Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review

Since there has been a movie made based on the book, I realize its a little late but I just got around to reading Charlie Wilson's War.  First, the book is a great adventure story and if that is all you want then go pick up the book.  The story of how Congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos worked together in secret to involve the U.S. in the Afghan/Soviet war is truly a remarkable one.

However, the book also tells an unreflected story.  There are constant turns in the action as Charlie befriends the Pakistani dictator Zia and actively supports the fundamentalist dictatorship the hung Zulifkar Bhutto.  At no point is the wisdom of being entangled with such a reagime explored; which is unfortunate.  To maintain the support of the Pakistani regime, and Pakistan's intelligence service, meant turning a blind eye, or outright lying, about Pakistan's human rights record and its efforts to build an atomic bomb.  This decision to support or at least not object help explain why Pakistan continues to bedevil our foreign policy.

The role of CIA covert operations is also a subject worthy of reflection but does does not receive the attention it deserves.  Avrakotos cut his teeth helping to liaison with the junta of colonels in Greece.  This junta curtailed civil liberties and sent 3,000 Greek citizens to prison to be tortured.  Yet the wisdom of the CIA supporting the junta or being involved in a wide range of assassinations and coups is never discussed.  However, the problems we face in places   like Iran are due in part to the actions of CIA.  The sad fact is the people of other countries are often more aware of the result of our covert actions than we Americans are; yet we continue to wonder why they hate us. 

There some interesting tidbits in the book.  For example, Oliver North wanted to get in of the Afghan show by raising up a group of Soviet defectors to fight for the Afghanis.  This is the type of thinking that made Iran-Contra the grand success that it was.  It was also interesting to read about the Soviet Strategy.  The Soviet strategy was to use 120,000 soldiers to control the cities and major transportation routes but not contest the the countryside.  Yet the Soviet army could not accomplish this task.  It makes me wonder what the U.S. is planning on doing with 30,000 soldiers.

To be fair I am arguing from hindsight but the author also claims to writing from hindsight.  He says that "this incredible tale is the key to understanding two of the most important events of our time-the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of militant Islam."  However there are really no lessons gleamed from this "incredible tale."  Instead the tale is as blinded by the action as Charlie Wilson was; the U.S. is always good, everything we do is with the best of motives, our allies always share our values and goals, etc.  Instead of being a work of history that explains our times; this book is an adventure story that should be accurately titled Charlie Wilson's War as Told from the Perspective of Charlie Wilson.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


At my place of employment I lead a yearly memorial service.  The memorial service is always on the Sunday of  Memorial Day weekend.  This year we held the service outside because we had a balloon release as part of the service  One of the women who attended the service has issues beyond grieving the death of someone close to her.  This particular woman came to service of dressed in all black.  In a sea of people dressed casually in spring colors and short sleeves, this woman stood out.  After the service, the woman in black indicated she wanted me to visit her at some point over the following week.

After being off Monday due to the holiday, I went back to work on Tuesday.  During the day another woman who attended the service called concerned because another woman at the service was dressed in black.  At a service that was outside on a sunny May day this choice of clothing made this woman concerned for the mental well being of her fellow mourner.   I explained the situation as best as I could and the woman seemed satisfied.

Later on Tuesday, I made my scheduled visit to the woman in black.  The first thing the woman in black told me she was concerned because nobody at the memorial service but her appeared to be grieving because no one else dressed in black. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day Wish

My wish for this Memorial Day is that we remember ALL who die due to war; not only soldiers but also civilians, refugees, and victims.  I also wish that as we memorialize the dead that we do not memorialize war.   

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Relegation Time

For most of Europe, today marks the end of the club soccer season, and with the end of the season comes relegation.  Teams that finish at the bottom of the table(standings) are relegated to the next league down, and the top teams from the lower league are promoted to the higher league. 

Today, Newcastle United lost and was relegated from the English Premiership down to the Championship.  Newcastle United is one of the historic teams in English soccer, and their black and white vertical stripped jerseys are among the most iconic.  To gain an idea of what relegation means, think about the Detroit Lions going 0-16 last year and then being demoted to play in the Big 10.

