Slacker Friday


Just to recap, I've got a new "Think Again" column called "Blaming Success, Upholding Failure" here, and a short comment on the Tony Judt mishigas here, and my Nation online column on AIPAC is here. And this week's Nation column, "No 'Comments,' " is here.

In the first of her two-part series on the Libby case ("Pardon Me?"), posted at TomDispatch last Tuesday, former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega recently suggested that George Bush, Dick Cheney, and their supporters might already be preparing the groundwork for a presidential pardon of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, perhaps even before the case against him begins in mid-January. (After all, who wants all that ugly 2002-2003 linen aired, as it will be, under oath and in the political equivalent of an O.J. trial?)

Now, de la Vega focuses on the apparent Republican strategy of desensitizing the public to the impact of a pardon -- and especially on the recent revelation in Hubris, the new book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff, of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the initial leaker of information on CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's identity to columnist Robert Novak back in 2003. De la Vega concludes that Armitage's story, picked up by pundits (and administration backers) as the "poison pill" that will destroy Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is full of remarkably self-interested holes.

By now, the CIA leak case that left agent Valerie Plame twisting, twisting in the wind back in 2003 has itself gained so many twists and turns, not to speak of blind alleys and treacherous cul-de-sacs that many people have simply lost the ability to follow it -- which is why de la Vega offers a complex guided tour to some pretty venal territory in this piece, focusing among other things on the role of influential Republican "fixer" and lobbyist Ken Duberstein. Before we're done, one way or the other, the Libby case is guaranteed to suck some more air out of the Bush political room.

The Caddy, with a big "****" on it ... here.

Slacker Friday:

Name: LTC Bob Bateman
Hometown: Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

Building in Baghdad

I worked inside a very small perimeter while I was stationed in Iraq. A few hundred square yards, it was a shell within a shell. There is nothing terribly exceptional about this fact, except for the fact that it seemed we never had enough space. At one point there were fifteen officers in my "shop," including myself, working in one room which measured roughly '30 by '20. This was a tad tight.

Accordingly, the command group "let" a contract (no, I don't know why the verb used here is "let", I leave it to an English major to explain) for the construction of two additional buildings. We wanted nothing fancy. Hell, not even windows were included in the design, although in that physical environment windows made no sense anyway. All we wanted were two simple two-story buildings that were the architectural equivalent of Legos buildings. That was the situation when, a few months after my deployment, I traveled to a base in Qatar.

Initially I was only planning to be gone for about six days, but various factors, ranging from the random effects of the weather to the decidedly not-random efforts of the enemy, kept me away for ten days. On my return to our humble compound I was surprised to see that there were, already, two solid-looking steel framed structures, complete with concrete-poured floors. It seemed to my amateur eyes that, if this pace was maintained, we might have some extra leg-room in just a few weeks. But one day passed, and then two and three, and despite the obvious evidence of the progress that had occurred while I was gone, it seemed that the work had suddenly stopped. I was confused.

"What's going on there?" I asked 'A,' one of my friends and translators, during one of our all-too-frequent smoke breaks outside, next to the skeletal structure. (Even in Baghdad one cannot smoke inside a US Army controlled building. Mortars and rockets be damned as causation, we know the real threat to a soldier's health.)

'A' laughed. "The Americans, they fucked up," he said, repeating his curious habit of apparently forgetting that, duh, I am an American. "They let Iraqis build it! It is a piece of shit!" Having lived in Baghdad for months at that point, I was in no position to argue with this life-long Baghdad resident, surrounded as we were by evidence supporting his opinion.

"Why? How?" I asked, "Whaddaya mean?" I was curious for specifics because I am personally ignorant of anything related to structural engineering, and I know it.

'A', to his credit, did not bother to pretend that he knew anything about the topic of structural engineering either, excepting the fact that the evidence on his side, the end product, is so blatant to anyone living in Baghdad that the point is beyond contention. (The fact that 'A' didn't deign to act more knowledgeable than he actually was, to the culturally literate, may also give some indication of the depth of our relationship). "I don't know May-Jor, I just know they screwed it up and if they build the whole thing, it falls down." He finished this last with a dramatic hand gesture and a sad half laugh.

Not long afterwards, I cornered Major Russ. Russ was not only an Army Engineer, but in his civilian life (Russ was, and is, a Reservist) he was also, coincidentally, a project manager for a major construction company and a qualified civil engineer in the States. In short, he knew what he was talking about. What I learned from Russ was relatively easy to understand, even for my non-engineering mind.

Apparently the building was built in what is referred to as a "Slab foundation construction." In the course of building this framework for the two-story structure, the Iraqi construction company had not bothered to, and here I will use a construction term as it was explained to me, "anchor the I-Beam footers." I think I have that right.

The upshot is that as it dries and sets, concrete contracts, and warps to some degree, and this occurs over the course of days, months, and years. On top of that, the stress of the weight of the structure itself also has something to do with this process. The solution, apparently, is to anchor metal bars into the cement, in the foundation, so as to spread the structural "load" of this tendency and mitigate against it. We've all seen this, I am sure, passing a construction site.

