Daily Archives: May 25, 2004

LBJ v GWB: No Contest

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 “In many places,” he said, “classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated.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.

Junior Speaks

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.’