Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/20/05)


Mesopotamia redux. Iraq was formerly called Mesopotamia, a name meaning "the land between two rivers," the Tigris and the Euphrates (corruptions of their Arabic names, Dijla and Furat). As a result of global warming at the end of the last Ice Age, the southern part of the country suffered a massive flood that became the basis for the Biblical story of the flood. Croton, too, lies between two rivers. The village, which may very well be the most litigious small village in Westchester, has run its legal expenses to seven figures, yet cannot seem to find the money to keep its railroad station parking lot from being inundated and totaling automobiles parked there when storms and high tides coincide. A blatant case of municipal indifference, when even a simple berm bulldozed along one edge of the parking lot would do the trick. The irony is that if this parking lot were in private ownership, the village would have long since come down upon its operator like a ton of bricks for not correcting this condition.

Three words that shook the world. No, they weren't the famous three little words "I love you." Far from it, they were three inflammatory words uttered by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. In this epochal speech he identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as constituting an "axis of evil." The U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he added.

The genesis of the "axis of evil" expression is recounted in speechwriter David Frum's book The Right Man. It turns out that the phrase grew by accretion. In late December of 2001, chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson was doling out sections of the forthcoming State of the Union address to White House writers. Frum's assignment: "Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?" Frum rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Pulling books off the shelves, he found what he wanted in the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" of World War II.

"No country on Earth more closely resembled one of the old axis powers than present-day Iraq," Frum writes. But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, her deputy, insisted that he expand it. "They wanted to take on Iran as well," Frum says, so that nation was added to create an "axis of hatred." A third country, North Korea, was then tacked on to avoid amplifying the suspicion in Muslim countries that the President's "war on terror" was really a war on Islam. He completed his portion of the speech and passed it to his boss. When Frum saw a draft of the entire speech, to his surprise his words were incorporated almost verbatim. "Gerson wanted to use the theological language that Bush has made his own since Sept. 11," he writes, "so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.'"

The glaring flaw in this phrase is that the three nations did not have a formal alliance such as existed between Germany, Italy and Japan. Moreover, in Iraq the regime was secular; in Iran it was fiercely religious. Far from being allies, the two countries were sworn enemies and had fought a mutually destructive war to a standstill. Instead of linking itself with other nations, North Korea, an anachronistic Communist dictatorship, was perhaps the most unaligned and isolated country in the world.

Bush read the draft of the speech and liked what he saw, making a few changes here and there. The day after the delivery of the State of the Union address, the controversial phrase "axis of evil" became the focus of comment. Experts acknowledged that it was a clever piece of speechwriting but--as foreign policy--it was incendiary and actually fanned the very fires it was intended to control.

"It was a speechwriter's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," maintained Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. Tarring three countries with the same brush "makes it more difficult to deal with them on a different basis," he added.

"It was harmful both conceptually and operationally," observed Graham Allison, professor of government and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "Conceptually, the 'axis' suggested a relationship that doesn't exist. More important, operationally, the reaction of the world and the North Korean debacle demonstrates that it was a mistake."

Assessing the speech, Richard K. Betts, director of Columbia University's Institute of War and Peace Studies, noted that the Administration's attention had long been on threats by "rogue nations," instead of the danger posed by al-Qaida. The speech "lumped together three countries that the people in the Administration were already thinking about in the same way," Betts said. "Everyone knew before that this was the way they thought but [the speech] did it in a pithy way that made it hard to ignore."

Then there was the use of the word "evil": "It's too heavy and radioactive a word," said Joseph Montville, director of the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "You can't make a deal with evil. You can only kill it." In short, its message to the world was that the United States simply is not interested in negotiating.

Nor did the President improve relations with North Korea with his now-famous intemperate remark to Bob Woodward, "I loathe Kim Jong II," and his description of North Korea's ruler as a "pygmy" (he is only an inch taller than five feet). Tough talk may play well in Texas, but Dae-Sook Suh, an expert on Korea and professor of policy studies at the University of Hawaii, criticized Bush for "using this cowboy language in diplomatic circles," noting that in Asia such speech is considered rude, threatening and unseemly.

Domestically, the "axis of evil" speech laid the groundwork for the attack on Iraq the following year. Many believe it also helped to undermine Iran's moderate leaders and quashed its burgeoning democracy. To some, the speech only accelerated the nuclear confrontations we are now facing with that country and North Korea. It is frightening to think that this nation may be swaggering toward Armageddon because of a speechwriter's casual turn of phrase.

Spies in furs. There have been many bizarre schemes in the world of spying, but none so curious as a CIA experiment during the Cold War. In 1967, the CIA planned to implant listening devices in cats and then trained them to approach targets. The first cat implanted with such a device was released near a city park and directed to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a park bench. The experiment was a failure. On its way to the target the cat was run over by a taxi.

Sterling story. The following probably apocryphal tale is rapidly becoming the stuff of suburban legend. After receiving a wedding announcement, a local matron had a bright idea. She thought, "I have that monogrammed silver tray my parents gave us when we were married. We never use it. I'll just take it to a silversmith and have him remove our monogrammed initials and put theirs on. VoilĂ , an instant wedding present." So she took her tray to a silversmith and asked him to remove the initials and put another set on. He examined the tray with a jeweler's loupe, then shook his head and handed the tray back. "Lady," he told her, "you can only replace a monogram on a tray like this so many times!"

Question of the week. If running with scissors is dangerous, how come--according to the government--flying with them has now suddenly become safe?


