like football, Renee Zellweger’s divorice, and missing blonde teenagers.

As a card-carrying pinko-Commie-Liberal, I’m supposed to hate Roberts. But try as I might, no matter how many hours of hearings I forced myself to sit through, I couldn’t. He’s got a calm, strong persona, without the craziness or malice of Bork. Although he is a Harvard grad, he is clearly an intellectual of the highest level. Anyone who puts their faith in two hundred year old words instead of human experience deserves the respect of this school.

In all seriousness, it looks like Roberts will be easily confirmed, and it was wise that the Democrats didn’t put up too strong of a fight. Enough resistance to show that they have a spine, but not enough to actually make a difference. They saved their right to filibuster for a truly divisive candidate, like the one that Bush will most likely nominate for the position vacated by O’Connor. To keep the gender ratio at a sensible 2/9, he will likely put forward a woman with real conservative credentials like Priscilla Owen, the Wicked Witch of Texas. Will the circle be unbroken Lord, by and by?

Published in the September 20th Tech. The following letter, and my response ran in the next issue.

Instead of starting off with “In case you missed last week’s C-SPAN3 coverage…”, Josh Levinger might have said “In case you missed last week’s David Brooks Op-Ed in The New York Times.” [“Card-Carrying, Pinko-Commie-Liberal Can’t Force Self to Hate John Roberts,” The Tech, Tuesday, Sept. 20.] It seems that Brooks had the exact same idea as Levinger, namely to provide a bitingly satirical “transcript” of the Roberts confirmation hearings. Not only did the Brooks piece outshine Levinger’s stylistically, it was published on Sept. 15, three days before the submission deadline on the September 20 Tech.
*Ian Z. Jacobi ’06*

Author’s Response: While I acknowledge the similarity between David Brooks’ column and my own, the truth is that I had not read his before I submitted my own. I assure the readers that I was unaware of either the topic or the text of Brooks’ column. *Josh Levinger*

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