April 2012: The downsides of Obama’s “war-by-drone”

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

President Barack Obama has substituted “war-by-drone” for the “boots-on-the-ground” tactics employed by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While this approach has helped to remove American solders, sailors, and marines from harm’s way, it has raised a host of other questions about how Obama and those around him plan to deal with Islamic extremism.

Here are four reasons why we need a national discussion over whether “war-by-drone” should represent American foreign policy in the Middle East in the years ahead.

  • The drone war encourages an exclusively tactical approach to the challenges facing the U.S. in dealing with Islamic extremism. What is the strategic end game? An approach aimed at “decapitating” Al Queda and Taliban and other leaders of jihadist groups through drone strikes ignores more important ideological questions. How can support for jihadism be eroded? How can Islamic governments be pushed to address the underlying conditions that breed violent extremism (for example, Saudi-sponsored Wahbahi indoctrination and the high unemployment levels of young males in the Arab countries)? Relying on “whack-a-mole” tactics, like special ops and drone strikes, doesn’t get at the underlying problem.
  • The justification under international law for American drone strikes hasn’t been clearly articulated, and this will cause problems down the road. Many in the United Nations international law community regard them as nothing more than illegal targeted killings. While we should never cede our right to self-defense, the Obama Administration should establish clear standards for the strikes (who is targeted and how; who makes the decision to approve a strike; what checks and balances apply) and seek clear Congressional authorization.
  • Drone attacks or special ops missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, helps foster the misperception that there is a widespread U.S. campaign against Islamic countries. Citizen casualties add to the anger and resentment these attacks generate. Are the gains (a few dead terrorists) worth the damage to the perception of America in the Middle East?
  • The perceived low cost of drone attacks encourages a certain adventurism in foreign policy decision-making. It allows civilian officials to take much more aggressive actions than they would if American troops had to be committed were involved. That’s a recipe for potential trouble down the road.

Candidate Obama made much of his understanding of the Islamic world. One of his unfulfilled (implicit) is that we would see greater support for anti-terrorism efforts in the region. That hasn’t happened. For example, Muslim allies like Turkey have reduced their troop commitments in Afghanistan and our standing in the Arab world (as measured by ublic opinion polls) has actually declined.

It’s understandable why the White House would turn to drones as a “quick fix” solution to projecting force. Unfortunately, like most band-aids, it doesn’t do anything to cure the festering wound and at some point it will be painfully ripped off.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


The week (February 23rd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

Borrowing a line, once again, from New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

AN ASTONISHING QUOTE FROM CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, anti-Clinton conspiracy theorist, surfaced this week in the New York Times. Ruddy, whose “investigations” of alleged “corrupt land deals, sexual affairs, drug running and murder” by Bill and Hillary Clinton were financed in the 1990s by right-wing millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, now says: “Clinton wasn’t such a bad president. In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick feels that way today.”

Will Ruddy now repudiate his prior mudslinging (including the suggestion that the Clintons were somehow linked to the 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, a theory Ruddy floated in The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation)? Don’t hold your breath. The reclusive Scaife, whose money kept the “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which wasn’t so vast) afloat during the Clinton Presidency, might think about donating $2 million (the amount reported spent on anti-Clinton activities) to a worthy charity—perhaps to former President Clinton’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa—as a gesture of contrition.

THE DUKE LACROSSE TEAM IS BACK on the field, defeating Dartmouth, 17-11, in its first game since the Blue Devils’ season was canceled last spring amid rape allegations against three players.

The rape charges have since been dropped, the prosecutor discredited, and questions raised about the accuser’s credibility, but Sports Illustrated found one on-the-scene observer who believes that the case is far from over, with the three accused men still facing sexual offense and kidnapping charges, which are felonies:

“I think the odds are good that it will go to trial,” says N.C. Central law professor Irving Joyner, noting that the less precise legal definition of sexual offense makes it easier to prove than rape. But, he adds, the alleged victim’s ever-shifting version of events could well override any evidence. “I would not be surprised if the attorney general, after looking at everything, says, ‘We can’t convince a jury of their guilt,'” Joyner says. “But I think there is enough to go forward—and I think they will go forward.”