Well, the bottom line is that the Iraqi construction company did not choose to build the I-beam foundations into these "anchored footings," or perhaps they didn't make the "anchors" at all, (which, as I understand it, are apparently reinforced blocks that are used because of the stresses that any college engineer knows the building will experience over the course of its structural life). If you don't do this, I am told, your building has a tendency to warp.

Engineers refer to this with the technical phrase of "a bad thing."

When an American engineer caught the Iraqis in the midst of this much-cheaper-but-less-sound process, the construction was halted. A few weeks later I watched as the proto-structures (still just frames at this point) were torn apart, with much grumbling, and then with American engineers watching each step, the "footings" were created to modern standards, and the whole process started again. At the time I thought it was a tad bit anal of my friend Russ. Sometimes I am a fool.

The result of allowing Iraqi "engineers" to design and oversee Iraqi construction projects is, sadly, evident. See here and here.

All of which brings up an interesting conundrum for both the anti-war left and the pro-war right.

Many of my peers want to cite the insurgent British officer T.E. Lawrence, who once famously said of his own work with Arabs in war, "It is better that they do it imperfectly than that you do it perfectly. For it is their war and their country and your time here is limited." It would seem, to go by the number of times that I have seen this insurgent quoted by politicians of the left, right, and center, let alone by professional pundits, that people believe this dicta as valid. Yet despite quoting it ad nauseam, they always act surprised when "they" (in this case the Iraqis) don't actually perform to our standards. The proof of their convictions is in the pudding, and I am afraid that it appears that on neither side of the aisle are people actually willing to believe that idea of letting them do it themselves. Most Americans seem to want, no matter what they may say, for the Iraqis to be "just like us." The best evidence to this effect is written in, well, concrete.

It cannot be both.

Either we accept a simple fact, that the nation of Iraq does not have competent engineers and builders (and believe me folks, anyone who has seen even one of Saddam's crappy and half-assed constructed so-called palaces has seen ample evidence) and we accept that they will, left to their own devices, build crap ... or we stick our heads in the sand and absolutely pretend that Iraq had a better than 50% literacy rate when we invaded (yes, sad, but true), and that the product of their so-called "engineering" colleges and universities was in any way truly competent in anything related to modern engineering and the use of technology from the 1980s forward. It seems to me that, unfairly for the Iraqis, both sides of the political debate here in the States want to, variously, make claims on both sides of that evidence line. That is perhaps the saddest part of this whole pathetic story.

You can write to LTC Bob at .

Name: Stupid
Hometown: Chicago

Hey Eric, it's Stupid to be a unilateralist. For a moment, forget North Korea. Forget Iran. Did you know that Russia has been working diligently on their own missile technology? In the last several years they have made major developments in their "mobile maneuvering warheads" -- an attempt to overcome US missile defense systems. It's uncertain which technology is ahead at the moment. Coincidentally, a few days before the North Korea's nuclear test, I was looking at back issues of The Weekly Standard published during the Clinton presidency. The only article I found whose subject was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda concluded with the urgent need to develop missile defense systems. (I'll give them this: they're consistent. The obsession with Saddam Hussein is plain, with religious terrorism almost an afterthought. More foreshadowing: the two are sometimes conflated.)

Surprisingly, The Weekly Standard hasn't written much about missile defense, at least until a few months ago. Probably because they are embarrassed. In 2004, several months before the election, there was a big show of deploying ground based missile interceptors in Alaska. After the election (in December) tests failed and a Pentagon spokesman claimed they never said it was "operational." Since then there has been some successful tests of ground based interceptors. Alas, the costs of the war in Iraq led to deep cuts in the Missile Defense Agency budget. The space-based interceptor program has been cut so much that apparently significant work on it won't start for at least five years.

Admittedly, Democrats have not been the biggest supporters of missile defense spending in general and "Star Wars" in particular. But clearly if given a choice between $4 billion for a month's worth of Iraq, they'd have been happy to cut a deal. According to the Heritage Foundation, the MDA's budget is $10 billion per YEAR. I don't disagree with the calls to reengage North Korea, but it wouldn't hurt to remind people that Dubya has "robbed Peter to pay Paul." Where's "a comma" when you need one?

Name: Ken Carlson
Hometown: Delmar, NY

Hey Doc. I followed you over from MSNBC; they should know I no longer visit their site as often as I once had. Your exodus is the primary reason for that. ...

On to a link on some very bad news you posted yesterday (Wednesday): the death of Michael Oremus, the third person from Highland, NY to die in Iraq.

I grew up in Highland and my parents still live there. Michael's older brother Eric was a year below me in school; we played Little League together, however, and his dad Bruce helped coach the team. I remember when Mrs. Oremus was pregnant with Michael, as Eric and I were in HS and it was just a bit unusual to be adding to the family at that stage (my mom always referred to such cherished additions as "caboose babies"). While I left town years ago, never to return as a resident, it's still "home" in the way that only the place where you grow up can ever be referred to as "home."

