Josh Marshall

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Among the more bizarre and troubling aspects of the 'regime change' debate is ... well, the phrase 'regime change.'

According to various neo-conservatives and Iraq-hawks, George Orwell is a dedicated Iraq-hawk and thoroughgoing supporter of regime change. This may well be the case. I'm never able to predict such things. But I would have imagined that were Orwell alive today the phrase 'regime change' itself would be one he would quickly set upon with a knife and a fork.

Everybody's favorite Orwell text is his 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language.' I wouldn't be foolish enough to try to summarize it. But one key point of the essay is that vagueness, euphemism and abstraction abet muddled thinking, evasions of responsibility, and lies. Put it another way: There is a tight connection between clear thinking and clear language. And clear thinking and clear speech are the beginning of, or at least the handmaidens of, honest thinking and honest speech.

Here's one passage from the essay ...

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Which brings us back to 'regime change.' Like many phrases Orwell had at, 'regime change' is one that comes with the evasion and concealment prepackaged within it. We all know more or less what the phrase means: the violent otherthrow of one government and its replacemnet with another, chosen by the power which overthrew the first one, or, in other words, by us. So why not say so? Using an abstract and antiseptic phrase like 'regime change' for a process which is neither abstract nor antiseptic is corrupting.

You can imagine various instances where we might try the same stunt in our daily lives. The fifty-five year-old man who dumps his graying middle-aged wife for a busty, blonde, twenty-eight year-old ad-exec. This is 'spousal replacement.' And so forth.

In the Weekly Standard this week David Brooks has a review of Christopher Hitchens' new book Why Orwell Matters. The rather unhappy conclusion of Brooks' review is how relatively little Orwell really does matter today. And reading Brooks' review it's hard not to agree with his conclusion, at least in the sense in which he means it. That is, that the basic issues Orwell concerned himself with -- the Soviet Union, socialism, fascism, and so forth, the ones that were paramount in his day -- simply aren't the ones that are central to anything that's crucial in politics or global affairs today.

For language, politics, and truth, though, Orwell remains quite timely.

I don't pretend that the short-hand of 'regime change' is the end of the world in itself. But it is the exposed tip of an extremely dishonest public debate -- one in which assertions which are widely understood to be false are stated and not corrected, in which important distinctions are clouded with obscuring phrases, and in which discussion of the long-term consequences of specific actions are trumped by slogans. And that's a very big deal.

The lack of serious debate is not limited to the hawks. The opponents of deposing Saddam are often similarly muddled. Many Democrats have busied themselves with asking good questions rather than proposing a credible alternative policy. Meanwhile, many people in the peace camp are simply not willing to face seriously the belligerence, recklessness and brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. They are not willing in most cases to consider the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein's control. They often won't face the pressing nature of the issue, one in which time is not necessarily on our side. But mostly these are simply matters of evasion, an unwillingness to seriously consider the issue. There's little of the casual making up of stories that is the staple of this administration's arguments.

More notes from the annals of spin and war.

Last night I noted the part of the president's proposed use of force resolution which claimed there was a "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so..."

Maybe the Iraqis would give WMD to terrorists. Maybe. But does anybody really think Saddam is going to launch a surprise attack against the United States?

It turns out that one White House correspondent also found that line questionable and asked an administration official about it. The administration official -- who was well-placed and in a position to know -- told the reporter that the resolution's original language was much more specific and made clear that the reference was to US interests in the Middle East or military installations in the region. However, late in the process of drafting the resolution that wording got swapped out in exchange for the current, more dramatic language.

The implication from the administration official seemed to be that of course everyone knows that Iraq isn't going to launch a surprise attack against the US but, you know, read between the lines, etc.

Isn't a charge like this -- that a foreign power is likely to launch a devastating surprise attack on the United States with weapons of mass destruction -- not the sort of thing you just toss off like a throwaway line?

But, of course, this is who we're dealing with.

I just happened upon this excellent piece by James Fallows in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As you might imagine, it's about Iraq. And it's one that should be on the top of your list to read if you want to think seriously and in depth about this very important and quite pressing subject.

In this article at least Fallows doesn't draw any real conclusions, at least not explicitly. What he does is dig into all the details of what the 'day after' of regime change would look like. He doesn't spend much time with the more outlandish scenarios -- cleaning up after a nuclear blast, treating thousands of people for exposure to Anthrax, some follow-on confrontation with Iran, etc. He sticks to the ones we know we'd face: feeding everyone in the country, setting up a new government, courts, bringing in an American military police force to prevent people from killing each other -- both in ordinary criminal ways and out of politically-tinged revenge.

