Archive for May 2004

LBJ v GWB: No Contest

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A short piece by Rob Gurwitt in Mother Jones compares LBJ’s Michigan speech in 1964 and the problems he outlined then to what has happened since. He had only been President for six months, and it was the first time since the hectic days of Kennedy’s assassination that he had a chance to lay out his vision for the country.

He touched on our “hunger for community” long before it became the subject of learned head-shaking and alarmed conferences. Nobody had even heard the word “sprawl” as we mean it today, let alone made a big deal about a loosening commitment to neighborhood and the loss of green space, but Johnson brought it up — though he called it “expansion” — and worried about how it was breeding “loneliness and boredom and indifference.” He talked about bringing an end to poverty and racial injustice, to the decay of inner cities, to the disappearance of open land and the loss of historic places. He worried about air and water pollution, and fretted about the quality of education. “In many places,” he said, “classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid, and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. … Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” This was, let me remind you, 40 years ago.In recent decades, derision has been heaped on the programs Johnson created to address his concerns, sometimes justifiably. Yet the national accomplishments that flowed in the wake of this speech — the civil rights and voting rights acts, Medicare and Medicaid, education funding, the endowments for the arts and humanities, the expansion of parks, the protection of clean rivers and wilderness — remind us that Johnson changed the political, social and actual landscape for good. We’re still living in the world he created.

Not really. Medicare and Medicaid are under constant attack by both executive fiat and Congressional disdain; his environmental protections have been whittled away to shadows; Jim-Crow voting laws are coming back in under the radar; his poverty programs have been mostly eliminated through a combination of budget cuts and bait-and-switch tactics; everywhere you look the radicals in the Bush Admin are busy reversing, undermining, or eliminating outright everything Johnson fought for. Most of it is already gone; the rest is on its way.

Johnson clearly knew that he could appeal to his country’s better nature — that when he suggested using government to make this a more beautiful and appealing nation and help those stranded by a changing economy, Americans would respond. “Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?” he asked that enormous crowd, and they cheered. “Will you join in the battle … to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit? There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree.” Once again, we Americans are struggling to find our better nature. Four decades may have passed, but it’s not too late to prove Johnson right.

I don’t know. Where Gurwitt sees us ‘struggling to find our better nature’, I see us struggling to deny it in order to maintain our tenuous grip on complacency and the superficial sense of superiority that seems so important to so many of us. Where he thinks we can still turn this around, I have my doubts. We have deliberately and for better than a quarter-century chosen time and again to chase ‘soulless wealth’ at the expense of social polity, in the process becoming exactly what our parents thought they were preventing by fighting WW II: oligarchs of empire, subjecting other nations to the lash of our intention to control the world’s oil supply, and turning our own society into a quasi-autocratic police state under PATRIOT I in the name of ‘security’.

There is still, I admit, some discomfort in America with the Israeli-style interrogation techniques used at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, but that will pass. We’re proving to be a country capable of turning our backs on torture and abuse, allowing a single terrorist incident to excuse crimes we would have condemned forty years ago. It isn’t a pretty picture but it’s a picture our relentless pursuit of ‘soulless wealth’ and our excessive and near-irrational fears of attack have mandated. We seem, by and large, content to settle into a lowest-common-denominator level of expectations: make me rich and make me safe and I don’t really, when it comes right down to it, care how you do it or who has to pay the price for it.

I think we have come a long way toward turning ugly 1931 Germany and with a lot less reason than they had. Their excuse was the desperation of a runaway inflation that was literally destroying the nation. Ours doesn’t amount to much more than unnecessary fear and indefensible avarice. We don’t have Brownshirts roaming the streets yet but the conditions have been set up for tolerating them and the Freepers are ready and willing anytime to fill the role.

Yes, Bush’s approval numbers are at record lows but Kerry’s haven’t risen in response. It doesn’t seem to be a question of illegal and unconscionable acts perpetrated deliberately by the Admin as Alberto Gonzales’ letter proves quite clearly, but a discomfort with the level of incompetence: their mistake wasn’t the torture itself but getting caught at it. Nobody’s calling for Bush’s resignation as they called for Johnson’s; nobody’s seriously suggesting impeachment; we’re not even entirely certain we won’t vote for Junior again despite our qualms. And more than a third of us support him despite everything we’ve come to know about him and the people he’s chosen to have around him.

That’s scary and that’s not the country I grew up in. I think Lyndon would be appalled.

You can read the whole speech here, and you should if you want to be reminded of the way Presidents used to talk back when we thought there was more to life than making money and being afraid of ghosts.

Tell me I’m wrong.

Written by Mick

May 25, 2004 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Democrats, History

Junior Speaks

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The President’s speech was notable for only two oddities.

One was his, for the first time I know of, open acceptance of Laurie Mylroie’s tinfoil-hat theory that Iraq is the center of the world’s terrorism. It’s more true now than it was before the invasion, but that’s not saying much. If terrorism has a center, it isn’t Iraq, it’s Israel. For religious reasons, it is likely to remain Israel for some time. Iraq is a sideshow, even if it’s a sideshow with legs.

The other was his also first-ever reference to ‘occupation’ as opposed to ‘liberation’, the word he has always used up to last night. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that he’s finally facing reality. The rest of the speech proves quite conclusively that he’s doing no such of a thing.

# He still thinks the insurgency is primarily the work of ‘a few bad apples’.

Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam’s elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. These elements of Saddam’s repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed, and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. They’ve linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists.

#He still thinks a June 30 handover wil a) happen and b) get him and the US off the hook.

On June 30th, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, and will not be replaced. The occupation will end, and Iraqis will govern their own affairs. America’s ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, will present his credentials to the new president of Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad will have the same purpose as any other American embassy, to assure good relations with a sovereign nation

Sure. Nothing to it.

# He thinks the UN is going to a) clean up his mess and b) take the blame if it doesn’t work.

The United Nations Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is now consulting with a broad spectrum of Iraqis to determine the composition of this interim government. The special envoy intends to put forward the names of interim government officials this week. In addition to a president, two vice presidents, and a prime minister, 26 Iraqi ministers will oversee government departments, from health to justice to defense. This new government will be advised by a national council, which will be chosen in July by Iraqis representing their country’s diversity. This interim government will exercise full sovereignty until national elections are held.

Sounds easy, don’t it? Two words Junior didn’t mention tonight: Ahmad Chalabi. He has the money under his control, he runs the Ba’athist repatriation program, he controls many of the bureaucratic organizations that keep things moving. Without him, everything grinds to a halt. With him, everything goes up in flames sooner rather than later. And that’s just one element poised to explode.

# He believes there’s a functioning educational system.

In preparation for sovereignty, many functions of government have already been transferred. Twelve government ministries are currently under the direct control of Iraqis. The Ministry of Education, for example, is out of the propaganda business, and is now concerned with educating Iraqi children. Under the direction of Dr. Ala’din al-Alwan, the Ministry has trained more than 30,000 teachers and supervisors for the schools of a new Iraq.

Pure fantasy. Most of the country and the major cities are a ruin and the ‘schools’ Halliburton claims to have built are unfinished frames covered with canvas. Many don’t exist beyond the planning stage. The ‘30,000’ teachers number is at least 3 and possibly as much as 10 times larger than the reality, and the ‘training’ has been rushed and superficial, leaving an enormous hole that Islamic fundamentalists will be more than willing to fill.

