Monday, November 28, 2005

God's Choice for President?

President Bush has made clear that religion is an important aspect of his personal life, and of his presidency. During his first presidential campaign, he cited Jesus Christ as the political philosopher he most admires. Just before the 2000 election, in an interview with a website called, Bush said that his personal faith had a significant impact on his political beliefs, and influenced him on matters like Medicare and prescription drugs. Once elected, President Bush established an Office of Faith Based Initiatives in the White House and continued to weave religion into his rhetoric and to cite it as a basis for policy choices, as, for example, in the context of stem cell research and gay marriage.

A recent article in the New Yorker suggests Bush’s merging of religion and his presidency goes even further. Seymour Hersh reports that a former senior official who served in Bush’s first term was told Bush felt God had placed him in office to deal with the war on terror. The former official further explained that Bush privately saw his party’s midterm victories in 2002 as “another manifestation of divine purpose.” Elsewhere, there have been reports that the President said he believed God had told him to “strike down Iraq” before the United States invaded that country.

I do not have Sy Hersh’s sources and of course have no way to independently confirm if his reporting is accurate. But I have no reason not to believe him. He is a respected journalist with a reputation for cultivating reliable sources more in the mold of Deep Throat than Scooter Libby. Let’s assume he is correct. Why does the president feel the need to keep these ideas private? Why not publicly announce his belief that God guides him in Iraq, God placed him in the White House, and elections in his favor are evidence of God’s purpose?

The United States in 2005 does not have a political climate that is hostile to religion. To the contrary, it seems mandatory that candidates for public office openly express their devotion to God. We saw John Kerry’s attempts (sometimes criticized as fumbling or opportunistic) to infuse religion into his campaign last year. It is hard to think of any officeholder, or candidate for high office (Congress or the White House), who is openly agnostic or atheist. Polls show the United States to be the most religious industrialized nation in the world. And most Americans are Christian; a Pew Research Council poll in 2002 showed 82% of Americans identify as Christian. Other polls show that nearly one half of Americans believe the creation story in Genesis is literally correct and about three quarters believe that the miracles described in the Bible actually happened.

Against this backdrop, does the President, or do his advisors, believe there is a limit on what at least some Americans will bear when it comes to the mixing of religion and the presidency? Perhaps the President believes some Americans would find it blasphemous for him to identify as essentially a messenger or tool of divinity. Or perhaps he is concerned critics would ridicule him as a zealot.

None of this is to attack religion. I do not question the President’s, or anyone’s, personal faith. What I do wonder about is a President who might believe God placed him in the White House, God instructed him to make war, and God favored his political party with electoral victory. This is very dangerous ground. If the President believes he is chosen by God, he may believe he can do no wrong, as everything he does is part of God’s plan. Hersh’s article in the New Yorker suggests as much. Hersh’s source, the former senior official, says that when he tried to tell the President we weren’t winning in Iraq, the President didn’t want to hear it. We often hear that the President surrounds himself with yes men and women and that robust debate is not part of his decisionmaking process. Maybe this can be understood in the context of his religious conviction. As Bush puts it, he answers to “a higher father”.

Bush has made religion an integral and public part of his presidency. That means that questions about how his religion affects his decisions are legitimate. This must be done respectfully, of course. No one should denigrate the President’s faith or suggest in any way that religious belief itself is inherently suspect. But Americans have the right to know if their President governs based on a belief that he is God’s instrument, as opposed to the chief executive of a constitutional democracy, answerable to the American people.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Honoring the Fallen

To mark the somber occasion of the 2,000th American military death in Iraq, President Bush trotted out a tried and true talking point, insisting, as he has in the past, that “the best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission” in Iraq.

This statement is a particularly insidious talking point; it is meant to cut off all debate about Iraq. There is a sinister elegance to the statement. It suggests that anyone who questions the Bush administration's policy in Iraq is dishonoring brave Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice, because the policy is itself a way of honoring their deaths. The statement neatly links dead American soldiers with the Bush administration in an unbreakable bond.

The president’s statement is also insidious because it co-opts every fallen soldier as a posthumous draftee of the administration’s policy. Some soldiers, and their families, would undoubtedly have it no other way; they supported the president in life and would have no problem supporting him in death. But we know this is not a universal feeling. There are soldiers who, while honoring their commitment to serve, did not agree with the president’s policy. There are even soldiers -- heaven forfend!—who voted against the president in the last election. That is their right as Americans.

As an example, Cindy Sheehan has made it clear that she does not want the president to use her son Casey’s death as an argument for staying the course in Iraq. Yet the president ignores her wishes, and the wishes of other mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the fallen who, like Ms. Sheehan, do not support the president. There is something heartless about this, about subordinating the wishes of those who lost their loved ones to a blunt political purpose.

