May 2006 Archives

We're in Deep Shiite

Nir Rosen's portrait of Iraq as "the Republic of Fear" (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/26/AR2006052601578_pf.html) begins with this cheery portaiture: Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite. Power drills are an especially popular torture device.

I have spent nearly two of the three years since Baghdad fell in Iraq. On my last trip, a few weeks back, I flew out of the city overcome with fatalism. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning 14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is a Sunni name. In Baghdad these days, nobody is more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands folded on their abdomens, right hand over left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a message. These days many Sunnis are obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias are retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya , or ID cards, of all passengers. Individuals belonging to Shiite tribes are executed.

Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, dissidents called Iraq "the republic of fear" and hoped it would end when Hussein was toppled. But the war, it turns out, has spread the fear democratically. Now the terror is not merely from the regime, or from U.S. troops, but from everybody, everywhere.

Rosen also offers chillingly detailed descriptions of U. S. military retaliation against non-combatants in areas where our soldiers were killed and his depiction of "sectarian cleansing" by Sunni and Shiite militias suggests that Bosnia may soon look like a lovefeast in comparison:
In Amriya, dead bodies are being found on the main street at a rate of three or five or seven a day. People are afraid to approach the bodies, or call for an ambulance or the police, for fear that they, too, will be found dead the following day. In Abu Ghraib, Dora, Amriya and other once-diverse neighborhoods, Shiites are being forced to leave. In Maalif and Shaab, Sunnis are being targeted.
Those who fear civil war in Iraq are way behind the curve, Rosen thinks, because civil war actually began when U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad. It began when Sunnis discovered what they had lost, and Shiites learned what they had gained. And the worst is yet to come. If this doesn't make your outlook sufficiently sunny, then by all means take a look at Jeff Madrick's review of Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19058)

In a sense, Madrick argues that Phiilips's gloomy outlook is not gloomy enough and does not address all the things there are to be gloomy about. Madrick is especially illuminating about the oil situation:
... the damage being done by the administration's irresponsible energy policies, more evident by the day, is an appropriate place to begin a book on American ills. Despite its having reduced the use of oil over the past thirty years as a percentage of the nation's income, America is still by far the world's largest user of oil, consuming 25 percent of the world's daily production. Most of this is for transportation. Of the 520 million cars in the world, 200 million are driven in America, while the US makes up only 5 percent of the world's population. It also has only 3 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, meaning growing imports are a certainty. Domestic production has been falling for decades.

Drawing on previous history, Phillips argues that the price of oil, now more than $70 a barrel, could go higher than $100 a barrel as worldwide reserves begin to decline. If his predictions come true, this could drive fuel and gasoline prices to levels that could seriously slow down the American economy. At more than $3.00 a gallon today, gasoline prices may soon start restraining economic growth. But long-term forecasting of oil prices has usually been unreliable and overly pessimistic. Of greater concern than dwindling reserves is the increasing demand for energy by newly expanding economies, notably China and India. Prices are now more than double what they were two years ago, and are likely to stay relatively high as long as the world economy grows. In addition, access to oil production is increasingly threatened by both political and natural events.

The biggest exporters of oil to the US are Canada and Mexico. But the fourth largest, Nigeria, may be on the brink of a civil war that could threaten production. Venezuela, another major oil exporter, is increasingly antagonistic to the US and American oil companies. Bolivia recently announced plans to nationalize foreign-owned natural gas companies. The US imports about 17 percent of its oil from the Middle East, a proportion that will rise. When Iran first threatened to cut off exports to the US during the current dispute over its nuclear program, oil prices jumped and have only risen further as tensions increase. Russia, a major producer, has been using its oil and natural gas reserves as a political weapon, threatening to shut down flows of oil and natural gas to the rest of Europe if it doesn't get its way. Gasoline prices also rose to $3.00 a gallon, if only temporarily, after Hurricane Katrina devastated refining facilities in the Gulf last summer.

A serious energy policy providing for security, diversity of sources, and, most important, conservation is necessary. But as Phillips shows in detail, such a policy is stymied by a US administration that is highly sympathetic to the powerful oil companies that would rather promote further exploration than reduce oil use. It is also an administration that does not want to ask Americans to make sacrifices. This was a political lesson learned from the Reagan administration, which successfully portrayed President Carter as a weak and confused pessimist because he called attention to the limits of natural resources.

Thus, Madrick joins the growing list of people who now seem to understand that Jimmy Carter was vilified for telling the American people what they needed to hear, while Ronald Reagan was exalted for telling them what they wanted to hear. Also, just out of simple minded curiousity, I wish someone would explain to me why oil company profits are soaring if, as the companies claim, they are simply passing on their costs in higher crude oil prices to consumers at the pump. If the rise in prices reflects nothing more than the rise in prodction costs, shouldn't profits have remained fairly constant?