I think Joyner is wrong. Look for all charges to be dropped in the case, which has spurred a national debate over questions of race, class and the workings of our criminal justice system, because of the shifting testimony of the accuser.

THE MILITARY HAS ASKED THE TV SHOW “24” TO STOP GLAMORIZING TORTURE, according to the New Yorker magazine. This bizarre story has American officers complaining to the show’s creative team in November 2006 that U.S. interrogators might be tempted to copy-cat the torture scenes. Further, they argued the constant portrayal of torture on “24” hurting the public image of America. Executive producer Howard Gordon has since announced that “24” will feature less torture in the future (according to the Los Angeles Times), claiming the shift is not due to the complaints, but because the scenes have become “trite.”

What makes the entire episode passing strange is the suggestion that American soldiers could be influenced by a television show to violate military law to say nothing of their personal morality. What about military discipline? And the idea of the fictional Jack Bauer, a cold-blooded killer, as a role model for anyone in uniform? Let’s hope not.

MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK HAS taken a drubbing in the Boston media for his spending of taxpayers’ money on new office furnishings, a Cadillac DTS lease, and a dedicated scheduling staffer for his wife. Patrick will repay the state for the office redecoration and will contribute to the car lease. The episode led to an amusing correction by the Boston Globe:

Correction: Jeff Jacoby’s column yesterday misstated the number of rooms in Governor Deval Patrick’s vacation home in the Berkshires. The house and a connected carriage house will have 13 rooms and seven bathrooms.

Jacoby, whose column was entitled “Governor Deluxe makes no apologies,” reported that “Cadillac Deval” was building a “24-room mansion.” Did Governor Patrick ask the Globe for the correction? He should have left well enough alone. Learning that the Patrick’s “vacation home” will have 20 rooms, instead of 24 (but include seven bathrooms) hardly makes him look like a man of the people.

COLUMNIST ROBERT NOVAK reports that “Democratic sources believe that the harsh response by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign to criticism by Hollywood producer David Geffen stems from an overreaction by Bill Clinton to any attack on his pardon policy as president.”

Geffen’s support of Sen. Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton apparently stems from Geffen’s anger that President Clinton pardoned financial contributor Marc Rich and not American Indian activist Leonard Peltier (convicted of murdering two FBI agents).

Clinton’s pardon policy as he was leaving office was an embarassment. Pardoning Rich was bad enough, freeing Peltier (whose conviction has been reviewed and upheld numerous times by higher courts through a lengthy appeal process) would have been even worse.

EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN RAISES SOME INTERESTING QUESTIONS about the quality of the intelligence gathered by the CIA in its interrogation of al Qaeda figures after the 9/11 attacks, and whether those detainees lied about links between a Spanish terror cell and the 9/11 attackers.

Epstein’s piece, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests the 9/11 Commission may have been wrong to conclude that al Qaeda engineered 9/11 without outside collaborators (including nation states). Epstein is working on a book on the 9/11 Commission, which will no doubt challenge its conclusions about al Qaeda’s isolation.

ROBOT-DRIVEN CARS WON’T BE WIDESPREAD UNTIL 2030 says Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, when replacing error-prone humans behind the wheel will improve safety. I drive in Boston and I can’t wait that long to see harmonic convergence on the highways.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from playwright and reluctant statesman, Vaclav Havel: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (November 3rd): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the cap to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

MIKE LUCKOVICH’S CARTOON OF DICK CHENEY subjecting a youthful Halloween trick-or-treater to forcible apple-bobbing (“Confess!”) captures the absurdity of Cheney’s endorsement of “dunking” suspected terrorists (“a no-brainer”) and the subsequent White House denial that Cheney wasn’t backing torture. The entire episode made the Vice President an inviting target for satirists…although his implied endorsement of water-boarding is no laughing matter.

THE “SHY TORY FACTOR,” where voters won’t admit to pollsters that they plan to vote for conservative candidates, makes the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections harder to predict. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example, always performed better when real votes were being counted than their pre-election-survey numbers would suggest. Senator George Allen (R, Va.) has to hope that the “shy Tory effect” is masking some of his conservative support in his race with James Webb.

NIKE’S NEW “THE LEBRONS” COMMERCIALS aren’t particularly funny; saturating sports programming with the ads won’t make them any funnier. Le Bron James is a great basketball player—but where is it written that all great NBA stars have to endorse a sneaker line? Is that what “I want to be like Mike” is all about?

