Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The United Republic of Fubar

Dry Creek Road After the Rain, Feb. 2007
When I was 17 years old I discovered that Lee Hays, a member of the famed folk group The Weavers was living one town over from me. Being the daughter of what I like to call "Greenwich Village Liberals," Hays was sort of a hero of mine - a fine musician and a brave activist.

We had a good, if not particularly strong radio station at my high school and I managed to arrange an interview with him and edited into a special interview. I have the tapes somewhere but they are on reel-to-reel and I’ve yet to have them transferred. But when I do, I’ll have it transcribed.

Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of a Methodist Preacher and became a union activist in the 1930s, finding his way to New York City where he met, performed and befriended Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, Josh White and Burl Ives. He wrote a number of important pro-union songs, including "Which Side Are You On," and later, co-wrote (with the Weavers) songs like "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" and "If I Had a Hammer." The group was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Hays lived in Croton-on-Hudson in a small house at the end of a long, narrow dusty road. I didn’t drive yet and my Mom dropped me off at his house and left me there at his front door. I knocked and heard this bellowing voice from inside telling me to come in.

In the Weavers’ old publicity shots, Hays stands out prominently. He was a big guy with the thick-rimmed glasses, more football player than folk singer who probably resembled in appearance anyway, the union-busting thugs that he and his fellow “agitators” faced off against when they were fighting for workers’ rights.

By the time I met him, he was in his late 60s and in failing health, still an impressive bear of men despite having lost both legs to a long battle with diabetes.

When I walked into that tiny, stuffy one-room house, Hays was still in bed, using his massive arms to grasp the metal bar hanging from the ceiling and pull himself into a wheelchair. We got situated, sitting outside on his small porch, which faced a wooded area. It was a beautiful spot but not so great for making a tape recording - the sound of birds and a barking dog in the background can be heard clearly on the tape, sometimes loud enough to where you couldn’t hear us talking.

The conversation covered his history as an activist and the music and politics, of course. I was already a believer. I grew up in a household where the heroes were people like Richard Wright, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King, Edward R. Murrow, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and blacklisted writers like Paddy Cheyevsky.

I felt like I was bridging a gap to an forgotten American history, to a place and people who had been bludgeoned under the pressure of the young and oh-so eager young Reagan Republicans who were in the process of turning the word “liberal” into a dirty word.

It was spring of 1981, right before Reagan was shot outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., when Alexander Haig stepped all over the Constitutional chain of power to claim he was in “control” of the White House.

That summer, I was working as a counselor in a summer camp in Connecticut and I was corresponding with Hays. He sent me a postcard about Haig that I’ve kept all these years, “Such men would be funny if they weren’t so ominous,” he wrote.

He never got to see how it all turned out. A few weeks after he wrote to me, Hays died. I don’t know what the cause was but the local newspaper wrote that he had taken several local kids under his wing and one he was particularly close to, who had just gone off to college in Florida, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. The implication was he died of a broken heart.

I’ve thought a lot about Hays since, more so than ever after 9/11 and did not have to wonder how he would have reacted to the way our nation responded to it. He would have been disappointed. He would have wondered how America could have gone so far backward so fast.

I did not support this war with Iraq. I had many reasons, some of which were romantic notions, I admit. I didn’t know that the Bush Administration was lying about WMD, though it was clear from what I was reading, however, that they made up the link between Saddam and the 9/11 hijackers and later, that Saddam had tried to buy uranium in Niger.

I’m not a complete pacifist. I knew what Saddam Hussein was and that he needed to be ousted. But I read about the NeoCons and checked out their manifesto and I just didn't share their opinion of the world. It didn't seem rational to me.

I never made the connection between Al Qaeda and invading Iraq. Afghanistan, now that was a different matter altogether. That I got.

I wanted Osama Bin Laden to be brought to justice, his organization destroyed. Once that was accomplished, I wanted to see our nation ask the hard questions about how we had arrived at this point in history where we were so hated. I wanted to see a policy where we would find a way to reach the moderates in the Arab world, to find a bridge, a shared humanity.

I was called a traitor by my Republican “friends” who accused me of being soft, of not understanding the threat of not seeing that there were no “moderate” Arabs, that they all wanted us dead. They are, interestingly enough, not lining up to apologize for how wrong they were and how right I was. They are, interestingly enough, being very quiet these days.

I never doubted my point of view, in part because the people who seemed to share it were big thinkers who I respected, people like Joe Conason, Sidney Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Frank Rich and others. People who looked beyond the spin, the rhetoric, the blindly nationalistic post-9/11 call for blood, and asked difficult questions, shined a light on the truth.

The war progressed, mistake after mistake after mistake was made, lies were brought out into the open, the whole thing turned into a major political, military and geopolitical disaster, it occurred to me that we so-called weak, uninformed, unpatriotic, traitorous liberals were right after all.

The best book on Iraq I’ve read so far (and I’m going through them all) is “The Assassin’s Gate” by George Packer. It’s so brilliant on a number of levels, not the least of which because it is starkly honest, unflinchingly objective, searing and insightful.