I think the idea of relegation would be fun to see in American sports.  It would definitely add interest and drama to seasons of last place teams.  This should be in the MLS and why it isn't I don't know.  I also think it would work in baseball.  It would interesting to see the Major League team with the worst record demoted to AAA and the AAA champion brought up to the Majors as a reward.  


Backbencher of the Week

This week fear swept through the halls of Congress as the fate of detainees at Guantanamo Bay dominated the debate.  During debate on the Afghanastan and Iraq war supplemental, Senate Appropiations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye introduced an amendment to strip funding for the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

All sorts of hysterical talk filled the air around Capitol Hill.  Senators stoked fears about terrorists being released into American communities.  Carried along by this wave of fear, the Senate passed the Inouye amendment 90-6.  To be fair, many of the Democrats who voted for the amendment said they would reconsider their votes when the Obama administration releases a detailed plan on the closing of Guantanamo.

The fact that only 6 Senators saw through the fear and supported the closing of Guantanamo is disturbing.   Dangerous detainees will not be released into American communities.  Instead they will be kept in federal prisons and military brigs; places that already house terrorists and other dangerous people.  It is a sad commentary on our political system that what should be common sense stands out as politically courageous but it does.

For an act of both common sense and political courage, we honor Senator Jack Reed(D-RI) for being one of the 6 to vote against the Inouye amendment.  Congratulations Senator Reed for being this week's Backbencher of the Week.

325 Out of 646

According to some polls there could be as many as 325 new MPs after the next general election.  Due to the scandal over expenses half of the current members of the House of Commons might leave; either voluntarily or voted out.  If you ever wanted to be a Member of Parliament this might be your chance.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Oh You Henry Waxman

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a climate change bill this week.  Committee Republicans, led by committee ranking member Rep. Joe Barton(R-TX-6), vowed to stop the bill by loading it down with amendments and other parliamentary hurdles.  One trick was to force a reading of the entire bill.  Chairman Henry Waxman(D-CA-30) hired a speed reader in case Republicans required the full bill to be read.  Rep. Barton realized the Democrats called his bluff but still wanted to see the speed reader demonstrate his ability.  The result was a little congressional frivolity and a victory for Henry Waxman.    

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Order, Order

A new voice will be keeping order in the House of Commons starting on June 22.

Speaker Michael Martin resigned his position today effective on June 21.  The scandal over MPs expenses finally engulfed the Speaker.  Since the Speaker chairs the committee that sets and enforces the ethics rules for Parliament, reforms minded MPs viewd the speak as an obstacle to needed reforms.  Front runners to be elected the new Speaker include Deputy Speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst, former Labour minister Frank Fields, and former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell.  Personally, I am hoping the Sir Menzies becomes the new Speaker because I think a Speaker from a third party would be a good development for the Commons.

Speaker Martin's problem was the common one of misreading the threat.  He saw the danger as having the situation get out of control and out into the public instead of the issue of expenses.  The misreading caused him to view those MPs  calling for reform as threats instead of allies in an attempt to save the reputation of Parliament.  In doing so he forfeited his ability to lead.  A common mistake but one that cost him the Speakership.

That being said, this scandal is not a Speaker issue it is a Parliament issue.  If the scandal is so deep that the Speaker resigned over it then it is too much for this Parliament to fix.  More then a new speaker is needed; a new Parliament is needed.  Parliament should be dissolved and a general election should be called.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week is Rep. Lynn Woolsey(D-CA-6).

The House of Representatives voted 368-60 to pass a supplemental appropriations bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  51 Democrats and 9 Republicans voted against the measure.  I choose Rep. Woolsey to represent all those who voted against the measure.

My hope is that in the future Rep. Woolsey and her colleagues are viewed  as people who took a principled stand against the ongoing wars in the Middle East, and not modern day Cassandras whose warnings about the dangers of the on-going military action in the Middle East went unheeded.    