IRAQI INSURGENTS ARE HIDING SNIPERS among civilians, apparently more confident than journalist Seymour Hersh that U.S. troops will adhere to strict rules of engagement meant to protect Iraqis.

Hersh, now writing for the New Yorker, told a Canadian audience at McGill University that “there has never been an American Army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq,” and claimed to have seen a video “in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer.” (This would not be the first time Hersh made wild claims in front of an audience—in an article in New York magazine in April 2005 entitled “Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)” author Chris Suellentrop reports that Hersh had told the soccer massacre story before, without providing any hard evidence, along with other lurid, and unsubstantiated tales about American wrongdoing in Iraq).

The reality on the ground is quite different. C.J. Chivers of the New York Times reported in a front-page story that Marines in Anbar had been ordered to show restraint, “a policy rooted in hopes of winning the trust of the civilian population.” Chivers further reported:

Iraqi snipers seem to know these rules and use them for their own protection. They often fire from among civilians, the marines say, having observed that unless the marines have a clear target, they will not shoot. In two sniper shootings witnessed by two journalists for The New York Times, on Oct. 30 and 31, the snipers fired from among civilians. The marines did not fire back.

No doubt there are American soldiers guilty of crimes and atrocities against Iraqi civilians, but the journalism I’ve seen from Iraq suggests that this behavior—in places like Haditha and Mahmoudiya—remains the exception, not the rule, in the way this counterinsurgency is being conducted. Considering that American forces have been stretched to the limit in a “dirty war,” the restraint shown has been remarkable. There was an amazing story this summer of an American medic, shot in the chest by an Iraqi sniper but saved by his body armor, later treating that very sniper who had been captured—alive.

If Hersh has evidence of widespread atrocities, he should publish it, sooner rather than later, and turn it over to the American military so the wrongdoers can be prosecuted.

ANY TIME I DRIVE THE LENGTH OF THE MASSACHUSETTS TURNPIKE this time of the year, I think of James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James” and these lines:

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

No snow on the Pike…yet.

IT IS FITTING TO LET THE AMERICAN HUMORIST WILL ROGERS have the last word: “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 20th): Nobody asked me, but…

As Jimmy Cannon, city columnist extrordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

THE HUMAN IMPACT OF THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ rarely touches most of us, as relatively few Americans are connected with the volunteer military, (those who bear the brunt of the fighting and dying).

Two passengers on the southbound Amtrak Regional caught a glimpse of what the war means for one family this past Thursday. They helped a young mother who had boarded the train in Connecticut mid-route (struggling with her two children, a stroller, and two large rolling bags), to negotiate her way to her seats in Business Class. When one of the passengers asked the young woman where she was going, and she answered “Quantico,” the other asked her whether her husband was in the service.

“He is in Iraq,” she said, and burst into tears, before apologizing. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

The passengers tried to console her, and learned that her husband, a Marine, had been recalled for duty, and was involved in detecting and disarming roadside bombs. Looking over at her children, a girl and boy (five and one), at least one of the passengers offered a silent prayer that her husband would return safely home at the end of his tour.

MOVIE MOGUL SAMUEL GOLDWYN EARNED FAME for his response to those in Hollywood who hoped to make political films: “You want to send a message? Call Western Union.”

That advice was apparently ignored by the producers and directors of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” a one-woman play about the young West Coast left-wing activist killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in 2003 during a protest of the demolition of a Palestinian house in the Gaza Strip. The reviews of the New York staging of the play—a controversial production because of the play’s perceived anti-Israel slant—have not been kind.

The New York Times theater reviewer, Ben Brantley, expressed lukewarm ambivalence towards the play: “Toward the end of the performance I attended, I heard one man choking back sobs and another snoring. I could sympathize with both responses.” Jeremy McCarter of New York magazine called the play “thin” and offering “no culmulative power.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout pulled no punches, suggesting that “Politics makes artists stupid” and adding:

Co-written and directed by Alan Rickman, one of England’s best actors, “Rachel Corrie” just opened off-Broadway after a successful London run. It’s an ill-crafted piece of goopy give-peace-a-chance agitprop–yet it’s being performed to cheers and tears before admiring crowds of theater-savvy New Yorkers who, like Mr. Rickman himself, ought to know better.

