Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In The Middle: The Death Penalty

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: The Death Penalty

This week, the state of California executed Stanley "Tookie" Williams. He was convicted in 1981 of murdering Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and Yee-Chen Lin. It is also widely reported that he was the founder of the Crips gang, although that fact is apparently not related to the two robberies during which the four murders took place.

I mention this only to introduce this week's topic: the death penalty.

Since I'm telling stories, I'll tell mine, too. As a young conservative, I was ardently pro-death penalty. I believed that it served as a deterrent, and that the punishment ought to fit the crime. It fit with my sense of "justice." But over time, I became less convinced. As a deterrent, the death penalty seemed to be poor. Perhaps, as some of my friends claimed, that was because there was generally too long between the initial conviction and the actual execution — 24 years in the case of Stanley Williams. Or perhaps it happened so rarely that it didn't even enter the mind of someone about to commit murder. I wasn't sure, but I softened in my support of the death penalty. Fast-forward a number of years to 1995 and I found that I was moved by a Papal document, which surprised me. I'm not a Roman Catholic, and was raised in a church environment that taught horrible things about Roman Catholics, but the Pope's Evangelium Vitae, which called for a pro-life emphasis, shook me.

Since then I've also read reports demonstrating that the death penalty is unevenly applied, with the wealthy able to avoid execution, while the poor cannot. Black people are sent to death row far more often than white people for similar crimes, and men more often than women. Statistically, I don't think that these disparities can be explained by any other combination of factors. For crimes of equal severity and horror and premeditation, a poor black man is far more likely to be sentenced to die than even a poor white man, let alone a rich white man. Shouldn't justice be blind?

And then there are the mistakes. The state of Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, and between 1977 and 2000, 25 cases were investigated. 12 of those people were executed, while 13 were found, using modern investigative techniques, to be innocent of the crimes. Worse, other stories indicate that innocent people were put to death for crimes they didn't commit. How many innocent people have been killed in the name of justice? We will likely never know. No system that condemns innocent people to death deserves my support.

I supported, in theory, a system based on what I read in the Bible. According to that standard, nobody could be sentenced to death without at least two eye-witnesses. Updated to modern standards, I would say that includes video evidence only when it is essentially undisputed, and even then should be joined by one more "witness," for which DNA evidence could certainly substitute. But that wasn't the standard being used in courtrooms around America, and I eventually announced to my friends and family that I could not support the death penalty in America.

I could still theoretically support a death penalty under extremely limited circumstances, but I don't expect those circumstances to ever come about in the United States. And even then, I wouldn't demand it; I could only accept it reluctantly.

What about you, Eric?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Interestingly, I had a similar evolution on the death penalty, Phillip, but from a different perspective and for a few differing reasons.

Like you, I believed that the death penalty was "just" for those who had commit heinous and unredeemable crimes, first-degree murder obviously being the most frequent example. This was somewhat incompatible, however, with my relatively liberal position on most other issues (more liberal than I am currently, probably!). This caused a degree of tension within my overall political framework, but I took comfort at times with the thought that I couldn't be "pigeon holed" on one of the major issues.

Somewhere along the way, I shifted into a lengthy era of uneasy ambivalence on the topic. State-sanctioned executions somehow felt wrong to me, but the idea of an eye-for-an-eye was still strong within my heart. Arguments for one side of the other would sway me for a time.

Strangely, I recall that the film In the Name of the Father, a 1993 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as an imprisoned man desperate to prove he wasn't involved in an IRA bombing, had an influence on me. I think it was the dawn of a realization that most other "civilized" nations had long ago outlawed the death penalty. Here we live, I thought, in the United States, a place that purports to be the moral leader of the world, and we execute criminals? Would the Galactic Federation or whatever they call it on Star Trek ever execute a prisoner? So maybe "liberal" influence from the media (with plenty of other filmic fare thrown in, from Dead Man Walking to Stephen King-centric prison films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile thrown in for good measure).

I suppose I started to realize that justice need not come at the end of a needle, that civilized peoples could and perhaps should strive for something better than that. Not for necessarily for the prisoner's sake of course – though you make a fine argument about wrongful convictions, Phillip – but for the sake of the rest of us.