The uproar that exploded this week over Fulton County Superior Judge Constance Russell’s decision overturning a 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Georgia makes a mockery of our society’s professed belief in the need for an independent judiciary. More than 76 percent of voters supported the measure, but because it dealt with both gay marriage and the legal ramifications of same-sex civil unions, Russell ruled that, as it appeared on the ballot, the amendment was inconsistent with a more than a century-old constitutional proscription against putting before the voters any amendment requiring them to make decisions on more than a “single subject.” (The framers of this provision clearly had doubts that we Georgians were up to the challenge of multi-tasking.)
Russell was careful to indicate that she was not rendering a judgment as to “the wisdom, rightness, morality, or substantive constitutionality” of the amendment. In affirming the precedence of the single-subject rule, however, she did note astutely and insightfully that “People who believe men and women should have a unique and privileged place in our society may also believe that same-sex relationships should have some place—although not marriage. The single-subject rule protects the right of those people to hold both views and reflect both judgments by their vote.”
Unfortunately, the finer points of this excellent piece of reasoning were lost on Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, whose election in 2002 broke a 130-year drought for the Republicans in this state. Although Russell’s ruling struck me as fairly straightforward, run-of-the-mill strict constructionism, it set Perdue to fulminating about “activist judges,” a label that seems to apply these days to any jurists who act contrary to any politician’s wishes in any way. There was also loud grousing about judges “thwarting the will of the people.” One might well question whether or not acceding to the will of the people is or should be part of a judge’s job description. Check out the legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which shackled black southerners with nearly sixty years of institutionalized Jim Crow after the Supreme Court tailored its reading of the Constitution to accommodate widespread popular and scientific racism among whites. In the current case, however, Russell’s ruling actually seems more attuned to assuring that constitutional amendments are, in fact, focused, unequivocal expressions of the popular will as best it can be determined.
In any event, not one to quibble about the fine points of constitutional law, Governor Perdue has intimated that if the Georgia Supreme Court doesn’t overrule Russell in short order, he will call a special session of the legislature, at the cost of $30,000 to $40,000 of taxpayer money per day, to fine tune the amendment in time for this November’s balloting. The currently invalidated amendment barely passed the lower house of the Georgia legislature in 2004, but that was about 30 Democratic seats ago, and most of the state’s surviving big-time Democrats seem to be scrambling to squeeze onto Sonny’s bandwagon this time around. These include the party’s two leading gubernatorial candidates, one of them being Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who dismissed the amendment as “unnecessary” in 2004, given that Georgia already has what would seem a perfectly adequate, regular old garden-variety law against gay marriage. You don’t have to have your Ph.D. in punditry to see that after what might charitably be called a “lackluster” first term, Perdue knows a chance to get his somewhat lethargic troops frothing at the mouth when he sees one. Meanwhile, like their counterparts in national politics, Georgia’s Democrats seem unaware that, across the storied span of American political history, “us-too” has never proven to be a particularly compelling campaign message.
As it stands now, this whole sorry business presents a classic “lose-lose” scenario. .Either the Georgia Supreme Court succumbs to political pressure and overturns what seems to be a fairly cut-and-dried ruling, or Perdue winds up presenting the voters with yet another opportunity for mean-spirited ideological overkill. Our nation’s vaunted separation of powers may always have been a polite fiction at best, but, if so, it is nonetheless a fiction far better maintained than abandoned. Regardless of the issue or the setting, when the people who aspire to make our laws set out deliberately to make those charged with interpreting those laws either their whipping boys or their stooges, they dishonor the offices they seek and undermine the institutions they have sworn to uphold.

(NOTE: THIS COMMENTARY WAS POSTED PREVIOUSLY ON THE HISTORY NEWS NETWORK@WWW.HNN.ORG)

Partisan History Spoken Here

After 34 years of college teaching, I thought I had heard just about every imaginable student complaint. Last week, however, a freshman in my 300-seat US History Since 1865 course came in to discuss her exam with one of the graders and proceeded to work herself into a semi-hissy over the fact that we had spent four class periods(one of them consisting of a visit from MLK biographerTaylor Branch) discussing the civil rights movement. "I don't know where he's getting all of this," she complained, "we never discussed any of this in high school." One might have let the matter rest here as simply an example of a high school history teacher's sins of omission being visited on the hapless old history prof. had the student not informed the TA in an indignant postcript, " I'm not a Democrat! I don't think I should have to listen to this stuff!"
Given the student and,in some places, administrative, pressures to put absolutely everything-- notes, study guides, all potential exam questionsand answers, etc.-- on the Web, I can envision the day when the Web pages for our classes might read: " In order to insure that the professor's lectures will not offend your political sensibilities or challenge any of your current beliefs and perceptions in any way, please indicate by clicking the appropriate box below to indicate whether you prefer the Republican or Democratic version of this course."
I might add that the this troubling episode was offset to some extent by the example of the student who got shot week before last, but showed up for class the next day. I, for one, am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as to why he smelled as though he had taken a bath in Natural Light.

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