# He thinks he and the Iraqis mean the same thing by ‘full sovereignty’.

[F]ull sovereignty will give Iraqis a direct interest in the success of their own government. Iraqis will know that when they build a school or repair a bridge, they’re not working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, they are working for themselves. And when they patrol the streets of Baghdad, or engage radical militias, they will be fighting for their own country.

What they’re really interested in may surprise him.

From my conversation today with a friend of a friend, an ex-Brig. General in the Iraqi Army, (I’ll see if I can use his name in later dispatches) the Iraqis are, as expected, fed up with the American presence.“Before the war,” he said, “the Iraqi people would have said, ‘Welcome!’ to the Americans. But not now. There has been a change. The CPA has been so bad at running things.”

One of the main concerns is not Abu Ghraib, or violence in the south, he said, but corruption in the oil-for-food program. And corruption in general. The Iraqis are fully aware of the value of their petrochemical wealth, and they want to see some benefit from it.

“The Iraqi people want universities, roads, hospitals,” said the general. “And they say if USA wants some of the oil, OK. But most of the money must go to Iraqis. And Iraqis must run the ministry” of oil.

Ah yes. The oil. They’re going to want to control their own oil. Do you suppose Harken George and Chevron Condi are really ready for that?

# His understanding of the situation in Fallujah is…overly simple-minded when it isn’t plain fuzzy.

In the cities of Najaf and Karbala and Kufa, most of the violence has been incited by a young, radical cleric who commands an illegal militia

# He thinks that if he takes out Sadr, the insurrection will collapse. Unfortunately hat ‘young…cleric’ has followers and support all over the country now. ali-Sistani has had his hands full keeping major elements of the Shi’ia from joining Sadr’s movement and it isn’t clear yet whether he succeeded in stopping them or just slowed them down a little, delaying the inevitable. It’s a dangerous simplification of a complicated and sensitive situation, and a severe underestimation of Sadr’s potential appeal.

# He thinks the poor performance and even poorer preparation of the Iraqi police and military have been ‘corrected’.

We’ve learned from these failures, and we’ve taken steps to correct them. Successful fighting units need a sense of cohesion, so we’ve lengthened and intensified their training. Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power, so we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command. Successful fighting units need the best possible leadership, so we improved the vetting and training of Iraqi officers and senior enlisted men.

I could go on but what’s the point? It’s like he’s living in a parallel universe where the insurgency is little more than a bubble in a calm sea. Everything’s fine, go back to your homes, there’s nothing to see here.

And we’ve got five more of these things to get through yet.

As Vonnegut would say, ‘And so it goes.’

Written by Mick

May 25, 2004 at 4:15 am

Quotes of the Day

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If Iraq is important enough to bleed for, isn’t it important enough to pay for?Ronald Brownstein, LA Times

We had no business launching this war. Now we’re left with the tragic absurdity of a clueless president riding his bicycle in Texas while Americans in Iraq are going up in flames.Bob Herbert, NY Times

To announce that there must be no criticism of the president . . . right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.–Teddy Roosevelt, 1918

Written by Mick

May 24, 2004 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Iraq, Quote of the Day

Happy Birthday To Me

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Yes, it is. I am–

Well, never mind. Let’s just say that as of today I’m at that awkward age: too old to be sexy and too young to retire.

You really wanna know? OK. I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth–what’s left of them. And that’s all you’re getting.

Written by Mick

May 24, 2004 at 3:58 am

Posted in Site News

Israelis treat animals like Palestinians

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Here’s an off-the-wall whacky idea for combating terrorism: Let’s stop supporting it. The brutal murderous heartless thugs who do this sort of thing can do so only because you and I pay for it.

Ask to be directed to the latest wave of Israeli destruction in Rafah’s al-Brazil neighbourhood and many fingers point towards the zoo.

Amid the rubble of dozens of homes that the Israeli army continued yesterday to deny demolishing, the wrecking of the tiny, but only, zoo in the Gaza Strip took on potent symbolism for many of the newly homeless.

The butchered ostrich, the petrified kangaroo cowering in a basement corner, the tortoises crushed under the tank treads – all were held up as evidence of the pitiless nature of the Israeli occupation.

“People are more important than animals,” said the zoo’s co-owner Mohammed Ahmed Juma, whose house was also demolished. “But the zoo is the only place in Rafah that children could escape the tense atmosphere. There were slides and games for children. We had a small swimming pool. I know it’s hard to believe, looking at it now, but it was beautiful. Why would they destroy that? Because they want to destroy everything about us.”

The army also initially denied that soldiers deliberately wrecked the zoo that provided Rafah’s children with virtually their only contact with live animals, even ordinary ones such as squirrels, goats and tortoises.

Among the zoo’s more popular exhibits were kangaroos, monkeys and ostriches, which children could sit on.

The destruction was comprehensive. The fountain and its tiles were a jumble of rubble in one corner. There was no sign of the swimming pool.

One of the ostriches lay half buried in the rubble. Guinea fowl and ducks were laid out in a row. Goats and a deer struggled with broken legs.

Some of the animals were still on the loose, if not buried under the debris. One of the two kangaroos was missing; the other was cowering in the basement. A snake and three monkeys were unaccounted for. Mr Juma accused Israeli soldiers of stealing valuable African parrots.

Written by Mick

May 23, 2004 at 1:12 pm

Posted in International

Women Blog, Too! 3

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This week’s featured feamle blog is Roxanne’s Rox Populi, a raucous hodge-podge of quizzes, lists, travel tips, cold remedies, and ephemera from around the blogosphere. You can caption a picture, write an anti-Bush haiku, tell her about your favorite Alaskan mountain, or catch up with the latest Passion of the Christ parody. She has a ton of recurring features, including the Molly Ivins Quote of the Week, the Phileas Fogg Travel Tips, the Friday Random Ten, and–my personal favorite–the Deity ‘o’ the Week. This week–Gilgamesh!

In honor of the “mess” we’ve made of Mesopotamia (apologies to Jon Stewart), this week’s featured diety is Gilgamesh.

…He is the precursor of Heracles and other folk heroes. Gilgamesh is the son of Ninsun, a comparatively obscure goddess who had a palace-temple in Uruk. His father in the King-List is mysteriously described as ‘lillû’, which may mean ‘fool’ or a demon of the vampire kind, as well as being a high-priest of Kullab (part of Uruk) . On other occasions, he refers to Lugulbanda as his semi-divine ‘father’. Gilgamesh is fifth on the King-List and reigned in Uruk around 2700 BCE (or some hundred years or so later) for 126 years (his son reigned a mere 30 years). He was famous as a great builder and as a judge of the dead.

Roxanne doesn’t write funny but her choices betray a sly, even slippery wit that catches you off-guard, and she’s as likely to be serious as not. To another blogger’s suggestion that liberals close the Great Divide by taking a conservative to lunch, she replies:

Leave aside, for the moment, the notion that Kim’s Republican lunch date sounds like a broken record. I like the suggestion. Most of us live in silos. If we want to be effective agents of change, we’ve got to get out of these silos.

She has a point, though I doubt I could afford the kind of place Pubs like to eat, and I further doubt that the Pubs I know would care much for Fat Willie’s Grill.

Drop by Roxanne’s place and let yourself be taken for a short, surprising ride.

