Monday, February 07, 2005


Doing the Watusi at the polling station: Reflections on David Corn

I apologize for the recent dearth of output. The truth is that the news is so uniformly appalling that I can hardly bear to read it, much less comment on it. But comment I must.

I had not intended to mention the Iraqi election. I had supposed that anyone on the left who had followed events leading to the election would have a glimmer of what they had witnessed. But the power of the media, directed and manipulated by corporations and government, has proven me wrong.

All this was slowly percolating through my unconscious when I read a reference on Buzzflash to a controversy that has erupted between Mark Crispin Miller, journalism prof, comedian and writer on the one hand and David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, which is purportedly a "progressive" magazine.

The controversy per se is as monumentally uninteresting as is the writing of David Corn. Miller forwarded a piece suggesting that Corn is a "mole" within the progressive movement. I take no position on that. But anyone who gets a berth as a Fox News contributor is not likely to express sentiments with which I can agree nor expound them at a depth that bears consideration despite the disagreement.

So I toddled over to Corn's site and read his view of the controversy, then took a look at some of his recent writing. Corn reviewed the State of the Union speech and found that "George W. Bush knows what to do with a bully pulpit." He found the response by Democrats Reid and Pelosi woefully lacking in media savvy: "It was middling at best, perhaps awful." The subtext of all this is that Corn seems to think that the State of the Union is politics-as-usual. When will those Democrats get a clue? he seems to say. But I am wondering when Corn will get a clue that we are not dealing with politics-as-usual.

Then I came to his entry of February 1: "Hooray for the Purple Fingers (Is Bush Right About Something?)," portions of which I'll reprint with some interlinear comment. (All emphasis is mine.)

Can it be that Bush was right about Iraq?
No, David. It can't.
Now that I have your attention, I don't mean to suggest that he was right to hype (that is, make up) the WMD-threat Iraq posed to Americans, or that he was right to rush to an elective and quasi-unilateral war without planning for the obvious political, social, economic, and security challenges that would emerge after the initial invasion, or that he was right to rejigger his justification for the war and turn this military campaign into phase one of a global crusade to bring "God's gift" (that is, freedom) to some of the repressed of the word, or that he was right to say repeatedly that the United States and the world are safer because of the invasion of Iraq, or that he was right to stay the course.
I'm relieved that you don't mean to suggest that, David.
But there was something wonderful about the election. As columnist Bob Herbert noted in The New York Times on Monday, much was wrong with the election. Voters were not fully informed. Candidate lists had been kept a secret until right before the election. Candidates had been assassinated. The Sunni boycott largely succeeded.

Yep. It went pretty much according to expectation.

And the true impact of the election will not be immediately known. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for the first President Bush, speculated before the election that if the voting produced a national assembly dominated by Shiites and lacking significant Sunni representation, more civil strife--perhaps civil war--could ensue. Then again, maybe it won't.

Ah. Here's where Corn really gets going. He suggests that maybe—against all analysis, all rationality, all common sense—Bush is really on to something here.

But the purple finger was a powerful symbol. (Elections workers dyed the index fingers of voters to prevent people from voting more than once.) How many Americans would risk their lives to cast a vote?

If you continue to write crap like this, David, we may have an opportunity to find out. But since you're giving the fair and balanced Fox view of things, I think it would be well to point out that Iraqis risk their lives to go to the vegetable stands, to refill their gas tanks, to visit a doctor—or just to stay home, where U.S. troops or newly trained Iraqi troops may invade at any moment. You have now helped propagate the government line that Iraqis were "risking their lives to vote."

The Iraqis risk their lives to do absolutely anything, and the voting occurred on what was—for them—the safest day of the year. The Shias voted at the direction of Sistani on pain of damnation if they didn't. The Kurds voted to secure their hoped-for independent, oil-rich homeland. And the Sunnis stayed home.

Even if Iraqis were unsure of the candidates or the policy differences between the parties--and they probably did know how the Communist Party, the religious Shiite parties, and the secular Shiite parties differed from one another--many were visibly overjoyed, after living through years of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, to participate in an exercise they considered a step toward democratic self-rule. And let's not be naive: for many it was a step toward achieving power for their ethnic group.

I'm glad that noticing the ethnic-group aspect has saved you from "naïveté." But I suspect that many Iraqis, since they hadn't a clue as to who or what they were voting for, were overjoyed at being treated half-decently for one day out of the year. And for what it's worth, they had already "participated in an exercise" of voting while Saddam was in power.

Critics of the war and the continuing quasi-occupation ought not to diminish what occurred on Sunday.
Why shouldn't we? Quasi-occupation? It's a full-scale occupation, David, with quasi-control. Not the same thing, really.
And they have to face this: there is more democracy in Iraq today than there was two years ago. That is a good thing. As was the capture of Saddam Hussein. When that happened, I noted that good can come out of bad.

There is "more democracy today than two years ago?" This is pure babble.

First, David, you have Sistani to thank, not George Bush, that there was a vote held at all. And it was a smart decision by Sistani. Since the U.S. and much of the rest of the world is giving such lip-service to "democracy," there was no better way to secure the Shia claim to power than by holding an election. A poll would have served as well, but the force of an "election" is undeniable.