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Answer: Immigration

The Question: What might hold the key to the survival of small rural communities?

Friday, May 15, 2009



Mr. President, if you do not think that the institutions that enshrine the values of our democracy our sufficient to tackle the demands posed by modern terrorism then what is the point of trying to defend those institutions?   

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Review

As an anglophile in general, and specifically a Londonphile, I eagerly read Clare Clark's The Great Stink.  In the first third of the book, the plot moves a little slow as the book introduces the major characters.  However, the descriptive language immediately grabs a hold of you.  Clarke's description of the sewers of Victorian London engage all your senses; sight, sound, and smell.  

After about 100 pages the plot really takes off and the suspense kicks into high gear.  The story centers around the building of the modern London Sewer system in 1855.  William May is one of the engineers building the sewer and he get caught up in a web of corruption and murder.  A second narrative steam involves a man named Long Arm Tom.  Tom also makes his living in the sewers of London and the way Clark brings together the stories of these two men is brilliant.

The Great Stink is good read because both the plot and the writer's use of the English language are strong.  One another thing should be strong before you begin you adventure in the London sewers, and that is your stomach.  If you think you have a strong enough stomach then pick up a copy of The Great Stink.  

Political Frustration

Yesterday was one of those days that causes me to find politics frustrating.  First President Obama, along with Congressional leaders, announced an accelerated schedule for producing a health care bill.  This is a good development and it means that the chances of getting a health care bill through Congress are getting better.  One of the reasons I am a Democrat is the party's commitment to increasing health care coverage and this announcement is a good development towards that goal.

Then President Obama reversed an earlier decision and decided to block the release of photos that show the abuse of detainees being held by the U.S.  Sadly, President Obama defended his actions by using some defenses that must have been left over from the Bush administration.  This coupled with the Obama administration's announcement that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has connections to detainee abuse and the Pat Tillman cover-up,  is slated to become the commander of forces in Afghanistan.  To me, this is proof that President Obama is taking ownerhip of many of Bush's policies and the march of empire continues on unabated.

In one day, I went from from feeling optimistic about the possibility of Congress passing a landmark piece of progressive legislation to despair over watching President Obama letting the march of empire continue.  Frustrating.      

Drowning in Expenses

Over in the UK the scandal over MPs expenses continues to grow and engulf more MPs.  Prime Minister Gordon Brown today suspended Elliot Morley from the Labour Party over Morley claiming 16,000 pounds in mortgage payments on a loan he already repaid.  Morley is a former minister, chairs the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, and serves as Gordon Brown's advisor on climate change issues, and his future as an MP is on doubt. 

Labour is not the only party to be caught up in this scandal.  Andrew MacKay, a parliamentary aide to Conservative leader David Cameron, resigned his position as Cameron's aide over problems with his expenses.  Earlier this week, Cameron ordered members of his front bench team to pay back any excessive excessive claims they made.  

According to polling data, both Labour and the Tories are suffering but the Liberal Democrats and the assorted third parties are both up in polling.  Last week the Conservatives were predicated to have a majority of 150 in the event of a general election but their expected majority is down to 100.

Another casualty might very well be the Speaker of the House.  Speaker Michael Martin is receiving harsh criticism over his handling of the scandal.  Some MPs harbor a suspicion that the Speaker is preventing a full inquiry into the scandal over expenses and preventing the introduction of reforms.  An all-party group of MPs have even introduced a motion of no confidence in the Speaker.  The Guardian even reported that senior MPs went to Speaker Martin and told him that he needs to stand down at the next general election.     