Written by Mick

May 23, 2004 at 12:49 pm

Posted in The Blogosphere

Quotes of the Day

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There is only one word for a situation in which you cannot win and you cannot withdraw: Quagmire.–Larry Diamond, a former advisor to the U.S. occupation authority, on the situation in Iraq

If we cannot provide…clarity, we risk the loss of support of the American people, loss of potential contributions from our allies and the disillusionment of Iraqis.–Sen Richard Lugar

It is worse than I had thought it was going to be, worse than most people thought it was going to be.–Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert formerly at the National Defense University

We could not have screwed up more if we had set out to do it deliberately.–An active-duty officer who recently returned from Iraq and spoke on condition he not be identified

I believe we are absolutely on the brink of failure.–Retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East

I think we’re on the brink of success here.–Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

‘To counter that spreading sense of disorder and shore up public support, Bush plans to give six…speeches.’

Written by Mick

May 23, 2004 at 11:54 am

Posted in Iraq, The Blogosphere

Clueless in Baghdad–Chalabi Unmasked

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Seattle points out that Josh Marshall is ‘very skeptical’ that the Chalabi raid was a put-on.

I don’t doubt that some of Chalabi’s Washington supporters have encouraged him to take a more oppositional stand toward the occupation authorities to bolster his own popularity. But there are many US government players in Iraq right now. And many of them really are hostile to Chalabi.

True enough, but one of Josh’s reasons is silly:

Something quite that orchestrated would, I suspect, be far too difficult to pull-off. And are we dealing here with smooth operators? Answers itself, doesn’t it?

Josh, how tough do you think this would be? How much ‘orchestration’ would be needed, really? Feith tells Bremer, ‘Find a pretext. Shake him down but don’t arrest him.’ Bremer tells the Iraqi judge, ‘We think Chalabi’s involved in anti-American activities, or else somebody on his staff is. Issue a warrant to search his house. The Iraqi police will do the search. US Army troops will “advise” and stand backup.’ There. How hard was that?

In the aftermath, Chalabi’s busy trying to sell the story the raid set up–

Chalabi, once the darling of a Pentagon that groomed him as a possible successor to Saddam Hussein, is now embroiled in a public battle with the U.S.-run occupation authority. He has become a vociferous critic of Washington’s Iraq policies — a change of roles that has left him with little choice but to try and endear himself to the Iraqis he says he wants to serve.”I only act from an Iraqi national perspective,” he told a TV interviewer Friday, a day after Iraqi police backed by American soldiers raided his Baghdad home and offices. “I consider what happened to me (on Thursday) as a medal from the people of Iraq. It is the final piece of evidence that discredits rumors that I am with the Americans.” (emphasis added)

Meanwhile Richard Perle, the neocon Whizkid who got handed Chalabi on a plate and promptly passed him around to all his friends, has been using Chalabi’s ‘mistreatment’ in the service of his own agenda: undermining the CIA and State.

Even still, he remains a figure of hope among some neoconservatives both inside and outside the administration, some of whom go so far as to applaud Chalabi for strategically distancing himself from unpopular US occupiers and buffing up his own credibility as a future leader of an independent Iraq.”The CIA despises Chalabi; the State Department despises him,” said Richard Perle, a senior Pentagon adviser and key supporter of the war who has known Chalabi for 15 years. “They did everything they could to put him out of business. Now there is a deliberate effort to marginalize him.”

“He has devoted his life to freeing his country,” Perle added. “He is a man of enormous intelligence, and I believe the effort to marginalize him will fail. They will end up looking ridiculous.”

Perle, as always, defines ‘enormous intelligence’ by the number of times it agrees with him.

OK OK, so do I think it was a setup or not? Basically…yes and no.

Perle’s right about one thing: the IC has been out to get Chalabi for years. To their credit, they’ve been out to get him because they knew he was a fake.

U.S. intelligence analysts in some cases used information from now-discredited “foreign intelligence sources” to corroborate their own assessments of Hussein’s suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Few of the CIA’s prewar judgments have been proved accurate so far.”We had a lot of sources, but it was all coming from the same pot,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They were all INC guys. And none of them panned out.”

The LA Times reports that Chalabi shopped his shopworn INC storytellers to every Western nation that would listen–

Because even friendly spy services rarely share the identities of their informants or let outsiders meet or debrief their sources, it has only in recent months become clear that Chalabi’s group sent defectors with inaccurate or misleading information to Denmark, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, as well as to the United States, the officials said.

–before they landed in the gullible laps of the NWB’s Perle and Wolfowitz. Nobody else believed them. With reason.

A discredited INC defector to Germany who was code-named “Curveball” was the chief source of information on Iraq’s supposed fleet of mobile germ weapons factories. Another INC defector who provided similar information was deemed a liar. So was an INC defector who said he had helped build 20 underground germ weapons laboratories, a now-discredited claim that made headlines when the INC made him available to some reporters in December 2001.The CIA was unable to interview two other supposedly senior Iraqis who spied for British intelligence in Baghdad before the war and claimed to provide detailed information from within Hussein’s inner circle.

Information from both informants has now “fallen apart,” one U.S. official said. “Neither had direct knowledge of what they claimed. They were describing what they had heard.”

Or, in some cases, describing what they had made up to claim that they’d heard. The picture that’s emerging is susceptible of two explanations;

#1: Chalabi the con artist was running a massive con and sending out his shills to cast around for the right mark.

#2: Chalabi is a double agent and the hoax was masterminded by Iranian intelligence to put pressure on their old enemy, Saddam Hussein.

U.S. investigators are seeking to determine whether the effort — which one U.S. official likened to an attempt to “game the system” — was secretly supported by Iran’s intelligence service to help persuade the Bush administration to oust the regime in Baghdad, Tehran’s longtime enemy.Officials said other evidence indicated that Chalabi’s intelligence chief had furnished Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security with highly classified information on U.S. troop movements, top-secret communications, plans of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and other closely guarded material on U.S. operations in Iraq.

The U.S. investigation into the suspected spy operation was a key reason behind Thursday’s raids on Chalabi’s Baghdad house and the offices of his Iraqi National Congress. Several INC members were accused of kidnapping, robbery and corruption.

I think both of the explanations are true–and that neither of them is the whole truth.

The raid seems now to have been orchestrated, alright, but not by Chalabi and the NWB’s to distance fair-haired boy Ahmad from the filthy American occupiers; that all sounds like spin to me. They’re trying to make a situation that’s patently bad for them work to their advantage, something they’ve had plenty of practice doing this past year, albeit with limited success.

No, the original source would seem to be the IC who seized on Ahmad’s ill-timed approach to Iranian Intelligence to force the Administration’s hand. Not even deaf-and-dumb ‘I know NOTHING’ Junior could ignore contacts between an American ‘puppet’ and the intelligence service of one of the members of the ‘axis of evil’. There are limits even for him. Bringing down Chalabi would strengthen the IC’s hand immeasurably, which is good, but what’s better is it could turn the tide of power in the WH by arming the State Dept with powerful new weapons to use against the NWB cabal.

If that’s what happened, it was a masterstroke. I’ve been saying ever since the Plame Affair (which I still insist is sooo not over, and I’m laying $20 bucks at 3-1 that it will hit big time before the election; any takers?) that the IC was going to find a way to make the BA pay for what they did to her, and I think we’re seeing Stage One playing out now.

Which means, of course, that I’m suspicious of the ‘Iranian connection’. It’s too neat. Not that I don’t think he met with them; he almost certainly did. Chalabi has been getting nowhere plumping for political power in Iraq despite all the advantages we saddled him with–the support of the most powerful players in the BA; his possession of all the files of Saddam’s secret police (which we handed to him gift-wrapped); the USAF flying him and 200 heavily-armed INC fighters into Baghdad within hours of our taking the capital (it was Chalabi and his little ‘army’ who pulled down the statue of Saddam while ordinary Iraqis were hiding from the bombs); maneuvering to make sure it was Chalabi’s hand on the finances of the fledgling IGC (he’s ‘Finance Minister’); and paying out a cool $$33MILLION$$ to the INC over the last three years–

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States paid Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress at least $33 million since March 2000, according to a congressional report made public on Thursday.The report by the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, found $33 million in funds from the State Department and did not include any funds from the Pentagon or other U.S. agencies, a congressional source told Reuters.