Teachout concludes: “The script is disjointed to the point of incoherence, the staging crude and blatant, while Megan Dodds’s performance as Rachel Corrie is frankly cartoonish.”

Will I be attending the play? To again quote Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.”

THE TERRORIST AND THE TICKING BOMB SCENARIO, often employed in debates over torture, has apparently found Senator Hillary Clinton and John McCain (putative presidential nominees for 2008) taking different stands, according to the New York Post.

The Post poses the question this way: “If an underling of Osama bin Laden were captured and American intelligence had reason to suspect he possessed intimate knowledge of a plot to unleash nerve gas over New York City in just a few short hours, who would you want prying the relevant details from the terrorist?”

Senator Clinton apparently wants a legal right to torture such a suspect; McCain doesn’t (although he suggests that an interrogator who overstepped the bounds in such in a case would receive lenient treatment).

Look for this Clinton “torture exception” to come back to haunt Senator Clinton in the primary season as the Democratic Left attacks her as too pro-war on terror.

WHAT ELSE IS WRONG WITH HILLARY AS A CANDIDATE? Some mainstream Democrats seem particulary nervous about the idea of Senator Hillary Clinton as their 2008 presidential standard-bearer. The latest boomlet for an alternative—Senator Barack Obama, who is flogging his new book as media types like Joe Klein and David Brooks tout his as Democratic hopeful.

Even John Kerry holds out hope for another try, although Boston Globe cartoonist Dan Wasserman captures the disbelief of many Democrats that Kerry is a credible candidate: Wasserman offers this Kerry 2008 slogan: “MY BAD: I won’t blow it this time.”

ACTOR WESLEY SNIPES, WHO FACES SERIOUS TAX EVASION CHARGES in the United States, is apparently away for the time being, making a movie in Namibia. Snipes clearly agrees with Sir Winston Churchill—“There is no such thing as a good tax”—but he may find the American tax authorities hold a different, and more punative, view. Snipes should place a call to Willie Nelson, the country music singer whose battles with the IRS are legendary, for advice.

THE PORNIFICATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE continues (somewhat blithely) with the recent adoption of “risque costumes” for Halloween, with women donning “costumes of questionable taste” that are more “strip club than storybook” according to the New York Times: “The trend is so pervasive it has been written about by college students in campus newspapers, and Carlos Mencia, the comedian, jokes that Halloween should now be called Dress-Like-a-Whore Day.” Linda M. Scott, an academic at the University of Oxford told the Times. “It’s a night when even a nice girl can dress like a dominatrix and still hold her head up the next morning.”

The Gray Lady suggests that this trend may hold darker overtones: “Many women’s costumes, with their frilly baby-doll dresses and high-heeled Mary Janes, also evoke male Lolita fantasies and reinforce the larger cultural message that younger is hotter.”

Note bene: I am not making this up.

SIR PAUL MCCARTNEY, locked in a nasty divorce battle with wife Heather Mills, might very well take heed of author Rita Mae Brown’s observation that: “Divorce is the one human tragedy that reduces everything to cash.”

Think the former Beatle now regrets he didn’t insist on a pre-nupital agreement?

I’M ROOTING FOR THE DETROIT TIGERS over the Cardinals in the World Series, just as I did in 1968 when McClain, Kaline, Lolich and the rest pulled out the win.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 13th): Nobody asked me, but…

In the words of New York’s “man-about-town” Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AFTER AN INTERVENTION, OF SORTS, BY THE DALAI LAMA, supermodel Elle Macpherson has dropped her lawsuit challenging rival Heidi Klum’s right to use the nickname “The Body.” Does this sharing of the nickname mean a global Zen-like harmonic convergence is nigh?

MARK WARNER’S DECISION TO EXIT THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL RACE makes North Carolina’s John Edwards the big winner, not Hillary Clinton, as some have argued. Warner’s departure from the contest strengthens Edwards’ claim to be the centrist Democrat who can run more than a 16-state campaign.

The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza sees the surprise move by the former Virginia governor as benefitting Evan Bayh, another moderate Democratic presidential hopeful. But Edwards’ head-start makes him the clear Hillary-alternative for those worried about Mrs. Clinton’s electability.

MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE DEPARTED is great movie-making, with its intertwined Boston Irish cops-and-robbers tale and a cast featuring some of today’s top American male actors; perhaps only the first Godfather film or On the Waterfront boasted as much masculine star power in one movie.

Director Scorsese elicits several memorable performances; he keeps Jack Nicholson just within bounds in his portrayal of a Whitey Bulger-like crime boss; Leonardo DiCaprio summons up a new, appealing toughness; and Matt Damon gives us the classic “young man on the make,” hiding his ruthlessness behind a careerist front. Mark Wahlburg, a South Boston native, makes the easiest acting jump with his foul-mouthed state cop, and Vera Farmiga acquits herself well as the love interest in the movie (though her screen time is limited).

NED LAMONT will spend some $8.7 million of his own money on his bid to unseat Joe Lieberman in the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. It will be interesting to do the math after the general election and calculate how much Lamont, the Democratic Party nominee, ends up spending on a per-voter basis. (But, as the saying goes, if you have to ask “how much?” then you can’t afford it.)

JACK BANTA, a former Brooklyn Dodgers’ reliever, died last month at the age of 81 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Banta’s moment of sporting glory came in October 1949 when he won the final game of the season for the Brooks against the Phillies, clinching the pennant for the Dodgers.

It was a redemption of sorts for Banta, because the lanky righthander had blown a save against the Phillies the week before at Ebbets Field, a loss that—at the time—appeared to have knocked the Dodgers out of the National League pennant race. Banta also pitched in three games in the 1949 World Series which the Bums lost to the hated New York Yankees.

HOW ON EARTH DID THE FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION once rule (in 2003) that the “Howard Stern Show” was a “bona fide news interview” program? I missed the ruling when it first came down, but it was cited after California Democrat and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides asked NBC for equal time on the Tonight show after an appearance by incumbent Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. The New York Times archly noted that:

If a show that regularly features women in various stages of undress, sometimes engaged in lewd acts with fruit, was declared a news program, some legal analysts suggested Mr. Leno’s show might likely pass the same test.

If the “Howard Stern Show” is a news program, then the word “news” has lost all meaning. (Do you think the FEC actually meant “nude program?”)

THE HISTORICAL RECKONING for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will not be kind: his management of the Army in the Iraq conflict does not stand up to close inspection. Bob Herbert of the New York Times reports:

While most Americans are free to go about their daily business, unaffected by the wars in any way, scores of thousands of troops have been sent off on repeat tours into the combat zones. According to the support group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, two-thirds of the 92,000 Army troops deployed this year are on at least their second deployment.

These multiple tours of duty in a combat zone are a result of Rumsfeld’s decision to fight on the cheap. The human costs have been significant.

GONZO JOURNALIST MATT TAIBBI offers a mordantly hilarious send-up of 9/11 conspiracy theories at AlterNet. Taibbi imagines the “conspirators” George Bush, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney plotting the 9/11 attacks (as many conspiracy buffs believe they did):

RUMSFELD: Well, I’m sold on the idea. Let’s call the Joint Chiefs, the FAA, the New York and Washington DC fire departments, Rudy Giuliani, all three networks, the families of a thousand fictional airline victims, MI-5, the FBI, FEMA, the NYPD, Larry Eagleburger, Osama bin Laden, Noam Chomsky and the fifty thousand other people we’ll need to pull this off. There isn’t a moment to lose!

BUSH: Don’t forget to call all of those Wall Street hotshots who donated $100 million to our last campaign. They’ll be thrilled to know that we’ll be targeting them for execution as part of our thousand-tentacled modern-day bonehead Reichstag scheme! After all, if we’re going to make martyrs — why not make them out of our campaign paymasters? Shit, didn’t the Merrill Lynch guys say they needed a refurbishing in their New York offices?

Taibbi’s piece skewers the 9/11 Truth Movement with wit and spot-on sarcasm.

CAN THE DISGRACED MARK FOLEY, former Florida Congressman and creepy pursuer of House pages, now be allowed to slink into well-deserved obscurity?