Anyhow, when Highland lost its first two sons to the Iraq war a couple years ago, I thought it was odd. There's a park in town, overlooking the Mid-Hudson Bridge, named after two locals who died in Vietnam (Johnson & Iorio). "Strange," I thought after the second Highland death in Iraq, "how a decade-long war fought by draftees resulted in two deaths while this relatively short war in Iraq, fought by volunteers, has already resulted in the deaths of two kids from my hometown."

Those deaths didn't change my opinion on Iraq. I always thought it was a misguided war and that that the Bush Administration deliberately exaggerated the threat that Saddam posed in an effort to scare the American public into supporting the war. But I felt that once we were there, we really shouldn't leave until Iraq was a stable and secure nation with a functioning government. "We broke it, we bought it," I figured. "We have an obligation to stay until the country is straightened out."

I no longer think like that. It's time to bring the troops home. NOW. This war was a mistake from its inception -- negligently planned and incompetently executed -- and to continue it now in the face of the realities on the ground would be criminal. How can we ask one more family to go through what the Oremuses are going through right now?

Perhaps this reaction is just a visceral, parochial response to a death that literally hits close to home. And I may not be the most objective person when it comes to this sort of thing, as my father's father was killed in action in Korea in 1951 when my father was just four years old, and to say that that changed my father's whole life would be an understatement. But I no longer care about the geopolitical consequences or the political fallout of "cutting and running" if you will. I care more about the tens of thousands of military families that are hoping and praying they never have to live through what the Oremus family is going through right now, and what my father's family lived through 55 years ago (at least with the Korean Conflict, the enemy was the clear aggressor and there was a UN mandate to turn them back). No -- forget the politics; this is now a moral issue. To paraphrase John Kerry from 1971, how can you ask an American soldier to be the last to die for a mistake?

I guess it's really a rhetorical question, but I've found my answer in the recent death of a childhood neighbor: it's time -- actually, past time -- to get out of Iraq. It may be too late for the families of the 2700+ American soldiers who have died there already, but it's not too late to make sure that number stops growing.

Name: John Ransom
Hometown: Carlisle, PA

Hello Eric.

I didn't think much of the profile of Hitchens in this week's New Yorker. I think there's a strong tendency in this piece, and elsewhere, to respond to Hitchens (the person) too much in terms of the natural fascination Americans have for well-spoken British males. I share this interest and find Hitchens' voice seductive. But it can only be a starting point. The New Yorker profile seems to spend its whole time under the spell of this kind of reaction. For one thing, we never learn "what happened to Christopher Hitchens" (152), which seems like the promise of the piece. It's not even really posed. For instance, the author quotes Hitchens saying some things that turn out to be very wrong on April 9, 2003, the day Hussein's statue was pulled down in Baghdad. "So it turns out," writes Hitchens, "that all the slogans of the anti-war movement were right after all. And their demands were just. 'No war on Iraq,' they said -- and there wasn't a war on Iraq. Indeed, there was barely a 'war' at all. 'No Blood for Oil,' they cried, and the oil wealth of Iraq has been duly rescued from attempted sabotage with scarcely a drop spilled." But Hitchens was wrong about all that and much else. The question "What happened to Christopher Hitchens?" needs to address this problem in his thinking: How is it that he's so wrong about so much and so ruthlessly contemptuous of others who were a lot more right than he was, and is? What accounts, not just for his support for the Iraq war, but his take-no-prisoners spleen? Hitchens is quoted replying to war critics: "We should have left Iraq the way it was? However I replay the tape, however much I wish things had been done differently, I can't get to that position" (154). Okay, maybe so. But what we've seen over the past years is not a Hitchens who "can't get to" such-and-such position, but a Hitchens who liberally urinates all over anyone who "can't get to" his view that it's alright for democratically elected governments to lie all day long to their citizens in support of a war that Hitchens -- not the democracy -- supports.

Name: Roger Ward
Hometown: Tacoma, WA

In response to Daphne Chyprious of Springfield, Illinois: There has been long-term usage of the term "Afro-American" by African-Americans, and it is still currently being used in very refined company. The "Afro-American Newspaper" (Washington, D.C.) was founded in 1892, by former slave John H. Murphy, Sr. There are several museums and historical societies which use the term in their names, such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (Washington, DC), The Museum of Afro-American History (Boston), the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society Museum (Jersey City), The Afro-American Cultural Center (Charlotte), and the Afro American Historical Association of Fauquier County (Virginia). Distinguished university programs use the term, including The Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University (Washington, DC) and The Afro-American Studies Interdepartmental Program (UCLA). Closer to her home, she might want to check out the Afro-American Music festival held annually in Detroit.

Name: Robert Harris
Hometown: New York, NY

I'm gay and liberal but I've never been a fan of Barbra Streisand. My taste in divas runs more along the lines of Bette Midler (whose Rosemary Clooney tribute CD was wonderful), Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf. However, the guy from Kensington, MD, was way out of line to diss Ms. Streisand's' artistry. Just because her music isn't to your taste doesn't make it "dreck."

My only criticism of Babs has to do with her politics ... or rather how she presents those politics. I would probably agree with her on the overwhelming majority of issues, but perhaps she should talk to Bruce Springsteen about how to speak out about political issues without alienating a significant portion of her fans.

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