Other factors later helped to confirm and solidify this newfound conviction, such as a well circulated sentiment that executing prisoners actually ends up costing far more than feeding and housing over the course of a lifetime imprisonment, thus defusing an economic argument.

But it's the notion of what we strive to be as a society that stuck. I'm realizing just now that that very philosophy now informs my feelings on torturing prisoners as well as a host of human rights issues.

Since we're in rough agreement on the yes-or-no of the death penalty issue, Phillip, I'll ask:

Why do you think that the death penalty is legal in the United States when so many other countries have outlawed the practice? What does that say about us?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

That is a fascinating question, Eric. I'm not sure I have any answer for which there isn't a counter-example somewhere, but I think there are a few things that combine in some way to keep the death penalty laws on the books.

One factor is the popular notion of the United States as a sort of barely-settled Wild West. Although Australia might serve as a counter-example here, given their relatively similar history and national identity, it is also worth noting that Australia is not as firmly against the death penalty as most of Europe! Still, I think the U.S. is uniquely tied up with the idea of John Wayne as a cowboy, and the shootout at the OK Corral, and so on. We grow up, or many of us do, with the idea that there are some criminals — cattle rustlers, say — about whom we can say, "hangin's too good for 'em!"

In fact, I would suggest that many Americans see Europe and deliberately seek to avoid settling into the "stagnation" found there. We relish our image as the brash young leaders of the world, breaking or bending the rules and refusing to settle into cultural torpor as so many other nations have. We're the inventors of the world, the source of the best music, the most popular fashion, all the good movies, and so on. We won't be like Wells's Eloi, stagnant to the point of death!

Of course, I doubt anyone would expressly state that the existence of the death penalty is part of what has made the United States a great nation, but I think it is considered to be part and parcel with our rugged past.

So another factor for our continued support is a certain amount of anti-Europeanism. We're not (yet) those who refuse to recognize evil when it confronts us, we think, or make excuses for even the worst behavior. As I write this, riots are engulfing Sydney nightly in a pattern reminiscent of the riots around Paris last month. The rioting is complicated, with no easy answers, but most Americans would, I think, not rush to say that the rioters should be excused because of an inequity in the social structure. We've too many Horatio Alger stories in our history, stories of people who started with less than nothing and the whole world set against them and managed to overcome it all. That's one of the things I love about the United States, but at the same time it may make us less quick to recognize that there really are inequities in our system that tend to hold people back.

All of this said, I believe that we will see the end of the practice of the death penalty in the United States within 10-15 years, though I suspect a law will remain on the books for unusual events and unusual crimes, such as the crimes that led Australian Prime Minister John Howard to entertain the idea of execution despite his country's opposition to capital punishment.

Here's another thought: The death penalty would be a much more effective deterrent if it were carried out far more quickly (within weeks or months, not years and years) and perhaps even not quite as painlessly. But I wouldn't want to live in the type of country we would be if we went in that direction.

As an alternative to the death penalty, I wonder how many people would seriously entertain the idea of re-introducing "hard time" for those sentenced to life in prison, by which I mean long hours of manual labor, like digging a natural gas pipeline from Alaska. Many people have an idea (not accurate in most cases) that prison is not so hard, and is in fact a step up for many people in the most desperate situations on the lowest rung of America's socio-economic ladder.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

What's very interesting and what occurred to me while reading through our conversation is that we're treading on territory — at least in part — covered by Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. That documentary focused on guns, gun control, and violence in America but it did dare (and some of course condemn the controversial filmmaker for daring whereas I give it a standing ovation even while I withhold the right to disagree with some of his conclusions) to raise some fundamental questions, as we have here, about the nature of America and why our society is imbued with certain particular and peculiar characteristics.

While I agree that acceptance and support for the death penalty likely stems in part from America's association with the notion of rugged individualism, I see it as more cause and less effect than you do, if I'm reading you correctly, Mr. Winn. In other words, I think the rugged individualism (or the whole shoot first, ask questions never 'cause there ain't no cavalry in these here parts type thing) in our national backbone causes many to accept the death penalty in 2005, but I don't think we accept it as a reaction to European stagnation or cultural torpor. In fact, I would contend that cultural and even informational provincialism (did I coin a new phrase just there? Quick, to the Lexis-Nexis, Robin!) prevents most Americans from having any real notion of what's going on in Europe or elsewhere one way or the other (above and beyond bumper sticker slogans such as "Eat Freedom Fries," of course). In fact, Americans tend to assume that American culture, as predominant culture, is the only culture.