Second, the act of voting doth not a democracy make. Saddam Hussein held an election shortly before the invasion. Turnout was excellent and, surprise!, he won. If anyone wants to search the archives you'll probably find Iraqis dancing in the street before the videocameras.

Third, as for good coming out of bad—I've been looking for a little good in all this, but it's hard to find if you don't happen to own stock in Halliburton. Take any measure you like for the well-being of the Iraqis—economic development, health status, death-rate, education, advancement of women and minorities, political independence—and explain to me what good has come out of this invasion. Of course, unless the U.S. chooses the path of total annihilation, as advocated by some voices on the right, something, somewhere in Iraq will eventually improve. But to credit it to the invasion is a bit of a stretch, don't you think?

The election does not justify the war. It does not excuse Bush for greasing the way to war with false assertions and hyperbolic fearmongering. Nor does it mean the war will work out in the end and yield a democratic, stable Iraq allied with the United States in the fight against violent Islamic extremists. But those who opposed the war ought not to be blinded by their justifiable disregard for Bush. What was good for Bush--a decent turnout--was also good for Iraqis and for those who want an end to the United States' military involvement in Iraq. The critics now should point to those purple fingers and argue that we need more such becolored digits, that such fingers ought to be truly pushing the buttons of the new government, and that they ought to be increasingly on the triggers of guns used to secure Iraqi citizens from the insurgents who have declared war not only on US troops but on democracy itself. And soon those stained fingers should be waving at departing US forces, not pointing angrily at them.

So you've really bought into it, haven't you, David? We've brought democracy to the Iraqis. (Well, you say, more "democracy.") What we need to do now is follow the Bush administration line and stay there until democracy is in full flower. Great plan, David. Have you been getting late night calls from Paul Wolfowitz?

Does Bush crave an extended American presence in Iraq? To control oil supplies? To maintain military bases permanently (from which the United States could attack Iran)? To project US hegemony in the region? I don't know.

If you don't know by now, David, I don't know why anyone should take your writing seriously.

Perhaps Bush does want to skedaddle as soon as he thinks he can. I find it hard to discern his true motives.

See comment above.

But those who do not want to see the United States remain in Iraq should share--and, yes, exploit--Bush's stated desire for democracy there. At the present, there is essentially no domestic political pressure on Bush to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

I know that a speech by Ted Kennedy calling for American troop withdrawal does not constitute significant political pressure. But I'll tell you what does—the polls. Americans do not like wars in which we appear to be losing. They do, on the other hand, thoroughly approve of wars where we appear to be winning. So if you convert this war from a "losing" proposition to a "winning" proposition, you'll see the poll numbers climb in support of the war. And not just this one!

Yet as Iraq moves toward forming its own government--even through imperfect means--it will be easier for Iraqis and their leaders to press for the end to the United States' quasi-occupation of the country.

I don't expect the new Iraqi government to call for a withdrawal of US troops right away. As Middle East expert Juan Cole has noted, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has conspicuously not signaled any desire to see the United States pull out of Iraq. Why should he? Right now, American troops, not Shiites, are fighting the Baathist remnants. Still, progress in Iraq--and the election looks like progress of some sort--strengthens the argument for eventual US disengagement.

The operative word here is "eventual." Until "democracy" is established? That's not going to happen in your lifetime, David.

Until enough Iraqi troops are trained? Well, there's a little problem here. If we are only going to train the Shia, perhaps we could establish a Shia army to control the Sunnis, providing that we let the Kurds go their merry way and fight the Turks.

But the divisions of Iraqi society won't cease just because some Iraqis continue to sign up for the only employment in town. After all, religion is at play. Temporal concerns that create a basis for war may come and go, but a religious casus belli is eternal. And if you don't believe that, just ask Crusader George Bush.

Since the three main Iraqi groups will be able to concentrate more of their firepower on each other as soon as the Americans pull out, the training of the troops may make for a fiercer, better fought civil war, but it's not going to provide a rationale for the Americans to leave.

And since the antiwar movement in the Untied States is not going to force the withdrawal of the troops anytime in the near future, the quicker Iraq moves toward creating a full-fledged government that can assume security responsibilities, the sooner Bush will lose his stated justification for maintaining US troops in Iraq. The more purple fingers the better.
Feeling a little defeatist, David? So you think those of us opposed to the war should just "go along to get along"? Have you ever noticed, David, that George Bush loses his stated justifications for the war like I lose hair? And with no ill effects other than looking not quite so pretty? If you think that the loss of a justification is going to make this gang back away from their imperial designs, you need to stop writing and seek help.

But here we are with purple fingers and no place to point them.

Here's my proposal, David—that we try to establish democracy in the United States. I know that you think all this talk of stolen U.S. elections is just wild conspiracy theory. But anyone who thinks the Iraqis have just held a democratic election should have no problem believing in a little conspiracy theory now and then.

When and if we ever hold free and fair elections in this country, we should all dip our middle fingers in ink and dance when the videocameras show up. Some will do the Watusi. A friend of mine will probably do the Mash Potato, which is a Low Country ethnic dance. I will jitterbug.

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