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For all the floundering

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

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, et.al. 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

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

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

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."

I love steamed Chesapeake

I love steamed Chesapeake Blue Crabs. On a wonderful evening about exactly a year ago I had them for the first time out where you're supposed to have them, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Then last week some friends of mine had me over for steamed crabs and I got to watch the chamber-of-horrors process of cooking these guys unfold. The doomed, angry crabs would get tossed into steamer, hop around for a second, and then just as they were about to give up the ghost one or two of their claws would start to fidget and vibrate in a chilling -- though admittedly rather appetizing -- death spasm.

I couldn't keep that image out of my mind this evening when I was doing some new reporting on the John Thune for Senate campaign in South Dakota.

It's been a hard several weeks for Thune. President Bush recruited Thune -- who is currently in the House -- to get into the race. And his candidacy was premised on getting lots of support from the president -- who's extremely popular in the state.

But the plan hasn't come off just as expected. Last month, Bush stiffed the state on drought relief -- a serious embarrassment for Thune, since his campaign is based on proximity to the president. And recent polls suggest that Tim Johnson, the incumbent, who long trailed Thune by significant margins, is opening up his first, albeit very meager, lead. At a minimum, Johnson has erased all of Thune's big lead.

The Thune campaign has been trying to get the campaign on to issues more favorable to their candidate. And now the Thune campaign -- or some mysterious, unknown forces trying to aid the Thune campaign -- seem to be getting desperate.

John Thune is pro-life. Tim Johnson has a mixed record on the issue, basically on the rightward edge of pro-choice. In a rural, Republican state like South Dakota you can imagine that Johnson probably doesn't make all that big a thing of his position on the issue. No campaign fly-ins from Barbra Streisand, Cybill Shepherd, etc.

This last Sunday at churches -- mostly Catholic ones -- in Souix Falls a flyer appeared on congregants' car windshields. The flyer (which has just been added to the TPM Document Collection) reads: "You Can Help Keep Abortion Legal, Vote Tim Johnson for US Senate." The first three words and the last three are in smaller letters so it basically reads 'Keep Abortion Legal, Vote Tim Johnson.'

In still smaller letters below the flyer says "Call Senator Johnson at 605-339-9700. Thank him for his endorsement of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion."

According to today's Argus Leader, Mario Sassani of Holy Spirit Church attended Mass early Sunday and then found out about the flyers when he returned later in the morning for a 'respect life' meeting. He was a bit upset.

Now, if nothing else, Johnson's known to have a pretty sharp campaign staff. So it's hard to figure how they would have thought it was a good call to leaflet cars at Catholic Churches on Sunday morning asking parishioners to "thank" Johnson for "his endorsement of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion." Possible, I grant you. What's not possible in this world we live in? But just rather hard to quite imagine.

Now questions are circulating about whether the flyers were some sort of political dirty trick.

So I asked Thune Press Secretary Christine Iverson about the flyers.

"I think the Johnson campaign," Iverson told me Tuesday evening, "has made a move in extremely bad taste which offended a number of South Dakotans and they're now trying to hide from their actions by attempting to put it on someone else. But I think their campaign's backfired and I think they realize that they've made a terrible, terrible mistake and offended a number of people very deeply."

But wasn't it a bit hard to figure, I asked Iverson, that even the most moronic member of the Johnson campaign would decide to leaflet a Catholic church on Sunday morning with pro-choice flyers?

"I agree," said Iverson. "It was appallingly bad judgment on their part."

When I asked if it could have been some outside group trying to embarrass the Johnson campaign, Iverson said, "I suppose that it's possible. But again the ads clearly mention voting for Tim Johnson in November. It's difficult to imagine how anyone who's not supporting Tim Johnson would have been responsible for those flyers."

Iverson denied the Thune campaign was involved in any way and added that "bad judgment and poor taste have long been hallmarks of the Johnson campaign and this recent incident is no exception. Someone who is attempting to help them or they themselves made a terrible, terrible error. And they have deeply offended a number of people. They realize they made a horrible and grave mistake."

When I asked Dan Pfeiffer at the Johnson campaign about Iverson's remarks, he said: "That is the craziest thing in the world. It's ludicrous to assume that we did this ... It's a political dirty trick. There's no question about it. And we believe very strongly that it was John Thune's campaign or someone trying to help John Thune's campaign that did this. It's such a ludicrous assertion that it's hard to know what to say. What do you say to insanity? To say that we did this is dishonest, disingenuous and incredibly desperate."