The administration’s talking point is eerily Orwellian. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a group of farm animals rise up against their cruel human masters and seize control of the farm. The farm’s pigs, who lead the other animals after the rebellion, train their supporters to loudly chant “four legs good, too legs bad” whenever any dissenter voices opposition to their rule. The president’s “honor the fallen” statement has the same purpose; it is intended to drown out dissent, indeed, to make dissent unpatriotic.

The president has set up a false choice. It is quite possible to honor the soldiers while questioning U.S. policy in Iraq. These are separate issues. There are no reports of Americans questioning the bravery or integrity of soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq. This appears to be a universal, or nearly universal, view among Americans; that our military is deserving of respect. But many Americans do question the president’s policy in Iraq. The president suggests that they can only be faithful to the troops by supporting him; in other words, there is something unpatriotic about opposing the administration’s policy in Iraq.

Another Republican president, who Bush has identified as a hero, exposed the fallacy of the attempt to equate patriotism with loyalty to a particular administration. Theodore Roosevelt declared that “patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official.” There is no evidence that Americans on either side of the Iraq debate have abandoned their country.

Patriotic Americans, Americans who support the troops, and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, are not required to support the administration. Those who support the president can be patriots, just as those who oppose the president can be patriots. Similarly, those who fight our wars, and those who fall, are worthy of being honored whether they supported the president or not, and whether the policy in Iraq is changed or not. Their sacrifice is a matter of record and cannot be erased. The president should recognize this, and should stop insisting he knows best how to honor the fallen troops. We should have a real, open, honest debate about what to do in Iraq, without the implicit charge that those who oppose the president are dishonoring their fallen countrymen and women.

The New McCarthyism

Last Friday, Republicans in Congress forced a vote on a resolution they had no intention of passing. Following conservative, hawkish Democratic Congressman John Murtha’s eloquent and emotional statement about the war in Iraq, in which he concluded it is time to begin taking the troops out of Iraq, Republicans played politics with the war by proposing a “sense of the House” resolution stating that troops should be pulled out of Iraq immediately. Only three Democrats voted in favor of this resolution. The other 200 or so (including Murtha himself) do not favor an immediate pullout, the “cut and run” straw man that talking point spouting Republicans endlessly blather about.

I watched some of the vote on the resolution on C-Span. As members voted on a preliminary issue, C-Span took calls from viewers. I was struck by the vitriol, bile, and pure hatred voiced by callers who support the President. They called Democrats “communists”, and “cowards and traitors” (more than one caller used these words). They equated support for the troops with support for the administration – which means, of course, if you don’t support President Bush, you don’t support the troops in the field. They said criticizing the troops undermined the morale of the troops in Iraq, who don’t like to know their president is being criticized at home (which assumes, of course, that all soldiers support Bush).

Where do Americans get the idea that critics of the war are treasonous, dishonorable cowards? From their leaders and from conservative media. Responding to Congressman Murtha’s statement, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan suggested that Murtha (a decorated 37 year Marine veteran) wanted to “surrender” to terrorists. Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH) called Murtha a “coward” on the House floor (she was shamed into striking her insult from the record). Congressman Geoff Davis (R-KY) says the “liberal leadership have…cooperated with our enemies and our emboldening our enemies.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity told his guest, General Wesley Clark, that he he’s “had it with [Democrats] undermining our troops, undermining our commander in chief while we’re at war.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently scorned what he called “the surrender wing of American foreign policy”. On Veteran’s Day, President Bush himself slimed Democratic critics of the war in Iraq, calling them “deeply irresponsible”, saying they were “send[ing] the wrong signal to our troops and [the] enemy”. He continued by suggesting that it was not clear if critics of the war support the troops.

At least one Republican in Congress has rejected this new McCarthyism. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said at a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last week that “question[ing] your government is not unpatriotic—to not question your government is unpatriotic.” He scolded the Bush administration not to “demonize” those who disagree with its policies.

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he promised to raise the level of public discourse. Just the opposite has happened. We have reached a point where the White House Press Secretary and members of Congress find it acceptable to question the courage and patriotism of a decorated Marine in Congress who has dared to raise questions about an unpopular war. If President Bush still wants to elevate the tone of debate, he will issue an unequivocal public statement reminding his supporters that we are all Americans, that raising questions about the war in Iraq does not make someone a traitor, and that dissent does not make someone a supporter of terrorism. Don’t hold your breath on this though. The administration’s strategy at the moment is to slander and insult anyone who dissents. The longer this continues, the more likely ordinary Americans will feel emboldened to call their neighbors and fellow Americans from the other political party traitors, communists, and surrender monkeys. We can do much better than this, but we probably won’t, at least not anytime soon.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Another Downside To Staying in Iraq

Why are more than 150,000 American troops mired in Iraq, nearly three years after the invasion? President Bush explains that we are fighting terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them inside the United States. He adds that we have to “complete the mission” in Iraq to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops.