Packer supported the invasion, if for different reasons than the Bush Administration. He spoke with American and foreign officials, military leaders and soldiers, American Iraqis, exiles and those who had lived under Saddam’s harsh rule. His book lays out in painful detail the manner in which the Bush Administration fucked up the war out of fundamentalist views, plain arrogance and outrageous negligence.

The errors the Administration made in the planning and handling of the war, and the post-war reconstruction efforts are horrendous all by themselves, but reading about them first hand, seeing the mistakes as they made them side-by-side with the obviousness of those errors, well it’s enough to make you sick to your stomach.

This isn’t, as some Administration supporters have argued, the result of unavoidable mistakes or bad luck or the residue of conditions and/or events that were unforeseen. They had all the information. They just ignored it. It's a clear example of a kind of hubris of historic proportions, the kind that has brought whole civilizations crashing to their knees.

And the beat goes on, unfettered, apparently.

A couple of weeks ago, there was this exchange at the White House press briefing as reported by Tim Grieve at

Reporter: Slides from a prewar briefing show that by this point, the U.S. expected that the Iraqi army would be able to stabilize the country and there would be as few as 5,000 U.S. troops there. What went wrong?

Tony Snow: I'm not sure anything went wrong. At the beginning of the Civil War, people thought it would all be over at Manassas. It is very difficult -- no, Jessica, the fact is, a war is a big, complex thing. And what you're talking about is a 2002 assessment. We're now in the year 2007, and it is well known by anybody who has studied any war that war plans immediately become moot upon the first contact with the enemy. For instance, a lot of people did not think that we would have the success we had moving swiftly into Baghdad. All I'm saying is that -- what happens is, you're looking at a prewar assessment, and there have been constant assessments ever since. A war is not a situation where you can sit down and neatly predict what exactly is going to happen. You make your best estimates, but you also understand that there are going to continue to be challenges, there are going to be things that you don't anticipate, there are going to be things that the enemy doesn't anticipate. And the most important task, frankly, is to continue to try to assess near-term and midterm to figure out how best to address the situation.

Reporter: But this estimate was monumentally wrong. So would the president, knowing what he knows today, still have decided to go into Iraq?

Snow: Yes. The president believes that we did the right thing in going into Iraq. The question is, should you saddle any military planner with an expectation that they're going to have perfect insight into what happens five years later? And the answer is, of course not. And I think if you talk to military planners, they do their very best under a situation. As you know, many reporters who were in the field then probably had different views about how things might be today. The fact is, the war is -- I know it's becoming a cliché, but it's true -- it's a highly complex enterprise. What you end up doing is you make your best guesses going in. It turns out, for instance, their assessment that they would be able to move swiftly into Baghdad was absolutely right. But you have -- it is pretty clear that some of the other assessments were wrong, and you deal with it.

We didn’t know. Things change. These are circular arguments that Bush officials throw out after anything goes wrong over there. Sure, it’s occasionally correct, but as Packer makes clear again and again in the pages of “The Assassin’s Gate,” the Administration rejected post-war planning, intelligence assessments, historical realities and expert analysis that didn’t conform to what they knew was going to happen. Worse, any little shred of evidence that supported their point of view, was given more weight then it deserved. It was a whole organization of sycophants.

This isn’t just policy errors that have damaged the United States’ reputation both with our friends and enemies, there are real world implications from the Iraq debacle.

- Iraq has descended into a civil war and become a breeding ground for terrorism.

- Al Qaeda, which was severely crippled in the military actions on Afghanistan after 9/11, has reportedly regrouped and encamped somewhere in the vast regions of Pakistan.

- Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s stubborn refusal to first send enough troops into Iraq and then later, when his own military and civilian authorities in Iraq were pleading for more troops, refusing to increase the numbers, damaged the military’s efforts at securing Iraq and, in part, led to the success of the insurgency.

- The Administration’s refusal to believe that guerilla war was possible, even though it was learned shortly into the war that this was exactly what Saddam had planned from the start, led to an unprepared military and, consequently, to the deaths of Americans.

- The Administration’s arrogant distaste for so-called ‘nation building” planning because it was favored by the Clinton Administration, led to a series of tragic blunders by post-war planning authorities, all of them either a direct result of Administration policy objectives that had no basis in reality, or from lack of good intelligence or analysis, most of which had gone unheeded or unread by key officials.

Packer makes a very strong case that the Iraq invasion was winnable had so many blunders not been committed by people more concerned with their view of the world, then with doing right by America and Iraq.

There is no question when looking at the overall picture of this war and what and who led us into it, that it was handled as badly as could be imagined. Some of this was just pure incompetence but most of this can only be attributed to a group of people in power who subscribed to a point of view with the kind of religious zeal that we’ve seen from the very people we are fighting.

The NeoCons wanted to spread Democracy throughout the Middle East, wanted them to be more like us. What they have wrought only make us seem more like them.

Like Lee Hays said so many years ago, it would be funny if it wasn’t so ominous.

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