I don't know what will come from this scandal.  I do not think Labour will recover to make any type of comeback, but I can't see the Tories gaining any advantage from this and I see this as actually cutting into their potential majority.  A new Speaker might be in store when a new parliament convenes and may even be in place before a new parliament convenes.  It also seems clear that major ethics reform will be in place, and some even suggest this scandal will lead to a dissolution of Parliament and a new election.  It is clear that Parliament will be much different after this scandal that it was before. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Putting on the Tinfoil Tat

The man whose tortured induced "confession" was used by President Bush to justify the Iraq war "committed suicide" in a Libyan jail.  After his capture in December 2001, Ibn Sheikh al-Libi disappeared into the CIA back site prisons until Libyan official announced his "suicide."  I usually dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand but the connection between torture and the justification for the Iraq war is nothing but a giant criminal conspiracy, and I suspect that al-Libi's suicide is a continuation of the conspiracy. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Stephen Pound MP(Lab-Ealing North).   As I blogged about earlier, Gordon Brown's Labour government lost a vote over letting Gurkhas settle in the UK.  27 Labour MPs voted against the government and many other Labour MPs decided to abstain.  Stephen Pound was one of the 27 who voted against the government.  Since Mr. Pound served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Work and Pensions, he had to resign his position to vote as he did.

Under a cabinet government, all ministers are collectively responsible for a government's policy decisions.  If a minister cannot support a cabinet decision then the minister resigns from the cabinet and returns to the backbench.  Two of the most famous resignations were Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, which led to the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and Leader of the Commons Robin Cook's over the Iraq War. 

Not only did Mr. Pound give up his government position, but Ealing North is a marginal constituency any difficulties with the Labour Government make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent to hold the seat.  For giving up a government position, and risking a seat in Parliament, we award Stephen Pound MP this week's Backbencher of the Week

Mother's Day

The Backbencher extends wishes for a Happy Mother's Day.  If you are able, please call your mom.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Rot of Empire

With further confirmation that Democratic leaders had an idea of the torture techniques the Bush administration there is some debate about how to go forward with any investigation.  I am an active and pretty partisan Democrat and I say let the investigation continue to go forward.  If there are worries about political interference then there should be a special prosecutor. 

Of greater concern to me is how this represents how imperialism has rotted the institutions of our democracy.  The CIA undertakes covert operations and runs "black sites" at the behest of the executive branch.  The President also uses the CIA and the intelligence community to try to secretly maintain a global hegemony.  The legislative branch, sometimes willingly and sometimes not, becomes complicit in the empire project.   The judicial branch hides behind the state secret doctrine and refuses to intervene.

The only way to stop this rot of empire from destroying our democracy is to take some drastic actions.  I am for eliminating the CIA or at lest it's covert operations section.  Any group that helped lead to Pinochet's rise is a government agency we can do without.  I would also cut way back on other intelligence agencies like the NSA.  All FISA court decisions and warrants should be made public as soon  the particular investigation is finished.  Intelligence Committee records should be declassified on a regular basis; this would include more detailed budget information.  Lastly,  Congressional action should reverse or limit the use of the state secrets doctrine.

These are the radical actions that we should undertake to stop the rot of imperialism.

All Aboard

Today is National Train Day.  Railroading is actually one of my family's businesses; my great great grandfather died when the train he was driving crashed in western Florida in the early 1900s.  In honor of National Train Day go ride a train or at least read The Little Engine that Could. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Brown's Premiership Impaled

Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers in the British army, are defeating another oppenent.  This time it is the government of Gordon Brown.  Gurkhas have been fighting to be able to settle permanently in the UK.  The Liberal Democrats introduced a proposal in Parliament to allow the Gurkhas to settle in the UK but Brown opposed the measure saying it would be too expensive.  The bill was passed, and the government lost, by a vote of 267-241.  27 Labour MPs voted for the measure and numerous other abstained(The Commons does not record abstentions).  For the first time in memory a government lost on a bill proposed by an opposition party.  Now, just today actress and Gurkha activist Joanna Lumley extracted more concessions for the Gurkhas from Home Offiice minister Phil Woolas on live TV.

Choosing to fight against a popular measure that for many is a matter of fairness and then losing is not usually smart politics.  With ministers saying that there is "no political fix" between the government and rebel Labour MPs over the privatizing Royal Mail and with Gordan Brown's name being mentioned in the scandal over MP's expenses there is a lot of talk about replacing Brown.  