These simplistic platitudes are empty, meaningless and prevent Americans from focusing on what is really going on in Iraq with regard to Al Qaeda, and what it really means for Americans and the world. If terrorists bogged down in Iraq were incapable of launching attacks elsewhere, there would have been no attacks in Madrid, London, Bali, or other non-Iraqi targets struck by Al Qaeda after the invasion of Iraq, most recently, Amman, Jordan. If the war in Iraq is ineffective, or even harming American goals, then remaining there does nothing to honor the sacrifice of the fallen. Truly honoring those who gave their lives to protect Americans means making sure American forces are deployed in the manner most likely to prevent future terrorist attacks. It is by no means clear that staying in Iraq accomplishes this goal, and the contrary may well be true—staying in Iraq may be strengthening Al Qaeda.

Last week Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for deadly suicide attacks in Amman, saying the attacks were carried out by four Iraqis, including a husband and wife. Jordan is an ally of the United States. It is a Muslim nation that has made peace with Israel. It is not a democracy (democracy isn’t on the march everywhere in the Middle East); it is ruled by King Abdullah, who was educated in the United States and Great Britain, often dresses in western style business suits, and has forged close relationships with western countries, including the United States.

Peter Scheuer, a former CIA analyst with expertise concerning Al Qaeda (he has written multiple books about Al Qaeda, including “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror”) suggests that the attacks in Jordan are related to what is going on in Iraq. President Bush claims it is a good thing that Iraq has become a magnet attracting terrorists to the country. Scheuer asserts something quite different, that Al Qaeda has a plan to use Iraq as a staging base for attacks on other “apostate” governments in the region, nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and ultimately Israel. If Scheuer is correct, then the President is very, very wrong about what Iraq means for Al Qaeda.

President Bush likes to take credit for the fact that (thankfully) the United States has not been hit with a domestic terror attack since 9/11. Who gets the blame for the post-invasion terrorist attacks in Iraq and by Iraqis? Saddam Hussein was a monster, but he was not, and other Iraqis were not, carrying out terrorist attacks against foreigners prior to the March 2003 invasion. Now terrorists carry out frequent attacks within Iraq, and, apparently, have begun to launch attacks into neighboring countries.

If Iraqis can travel to Jordan to carry out suicide attacks, obviously it is possible that they can travel to other countries as well for the same awful purpose. Someone needs to ask President Bush whether we are making ourselves safer in Iraq, or whether we are breeding new terrorists in Iraq who will not feel constrained by geographic borders when they plot future attacks.

(A similar piece also appears at -- )

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Exit Miers, Enter Politics

Whatever Harriet Miers and President Bush say publicly, the real reason Miers withdrew her nomination to the Supreme Court was that she was not acceptable to ultraconservatives.
Hard-core conservatives in the Republican Party, such as Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and hard-charging conservative interest groups such as Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, have made clear that they demand a nominee with established conservative bona fides, someone in the Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas mold. They will settle for nothing less. They don't want to take a chance on someone whose views, for example, on Roe v. Wade, are not known. They don't want another David Souter, who, though nominated by Bush's father, has turned out to be one of the more
liberal members of a staunchly conservative court.

All this reveals the hypocrisy of standard conservative arguments about the courts and judicial nominations. Earlier this year, conservatives railed against Democratic threats to filibuster extreme Bush nominees. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) solemnly invoked the principle that "all nominees deserve an up-or-down vote." The Miers episode exposes an exception to this rule; if a nominee is not palatable to conservatives, that nominee does not deserve an up-or- down vote. He or she will be forced to withdraw, at the whim of ultraconservatives (some of whom are not elected officials).

For years, conservatives have promoted the idea that judges are not political creatures. Their objection to the "liberal judges" who supposedly infest our court system is that they are guided by politics, not law. That is what conservatives mean when they accuse judges of "legislating from the bench" and when they praise "strict constructionists" (supposedly guided by objective truth, not politics). The implication is that judges can and should decide cases based on objective legal principles, not on ideology.

But the reaction to Miers shows that conservatives do believe ideology has a place - it's just a question of which one. Thus, the cry against Miers: Conservatives could not be sure she was conservative enough.

To be sure, some did question Miers' qualifications. But the real issue was her ideology. Clarence Thomas was barely, if at all, more qualified than Miers. But conservatives did not torpedo his nomination and would gladly support someone in his mold, with his qualifications, today. What separated Miers from Thomas in the eyes of conservatives was not her legal credentials, but her ideological ones.

