October 23, 2006

Spin Zone

North Korea is in rarefied status among the world's evildoers these days. This is due to both the attention President Bush brought to North Korea in naming it among the axis of evil (a good thing) and the inattention President Bush gave to North Korea while concentrating all resources on Iraq (not a good thing). This month’s nuclear test revealed the result of the Bush Administration’s distraction: WMDs in North Korea. North Korea has gone from an isolated, hostile, dangerous country engaged in negotiations with the global community that helped prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon in 2000 to an isolated, hostile, dangerous country that has tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. The George W. Bush era, it would seem, has not been terribly unkind to North Korea.

Yet, to hear Bill O’Reilly tell it, North Korea is working feverishly to support the Democrats in the upcoming mid-term election. In his “no spin zone,” O'Reilly declared the North Korean nuclear test a calculated effort to influence the American election. Similarly, O’Reilly asserted that Iran is ramping up the violence in Iraq so Americans will turn against the Bush Administration. “Why does Iran want the Democrats to win in November?” O’Reilly asks. Iran, it seems, is pushing insurgents to increase the violence in Iraq not to crush Iraqi democracy, but to influence American democracy.

Normally, what Bill O’Reilly says is as meaningless as it sounds, but on this issue, it appears he is not alone in his thinking. Discussing the similarities between the recent spike in violence in Iraq and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, President Bush threw out the election card: “There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence, and we're heading into an election.” Lest anyone be confused as to what the President meant, Press Secretary Tony Snow explained that Bush “was making a point he’s made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States.”

The O’Reilly/Bush argument goes something like this: North Korea/Iran/Iraqi insurgency are taking action aimed at helping Democrats win elections in the United States, so if you vote for the Democrats, you are actually helping the cause of North Korea/Iran/Iraqi insurgency.

But a look at American politics from the perspective of our enemies makes you wonder why these regimes would be so eager to end the Bush era. Assuming that the goal of American enemies is to weaken the United States, it seems that these regimes ought to be rooting for more of the same from the Bush Administration rather than working for a Democratic majority in Congress.

The Bush Administration has done more to weaken America’s standing in the world than any anti-American rhetoric from Tehran or nuclear test from Pyongyang. By thumbing its nose at international treaties, flouting international standards for the treatment of prisoners, and starting a war without an international mandate, the Bush Administration has put the U.S. in an increasingly isolated global position. That position is further weakened by the enormous commitment of resources to Iraq and the lack of short-term success there. Given the kind of bumbling they’ve seen from Bush Administration, why would North Korea or Iran really want change?

Neither O’Reilly nor Bush wants you to answer, or even ask that question. They are instead searching for any way possible to save the Republican majority by shifting the focus off the Bush administration’s record.

Given that record, Democrats do not need any help from America’s enemies to convince voters that change is necessary, no matter what Bill O’Reilly says.

October 16, 2006

Collateral Damage in Iraq

Six hundred thousand is a lot of people. There are just under 600,000 people living within the District of Columbia city limits and just over 600,000 people living in the state of Vermont. Six hundred thousand people could fill the Rose Bowl more than six times or Madison Square Garden more than twenty times.

And according to a recently-published study done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 600,000 also represents the approximate number of Iraqis who have died violent deaths since the American invasion in March 2003.

Six hundred thousand is a lot of people.

The official finding of the study is that over 600,000 more Iraqis have died since the invasion than “would have been expected in a non-conflict situation.” The Johns Hopkins figure, reached by studying the mortality rate of a broad cross-section of the Iraq community rather than relying on reporting from morgues, hospitals, or governments, is significantly higher than previous estimates from the U.S. military, the U.N. and various human rights organizations. The standard of error puts the number anywhere from 426,369 to 793,663.

President Bush, who has avoided talking much about the number of Iraqis dead, has publicly acknowledged that as many as 50,000 Iraqis may have died since the American invasion. When told of the 600,000 figure, the President said of the report that “the methodology is pretty well discredited.”

The same, of course, could be said of the President’s various rationales for beginning the war in the first place. The alleged terrorism connection and the threat of WMDs have been disproved. Even democracy promotion is taking a back seat after Hamas’s electoral victory in the Palestinian territories. The Iraq war is increasingly only justifiable as a humanitarian war – an effort to rid Iraq of the Hussein dictatorship and allow Iraqis to determine their own futures. Even assuming that the 600,000 figure is too high, even one fourth of that number of deaths seems terribly un-humanitarian. One hundred and fifty thousand, after all, is a lot of people.

Even though the root cause of the massive Iraqi chaos and suffering is the continued and destructive presence of elements desperate to spread violence and fear, the loss of Iraqi life is in part an American responsibility. The American failure to adequately plan for the protection of the very civilians its war was ostensibly waged to benefit reveals how low a priority Iraqi life was given in the run-up to the war. The result of that failure is tragic. Whatever the precise number, scores of thousands of human beings are no longer alive as a result of a life-or-death decision made in Washington.

So long as the American calculus discounts or ignores the collateral damage caused by American actions, we will continue to isolate ourselves and sow resentment around the world. It is difficult to believe a government that claims it is engaged in a humanitarian activity when the human toll of that activity is so high.

American credibility is just one more casualty of the Iraq war.

October 09, 2006

The New Southern Democrat

After throwing his support behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared that his act had lost Democrats the South for a generation. Indeed, in Johnson’s beloved Senate, today only 4 of 22 Senators from the ex-Confederacy are Democrats. Yet, a generation has now passed and a new southern Democrat is emerging.