I'll take a similar position with regard to your Horatio Alger story (and if you're getting bored with the somewhat intellectual tone of the discussion this week, kids, I'll give you a topic to toss about: is the Horatio Alger of the blogosphere… discuss!). Again, I think you're right on in saying that another root cause for support of the death penalty is the American exuberance for nearly pure capitalism and the great risk and great reward that comes with it. You shot someone while robbing a bank and managed to get yourself collared? Off to Old Sparky with you! But again, I can't associate this in any way with the contention of anti-Europeanism. I once again fail to see the connection there.

I agree that the death penalty will likely become increasingly rare in the United States over the course of the next generation or so. In fact, despite the fact that social conservatives currently have a firm grip on the levers of power in the U.S., there has been a general trend toward liberalism, tolerance, and social acceptance over the past 50 years. Indeed, I grew up during the 1980s, an era when a term like "gay marriage" would never even be uttered in polite company, let alone be discussed in any kind of serious way! It's this liberal trend, in fact, that has helped to whip a reaction on the right into such a frenzy. It will be interesting when and if this reaction crests and begins to falter.

The last of your remarks on this go round points us toward public policy with regard to prisons and potential reforms. The idea of reintroducing "hard labor" into prison life is an interesting one. It segues quite snugly to my next Big Question (I'm going Big Question instead of Big Picture this week):

Is the overall purpose of incarceration to punish or to educate and rehabilitate?

I suppose that the very fact that the death penalty is still around forces the answer toward the punishment side of the scale for the U.S.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Growing up in a conservative family and surrounded by mostly conservative friends, I can assure you that — at least among "my crowd" — there was definitely awareness of European views on issues like capital punishment, and the general opinion was not positive. You might underestimate the power of someone like Rush Limbaugh to put these issues in front of a large number of people. His radio audience has never been equaled, and is still quite large, while other die-hard conservatives have risen through the ranks to spread similar messages far and wide. Me, I'll still with NPR!

I do think, and this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, that even hard-core conservatives do not see capital punishment as a core conservative value to be defended. Just as you once supported it while holding liberal views on many other subjects, and I generally rejected it while still holding conservative views on many other subjects, so too do many conservatives with whom I've spoken allow for variation on this issue above many others. Nobody, I think, wants to be seen as a bloodthirsty hangman!

You've got the last word this week, so I'll content myself with trying to answer your question. I think that the overall purpose of the justice system varies. The execution of Williams this week has ensured the topic comes up quite a bit, and I spoke to a moderate (he voted for Clinton and Bush) this week who said that anytime someone goes to prison, he wants to feel safer. So Martha Stewart should have been fined but not imprisoned, while premeditated murder ought to result in an automatic life sentence.

Certainly victims, or the families of victims, tend to expect a certain amount of punishment. The idea that a killer could quickly rehabilitate and end up on the street, while my loved one lies dead at that killer's hand, is repugnant on its face to most people, but most of all to the family of the murdered person. And yet there is a fine line between the punishment aspect of justice, and revenge. Even the state-orchestrated death of Stanley Williams didn't bring back Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, or Yee-Chen Lin. Those who were lost can never be restored in this life. Did the execution of Williams bring comfort to the survivors of those four people? I don't know, but statements I've read from past victims' families indicate that the hoped-for closure is usually bittersweet at best.

In the Big Picture sense, I'll tell you: I think that certain crimes intrinsically involve giving up the right to live in American society. Premeditated murder, rape, and child molestation make that short list for me. Some people say that child molesters, for example, cannot be rehabilitated. I'm uncomfortable with a system that make such broad statements, and would prefer to see a bit more human involvement in such decisions. Even if most child molesters cannot be rehabilitated, there are probably exceptions. Will someone who has raped once necessarily rape again? I don't know the rate of recidivism among convicted rapists, but again, I suspect that there are varying degrees. A college student who rapes someone he knows after a party at which he has had too much to drink should spend a stretch of "hard time" in prison, but is he really likely to rape again after his release? Probably not as likely as an older man who prowls a college campus.