Lawyers, judges, and law professors have observed for years the fact that politics does not stop at the courtroom door. Legal realism, the commonsense-based theory that judges' personal views, biases, and subjective preferences affect their decision-making, has been around since the 1930s. Law students learn about it in school and see it firsthand when they go into practice.
No objective legal source can tell judges how to apply ambiguous, but deeply important, constitutional principles such as "due process" and "equal protection" to cases. Judges are, at least in some cases, guided by their politics. They are human beings, not machines. That is the lesson of legal realism, and that is the reality of our legal system.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I'd rather have a human being deciding death penalty cases than a computer that can spit out supposedly objective strict-constructionist logic. It is past time that we openly acknowledge this reality as regards judicial nominations, especially Supreme Court nominations.

Presidents choose nominees for political reasons, hoping they will deliver decisions congenial to their ideology and party. It should be fair game for either party to challenge a nominee as too far to one or another political side of the spectrum, too much outside the mainstream. We should all acknowledge this reality: that nominees are themselves judged, at least in part, on their political views (to the extent that they can be known, or discovered).

Now that President Bush, in deference to the conservatives who sank Miers' nomination, has nominated the conservative Judge Samuel Alito, a judge nicknamed "Scalito" for his similarities to Scalia, liberals should feel free to challenge the nominee. If conservatives chastise them for injecting politics into the process, liberals can point to Harriet Miers and remind conservatives that they did not invent the idea that, when it comes to judicial nominees, politics matters.

(This piece appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer at )

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ten More Years in Iraq?

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to assure Americans that progress is being made in Iraq and that there is a plan for victory. However, when she was asked whether U.S. soldiers might still be in Iraq in five years, or even ten years, she refused to answer, saying she couldn’t speculate and that we would stay until victory was achieved. When Senator John Kerry asked Secretary Rice to define victory, she gave an answer that set new standards for vagueness and uncertainty. She said victory means “laying the foundation for an Iraqi government that is clearly moving along its political path…a permanent government that has begun to really deal with its sectarian differences..”.

It has already been two and a half years since U.S. forces entered Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. Before the war, the Bush administration reassured us that victory would be speedy and relatively painless. No one talked about troops being stationed in Iraq indefinitely and it is hard to believe Americans would have supported a war that called for our troops to police the country for two years, let alone ten.

Two and a half years later, the time for empty promises and vague pronouncements has passed. It is absolutely unacceptable to consider the possibility that U.S. troops might stay in Iraq until 2015 or later. It is equally unacceptable to believe that Secretary Rice’s standard for victory has any more solidity than a cloud in the sky. U.S. troops are going to stay in Iraq until the country makes real progress on its sectarian differences? If history is any guide, that could take decades, if it ever happens. Imagine if Richard Nixon had sent U.S. troops to the West Bank of the Jordan River in 1973, declaring they would stay there until sectarian differences were ironed out. Our soldiers might still be there; the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis still continues, 30 years later, despite an ongoing Israeli troop presence. Or what if the United States had sent troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, announcing the same benchmark for victory? We might have welcomed our troops home twenty nine years later, when the Good Friday agreement was concluded.

It is irrational to ask Americans to put their heads down and wait for Secretary Rice’s nebulous vision of victory to be realized. And it is simply not worth the price. Following Secretary Rice’s “plan” might mean ten or twenty more years of U.S. troop presence in Iraq, billions of dollars, and, most unacceptably, thousands of deaths.

Leaving Iraq does not mean giving up the war on terror. To the contrary, it would create an opportunity for America to re-focus its energies on fighting that war. This war cannot be won by occupying countries; insurgents will hold out for years, as they have already done in Iraq and Afghanistan. That does not mean we are letting the terrorists win. It means we will use our military intelligence, in cooperation with allies, to hunt down terrorists wherever they are and to thwart their plans. Victory in this war means, first and foremost, preventing terrorist attacks. Despite what the Bush administration insists, keeping American troops in Iraq does not prevent Al Qaeda from striking outside Iraq. If that logic were true, the attacks in Madrid and London (not to mention others in Bali, Eqypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) would not have occurred.

Fighting the war on terror also means asking the military to hunt down Al Qaeda members, not by indefinitely occupying countries where they are located (if that was the strategy, the United States would have to send our troops to a host of countries across the globe), but by performing clearly defined missions. For instance, when intelligence locates a Qaeda training camp in the mountains of Afghanistan, troops would be sent in to root them out. These troops would not spend their down time presenting easy targets for insurgents; rather, they would act as rapid response forces, quickly responding to threats, performing their jobs, and returning home.

Our soldiers have done everything that we have asked of them. Their families have done everything asked of them. Too many soldiers have died, been maimed, and been psychologically scarred. Too many families have lost loved ones. It is time to bring our troops home and re-focus our energies on a real war against terror, not the mirage the Bush administration has offered us in Iraq.