All together it's a very, very sobering picture. The sheer immensity of the effort is staggering to consider. And the prospect of doing this all on our own dime (which we almost certainly would) and with our own personnel is daunting. It's not so much an article about arguments as simple wealth of detail, a reality check to drag you back down from the hot air balloons of slogans and rationales on both sides of the regime change debate. In any case, read it or at least dip into it. It's well worth your time.

Fallows himself played a small but pretty influential part in the evolution of my own thinking about the Iraq question. I interviewed Fallows at the beginning of my reporting for the article on Iraq I wrote in the Washington Monthly last Spring. Going into that conversation I tended to view all the big pushers of regime change as warmongers, hysterics or trouble-makers. Coming out of it I gave up the thought the arguments of at least the more serious regime change advocates could be easily dismissed. After reading Fallows' own piece this evening -- or I guess, this morning -- I wondered whether Fallows' own reporting for this article had changed his thinking on the question and how that conversation with him would be different today. I wondered; but the answer remained obscure.

Since I started reporting intensively on Iraq almost six months ago my own thinking has strained quite a bit under the push of unfolding events. As readers of this site know I wrote a long article in which I tentatively came out in support of military action to remove Saddam from power -- albeit by the means I think Colin Powell favors rather than those embraced by the Iraq-hawks.

In recent weeks I've mulled over this judgment again and again. Some of this is simply the fact that judgments like this become weightier as the prospect of actual action moves closer. On balance, though, I'd say I remain comfortable with what I wrote then.

There's also an issue people don't like to talk about, but which is an undeniable reality for many. Military action is easier to contemplate if it's being planned by political leaders who you support and whose values you share. One might say this is mere partisanship, agreeing with what politician X wants to do because he's a member of your party or vice versa. And there's always some of that. But it runs deeper. Following political leaders into war requires a deep measure of trust on a variety of levels: trust in their judgment, trust in their analysis of factual information that can never be shared with the public, and so forth. If your general sense of an administration is that they're not trustworthy or that they don't share your values it's difficult not let that color your opinions. Of course, to some degree it should color your opinions. But it's important to evaluate these questions as much as possible simply on the merits. And I've tried to do that to the best of my ability in my writing about Iraq on this site over the last several months.

But let me discuss with you for a moment what I find the most difficult about this debate. The more ardent supporters of regime change lie a lot. I really don't know how else to put it. I'm not talking about disagreements over interpretation. I mean people saying things they either know to be false or have no reason to believe are true. Perhaps the word 'lie' is a very slight exaggeration. Perhaps it's better to say they have a marked propensity to assert as fact points for which there is virtually or absolutely no evidence. How's that?

Let's just take one example, one among many. In the proposed use of force resolution the president sent to Congress on Thursday it cites as one reason for war "the high risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so." Whether Iraq would give WMD to terrorists to use against the United States is debatable. But is there a high risk that Iraq will launch a surprise attack against the United States? Really? Is there any risk this will happen? Is it even conceivable that this will happen? I don't think anybody of sound mind seriously believes this. That doesn't mean that Iraq isn't a serious threat or that an Iraq with nuclear weapons is not an eventuality we cannot allow to come into being. But a surprise attack against the United States? It's not a serious statement.

So why is it there? I assume it is just there as one more throwaway line that has no relation to the truth but sounds good and ups the ante. And the carefree indifference to the truth that that sort of statement betrays is worrisome in the extreme -- even if it's said in the service of a goal you think we should pursue.

I have more to say about this. But, alas, I must go to sleep. If you're dying for more you can read this article on Iraq which I published this evening in Salon.

It's a matter of long-settled constitutional practice that the president's role as Commander-in-Chief gives him the effective power to wage war more or less as he sees fit, subject only to the constraining power of the Congress's control over the purse strings.

The point of seeking a congressional resolution authorizing military action is get the Congress on record behind some relatively specific policy. The meat of the proposed 'use of force' resolution the president sent to Congress today says ..