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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/06/05)


Big Brother is spying on us. The 300-page Patriot Act was passed by Congress almost without objection in the aftermath of 9/11. Section 215 of the Act authorizes the FBI to demand from a librarian the titles of books a particular patron has borrowed. Before its passage, the government needed a warrant and probable cause to access private records. Now your public library borrowings and bookstore purchases, as well as school, bank, financial, credit, travel, video rental, phone, medical, and church, synagogue or mosque records can be searched without your knowledge or consent--if the government says it is trying to protect against terrorism.

Four years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose later departure from the Administration was unlamented by civil libertarians, called the new approach to records searching "modest and incremental." What's so alarming about the law is that the target of the investigation need not be a terror suspect so long as the government's purpose is "an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism."

Sensing a local news story in this, I called my local library to ask how many requests had been made for lists of the reading matter borrowed by local residents. "Can't tell you that," was the answer.

"Well, can you tell me whether any requests have been made?" "Can't tell you that, either."

"Then can you confirm that no requests have been made?" "Can't tell you that, either."

Scary is the word for this exchange, which reads like a page from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Not only is defiance by a librarian of the government's request for patrons' records a crime, librarians are gagged and enjoined from revealing any information about records searches. The Act gives the FBI power to make warrantless searches and obtain records of people who are not suspected of criminal activity. Section 215 and other provisions of the Patriot Act are up for extension before the end of this year. Readers who have strong feelings about this aspect of a law that takes away much of our liberty and privacy but isn't likely to get us more security in return, should tell their legislators.

Term limits. Were the founding fathers to return today and see the mess we have made of their handiwork in the government today, they would certainly shake their heads and say, "This is not what we intended at all." For example, the founders anticipated that certain members of post-Revolutionary society--farmers, artisans, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who could spare the time--would spend a term or two in Congress at the capital then in New York. Later it would move to effete Philadelphia and still later to the miasmic Potomac swamps of Washington. But they never envisioned the seniority system we have today in which the longer incumbents stay in office, the more entrenched they become and the harder they are to unseat.

Some members of Congress retire with pension benefits that would make an avaricious business leader blush. Congress, which voted universal health care for its members, denies it to constituents. In the twenty years between 1985 and 2005, Congress more than doubled its annual salary from $75,000 to $162,100, As recently as a month ago, the Senate refused to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour, a level set in 1997. Yet in the same eight-year period lawmakers voted themselves annual raises worth $28,500. Rushing to get away for the two-week Thanksgiving recess, lawmakers postponed decisions on crucial legislation yet found enough time to vote themselves another raise--to an estimated $165,200 a year.

We limit presidents, most governors and many mayors to the number of terms they can serve. Why not break the virtual stranglehold the present system gives to long-serving members and institute term limits for senators and representatives?

Copy editing. A recent editorial in a local newspaper about the right to dissent noted that Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania "won a Bronx Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam." Such a medal, if it existed, surely was earned by many police officers in the Bronx's hazardous 41st Precinct, also known as "Fort Apache" in the 1960s. "Bronze Star" is obviously what was intended. Unlike Oscars or Emmys, military personnel do not "win" medals--called "decorations" in military parlance--particularly the Purple Heart. The latter differs from other decorations in that an individual is not recommended for it; he or she is entitled to a Purple Heart upon being wounded or killed in combat.

Against the grain. According to Metro-North, the number of people taking trains out of Grand Central Terminal to the suburbs has more than doubled. The reverse commuters range from housekeepers, nannies and low-wage menial workers to investment bankers and stock traders who grew tired of manicuring lawns, endless home maintenance chores and the high cost of ownership of several automobiles. The number of reverse commuters, those who commute daily from the city to the suburbs, rose by 8 percent since the 1990s to about 270,000 passengers. When the MTA raised its fares in March, it eliminated the discount it had long offered to those heading out of New York.

Out of work. The return of U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan to civilian life has not been easy. For such veterans 20 to 24 years of age, the unemployment rate is especially high: nearly 15 percent--three times the national average. The lofty unemployment rate of young veterans is attributable to their lack of transferable skills or to little previous civilian work experience. There's not much call for long-range snipers or bomb-removal experts in civil life. The government is also worried about the number of veterans who lack a permanent address. The tragedy of homelessness among veterans persists, even when the economy is becoming robust and unemployment is comparatively low.

Ironic choice. The nickname of the Tulane University football team in New Orleans is "the Green Wave."

Statistic. It took 42 months after the start of the Vietnam War for a majority of Americans to say it was a mistake. It took only 15 months after the start of the Iraq War for a majority of Americans to say this.

For those long winter nights? Iceland, which is smaller than the state of Kentucky and has a literacy rate of 100 percent, published 212 books for each 100,000 residents last year; the U.S. figure was 63.

Big wind. A proposed windmill project on Long Island to generate electricity would replace 235,000 tons of global-warming carbon dioxide from coal- or oil-fired plants annually. But a single jumbo jet making a daily trans-Atlantic round-trip flight produces a whopping 210,000 tons of CO2 annually.

Blacksliding. There were only two black U.S. senators during the 19th century and the same number during the 20th century. Today the number of black U.S. senators is one.

Cause or effect? Thirty-five percent of born-again U.S. Christians have been divorced. Ninety percent of these splits took place after the male or female partner accepted Christ.

You can't make this stuff up. Michael Brown, discredited former head of FEMA, has started a consulting firm to advise clients on disaster preparedness.


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