Neither campaign claims to have any actual knowledge of who put the flyers on the cars. You can be the judge.

We knew wed have

We knew we'd have an election. We knew there might be war in Iraq. But who knew the Republican party would go to war against the English language?

Just to recap: Republicans long called their Social Security reform plan 'privatization' or 'partial privatization.' This Spring their polls and focus groups showed it was killing them with voters. So they decided the 'privatization' label was dreadfully unfair and that nobody should be allowed to use it anymore. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sent out a memo instructing House candidates to demand that reporters never use the word 'privatization' because doing so would mean using "the power of the press to promote inaccurate Democrat spin and taking sides in the midterm elections ..."

(According to a May 11th article in the Washington Post, Republicans have even considered suing Democrats who accuse their candidates of supporting 'privatization'.)

Now an actual Republican House candidate is demanding that her opponent stop using the term 'privatization' once and for all. First-term Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) -- locked in a tough rematch with Democrat Jim Humphreys -- has demanded that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) stop airing a campaign commercial which claims that she supports 'privatization'.

The actual ad says "When Capito had a chance to help protect Social Security from privatization, she voted no..."

Capito calls the ad "false and negative" and claims that she had "never voted on the privatization of Social Security because no such vote has ever taken place." (Italics added)

The issue here isn't whether there was a vote or who voted which way. (The vote took place on July 25th, 2001 when California Democratic Congressman Bob Filner had the House vote on an amendment designed to put everyone on record for or against privatization). The issue is merely over the word 'privatization', Republicans' own once-preferred word.

At the time of the vote took place 'privatization' was still the word Republicans used: A week before the vote, conservative Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro called the policy 'Social Security privatization.' The whole issue is that the NRCC has now decreed that the 'privatization' label is beyond the pale. So it follows that no vote on 'privatization' ever took place.

Now, clearly this whole exercise can quickly degenerate into ridiculous word games. But that's precisely the point. House Republicans are afraid to discuss their Social Security policies. (As one of the NRCC's recent internal polling reports put it, "Successful implementation of inoculation and response strategy [on Social Security] serves only to limit erosion -- not going to get any sort of clear 'win'.") So they're resorting to a weird mix of game-playing and lies to muddy the waters and stop anyone from taking them to task over their support of an unpopular policy.

Every political reporter knows this is true. This same trick is going to be pulled in race after race. Will anyone call them on it?

This new article in

This new article in the Weekly Standard by Stephen F. Hayes ("Democrats for Regime Change") is getting a lot of attention by tarring Democrats as hypocrites on Iraq. Hayes takes us back to February 1998 when President Clinton was ratcheting up pressure for military action against Iraq in the then-on-going struggle over inspections. He quotes the then-president extensively on the necessity of acting. And he quotes Democrats like Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and John Kerry supporting the president and echoing his argument for action -- including military action -- against Iraq.

Hayes' argument -- first implicit, later explicit -- is obvious: what else beside partisanship would be preventing Democrats from endorsing the case against Saddam and the need for military action now when they did so so fulsomely four years ago?

The argument reads well. But it sets the Standard in a two-against-one battle against logic and the its own editorial line.

After all, just what sort of military action was being discussed? And with what aim? Even the most skittish Democrats today are full of talk about the necessity of confronting Iraq, the dangers of WMD, and so forth. But Hayes' argument only makes sense if what Democrats were inclined to endorse four years ago is at all similar to what they're hesitant to endorse today. But, of course, it's not. The entire discussion Hayes references refers to military action, but not the forcible overthrow of the Iraqi regime through military force.

Who says so? Why, the Weekly Standard. And virtually every other Republican politician and certainly every conservative publication. The conceit of Bush administration policy on Iraq is that it's fundamentally different from Clinton administration policy -- which is, by and large, true. At just the time Bill Clinton and the sundry Democrats Hayes' quotes were making their statements the Standard said, succinctly enough, that "Containment is the strategy this administration has chosen." (Weekly Standard, Editorial, March 2, 1998) In other words, the policy then on offer was fundamentally different from what's now being discussed. Supporting that one then and not supporting this one today means nothing.

Perhaps Clinton's policy was the wrong one. Pains me as it does to say, by the end of the second term I don't think the Clinton administration had a coherent policy on Iraq. But the logic of Hayes' argument collapses at the simple level of a mistaken apples and oranges comparison.