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 29th): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s legendary “man about town” columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, Nobody asked me, but…

THE PERFECT LATE SEPTEMBER weather in New York City over the past two days brought to mind Childe Hassam’s paintings of a sun-drenched Fifth Avenue, canvasses dominated by rows of hanging American flags and the colorful blur of pedestrians and traffic. Is there any better time of the year to be in Manhattan?

PERHAPS THERE IS SOME GOOD TO BE elicited from the revelations that Senator George Allen (R-VA) may have used the “N-word” in college and challenger James Webb’s admission that anyone living in the South in the 1960s and 70s may also have used the racial slur (Webb included), although Webb denies ever using the word as an epithet. The potential good? It serves to remind us of the casual acceptance of racism in the United States—and, perhaps, will provoke some consideration of the powerful legacy of prejudice against African-Americans.

Meanwhile the Senate race in Virginia has tightened; Allen has lost his initial 16 percentage point lead and polls are showing the candidates in a dead heat.

PETER BAKER of the Washington Post, in his recent front-page story “For Bush, War Anguish Expressed Privately” demonstrates how in-depth, balanced reporting and sensitivity to the complexity of life can offer journalistic insights of a near-literary quality. Baker reports that Bush’s contact with the families of killed service members is greater than generally known.

For those who have suffered losses in the wars he initiated, Bush prefers to offer comfort in private. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals and meets with relatives of the dead. Altogether, according to the White House, Bush has met with 1,149 relatives of 336 dead service members. These sessions generate little attention because the White House bars journalists, but some relatives have described them.

Baker’s news feature offers a different, more somber, portrait of George Bush—one light years removed from the smirking, frat boy image the President oftens projects. That Bush is meeting with the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan counters the conventional wisdom that he has been buffered from the considerable suffering produced by the war; that some of the families are confronting him over the deaths of their loved ones is remarkable.

INFORMATION MAY LONG TO BE FREE, as the early Internet (Web 1.0) mantra went, but unless traditional media companies—especially newspapers—can figure out a way to make money with their reportage (“content” in the new lexicon), they will face a no-win future of decimated newsrooms, shrinking coverage and dramatically reduced influence.

The recent conflict between Tribune Company executives and Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeffrey Johnson—where Johnson and Baquet have refused to make personnel cuts mandated by the parent company—highlights the considerable challenges of balancing return-on-investment concerns with journalistic mission.

While Johnson and Baquet are right in arguing that cutting news staff will be counterproductive, and that the short-term solution may be for the Tribune Company to accept lower margins at the Times, what about the long-term? Is this just a postponement of an inevitable down-sizing of the traditional metro newspaper? Even if Tribune settles for a short-term profit margin of say, 5%, and relents on cuts, what happens if Times advertising and circulation revenue continues to erode? No one in the newspaper industry has yet figured out what to do about the continuing loss of readers and advertisers—and the Internet doesn’t yet offer comparable returns.

FILE UNDER HOLLYWOOD ENDINGS Notre Dame’s improbable comeback win against Michigan State last Saturday, where the Fighting Irish scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to prevail 40-37. Quarterback Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns, showing why professional scouts rate him so highly, and the Irish defense toughened in the second half, pressuring the Spartans into turnovers. The win kept Notre Dame’s slim hopes for a national title alive.

SOME ARRESTING PASSAGES FROM AN E-MAIL of a Marine serving in Iraq recently caught my eye. According to DefenseTech.org, the e-mail came from a Marine in Fallujah and is “making the rounds.” The absurdity of war and its moments of dark humor are perfectly captured in this entry:

Most Surreal Moment – Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. I had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.

The unnamed Marine closed his email with the universal longing expressed by warriors throughout the ages:

Most Common Thought – Home. Always thinking of home, of Kathleen and the kids. Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don’t write more. Yep, always thinking of home.

PERHAPS SOME DAY SOMEONE WILL EXPLAIN the draw of NASCAR to me. I just don’t get it. What is it about watching cars drive around in a big circle that attracts viewers and spectators? Morbid curiosity? Even stranger: one of the Boston sports radio stations broadcasts play-by-play of NASCAR races. Listeners are treated to the sound of engines in the background as the announcer follows the “action.”