–or more (note the last sentence). Despite all that, he is disliked by the Iraqis (when they don’t hate him) and distrusted by everyone, including the Army and the CPA, and has so far been able to attract ZERO support from either the people or the IGC itself. The Washington Post reported an incident during the raid that tells the tale.

One of [Chalabi's] guards said the American directed the Iraqi police, who they said kicked down doors and smashed a picture of Chalabi. Damaged picture frames, including one holding a photograph of Chalabi, were seen by a reporter in one of the ransacked offices.Haider Ridha Mohammed, a guard on duty at the time, said he asked the police officer why he had tossed the framed photograph on the ground. Mohammed said the officer responded, “He’s gone now, Ahmad Chalabi is finished.”

Not a supporter, you’d say. But then, nobody in Iraq is outside of Chalabi’s INC co-conspirators. Even his compadres on the Governing Council are less than thrilled. It seems he’s been stealing from them.

For several months, U.S. officials have been investigating people affiliated with the INC for possible ties to a scheme to defraud the Iraqi government during the transition to a new currency that took place from Oct. 15 last year to Jan. 15, according to a U.S. occupation authority official familiar with the case. The official said the raids were partly related to that investigation.At the center of the inquiry is Nouri, whom Chalabi picked as the top anti-corruption official in the new Iraqi Finance Ministry. Chalabi heads the Governing Council’s finance committee and has major influence in its staffing and operation.

When auditors early this year began counting the old Iraqi dinars brought in and the new Iraqi dinars given out in return, they discovered a shortfall of more than $22 million. Nouri, a German national, was arrested in April and faces 17 charges including extortion, fraud, embezzlement, theft of government property and abuse of authority. He is being held in a maximum security facility, according to three sources close to the investigation.

In recent weeks, several other Finance Ministry officials have been arrested as part of the investigation. A U.S. official familiar with the case said, “We are cracking down on corruption regardless of names involved.”

So what does a player like Chalabi do when the mark turns on him? Look for a new sponsor, of course. You go through your Rolodex for a likely target, someone who hates the Americans and is willing to pay handsomely for information that might damage them. I suspect we’ll discover in due time that Iran wasn’t the only unfriendly govt Chalabi approached, just as the US wasn’t the only one he approached when he was trying to sell his WMD fairy tales.

American conservatives are so hopelessly naive when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world that they never got this. Digby at Hullabaloo found this intriguing piece from Tapped. It’s two years old.

Almost to a man, Washington’s hawks lavishly praise Chalabi. “He’s a rare find,” says Max Singer, a trustee and co-founder of the Hudson Institute. “He’s deep in the Arab world and at the same time he is fundamentally a man of the West.”In Washington, Team Chalabi is led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the neoconservative strategist who heads the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Chalabi’s partisans run the gamut from far right to extremely far right, with key supporters in most of the Pentagon’s Middle-East policy offices — such as Peter Rodman, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and Michael Rubin. Also included are key staffers in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, not to mention Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey.

In early October [2002], Perle and Chalabi shared a podium at an American Enterprise Institute conference called “The Day After: Planning for a Post-Saddam Iraq,” which was held, appropriately enough, in AEI’s 12th-floor Wohlstetter Conference Center. “The Iraqi National Congress has been the philosophical voice of free Iraq for a dozen years,” Perle told me.

This was five years after Chalabi’s 1997 conviction in absentia for bank fraud in Jordan. He hadn’t set foot in Iraq since 1954. Neither circumstance bothered Perle.

Dickie, baby, ask yourself this question: What do players do?

Answer: They play. This one against that one, that side against this side, both ends against the middle with both hands skinning as many pockets as they can reach. The Middle East is full of players like Chalabi–traders, merchants, thieves, govt agents–who go where the money or the power is, who float on it like a hawk floats on a tide of air, who change sides as easily and as often as they change clothes. Chalabi went to Iran because he wants to stay in the game and he’s run out his string with the dopey Americans. It’s that simple.

So now you’re the Iranian intelligence officer who wound up with this character sitting on your desk and offering to lay the secrets of the Americans at your feet–for a price. What do you do? You pay him and put him in play, that’s what you do. Why not? Chalabi’s been moving inside some of the heaviest power circles in the US govt for 15 years. He’s got A LOT to sell that’s undoubtedly worth buying. What’s even better, a bunch of those nitwit Americans, in spite of everything that’s come out about him, still believe in him. They’re still talking to him, for chrissake. Best of all, he’s been building a buraucracy in Iraq that’s loyal only to him and has its grubby little fingers in every Iraqi pie going. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose by running him except a little money and a few worthless promises to support his fantasies about taking over Iraq.

All of which makes Ahmad just as dangerous on the outside as he was on the inside. The Iranians–familiar with Chalabi’s type–aren’t going to settle for pretty stories like our neocon naifs; they’re going to want the hard stuff–provable, accurate information and guaranteed use of his influence–or it’s Ahmad’s head and be quick about it. He’s in the game now and no mistake. If he doesn’t want to be found floating belly-up in the harbor at Tangier, he’d better deliver. And the thing is, he can do it.

“He has certain levers of power,” said [Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University who last month finished a three-month stint as a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority]. “He’s a shrewd player, and much of that power comes from the ministries that he controls.”As head of the Iraqi Governing Council’s economic and finance committee, Chalabi has been able to install his relatives or friends as the minister of oil, the minister of finance, the central bank governor, the trade minister, the head of the trade bank and the managing director of Iraq’s largest commercial bank. These connections reportedly have allowed firms controlled by his allies to make millions in government contracts.

He was given control of the entire archive of the Hussein regime’s secret documents, as well as the so-called de-Baathification process. The powers of the De-Baathification Commission, which Chalabi chairs, are so wide-ranging that it is often called a government within the government.The commission singled out tens of thousands of former Baath Party members to be fired from their government jobs and has allowed Chalabi to replace them with his followers. It oversees educational reform, tracks down Hussein’s funds stashed in foreign banks and compiles lists of pro-Hussein businessmen who are then blacklisted and banned from government contracting.

His nephew Salem Chalabi is in charge of the war-crimes tribunal that is planning to try Hussein and other top former regime officials. His personal militia, paid for almost entirely with U.S. funds, has become the best- financed and best-armed Iraqi force in Baghdad.

Even mundane details show his power. To process the vast mountains of documents, the commission has 50 document scanners. There are only 20 other scanners in all the rest of the Iraqi government.

Oops. Imagine all that–and an Iranian agent, too.

If you think it’s nasty and complicated now, wait til Ahmad gets through with it. He can make such an unholy mess out of Iraq that it will make the situation in Israel look like a Memorial Day picnic by comparison.

My god, what these naive, fantasy-driven birdbrains have done to us. It just goes to show you should never let your idiot children have the keys to your car. It’ll wind up wrapped around a tree and they’ll swear they don’t have any idea how it got there. And they’ll be telling the truth.