The president is authorized to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force, in order to enforce the United Nations Security Council resolutions referenced above, defend the national security interests of the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and restore international peace and security in the region.
That language is broad. And it's vague. It authorizes the president to use force to enforce UN resolutions and do various, but unspecified, other good things in the Middle East. The vagueness of the language is deepened by the fact that president's policy seems to have been in complete disarray for several days.

The long and the short of it is that this resolution doesn't really mean anything. It gives the president the power he already has and puts the Congress on record behind no particular policy.

More thoughts on all this in a piece running this evening in Salon.

For all the floundering on Iraq, the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh is a major victory in the war against al Qaida. The Associated Press now reports that the White House is considering whether to try him before a military tribunal.

Military tribunals do have a place in our constitutional system. And perhaps Binalshibh -- who seems to be the only person we've captured with serious, direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks -- is just the fellow who should face one.

But this latest decision should focus us again on the recurring and as yet unanswered question: just what are the rules here? The rule of law is principally a matter of there being rules. What the rules are is often much less important than that there be rules and that they be followed. Thus far war on terrorism jurisprudence hasn't so much been draconian or lax as it has been a rather comical make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair.

John Walker Lindh, a US citizen, gets a straightforward civilian trial. Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen, gets a straightforward civilian trial. Jose Padilla, a US citizen, is held indefinitely and without counsel as an enemy combatant. Yasir Hamdi, another US citizen, is also an enemy combatant being held indefinitely, but he may get a lawyer. The folks down in Guantanamo, well, who knows?

A military tribunal, civilian trials, various sorts of detention -- cases can be made for each method of proceeding. But the essence of the rule of law is having rules in place for how you're going to deal with people before you catch them, not making them up afterwards.

Certain conservative webloggers who happen to be former editors of the New Republic are crowing about how President Bush's assertive stand on Iraq is making former opponents into allies: the Saudis, the French, the Egyptians, Actually, this line of reasoning -- this interpretation of recent events -- is pretty widespread. But it could scarcely be more foolish.

The opposition of more or less all of these countries was explicitly tied to the president's eagerness to sidestep the UN Security Council and his indifference to the return of inspectors. Has the president bent these countries to his will? Or did they bend him to theirs?

A few months ago I wrote a long article on Iraq in the Washington Monthly in which I endorsed the Powell-ite policy and drew sharp criticism from the usually Iraq-hawk quarters for doing so ...

The same goes for the State Department's efforts to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq. The hawks tend to view weapons inspections as a contemptible joke, a half-measure that will bog us down with kibitzing at the U.N. and rob us of our justification for invasion. Properly done, however, inspections are not a way to avoid war but to build the ground work for it. Before a single soldier hits the ground in Iraq, the U.S. should demand a virtually air-tight inspection regime--not the half-measures the U.N. is currently negotiating with Saddam. Our European allies would oppose this strenuously, as will Russia and China. But it is well worth drawing them into that conversation, because the force and logic of our argument is quite strong. Once the concept of inspections is granted, the need to make them effective is difficult to refute. If Saddam were to accept a truly robust inspections regime--one which would allow the inspectors to roam the country more or less at will--we will have achieved our aim of neutralizing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But, of course, when he doesn't agree--and he won't--then we will have forced our allies to confront the reality of Iraqi intransigence head-on. Some may still oppose our imminent military action. But others might join us, and that will make us stronger.
A return of inspectors is the only sensible policy since we win either way. If they're allowed to do their job our problem is solved. If not, our argument is made.

This of course is -- for all the Cheney-ite bluster in the UN speech -- precisely what the administration is now doing. Cheney and Rumsfeld are out of the saddle. Disingenuousness and ignorance is just keeping their allies out of government from admitting it.

If the president fell flat on his face in the middle of the Rose Garden some of these characters would applaud his uncanny foresight in having arranged for the ground to be in just the right place to break his descent. Shades of the personality cult.

Otto J. Reich is perhaps the most unreconstructed, old-style rightist appointee in the Bush administration. A friend and protector of Cuban emigre terrorist Orlando Bosch, Reich was also implicated in the United States' seeming involvement in the failed coup against Venezuela's Hugo Chavez last April. He runs Latin America policy at the State Department.

Recently, the St. Paul Pioneer Press asked Reich if he had any advice for out-going Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and state business executives who are accompanying him on a trade mission to Cuba this month. Reich told the paper: "First, I would ask them not to participate in sexual tourism, which is one of the main industries in Cuba."

Ventura called the remark "offensive" and said: "At the very least, he and President Bush owe my wife and children a personal apology."

