Sunday, February 19, 2006

When truth hurts

While parts of the Middle East and other areas of the Muslim world erupt again, this time over the publication of political cartoons depicting the image of Mohammed, first in Scandinavia and then throughout other parts of Europe, we had our own mini-eruption last week, at least inside the beltway, over a political cartoon published in the Washington Post by my favorite political cartoonist, Tom Toles.

Admittedly, the comparison of the two events ends there. There are no demands here that the Washington Post be punished by our government, or that Toles be fired, rather, the issue is over the intent, content, and propriety of his January 29th cartoon. The caricature came in the immediate aftermath of a report, commissioned by the Pentagon and subsequently leaked to the press, that outlined the sustained damage being done to our Army as a result of the strains placed upon it because of the sustained deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Subsequently, a peeved and defensive Secretary Rumsfeld expressed his disagreement with the conclusions of the study, and rather, pointed out that these experiences had created a different Army; far from on the verge of losing its readiness, the wars had made this Army “battle hardened.”

Toles’ cartoon, linked here , criticizes Rumsfeld’s remarks, and generated a letter of protest from the Pentagon, signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Vice Chairman, and each of the respective service chiefs, arguing that the depiction of a soldier with multiple amputated limbs, makes light of their tremendous personal sacrifice for their country, and was in effect beyond the pale.

I often re-post Tom Toles’ cartoons, because so often, as the proverb says, a picture speaks a thousand words. When I saw the cartoon last week, it made me wince, but the thought that it was disrespectful to seriously injured soldiers never entered my mind. Instead, it forced me to think about the thousands of amputees these wars have produced. In an article some days later in the same paper, unrelated to this controversy, the photo of a young man (maybe 21 years old) walking on his two new prosthetic legs and with his new prosthetic arm, receiving physical therapy at Walter Reed Medical Center, further drove home the reality of this tragedy.

Yesterday, the “letters to the editor” section of the Post dealt with the controversy, with equal numbers of letters deploring the cartoon, as those who supported its principles and message. Mr. Toles himself stated that he had no intention whatsoever of making light of the tremendous pain inflicted upon the soldiers, marines and their families, and one of the letters was from the Director of the Disabled American Veterans Association, also expressing his opinion that he saw nothing insulting or offensive about the sad truth portrayed in the cartoon.

I chose not to re-post that cartoon of Mr. Toles here, because it is quite disturbing, but I think its publication is important, and I linked to it in case you haven’t seen it and wish to judge for yourselves. I absolutely don’t doubt the genuine sincerity that the Joint Chiefs expressed in the unusual letter they sent to the Washington Post, but I don’t agree with their premise. A letter to the editor from yesterday’s paper, reprinted below, best sums up my sentiments. This is a link to all of the letters published yesterday in response to this debate, and they’re all interesting and make valid, intellectually sound arguments, whatever side of the issue they support.

I was a lowly sergeant in the Army, not a member of the Joint Chiefs, which is probably why I get the Tom Toles cartoon showing the Army as an amputee, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld making the kind of dismissive commentary on military challenges for which he is infamous. The cartoon was tasteless, but it wasn't pointless.

This administration hides the coffins, the rehab wards and the force-readiness statistics to protect itself from criticism of its mismanagement. It would like Americans to be oblivious to the financial and human cost of war.
Whoever wrote the letter for the Joint Chiefs knew that the cartoon wasn't about wounded soldiers. It was about rear-echelon political hacks who dismiss the results of their foolish decisions, who never seem to learn from their mistakes and who don't seem to care that when they write a check, the infantry signs it in blood.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

One of a kind

Andrew Sullivan links to this AP article that discusses some of Bill Clinton's comments before the annual gathering of the world's movers and shakers in Davos, Switzerland, ostensibly because of the humorous retort Mr. Clinton came up with in response to a question concerning advice to future U.S. presidents. The quip is indeed funny, but I suspect that Mr. Sullivan points to the article more so because of the substantive clarity and sensibility of Clinton's remarks, though he won't come right out and say that because he so loathes Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton's speech doesn't really contain anything earth-shattering or particularly new, but when you read his comments on global warming, Iran, Hamas, globalization, etc., and then look at the recent approach by the United States, particularly rhetorically, on all of these issues, it becomes very clear how far away from the approach Mr. Clinton advocates we currently are, officially.

I'm an unabashed fan of Bill Clinton, obviously, though I don't agree with everything he says, nor do I pretend that his shortcomings are not as gargantuan as his amazing skills. But when you read an article like this one, which describes the rapt nature of the audience, hanging on his every word, it's difficult to imagine another American leader (or another international personality, for that matter) who has that kind of stature , even (and especially) among those who diametrically oppose much of what he stands for.

It is also a sort of reminder of how close November of 2008 really is, and of the undeniable fact that no one currently on the horizon from either of our two political parties even comes close to capturing the imagination, or being able to articulate a vision for the country and the world the way that President Clinton can.

We can all agree that hopefully, somehow, that will change over the course of the coming months...

Friday, February 10, 2006

The price is right

The former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year has accused the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" intelligence on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war, and of ignoring warnings that the country could easily fall into violence and chaos after an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Paul R. Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, acknowledges the U.S. intelligence agencies' mistakes in concluding that Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he said those misjudgments did not drive the administration's decision to invade.

"Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war," Pillar wrote in the upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. Instead, he asserted, the administration "went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq."
For an administration that refuses to accept responsibility or blame, increasing proportionately as you go up the chain, it seems (seemed) remarkable that shortly after the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the retired and some would say disgraced former head of the CIA, George Tenet, would receive the nation’s highest medal awarded to a civilian, the Medal of Freedom. Although President Bush spoke of Mr. Tenet in the most glowing terms, there was little doubt that Tenet had resigned to take the fall for the debacle that was the decision to invade Iraq.

I try not to be too cynical, but it becomes harder and harder every day. In the Intelligence Community, the highest substantive authority on regional intelligence issues is the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for a region. He or she is the person who coordinates all of the analysis from eight or ten separate organizations that independently produce strategic intelligence products (DIA, CIA, NSA, Army, Navy, State, Treasury, etc.) Far from a low-level player, he is the voice who informs the Director and, consequently, the President.

It’s great that the Washington Post featured this article prominently on page one today, because it is VERY important news, and one more (of many) damning pieces of evidence proving that the Bush administration duped the Congress and the American people into invading Iraq.

Sadly, my guess is that this, too, will be old news by tomorrow. So, a Medal of Freedom is the going price for staying quiet and allowing the buck to stop at one’s level, or so the Tenet example would imply. I hope he doesn’t have it mounted near a mirror, where at some point he’d be forced to look at that medal, and himself, at the same moment…