Written by Mick

May 23, 2004 at 10:42 am

Posted in Ahmad Chalabi, Iraq

Quote of the Day

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Tom Engelhardt on Junior’s poll-dip and Kerry’s poll-stasis:

[D]espite the multimillions spent [already by the Bush Campaign] and the copious images pixeled onto TV screens, the President’s poll numbers kept dropping, not in relation to Senator Kerry but in relation to himself. He was, it seemed, battling his own past self, and somehow he was losing.

Written by Mick

May 22, 2004 at 1:18 pm

Waging War on the Middle Class

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Over at FTT we’ve been talking about the war the rich have been using the GOP to wage on the poor but a new report from a non-partisan think-tank, The Drum Major Institute, makes it clear that, having pretty much done us in, they’re now beginning to zero in on the middle-class. In the report, titled ‘Middle-Class 2003: How Congress Voted’, the Executive Summary notes–

While the U.S. Census Bureau has no official definition of the “middle class,” conventionally it has come to represent a large swath of the American populace with incomes between approximately 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold and those of the nation’s top 5 percent income earners—roughly $25,000 to $100,000 a year.Today’s middle-class families are deeply concerned about making ends meet, affording everyday essentials, saving for the future, obtaining affordable health insurance for themselves and their families, and avoiding the bankruptcy that has become nearly epidemic–all in the face of rising unemployment and health care costs.

–and that Republican legislation over the last three years has made the position of the American middle-class distinctly shakier than it was.

• More than 92 percent of the 1.6 million Americans who filed for bankruptcy were middle class

• The cost of childcare swelled to as much as 40 percent of middle-class families’ income

• More than 40 percent of the 2.4 million newly uninsured Americans are middle class

• Average annual earnings for all Americans were down $1,400 compared to 2000

• Property taxes rose by an average of 2.8 percent in 2003, according to a survey of 108 major U.S. cities

• And, according to a national survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America in July 2003, half of those surveyed with incomes between $25,000 and $75,000—the very definition of middle class—were “worried about their financial condition.”

As they should be. The Great Oligrach Party has so shifted the burdens of responsibility away from corporations–which are paying the lowest taxes in modern US history when they’re paying any at all–and the super-rich (the top 1%) that the middle-class is being squeezed by rising costs, rising property tax rates, and shrinking incomes. Legislation waiting in the wings includes one bill that is liable to make their situation even more untenable: the Orwellian-named ‘Responsible Lending Act (HR 833)…will significantly weaken regulations governing the lending industry to the detriment of financially strapped Americans.’ Guess which way that vote’s going to go…

Democrats have offered a number of bills that would help, including:

The College Affordability and Accountability Act of 2003 (HR 3519), awaiting a vote in the House, will help American families afford the high cost of tuition at a four-year college.

Employee Free Choice Act (S 1225), awaiting a vote in the Senate, will help American workers form, join, and assist labor unions.

Payday Borrower Protection Act of 2003 (HR 2407), awaiting a vote in the House, will protect millions of Americans from the practices of unfair and unethical payday lenders.

The Defending American Jobs Act of 2004 (HR 3888), awaiting a vote in the House, will require that American employers report on their workforce and compensation rates in the United States as well as abroad.

–but they’re all languishing in Tom DeLay’s circular file. None of them has much chance of coming up for a vote in this session–or ever, if Bush steals another election.

DMI’s main findings?

• While almost all—96 percent—of Democratic Senators received an A, fully one quarter of Republican Senators received an F for their failure to support the middle class.

• The House of Representatives, overall, did a poor job of voting with the middle class, receiving a less than acceptable grade of C. As with the Senate, however, there were great disparities: 36 percent of the House received a failing grade, while 21 percent earned an A.

• Party divisions were especially evident in the House. Overall, only Democrats voted consistently for the middle class.

• 66 percent of Republican members of Congress received an F, compared to 1 percent of their Democratic peers.

Clearly, after we Take Back the White House, the next order of business is taking back the other House. Anybody in the middle-class who thinks the Pubs are on their side needs to think again.

(Thanks to Mother Jones, whose editor concludes, ‘Thanks to this report, American voters now have the information they need to decide whether to keep their representatives — or throw them out.’ Amen. Now do it, will you please?)

Written by Mick

May 22, 2004 at 1:05 pm

At From the Trenches

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Affordable Housing in Crisis–Again

From the NY Times: House Republicans threaten Section 8 support to low-income population just as rents are skyrocketing

Employer-Based Health Coverage Doesn’t Cut It

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: House Republicans pass bill that will let employers cut worker benefits and shift more of the cost of health care onto their employees


The Paquette Column: ‘Why Should I Apologize for Making Lots of Money?’

A self-described ‘member of a small, elite group’, the rich, defends his right to keep as much of his money as he can.

I wonder at how the mind-set of the country has changed, how the work ethic has been corrupted. When I was growing up, the only rule was that success and achievements resulted from, and were directly related to, hard work. You got back in proportion to the effort you put forth. That’s the way it has worked for me.

And one man’s answer.

Mr. Paquette believes in this model because it worked for him. And there is no doubt that many Americans with higher incomes have that money due to hard work. But it is equally, and increasingly unavoidably obvious that many others arrived at a position of higher income due to advantages they were given, rather than earned. A minimum wage janitor from a poor school district who is holding two jobs to support a family does not have the same opportunity to create international business contacts, and no amount of harder floor-mopping is going to create that opportunity.

Why are women more often living in poverty?

From the Atlanta Journal-Consitution: A conservative/liberal debate.

Con: ‘A complex socio-economic issue like this often requires multiple answers, but here the answers are far more social than economic. And most reasons can be boiled down to one: The breakdown of the family.’Lib: ‘If Shaunti’s right — if female poverty is the result of disintegrating family bonds — why is it that women earn 50 cents on the male dollar worldwide?

Class Warfare, Dammit!

Phaedrus at No Fear of Freedom looks at the gap between rising base costs like rent and stagnant wages for workers.

The American working class consists mainly of indentured servants. Oh, they’ve changed the forms so you won’t easily snap to that realization but, effectively, it still works like indentured servitude for the employer.

Written by Mick

May 22, 2004 at 11:45 am

Posted in The Blogosphere

Chalabi Raid Charade?

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There seems to have been a turnaround in Ahmad Chalabi’s convivial relationship with US neocons and the CPA. Or at least you would think so, given this:

BAGHDAD, Iraq — With the U.S. transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government just six weeks away, fresh political turmoil broke out Thursday when Iraqi police backed by American soldiers raided the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, a top Iraqi leader and former U.S. adviser who has become a vocal critic of transition plans.Chalabi was not arrested, and officials said they knew of no charges against him.

Hmmm. A few months ago, when it was clear that the Iraqis didn’t trust Cheney’s Golden Boy because they judged (correctly) that he was a power-hungry thief and US puppet (incorrectly; it was the other way around), Chalabi used his month’s worth of rotating IGC chairmanship not to work for Iraqi sovreignity or urge the writing of the constitution but to come to Washington. In public, he testified before Congress (asking for money, naturally, as well as a quick handover), but he also had a number of private meetings with his buddies Wolfowitz, Cheney, Feith, and Libby.

Act II: He goes back to Iraq and suddenly he’s a critic of the US administration on behalf of ‘ordinary Iraqis’.

In recent months, Chalabi has fallen out of favor with Bush administration officials, due partly to his open criticism of the U.S. plan for handing over power on June 30 to an interim Iraqi government, saying the plan will not grant full sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

Well, maybe, but if he cares it would be the first time.

Act III: So Ahmad, who needs desperately to distance himself from the American occupation, is now attacking it, attacking his US sponsors in Washington, and accused of handing sensitive information to another Arab state–Iran–on the US enemies list. For the climax, Iraqi police raid his home and offices–just like they do ordinary Iraqis, except they don’t bulldoze it to rubble–and Ahmad is furious.