SOMETIMES I THINK GEORGE BERNARD SHAW had it right: “Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

With my customary nod to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN Senior Analyst (and onetime speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy and John V. Lindsey), is asking the right questions about the upcoming 2006 election, one of which (the key in my view) is: “Will Democrats catchup on turnout?” The key to the 2004 election, Greenfield notes, became the GOP’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts masterminded by Karl Rove.

Greenfield writes:

This year, the Democrats appear late off the mark in tapping the wealthy supporters who underwrote the formally independent vote-getting operations. Will they show up again this year, or will Republicans have a significant money advantage? And even if they don’t, how well have Democrats and their allies built their turnout machine?

What Greenfield doesn’t mention is the qualitative difference between Republican and Democratic GOTV in 2004. Rove had the Republicans focused on using the social networks of Christian churches in Florida and Ohio—where a fellow church member would offer to accompany the prospective voter to the polls. Democrats relied more on traditional turnout methods, including labor unions, phone banks and volunteers (often out-of-state college students). As Matt Bai pointed out in a brilliant piece of reporting from Ohio in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the GOP tactics proved superior.

BOB DYLAN doesn’t deserve the soft treatment he’s getting over “borrowing” phrases from Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod for the lyrics on his critically acclaimed album “Modern Times.” His defenders claim that it isn’t somehow quite plagiarism because appropriating is part of the “folk process.” Sorry, but couldn’t Dylan mention his use of Timrod’s words in his liner notes? There shouldn’t be double standards on plagiarism for the famous (Dylan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, etc.) and the relatively unknown (would-be “chick-lit” novelist Kaavya Viswanathan). Yes, T.S. Eliot made the argument that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” but doesn’t the truly secure artist acknowledge (whether slyly or openly) his or her literary or musical inspiration?

SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN of Virginia, stung by questions about his racial sensitivities, held what his campaign called an “Ethnic Community Campaign Rally.” A bit awkward…to say the least.(Stephen Colbert pounced on this contrived event with glee, his eviseration of Allen can be found here). Allen’s frantic damage control over his “macaca comment” is an attempt to stop his slide in the polls as Democrat James Webb closes on him (within three percentage points of the incumbent, according to the latest SurveyUSA poll).

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post opines in his blog that Allen’s Senate seat can now be considered “in play.”

WHEN HISTORIANS TURN TO THE IRAQ CONFLICT, I do not think they will be kind in their assessment of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the U.S. military. Rumsfeld’s decision to proceed with dramatically lower troop levels than recommended by senior military commanders for the occupation of Iraq, and to demand multiple tours by active duty troops has had significant negative consquences—a destabilized Iraq and a U.S. Army under great strain.

Neoconservatives William Kristol and Rich Lowry belatedly called for more troops to be sent to Baghdad this week in a Washington Post op-ed piece:

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

The question, however, may not be whether President Bush should agree to more troops, but whether he can.

Daniel Benjamin and Michèle A. Flournoy, both from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argue in Slate that “We can’t send more troops to Iraq.” Their assessment is grim:

That is the unmistakable message of an Army briefing making the rounds in Washington. According to in-house assessments, fully two-thirds of the Army’s operating force, both active and reserve, is now reporting in as “unready”—that is, they lack the equipment, people, or training they need to execute their assigned missions. Not a single one of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams—its core fighting units—currently in the United States is ready to deploy. In short, the Army has no strategic reserve to speak of. The other key U.S. fighting force in Iraq, the Marine Corps, is also hurting, with much of its equipment badly in need of repair or replacement.

If Benjamin and Flournoy are correct—and the available evidence supports their contention— then Rumsfeld’s decision to fight the Iraq war on the cheap has to be regarded as a colossal miscalculation.

FIVE YEARS AFTER 9/11, more filmmakers, novelists and poets are beginning to address the sudden terrorist attack against America. British poet Simon Armitage has written “Out of the Blue,” an arresting poem about 9/11 which traces the experiences of “a fictional British trader trapped in one of the twin towers as the planes strike.” Armitage told The Times of London, “I wanted to do something which was both commemorative and elegiac, but not political.”

The poem’s opening lines are striking in their evocative simplicity:

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

I found the poem both moving and disturbing; along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Armitage’s verses rise to the artistic challenge without trivializing or sentimentalizing. (You can download “Out of the Blue” here.)

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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