I'm trying to avoid introducing Christian theology into a discussion of politics, and it is turning out to be very difficult for me on this topic, because so much of my softening on this issue is tied up in my growing understanding of the place of mercy in Christianity. I can summarize a complex explanation in this way, I think: When someone commits one of those certain crimes, I believe that they give up the right to live in society, and should expect to spend the rest of their days breaking rocks and having a generally unpleasant life. But those of us on the outside should strive to exercise mercy, looking for opportunities to integrate people back into society if we can determine with reasonable confidence that they are not a continuing threat to society.

That would involve inequity, I think; perhaps more than the American public is willing to bear. One person goes free after only a few years, while another dies on the chain gang? Why?

And yet that's what I would like to see, in my American utopia.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I certainly see your point with regard to Rush Limbaugh and other pervasive media sources in advancing all manner of ideas and opinions. Of course, that doesn't make them accurate, but I can appreciate how a strand of thinking (European-style incarceration = bad; fryin' 'em = good!) can make its way into a subset or even across a wide swath of the American public. This brings up a related point that we could certainly do several columns on in the future: the importance of obtaining news and information from the widest possible spectrum of sources! Couple that with Mainstream Media Bias: Yea or Nay and I think we're talking a few months worth of ideas to play around with.

I also agree that there is some vacillation on this issue within party ranks. It's certainly not a "fatal flaw" for a Republican to be against the death penalty, for instance, whereas being pro-choice on abortion would not fly in many areas of the country (Rudy Giuliani's probable quest for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 will give this thesis a good test).

Reading through the comments from your moderately-minded friend, it struck me that the keyword with regard to public sentiment toward the prison system is security. If people generally feel safe, I don't think most really care what goes on behind prison walls: education, prisoner-on-prisoner shiv fests, country club-style HBO marathons, etc. When people don't feel safe, that's when politicians ratchet up the law-and-order stuff and up minimum sentencing standards and so on. It's often ignored that the best law-and-order program any society can ever have is a strong economy and opportunity and education for the masses!

It also struck me that the idea of revenge is most often sweeter than the actual feeling of carrying it out. Therefore, I would agree with you with regard to victim's families and the witnessing of state-sponsored executions. I also like your ideas concerning a philosophy underlying the point at which adults "give up the right" to be free to move and circulate within society. Certain crimes extinguish that right forevermore by their very nature, while others require subjective reasoning and may call on a certain amount of self-motivated education and redemption on the part of the criminal in order to literally earn his or her way back into free society. And I would argue that the very notion of having a free and "just" society allows for that second scenario to be upheld by our legal and justice system. Finally, I'll be the first to admit it's all in the details, for which thousands of people get paid millions of dollars everyday to wrestle with these things in an attempt to sort it all out!

Let me wrap up this week's topic before we let our esteemed commenting masses have at it. The death penalty is an expensive, time-consuming, and unethical response to heinous crimes. It's also very unlikely to deter anyone from plotting a murder, for example, and in any event lifetime imprisonment surely must be an equal or nearly equal deterrent.

Most of all, I believe that legally sanctioned executions send a poor message to ourselves and to the world about what we strive to be as a civilized people. This ties in quite snugly with other hot issues currently in the news, such as treatment of "enemy combatants" and torture of suspected terrorist conspirators.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, Vice President Cheney, John Murtha, and Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan.

Blogcritics Editors' Picks of the Week: Retooled Construction in Progress (So Watch Your Step)

Welcome to a low budget, no frills, retooling, yet no less quality in total edition of the finest articles of the week, as brought to you by the editorial staff of Look for fancy-schmancy remodeling and flying buttresses and so forth next week, and please pardon all of the construction!

For what awaits can only delight you to your soul's very core.


Music Editor: Connie Phillips

CD Review: The Beastie Boys - Solid Gold Hits by Robert Burke (Dec. 7)
In this offering Robert not only gives a thorough and detailed review of the CD in question, but a comprehensive and interesting look at the history of the band. It is well-spoken and complete, giving the reader comprehensive and enjoyable look at everything Beastie Boys.