A State Department spokesman rebuffed Ventura's request.

Talking to different people today I heard many different opinions about just what policy the president had enunciated in his speech. After reading the speech several times it seemed to me that when you peeled away the Cheney-esque bluster you had a Powell-esque policy.

No one is mentioning this. The White House had one policy. They hit a brick wall. Now they've changed policies.

And that's good. Because this is a better policy.

Meanwhile, The New Republic has a scathing editorial in its new issue, which strikes me as completely half right. The magazine argues that the Democrats are shirking their responsibility by ducking the basic questions about what to do about Iraq and in essence failing to embrace the president's historic policy of preemption and regime change. The first part of that is true, I think. The second part strikes me as strained and unpersuasive.

(In the Cold War, guys, containment was the historic policy, not roll-back. The logic of containment doesn't apply to Iraq today. But bold does not always mean right. Nor is maximum assertiveness always a sign of clarity or logic.)

I believe the Democrats are missing an opportunity. The opportunity, though, is not to play Vandenbergs to Bush's Truman, but to hash out an aggressive policy on Iraq which eschews the dishonesty and amateurism which has plagued White House policy for months. They are missing that opportunity. And for that alone the TNR editorial is worth considering.

Busy as I was today I thought I could wait till this evening to note the latest bit of Republican Social Security campaign hooliganism. I was wrong.

Republicans often argue that Social Security is a bad deal for African-Americans. It's a specious argument based on looking at some statistics and not others. But it's no more mendacious than a bunch of other tendentious uses of statistics that are the common coin of political debate today.

This week though, GOPAC -- a hard-charging political action committee that was once the engine of Newt Gingrich's rise to power -- decided to turn the volume on this canard way, way up. All the way to eleven, you might say, using the argot of Spinal Tap devotees. The GOPAC ad running on black radio stations in Kansas City called Social Security a form of "reverse reparations" which blacks paid to whites.

Here are a few choice clips from the ad ...

You've heard about reparations, you know, where whites compensate blacks for enslaving us. Well guess what we've got now. Reverse reparations ... So the next time some Democrat says he won't touch Social Security, ask why he thinks blacks owe reparations to whites.
The good folks at the Social Security Information Project at Campaign for America's Future found out about this, put out the word, and by this afternoon GOPAC had pulled the ad.

In cases of low-rent sleaze like these it's hard to know whether to fix on to the dishonesty, the crassness, the ugly caricature of gullible blacks the ad is intended to appeal to, or just the pitiful dorks themselves who hatched the idea.

You can just imagine the brainstorming session with the CSE-baseball-cap-clad goofball 'wingers who came up with the ad. "Hey, you know how blacks are all into reparations? Well, Social Security is terrible for blacks. We'll say it's like reverse reparations! You're giving your money to the white man! They'll eat that stuff up. By the way, you hear about how that fat rapper killed Tupac Shakur? Dangit!"

Ahhhh ... an idea is born.

It's pretty clear GOPAC was working in concert with the local Republican candidate, Adam Taff. The AP story says Taff's campaign recently hired Joe Gaylord as a campaign strategist. The article identifies Gaylord as a one-time GOPAC 'consultant', though in fact that phrase greatly understates his role in the organization.

The one bright spot to this ugly episode is some comedic value provided by GOPAC's efforts at damage control. GOPAC spokesman Mike Tuffin said that they'd subcontracted the ads to an outfit called Access Communications which mistakenly gave the ad to the radio station. It seems the ad, surprising as it may seem, was one of those ads a political pressure group produces without intending to run. You know, one of those private campaign ads. "We disavow it and have seen to it that it was immediately pulled," Tuffin said. "We did not know it was going to be run and never intended it to be run."

And so it goes.

More disturbingly, it seems Republican incumbent Shelley Moore Capito's silly word play and lies have actually produced some results. You'll recall Capito picked up the NRCC line and claimed that Democrats' use of the word 'privatization' was a egregious lie and slander, even though it's the word Republicans themselves only recently embraced. Four local stations have now apparently refused to run the ads.

It's amazing what one can accomplish in politics if you're willing to lie brazenly and repeatedly and the press refuses to call you on it.

Meanwhile, says the same AP story, Republican lawyers are threatening to file a lawsuit against Democrats in Minnesota for an ad claiming that Republican candidate John Kline would "end Social Security as we know it."