Representing a constituency with different values and ideals than Democrats from the Northeast or West Coast, the new southern Democrat is not a tree-hugging liberal. The new southern Democrat can be a fan of the Second Amendment. The new southern Democrat is not afraid to talk about faith and may not always endorse the full separation of church and state. The new southern Democrat is fiscally conservative, insisting on balanced budgets. The new southern Democrat understands that the majority of Americans would support bipartisan, moderate solutions to our nation’s problems, rather than extremist rhetoric from either side.

This election cycle, the new southern Democrat is embodied by Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., who is running to become the first Democratic Senator elected in Tennessee since Al Gore in 1990. With bounding energy and tireless work, Rep. Ford has turned what was once a double-digit deficit in a red state into an airtight race with several polls showing him leading Republican challenger Bob Corker. Unlike many national Democrats whose strategy has been to sit and wait for Republicans to screw up (with Republicans politely obliging), Ford has been proactive, asserting his positions in every county and striking a balance between his Democratic roots and the conservative leanings of his home state.

One would think Harold Ford’s surge would be cause for joy among Democrats seeking to reestablish themselves in the South. Instead, Ford has been consistently criticized from his left for being overly willing to take conservative positions in his effort to be elected. A group of local left-wing bloggers openly despise Ford, claiming he has abandoned his base and is no more than a Republican posing as a Democrat. What good is having a Democratic senator, these critics argue, when he acts just like a Republican?

These critics ignore the appeal and importance of the new southern Democrat. After all, it has been southern Democrats – Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton – who have led the only national Democratic victories since 1964.

Instead of welcoming a Democrat who is making connections with voters across the state and across the political spectrum, they would have a Democratic candidate who, unlike Ford, could pass their liberal-purity test. Unfortunately, that candidate could not be elected in Tennessee, providing Republicans an easy victory and a comfortable majority.

The Democratic party, including its most left-wing elements, should accept the reality of southern values and embrace pragmatic leaders, like Harold Ford, Jr., who are able to be both southerners and Democrats. The party is currently unable to compete in southern states, leaving Democrats at a major disadvantage in national elections. By enlarging the party to include the new southern Democrat rather than criticizing him for not being liberal enough, Democrats can shift not only the face of their party, but also the balance of power in the U.S. A strong coalition of conservative-leaning southern Democrats and more liberal Democrats from the Northeast and West Coast could reenergize a party still in search of direction.

The generation LBJ spoke of losing is now behind us and it is time for Democrats to get serious about competing in the South again. The future of the party – and the country – may depend on it.

October 02, 2006

In Defense of Habeas Corpus

You have probably never heard of the Uighur population in northwestern China. Uighurs (pronounced wee-gur) are Muslim-Chinese more closely aligned, ethnically and geographically, to the Afghans and other Muslim communities in Central Asia than to their traditional Chinese countrymen. In the grand scheme of world politics, Uighurs are small-time players, known mostly for being persecuted and systematically transplanted from their resource-rich homes by ethnic Chinese.

In the midst of fighting the war on terror, the United States came across several Uighurs in Afghanistan. By some accounts, the Uighurs were in Afghanistan to train to fight against the Chinese. By others, the Uighurs were seeking a way out of Chinese persecution into a friendlier environment so they could send money back to their families. By no account were these Uighurs involved in Al Qaeda or any anti-American terrorist training. Still, nearly twenty Uighurs ended up in American military custody in Guantanamo Bay, having been sold for ransom by locals to American forces.

American intelligence knew early on that the Uighurs, like many of those initially imprisoned at Guantanamo, were of little or no value in the war on terror. When it came time for prisoners to have their status reviewed, a number of the Uighurs were declared No Longer Enemy Combatant (NLEC) by the military (a more accurate designation probably would have been Never Enemy Combatant in the First Place, but let’s not get hung up on semantics). The Uighurs, however, were never told of this designation of innocence and, instead of being released, remained behind bars at Guantanamo.

Beginning in the summer of 2005, a group of lawyers assumed representation of several of Guantanamo’s Uighurs without knowing any of this history. The first step was to file a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, asking the government to declare the charges against the Uighurs or release them. The government delayed. And delayed. Ultimately, the lawyers discovered that their clients had already been designated NLEC and immediately opened up a relentless campaign for release. The campaign was complicated because the government, to its credit, refused to send the Uighurs back to China for fear that they would be tortured there. Meanwhile, the Uighurs remained in prison as the government refused all requests for temporary or supervised release of these innocent individuals. The search for a country to take the innocent Uighurs finally ended a few months ago and now there is a very small population of Uighurs in Albania.

The Uighurs’ story is one of the importance of habeas corpus. Without lawyers making noise regarding the unjustified imprisonment of these individuals, it is likely that the Uighurs would have remained in prison even longer than the nearly five years they already spent at Guantanamo. Without the power to demand charges be brought, the lawyers would have been handcuffed, unable to force the government to end an indefinite and unjustified detention.

Last week, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a law directly aimed at legalizing many of the actions undertaken by the Bush administration in handling so-called enemy combatants – actions declared unconstitutional earlier this year by the Supreme Court. The law is a mixed bag. Although it does require American personnel to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention (read: no torture), it does away with many of the traditional procedural safeguards meant to ensure a fair trial and prevent the executive from running amok. One such safeguard that is done away with is the writ of habeas corpus.

Passage of the Military Commissions Act is undoubtedly a victory for the Bush administration – with congressional authority, the President stands on much firmer constitutional ground than he did when these practices were first reviewed by the Supreme Court. The law, in effect, puts executive action in this arena beyond the review of the courts. However, as the experience of the Uighurs at Guantanamo shows, sometimes the executive gets it wrong. Without the courts and the protection of habeas corpus, where is there to turn next time?