Concert Review: Ill Nino w/ Opiate for the Masses, Unbalanced, Junket on 12/7/05 by Chris Beaumont (Dec. 8)
Chris gives us yet another great article in this concert review, complete with pictures. With enthusiasm and details he tells us of his history with the band and their music as well as giving the reader a front row seat to this show. Leaving no detail untold, he writes beyond the show itself but gives us a feel of the room and the crowd, giving the reader the whole experience.

Books Editor: Warren Kelly

America's Right Turn by Richard A. Viguerie & David Franke by Marty Dodge (Dec. 3)
Marty's review shows that, no matter what you think of their policies, conservatives have done something right, and anyone who wants to succeed in politics should emulate their methods, if not their policies.

Book Review: How I Grew - A Memoir of the Early Years by Mary McCarthy by Alpha (Dec. 9)
Some great personal touches in this review. I get the feeling that Alpha could write a fascinating memoir of his own.

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres by Tim Gebhart (Dec. 9)
Tim gives a valuable summary to this book, which I'd like to make required reading for every family that calls itself Christian. I appreciate the fact that he notes that the book is not definitive, but my own experience leads me to believe that many Christian families fall short of the ideal, and there are those that fall far short.

Narnia and Christian Propaganda by Chromatius (Dec. 10)
This opinion piece (actually, it could be considered a review of the PR driving the movie) should be a warning to Christians out to make this movie the second coming of The Passion. Lewis would be thrilled that so many people get the message of his work; he wouldn't be happy at all with the way we're promoting the movie.

TV/Film Co-Editor Alisha Karabinus

Movie Review: Brokeback Mountain by Silas Kain (Dec. 9)
Sometimes, a film leaves us unable to speak or move, or do anything but sit in silence with tears pouring down our faces. Silas Kain says Brokeback Mountain left him in such a state, but he still managed to churn out an amazing review that brings the reader into his emotional experience. It's nearly as good as the film -- and there's a deeper message, as well.

Culture Editor Lisa Hoover

It's Time For Government To Give The Artistic World Its Due by Kay Bell (Dec. 3)
Kay opens her article by saying, "Government and the arts. Sounds like an
oxymoron, doesn't it? But the two are inextricably intertwined..." After reading this, you might think so too.

Fair Use - Is It Fair? by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti (Dec. 9)
Sadi has put together some basic guidelines to keep in mind when you're referencing another person's work. A great primer to get some general understanding of the issue.

How Long Is Too Long To Stay At A Job? by Mark Sahm (Dec. 6)
Mark makes such great points about overstaying your welcome at a job that after reading this article, I quit mine on the spot. When I told myself I was resigning, I threatened to give myself a bad reference and then I told myself to get the hell out of my office.

Also selected by editorial staff: on SUBJECT2DISCUSSION: Phillip Winn's Turn - (Dec. 13)
SUJECT2DISCUSSION is a weekly two-hour web radio show that airs every Tuesday night at 7 PM PT and 10 PM ET. Each week, a Blogcritic holds down the 8:00 – 8:30 slot with a rollicking discussion of all things pop culture. This week, Tech Maestro and Blogcritics co-owner Phillip Winn sallies forth on filmic releases such as King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia, and also gets into the passing of comedic legend Richard Pryor.

Politics Editor Natalie Davis

A New Iron Lady for Chile by Taylor Kirk (Dec. 6)
Fascinating piece. Taylor Kirk offers a well-written and informative bird's-eye view of what is happening in Chilean politics, with a focus on the possible first female president. The article shares information concisely - a blessing, given most of us are unfamiliar with workings in Chile.

Israeli Politics: All the Trash is Jumping into the Same Bin by Ruvy in Jerusalem (Dec. 2)
A massive shakeup is under way in Israel's Knesset. In this fascinating piece, Blogcritics' Israel correspondent explains the nation's political process and analyzes the players involved in and possible ramifications of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dumping of one political party for another. This is an important, thoughtful essay that should be relevant to Israelis and to people around the globe.

Bring in the Euro-Marshals by Grozdan Popov (Dec. 2)
Sex slavery in the Balkans is a cancer poisoning the European continent. Grozdan Popov says it is time for the European Union to take action - and he has a bold plan for dealing with the Albanian criminal gangs that use and abuse women.