“I am America’s best friend in Iraq,” Chalabi said later at a news conference, claiming that he was roused from his bed by armed police during the raid. “If the [coalition] finds it necessary to direct an armed attack against my home, you can see the state of relations between the [coalition] and the Iraqi people.”

Now, I’m not doubting the possibility that Chalabi finally overplayed his hand with the Neocon Wonder Boys, but there’s another explanation that’s at least as likely: that the whole thing is a charade. Chalabi needs credibility as an opponent of the US since no one is going to have real power in Iraq at this point–not after Abu Ghraib, they’re not–who’s an open ally. Conveniently, the Iraqi police, at the order of an Iraqi judge, give him that credibility on what both say were orders from the American authorities, while the Army and the CPA say, ‘Uh-uh. Wasn’t us’, and point their fingers the other way.

From a certain vantage, it’s awfully convenient timing. If the NWB’s wanted to rehabilitate their protege, this would be the only hope they had of doing it.

Written by Mick

May 21, 2004 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Ahmad Chalabi, Iraq

Blind As We Wanna Be

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Mark Morford is wondering if Dubya is as dumbya as he looks.

After all, it has always been far too easy to smack BushCo around as being an aww-shucks dumb-guy AWOL simpleton daddy’s boy with a low-C average and a painfully inarticulate approach to the world, coupled with an astounding, world-famous ability to mangle both the English language and every foreign policy ever implemented.It’s always felt like a bit of a grand ruse, Bush’s Forrest Gump-style dunderheadedness, a clever (if entirely plausible) way to deflect much of the responsibility for his regimes’s carnage, all designed to make the nation believe that this guy simply couldn’t be all that bad because, well, he just ain’t all that bright.

But, he’s thinking now, maybe it’s even more sinister than we thought.

It is, in short, the stupidity of the indignant and the self-righteous, of the morally arrogant, of someone whose power base is threatened and yet who is still blindly forcing America down this nightmare path, even when all signs and all leaders and all U.N. councils and all weapons investigators and all flagrant U.S.-sanctioned rapes and tortures are veritably screaming in his face that it is a mistake of increasingly epic, treacherous proportions.And so maybe, ultimately, it all comes back to us. Maybe it is the majority of people in this flag-wavin’, happily deluded, fear-drenched country who can’t believe it could happen, who simply, you know “misunderestimated” just how poisonous Bush’s savage brand of stupidity really is.

Barbara Tuchman wrote the definitive book on the sort of arrogant blindness that produces massive disasters, The March of Folly, almost 20 years ago. In excruciating detail, she described the depths of denial and the heights of baseless wishful thinking in which govts must indulge in order to bring it off–disasters aren’t as easy to accomplish as you might think; you have to really work at it–but Morford is making a different observation: that our willingness to enter into denial right along with the Bushies rather than do the small amount of work it would take to uncover his patent frauds, deceits and deliberate misrepresentations, make us as culpable as they are. Imprisoned in our own sightless world of comfort, convenience, and optimism, we preferred to look the other way while he raped somebody else’s neighborhood, somebody else’s wife, and somebody else’s country.

I’ve been listening to Franken lately because I’m going in to work earlier, and every day he has a little talk with a friend of his (named ‘Mark’, oddly enough) who is a Rush fan. He plays tapes of Rush’s lies for Mark, proves over and again that nothing he says is true, and Mark’s response is always the same: Rush may go overboard once in a while but his essential ‘themes’ (Mark’s word) are that: a) liberals never say anything good about America; b) that therefore anything they do say can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be believed; and c) that America is the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Mark hears Limbo’s hatred, pessimism, and blind support for the most odious practices in the world, including torture, as the perhaps over-zealousness of a patriot coming to the defense of his country, and nothing else matters to him.

So far have we come from the nation that started out determined to allow and even endorse self-criticism and self-correction that those values are now considered negative, unworthy and unwanted, even traitorous. Maybe it’s time to consider that the radcons were only able to blind us because we wanted to be blind; were only able to fool us because we wanted to be fooled; were only able to keep us in the dark because we were afraid of what we’d see if somebody turned the lights on.

You want to know how Hitler could happen in the land of Goerthe and Frederick the Great? Look around you and ask how George W Bush and Tom DeLay could happen in the land that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain. Because that’s how. We’re seeing it develop right before our eyes–or would be if we dared to open them.

Written by Mick

May 21, 2004 at 11:16 am

Time Out: Troy

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Having seen my first movie in six months, I have to celebrate by–how else?–writing a review of it and you lucky people get to read it. But it’s kind of long, so you might want to take it in small doses. Really small doses. I sorta got carried away….



Alright, so Troy isn’t exactly Homer, so what’d you expect, Brad Pitt struggling with poetry, then? Gimme a break. Anybody who thinks Hollywood adaptations are faithful to the originals should be locked up and watched carefully by trained psychologists. What was done to Homer has been done to classics since Georges Melies eviscerated Jules Verne in 1902, and let’s face it–it could have been a lot worse. Anybody remember what Steve Reeves did to the legends of Hercules? or Ray Harryhausen to Ulysses?

OK, so Briseis gets a little confused with Cassandra and turns into Priam’s daughter, later committing an act that makes the rest of Homer’s saga physiologically impossible, so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to make a sequel. And if Achilles hates Agamemnon long before he takes Briseis away, turning the abduction from a major plot point to a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of minor incident; if Achilles is less a demi-god than a highly-trained fighter at a time when military training was primitive; if Hector gets turned into a brooding, Hamlet-style Prince seeing destruction when no one else can, is that anything to lose sleep over? Hell, no. This is spectacle with a capital ‘S’. Forget about your college course on Homer and put your feet up. Because the truth is, it ain’t all that far off.

As a matter of fact, what amateur historian and Troy screenwriter David Benioff has managed to accomplish is an imagining of what the truth behind Homer’s tricked-out story might have been. The discovery of the real Troy twenty years ago proved that the legend was based on fact–the Greeks did indeed attack and sack Troy, burning it to the ground. Homer’s audience believed in gods and goddesses and magic and heroic deeds, so Homer, just like Hollywood, gave them what they wanted. But the historical truth would have to be considerably different; Achilles was a man, not half a god, so what made him stand out to such a degree that Homer would have to postulate his semi-divinity to explain it? The abduction of Briseis has always seemed a little thin to us moderns as an explanation for Achilles’ rebellion; after all, it wasn’t terribly unusual for commanders to take women for themselves, or to take them from their own warriors. In Homer, it’s a matter of Achilles’ pride–he takes it as a personal insult. But if Achilles recognized Agamamnon as his King, and he was–as Homer hints–a bit of a rake, bedding women wherever and whenever it pleased him and then dumping them just as quick, why would he have even bothered to get upset?

Benioff has taken a fable and tried to work out a version of what the real personalities may have been like and how the whole thing really went down, and I think he’s succeeded. If Achilles is already po’d about Agamemnon’s on-going power-grab and sees him as a greedy would-be emperor, then his reaction to the abduction starts to make sense. If Priam is of the old-school, ‘The gods will protect us’ religion, hauling the horse into the city because it’s a religious offering is inescapable; he would have to or risk offending the gods in which he believes so fervently. Benioff’s version is at least grounded in psychology, history, and Homer’s poetry if not entirely faithful to any of them, and that’s a pretty neat trick for a writer. From what I hear, the Alamo scriptwriters could have used some of that.