Why anybody would want to lead the Labour government is beyond me.  Labour is split among its many factions, it is presiding over a troubled economy, and it is headed for a massive electoral defeat in year.  All a new Labour leader will end up doing is handing the keys of No. 10 over to David Cameron and being replaced in the post general election blood letting. 

Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester

is now out of the closet.  Read his interview here.

It's About Time

The Southern Baptist Convention, the religious denomination where I was born and raised, declared that waterboarding is torture and that there is "no room for torture in U.S. intelligence gathering." 

It is fair to ask why the SBC kept quiet during the Bush administration but better late than never.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Book Review

As the conservative movement goes into at least a temporary decline, it is worth understanding how the conservative movement rose and completely took over the Republican Party.  The story is told in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.   Originally the book was released in 2001 but Nation Book rereleased it this spring in response to the popularity of Nixonland

Before the Storm tells the story of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1950s and early 1960s that culminated with Senator Barry Goldwater's securing of the Republican nomination for President in 1964.  Perlstein does a great job in telling how the conservative movement grew as a rebellion against the staid "liberal" consensus of the 1950s.  To be conservative was to be on the avant-garde fringe of American society and it attracted a great intellectual flowering that included people like William F. Buckley.  

People who are almost forgotten to history but whose roles are important to the rise of the modern right are given their due.  There is Clarence Manion a Notre Dame law professor who was in many ways a forerunner of Rush Limbaugh.  Manion was the first to see how a conservative political movement could built and who originated the idea of convincing Goldwater to run for President.  Manion's first choice, however, was not Goldwater but Orval Faubus the segregationist Governor of Arkansas. There is also Clifton White who organized the insurgency that placed Goldwater at the top of the 1964 ticket by understanding the arcane rules that governed the election of delegates to the nominating convention.  This sounds like a certain presidential nominating contest of recent memory.

At the center of the narrative is Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater comes off as a visionary leader of a movement who really doesn't want to lead a movement.  Goldwater also comes off as symbolic of much of the conservative movement.  His family fortune is built off government subsidies but he becomes an anti-government crusader.  Goldwater is opposed to segregation but his conservative principles won't let him support the Civil Rights Act.  This appeals to many southerners and Americans of all regions who are opposed to the aims Civil Rights movement; chief among them is a Phoenix lawyer fighting desegregation named William Rehnquist.

The main opponent is Nelson Rockefeller the liberal Republican Governor of New York but really the enemy is the establishment who refused to see the political earthquake that Goldwater represented.  The political pundits of the era receive a particularly harsh judgement for being so invested in the idea of consensus that they cannot understand the fact that the U.S. is dividing along political lines.

Today, as the Democrats become ascendent in Washington D.C. the Republican Party is in for a period in the political wilderness.  As the debate in Republican circles rages over whether the best strategy is to moderate or hew more closely to conservative principles, Before the Storm tells the story of the last such debate in the GOP and might provide a guide to what we can expect.

I give Before the Storm my highest recommendation.  


Backbencher of the Week

As a history buff and someone whose political beliefs fall on the good government liberal side of the spectrum I am proud to award the Backbencher of the Week to Rep. Maurice Hinchley (D-NY-22).  Hinchley and fellow New Yorker Rep. John McHugh (R-NY-22) introduced H.R. 2171 The Preserving the American Historical Record Act.  The bill would provide 50 million dollars to help state and local governments preserve historical records.

The story of American history is built on the framework of government records like birth, marriage, and death certificates.  This bill will help local governments preserve their records to aid the future work of historians.

For this little bit of good government Rep. Maurice Hinchley is this week's Backbencher of the Week.  Congratulations.

P.S. Rep. John McHugh is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and therefore not a backbencher.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Historical Site

Kudos to officials in Dekalb County, Georgia for naming the site of the first ever Waffle House as a historical landmark.  Now college students and late night partiers will have a pilgrimage site.  2719 E. College Ave. in Decatur, GA is now a holy place.