Also selected by editorial staff:

Freedom Now by John Conlin (Dec. 13)
A penetrating and enlightening manifesto on the true meaning of freedom that ends with a simple yet powerful plea: If you support freedom, raise your voice.

Sports Editor: Matthew T. Sussman

Frank Thomas is a Hall of Famer by Dan McGowan (Dec. 6)
The title leaves little to the imagination, but in Dan's maiden voyage on Blogcritics he lays out a solid case for, as he puts it, the best first baseman to play in the 1990s. He writes the two-time MVP's career was a victim of circumstance and in an era of suspected steroid use, Thomas was more than likely clean. Prior to the post I hadn't considered Thomas as a Haller but it's difficult to argue against Dan's points.

Bud Carson: Thoughts and Memories of a Coach by Zach Baker (Dec. 9)
It's not easy being a Browns fan, but the Cleveland faithful always take time out to remember those who touched the organization before they passed away. Bud Carson will be remembered as the architect of Pittsburgh's famous "Steel Curtain" defense, but Zach remembers him best as a one-time Browns head coach.

Gaming Editor: Ken Edwards

Roger Ebert and Video Games: A Sign of the Times by Matt Paprocki (Dec. 6)
Video games are art, no less than film. Roger Ebert disagrees though. Why? Paprocki shares a rebuttal to Ebert's latest take on video games.

Best Articles Written By Editorial Team
As chosen by the very same, the self-referential and spotlight seeking thugs that we are! Executive Producer Eric Berlin chose:

TV Preview: A Charlie Brown Christmas — Glad Tidings of Great Joy by Eric Olsen (Dec. 6)
EO won me over on the strength of this wonderful paragraph:

Schultz dared to directly search for the meaning of Christmas amidst commercialized children (some gleefully, some reluctantly so) and innocence lost, most pointedly symbolized by a garish Christmas tree lot filled with neon-colored aluminum trees, stiffly reflecting both the searchlight glare and soulless artificiality of Christmas in mid-20th century America.

Music Editor Connie Phillips (and Blogcritics writer Mike West!) chose:

Remembering Lennon and Dancing on Dec. 8 By Natalie Davis (Dec. 8)
In a week when many were remembering a legend, Natalie articulates her memories and emotions of a painful day in music history with eloquence and grace. She also reflects on lessons learned that she holds dear.

Editor and all-around all-star Justene Adamec chose:

Internet Ad Share to Double by 2010 by Eric Olsen (Dec. 9)
The fearless leader of Blogcritics, Eric Olsen, has been one of the players on the internet since the dark ages of 3 1/2 years ago. In this, his best article of the week, he puts Internet advertising in perspective — why it was only 5% of the total market in '04 and where it's going. Of course, there's also his personal opinion of pop-ups.

More Best of Articles of the Week
As chosen by Blogcritics who have had their work highlighted by editors last week

Pete Blackwell chose:

The Fifteen Dollar Future by Chancelucky (Dec. 12)
It's not often that a post can make you feel simultaneously great and crappy about being an American. Idealism is alive and well and it's nice to remember that sometimes the "invisible hand" is there to smack some sense into us.

Zach Hoskins from Modern Pea Pod chose:

CD Review: Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye by Michael J. West (Dec. 8)
These days, it's a rare thing to come across music criticism that doesn't just rehash the same old tired albums or artists. But Mr. West, hot on the heels of his well-researched essay on the ambiguities of modern folk music, has done it. His revelatory look back at Marvin Gaye's Here My Dear is neither mediocre choir-preaching nor a self-indulgent attempt at slaughtering sacred cows; instead, he brings to light an album which has been overlooked and underrated by many (including myself), and by god, the results made me want to get off the computer, run to the record store and buy myself a copy. That's what music writing is about, folks.

GoHah chose:

Single Review: 'Til Tuesday "Voices Carry" by Pam Avoledo (Dec. 9)
I was immediately drawn to the article because I'm a big Aimee Mann fan, but the writing more than lived up to the promising enticement, and, moreover, represents a larger purpose. Pam insightfully and sensitively explores the song, lyrically and musically, and
expressively renders her analysis in well-considered detail and comprehensiveness. In a more general sense, Pam's choice of subject matter — an appreciative glance back at a fondly remembered work — also shows the free-rein adventurousness and flexibility of Blogcritics' writers and editors, willing and eager to spotlight both the past as well as the shiny and new.