But let’s not miss the bigger issue here–this is a damn good movie. As historical dramas go, it’s not in the top rank with films like Lawrence of Arabia or Khartoum–for reasons I’ll go into in a bit–but it’s a solid piece of work and passes the Butt Test with flying colors–and at my age I get antsy in 15 mins usually no matter what’s going on up on the screen. At almost three hours, it could have been deadly. It isn’t. It flies by and it’s time to talk about why.

Brad Pitt is not, by any rational stretch, a great actor, and he proves it again in this movie, but he is one of the few American actors who could hold the center of a movie like this for three hours. He is a presence even when he isn’t doing anything, and I couldn’t have said that four or five years ago. Something has happened, whether it’s a new teacher or a deeper commitment or something personal, I don’t know, but it has and he can now occupy the center of a sprawling mega-spectacular by himself if he has to. I know because in this movie, he has to and he does it almost effortlessly. That ain’t hay. Only a handful of actors in cinema history could do it–Cagney, Grant, Peck, Newman, Poitier, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood–and of the actors working today, only Denzel Washington and Harrison Ford come to mind. George Clooney couldn’t, much as I like his work, neither could Matt Damon, Wesley Snipes, or Russell Crowe (I saw Gladiator and was severely underwhelmed; an empty film and Crowe was utterly unable to fill it), and Tom Cruise would barely survive (which I read was pretty much proved by The Last Samurai). Pitt, from his first scene, owns Troy. He dominates it, as he must if it’s to work, and even when he’s off-screen, you know everybody on screen is thinking about him. That’s partly because he’s surrounded by brilliant character actors but the fact is that if Pitt didn’t make the audience feel his command, the other actors miming it would have looked and felt like actors miming it.

There are two key elements to his ownership: an awesome physicality and a sense of pent-up, barely-controlled rage that simmers close to the surface even when he appears to be calm. This is a dangerous man on a leash stretched so tight it could snap at any moment, and everybody knows it. When Brian Cox as Agamemnon refuses to speak to him, sending emissaries instead, there’s no mystery about why–he’s scared to death. It’s the same quality Al Pacino had in the first Godfather; not as complex, perhaps, but then Achilles isn’t as complex a character as Michael Corleone.

What gives Pitt’s rage shape and form is the way he uses his body. Pitt’s Achilles is, in the fight scenes at least, Homer’s Achilles–a man who was a warrior and nothing else. The first time I ever saw a real warrior on the screen was a couple of summers ago when Nicholas Cage took out a machine gun nest with a knife in Windtalkers. Now I’ve seen a second. Pitt must have trained his ass off for this movie, and it shows. He moves like a warrior, kills like a warrior; he is a killing machine. Trained for nothing else, he’s at home nowhere else, and Pitt shows us finally what Achilles must have been if he truly lived: a highly-skilled warrior in a time when most soldiers, even the best of them, had barely mastered the bish-bash-bosh school of fighting. He is precise in the midst of chaos, deliberate when others are mad with blood-lust, inexorable as a thresher mowing down corn. He is totally believable, and he gets very little help from the camera. Apart from speeding up a selected movement briefly on three separate occasions (Director Wolfgang’s Petersen’s bow to Achilles’ supposed demi-divinity), Pitt does his own fighting–no stunt double, no CGI–and it makes an enormous difference. It makes Achilles real, startlingly, frighteningly. absurdly real. It’s actually possible to forget during those sequences that this is just a movie.

You would think, maybe, from the amount of weight I just hung around their necks, that Troy must be all battle scenes with Pitt slaughtering everything in sight, but in fact Pitt and Petersen manage to accomplish the construction of Achilles’ military superiority with only two short fight scenes–three if you count his introduction, and you should.

The only real battle scene in which Achilles figures is on the Trojan beach when he lands ahead of Agamemnon’s fleet and decides to take it with his Myrmidons rather than wait for the army to catch up. During this sequence–which lasted maybe a minute or so–Pitt’s killing machine is running on all ten cylinders, but not with the manic, unleashed rage of insanity that we expect or that Cage gave us. In war there are two kinds of warriors (as distinct from soldiers–see Windtalkers; it’s hard to take but it’s one of the best films of the past ten years). The first is Cage’s more-than-a-little-mad Berserker, the warrior worked up to a fever-pitch who kills in a frenzy of unfocused rage. The second is Pitt’s laser-focused assassin, a man who kills because he knows how and he’s good at it. He doesn’t hate his enemy as the Berserker does; he doesn’t appear to feel anything. He is doing what he was hired to do, what he’s comfortable doing, that’s all.

Pitt runs uphill in the sand to where the Trojan army is waiting, fights his way through them, and takes the Temple of Apollo at the top of the dunes (I don’t think the Greeks built on sand, but hey, it’s a great visual). It is here that Pitt has his best moment, a sort of ‘little boy lost’ moment: the battle is over and, once again, Achilles doesn’t know what to do with himself. He had his brief time at home and now he is cast into the unknown without a clue as to how to handle it.

The second scene is the climactic fight with Hector, and it’s one of the best–if not the best–mano-a-mano combat sequences ever put on film. It crackles, and both Pitt and Eric Bana, who plays Hector, are superb. Hector is a great warrior himself–and we can see why–but as he fights Achilles you can see in his eyes, in his whole body, the dawning realization that he is over-matched. He is well-trained and has a natural ability that has stood him well, but Achilles is a different animal altogether–where Hector’s technique is polished, Achilles’ is flawless; where Hector intuits, Achilles controls. Bana’s Hector looks at Achilles as I must have looked at Cage: ‘Here is the first real warrior I have ever seen. If he wants to kill me, I’m already dead.’

There is more emotional and story content in that 2 or 3 minute fight scene than in a dozen hours of Schwartzenegger blood-fests. I don’t know who choreographed it–I suspect it was probably Swordmaster Richard Ryan and Stunt Co-Ordinator Simon Crane working together; there was no ‘fight co-ordinator’ credit–but whoever it was did far more than stage an electrifying swordfight; they staged an electrifying swordfight that was the personification of the characters having it–fought as they would have fought it, with moves and combinations peculiar to them. It’s an astounding achievement, extremely hard to pull off–which is why you see it so rarely–and it makes the bish-bash-bosh in The Gladiator look exactly as childish and unrealistic and divorced from character as it was, a comic book add-on that had little to do with the plot and nothing whatever to say about the people doing it.

Troy is everything The Gladiator only pretended to be, so it’s a damn shame the dialogue is as bad as the action sequences are good. Because it is. Horrible. Embarrassing horrible in spots. The best dialogue–no surprise: Benioff cribbed it straight from The Poet for the only time in the film–is in the sequence when Priam (Peter O’Toole at his world-weary best) sneaks into Achilles’ tent after the fight to ask for the return of his son’s body, which Achilles had tied to the back of his chariot and dragged away–the ultimate insult. Priam is devastated as only a man can be who has seen wars and death all his life and in the last few hours has seen both claim his eldest son. O’Toole makes poetry of the poetry; sorrow and fallen pride deepen every word, but in undertones: the King is still a King, and there are ways to do such things.

Unfortunately, Pitt’s weaknesses mean that he can’t keep up his end of his only scene alone with O’Toole. Achilles simply disappears and is replaced by an actor named Pitt who doesn’t know what to do with his face. In what could have and should have been a crowning cinema moment, Pitt–who stole scenes from Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Sean Bean (a nice Odysseus; there’s your sequel, if you like), and Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus)–crumbles into uncertainty and doesn’t recover. Neither does the movie, really.

