The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Frank Rich - The Coup at Home

The Coup at Home

AS Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrested judges, lawyers and human-rights activists in Pakistan last week,
our Senate was busy demonstrating its own civic mettle. Chuck Schumer
and Dianne Feinstein, liberal Democrats from America’s two most highly
populated blue states, gave the thumbs up to Michael B. Mukasey, ensuring his confirmation as attorney general.

So what if America’s chief law enforcement official won’t say
that waterboarding is illegal? A state of emergency is a state of
emergency. You’re either willing to sacrifice principles to head off
the next ticking bomb, or you’re with the terrorists. Constitutional
corners were cut in Washington in impressive synchronicity with General
Musharraf’s crackdown in Islamabad.

In the days since, the coup in Pakistan has been almost universally
condemned as the climactic death knell for Bush foreign policy, the
epitome of White House hypocrisy and incompetence. But that’s not
exactly news. It’s been apparent for years that America was suicidal to
go to war in Iraq, a country with no tie to 9/11 and no weapons of mass
destruction, while showering billions of dollars on Pakistan, where
terrorists and nuclear weapons proliferate under the protection of a con man who serves as a host to Osama bin Laden.

General Musharraf has always played our president for a fool and still does, with the vague promise
of an election that he tossed the White House on Thursday. As if for
sport, he has repeatedly mocked both Mr. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and
his post-9/11 doctrine that any country harboring terrorists will be “regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

A memorable highlight of our special relationship with this prized
“ally” came in September 2006, when the general turned up in Washington
to kick off his book tour. Asked about the book by a reporter at a White House press conference,
he said he was contractually “honor bound” to remain mum until it hit
the stores — thus demonstrating that Simon & Schuster had more
clout with him than the president. This didn’t stop Mr. Bush from
praising General Musharraf for his recently negotiated “truce
to prevent further Taliban inroads in northwestern Pakistan. When the
Pakistani strongman “looks me in the eye” and says “there won’t be a
Taliban and won’t be Al Qaeda,” the president said, “I believe him.”

Sooner than you could say “Putin,” The Daily Telegraph of London reported
that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had signed off on this “truce.”
Since then, the Pakistan frontier has become a more thriving terrorist
haven than ever.

Now The Los Angeles Times reports that much of America’s $10 billion-plus in aid
to Pakistan has gone to buy conventional weaponry more suitable for
striking India than capturing terrorists. To rub it in last week,
General Musharraf released 25 pro-Taliban fighters in a prisoner exchange with a tribal commander the day after he suspended the constitution.

But there’s another moral to draw from the Musharraf story, and it
has to do with domestic policy, not foreign. The Pakistan mess, as The
New York Times editorial page aptly named it,
is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of
our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts
a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will
not be so easily eradicated.

In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our
democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble
the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like
Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to
democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with
bipartisan support and we barely shrug.

This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not
necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected
Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry
assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have
brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from
within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch
has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The
results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a
blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.

More Machiavellian still, Mr. Bush has constantly told the world he’s championing democracy even as he strangles it. Mr. Bush repeated the word “freedom” 27 times in roughly 20 minutes at his 2005 inauguration, and even presided over a “Celebration of Freedom
concert on the Ellipse hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It was an Orwellian
exercise in branding, nothing more. The sole point was to give cover to
our habitual practice of cozying up to despots (especially those who
control the oil spigots) and to our own government’s embrace of
warrantless wiretapping and torture, among other policies that invert
our values.

Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is
no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the
contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has
instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly
emulated by his Pakistani acolyte.

Take the Musharraf assault on human-rights lawyers. Our president
would not be so unsubtle as to jail them en masse. But earlier this
year a senior Pentagon official, since departed, threatened America’s major white-shoe law firms
by implying that corporate clients should fire any firm whose partners
volunteer to defend detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere. For its
part, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department did not round up
independent-minded United States attorneys and toss them in prison. It
merely purged them without cause to serve Karl Rove’s political agenda.

Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling
of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s
diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed
Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship
with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a
prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas
corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising
F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush
administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score:
Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.”

To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush
presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted
over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in
America has now been internalized as the new normal.

This is most apparent in the Republican presidential race, where
most of the candidates seem to be running for dictator and make no
apologies for it. They’re falling over each other to expand Gitmo, see
who can promise the most torture and abridge the largest number of
constitutional rights. The front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, boasts a proven
record in extralegal executive power grabs, Musharraf-style: After 9/11
he tried to mount a coup, floating the idea that he stay on as mayor in defiance of New York’s term-limits law.

What makes the Democrats’ Mukasey cave-in so depressing is that it
shows how far even exemplary sticklers for the law like Senators
Feinstein and Schumer have lowered democracy’s bar. When they argued
that Mr. Mukasey should be confirmed because he’s not as horrifying as
Mr. Gonzales or as the acting attorney general who might get the job
otherwise, they sounded whipped. After all these years of Bush-Cheney
torture, they’ll say things they know are false just to move on.

In a Times OpEd article justifying his reluctant vote to confirm a man Dick Cheney promised
would make “an outstanding attorney general,” Mr. Schumer observed that
waterboarding is already “illegal under current laws and conventions.”
But then he vowed to support a new bill “explicitly” making
waterboarding illegal because Mr. Mukasey pledged to enforce it.
Whatever. Even if Congress were to pass such legislation, Mr. Bush
would veto it, and even if the veto were by some miracle overturned,
Mr. Bush would void the law with a “signing statement.” That’s what he effectively did in 2005 when he signed a bill that its authors thought outlawed the torture of detainees.

That Mr. Schumer is willing to employ blatant Catch-22 illogic to
pretend that Mr. Mukasey’s pledge on waterboarding has any force shows
what pathetic crumbs the Democrats will settle for after all these
years of being beaten down. The judges and lawyers challenging General
Musharraf have more fight left in them than this.

Last weekend a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found
that the Democratic-controlled Congress and Mr. Bush are both roundly
despised throughout the land, and that only 24 percent of Americans
believe their country is on the right track. That’s almost as low as the United States’ rock-bottom approval ratings in the latest Pew surveys of Pakistan (15 percent) and Turkey (9 percent).

Wrong track is a euphemism. We are a people in clinical depression.
Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the
world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to,
they do not see a restoration anytime soon.

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