Duke de Mondo chose:

Movie Review - Scorpius Gigantus by Aaron Fleming (Dec. 7)
Aaron Fleming's masterful appraisal of the latest Jeff Fahey opus made me wanna claw my teeth out wi delight. Truffaut, Darwin, Sartre, Miles Davis and Jeff Fahey all in the one article. If I wasn't in love with a review of Bright Eyes I read one time, I'd demand nothing less than sweet filth from this slab of hilarious Faheyist discourse.

Production Notes
Due to some production delays caused by winter's snow and intermittent solar flare brain static, this week's choices cover the period from 12/3 – 12/13.

How'd we choose these things? Find out here.

Please send you input, ideas, and suggestions to Eric Berlin:

And thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Apprentice Endgames Near: It's Martha Stewart Three, Donald Trump a Dynamite Two

Maybe I'm nuts, and maybe I'm the only person left in America still watching, but I'm going to come right out and say that this has been a great season to be an Apprentice fan.

It's been double the action for starters, with Martha Stewart's lighter-touched and homier designed spin-off on Wednesday nights (NBC) and Donald Trump's "You're Not Tough Enough For This Town, You're Fired" tough-as-nails variety holding down its usual Thursday night slot.

Allow me, if you will, to prove why Martha's edition was surprisingly effective and entertaining and then I'll get down to the nitty grit on the approaching finales of both Mark Burnett-produced editions.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart serves as an unabashed effort to rehabilitate Stewart's post-lock up image and cram down our throats at all opportunities that Martha Stewart: The Brand is as kick ass and take names as they come. And it's a yummy brand too, we're assured! All of this, of course, is fine and to be expected. After four seasons of Donald Trump: The Water and Donald Trump: The Breast Pump (okay, one of those might be made up) we weary viewers are well attuned to the heavy handed mauling of cross-promotional product branding blitzkrieg. In fact, the incessant commercial-in-segment followed by actual-commercial-segment featuring the same exact product seemed to be somewhat toned down this season. Or maybe that's just the Digital Video Recorder talking, who knows?

While the opening credits of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart are syrupy cheese ("Sweet dreams are made of these," we get it!) and Martha herself occasionally a little over-scripted, the overall vibe of the show is lighter, airier, and often more fun than The Don's original. It's the little things, as a glossy Martha Stewart Living media product might advise, and I must say that Martha hits them all just right. The show's format has a looser feel to it, which allows Martha and her executive "helpers" (including Stewart's daughter, Alexis) to banter entertainingly about the Apprentice wannabes. Post-firing – which is a much more civil "you're just not a good fit" affair as compared to Donald's tense and tensely lit boardroom – the gang again has a good little chat about the state of affairs before Martha writes a note to the week's unfortunate send-off. I know I'm not the only one who became able at reading between the hand-written lines to discern the polite screw-offs from the genuine well wishes!

A spin-off Apprentice also allowed the audience to be treated to a slightly different brand (can't get away from that word, sorry) of tasks that teams were judged upon each week. A serious effort was made, it seems, to inject creativity into the process, which made most episodes a generally engaging affair. An early test had both teams writing and producing a children's book, for example.

I want to be on a writer's version of The Apprentice, I wanted to shout out at several points! Who would run that show, though? Maybe combine it with The Contender and have Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard coach me through late night, instant coffee fueled writing action!

But I digress.

Reality shows, in the end, always boil down to casting. Fortunately, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart had the requisite lunatic on board to demand a return to the set each week. Jim, an ad executive from Pennsylvania, is the peculiar variety of maniac that allows him to be smart and hyper enough to win it all, but he walks obscenely close to the self destruct button at all moments. A reality television superstar, in other words! His antics include quoting Sun Tzu, prancing on conference tables like a monkey, hawking gourmet dip during a sales task by telling women that it's good for bunions and that they should rub it on their feet, and generally screaming himself hoarse each week. He's also an effective manipulator, if uber-obvious to the audience, and a self-described super-champion of The Apprentice gaming arts.

Jim's also managed to squeeze through to the final three, which we'll get to in a moment.