What marks the difference between a good spectacle-film like Troy and a great one like Lawrence of Arabia or Khartoum? Usually it’s the presence of two critical ingredients: intelligent, multi-layered dialogue that you can return to again and again, each time catching nuances and shades of meaning you missed before; and a brilliant central performance like O’Toole’s in Lawrence or Heston’s in Khartoum (he was never better, not even in The Agony and the Ecstasy). Unfortunately, Troy has neither. The dialogue is usually little more than serviceable–it gets you from one scene to the next but it doesn’t have anything extra to say. It tends to veer from the hopelessly mundane to the anachronistically trivial (when Paris comes to Helen to renew their passion of the night before, Helen says, ‘Last night was a mistake.’ Yeah, right. Did Helen of Troy graduate from Wesleyan?), falling flat right when and where you need it to reach for the moon. Benioff’s conception for Troy is brilliant but he should have let somebody who could write put words in the mouths of his concept. (David. Call me next time.)

With hoary, stumbling, 2nd-grade dialogue and a presence at the center who blows the crucial scene–and gets blown off the screen in the process–Troy will never make The Pantheon (unless everything that comes after it is even worse–not impossible), and it’s too bad because everything else is there.

But don’t worry about it. Really. Go. It’s a gorgeous film to watch. Even if the CGI-created ‘thousand ships’ are nothing to brag about technically and there’s only 50 of them or so anyway, you still get a sense of what a huge force it must have been for the time. And even if the Greek buildings, especially Troy, are more Egyptian-slash-Sumerian-slash-Morroccan-with-a-hint-of-Thailand than specifically Greek, they’re put together so well and photographed so beautifully that only a Grinch would pout. Go for Brad’s astounding physicality and Peter’s heart-rending emotional center and Brian’s savage arrogance.

But most of all, go because it will bring Homer to life for you again. Benioff and Petersen have done something extraordinary–they’ve fleshed out mythological fantasies and found the human beings who could have inspired them. In Hollywood, it’s usually the other way around.

A final word–about the horse, of course. The Trojan Horse has always been the hardest part of The Iliad for me to swallow since I was a kid. Even then it sounded like something a writer made up. But after seeing the Horse in the film, I’m not so damn sure any more….

Keeping the Record Straight Dept

For the record: ‘The face that launched a thousand ships’ doesn’t come from Homer. It’s Christopher Marlowe. Now you can win that bar bet.

Addendum: A Final final word–about fame. Achilles, says the movie–and Homer–is a warrior because it’s the only thing he can do that will make him famous. His mother (the still lovely, still talented Julie Christie in a cameo) tells him that if he stays home he will have a wonderful life but if he goes to Troy he will die and his name will be remembered for a thousand years. He chooses fame.

It would behoove us in this anti-intellectual time when NASCAR passes for art (no kidding–a MidWest dance company commissioned a ballet based on NASCAR racing just to get asses in the seats) and arts classes are being eliminated all over the country and Paul Wolfowitz wants to be remembered as the 21st century’s Lawrence, that nobody would have remembered Achilles or any of the other Kings and players 20 years after they died were it not for a damn longhair, left-wing, egghead Poet.

Food for thought.

Written by Mick

May 20, 2004 at 2:04 am

Posted in Film

Bush and Social Darwinism

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If Elizabeth Bumiller is too busy noting the length and strength of the standing ovations President Junior gets from his Rovian hand-picked audiences to inform us that virtually everything he says in the speech itself is a lie, the NY Times‘ Robert Pear has done a little more of his homework.

WASHINGTON, May 18 — Like many of its predecessors, the Bush White House has used the machinery of government to promote the re-election of the president by awarding federal grants to strategically important states. But in a twist this election season, many administration officials are taking credit for spreading largess through programs that President Bush tried to eliminate or to cut sharply.

Nice to know somebody at the Times has caught up at last. Just so you know, Robert, what you stumbled onto is called a ‘BushCon’–a bait-and-switch shell game when you praise a program in public that you know people like just before you destroy it in private. Oh, and by the way? They’ve been doing it for three years, Bob. Three years. But better late than never, I suppose. (Seems like I’ve been saying that a lot lately.)

Nice as it was of you to notice after three years, though, I have to say that ‘cut sharply’ is a leetle understated. See, Bob, a 10-20% cut is ‘sharp'; a 30% cut is usually ‘devastating'; 80 and 90% cuts are elimination in everything but name.

Justice Department officials recently announced that they were awarding $47 million to scores of local law enforcement agencies for the hiring of police officers. Mr. Bush had just proposed cutting the budget for the program, known as Community Oriented Policing Services, by 87 percent, to $97 million next year, from $756 million.

Those are salaries, Bob. The Law ‘n Order President is cutting $650MIL$ worth of police officers from the nation’s streets. It wasn’t enough as it was; $100Mil is a drop in the bucket, the virtual elimination of the program. But you gotta admit, it’s a neat trick: people will hear your announcement and think you’re boosting programs when what you’re actually doing is taking away $650Mil and then making a big deal about giving less than $50M of it back. The people get bamboozled into thinking they’ve gained $50M when in fact they’ve lost $600M. Cute.

Oh, and Bob? We may not get the $50Mil, either. That’s just an ‘announcement’, you know–like public relations or an ad. It doesn’t mean they’re going to actually do it. In fact, their track record is so bad you can pretty much assume they won’t. Like when they said they were going to quit fund-raising in April when they reached $200MIL$ and then promptly sent Junior out on an extended campaign fund-raising trip? When these clowns tell the truth, it’s an accident.

The administration has been particularly energetic in publicizing health programs, even ones that had been scheduled for cuts or elimination.Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, announced recently that the administration was awarding $11.7 million in grants to help 30 states plan and provide coverage for people without health insurance. Mr. Bush had proposed ending the program in each of the last three years.

The administration also announced recently that it was providing $11.6 million to the states so they could buy defibrillators to save the lives of heart attack victims. But Mr. Bush had proposed cutting the budget for such devices by 82 percent, to $2 million from $10.9 million.

In April, Secretary Thompson announced that the administration was awarding $3.1 million in grants to improve health care in rural areas of Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, New Mexico and New York. He did not mention that the administration was trying to cut the same rural health program by 72 percent, to $11.1 million next year, from $39.6 million.

Mr. Thompson likewise recently boasted that the administration was awarding $16 million to 11 universities to train blacks and Hispanic Americans as doctors, dentists and pharmacists. But at the same time, the administration was urging Congress to abolish the program, on the ground that “private and corporate entities” could pay for training.

See the pattern here? And this is a partial list. People having heart attacks don’t have a lobbying group HQ’d on K Street fighting for their defibrillators, so they don’t get them. People who don’t have health insurance don’t have it because they can’t afford it, which in turn means they can’t afford lobbyists, either. Result, end of program. Rural populations don’t as a general rule matter much in national elections as against the more populated areas and tend to vote Republican nationally even when they vote Democratic locally, so, basically, screw ‘em. We got ‘em anyway, why do we have to buy ‘em?

And one more thing: every single one of those programs is on the ‘To Be Privatized’ list–the corporate list of programs they want the govt to hand over to them so they can market them to people or groups with the money to pay a healthy mark-up for them.

What about everybody else?

They don’t have money? Then they’re not worth worrying about. Bush is practicing the Social Darwinism that he just said on Friday ‘America rejects’. Yeah, well, America may but the Bush Admin embraces it like a lover.

Written by Mick

May 19, 2004 at 12:24 pm


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