The now veteran Trump-led edition of The Apprentice started slow-ish but picked up steam as the season wore on. What was immediately obvious was a new emphasis on talented job applicants after a glaringly lackluster group suffered the audience through the destined-not-to-return Book Smarts versus Street Smarts season. In the end, the change of direction has really paid off as we're left with two of the best candidates ambition and toil can buy: Randal, a consulting firm owner from New Jersey and Rebecca, a youthful (she's 23!) but effective financial journalist from Chicago. Along the way there was the usual disaster-waiting-to-happen countdown (Markus… oh, Markus) and a few cliques and broken alliances that you come to expect on this sort of program.

One new development that popped up on both editions of The Apprentice this season was the multiple firing. Who will ever forget, for instance, what can only be referred to as the Dick's Sporting Goods Day Massacre? The Don sent four players packing in one fell swoop after Team Excel's fixation on a batting cage caused the average sales in their store to drop instead of improve! Trump seems to be gaining a taste for the multi-fire as he later knocked off Felisha and the hardnosed Alla to bring the competition down to the final two.

Another notable trend on the Donald side was the frequent replacement of old time executive helper George with Bill Rancic, the original Apprentice. Perhaps this is a prelude to a permanent switch? While George has a feisty, old school of hard knocks flavor, Rancic clearly brings a different kind of charisma, so don't be surprised to see him more on the new edition of The Apprentice, which will reportedly take place in Los Angeles.

Enough of all that, though. Let's get into predictions and analysis and snarky-yet-precious asides.

On the Martha Stewart side, it's initially very easy to pick Dawna as the clear frontrunner as she's the only clear adult left. She's organized, level-headed, bright, and is the serious sort of worker bee you see rising in the ranks of companies every day. We've already mentioned Jim, so I'll just add here that he enjoys annoying Dawna as he feels it "takes her off her game." Meanwhile, Bethany – again on first appearance – seems like Jim's co-dependent, wild-eyed sister. They nag each other, they bitch each other out (in front of clients!), and they whisper conspiratorially together… which mostly involves Jim pumping her full of the Sun Tzu-fueled pop military theory of the week.

The picture clouds up from there, however. Bethany has been remarkably strong of late, Jim is highly creative and bright for all his insanity, and Dawna strikes as more middle manager than Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia megastar.

Who do I pick? Oh hell, let's say Bethany. I just can't see it being Jim and Dawna is too safe.

We're already into the final round on the original Apprentice, with the live finale to air next Thursday. Once again, the final two must manage a large-scale event replete with big name corporate sponsors, VIPs, and a slew of logistical challenges. A surprising and positive tweak was made, however, in that the final Project Managers were allowed to choose for themselves the three already-fired candidates that would serve as the employees of each team. In past years, a motley crew of misfits and camera hungry screw-ups were emphasized in the hope that good television would ensue. Again, the direction of quality-over-mess here is a winner.

It seems as though nature and humankind will conspire nonetheless to throw major screws into the machinery. Rebecca's charity event emcee, Joe Piscipo (remember Jerry from Jersey on SNL?), may have to back out due to union snafus while the usually precise Randal may end up in over his head, literally, when his charity softball event gets rained out. Never trust the weatherman, the wise man said. And he got struck by lightning!

Rebecca v. Randal is a tough, tough choice, as The Don himself might say. Pure demographics might be unconsciously relied upon here, even though they shouldn't. Rebecca's frightfully young, though she displays leadership skills and savvy well beyond her years. The first female Apprentice was chosen just last season, while a minority candidate has never yet been made, which may in some small way favor the African American Randal. As for Randal, he's obviously scary smart (he's a Rhodes Scholar) and was universally respected and admired by all who worked with him. Which is highly unusual for Apprentice-land, to say the least!

I don't think the racial/demo factors would come into play if there were any other obvious reasons to cling to. While a disastrous final event might factor in (they usually don't become a huge factor), it looks to be a neck-and-neck call.

Which means I choose Randal.

I'll also be choosing to catch the final episodes of both shows. That I can guarantee you.

Friday, December 09, 2005

In the Middle: Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan

Has Joe Conason, writer for and the New York Observer, come up with a legitimate and legitimately new idea to win the war in Iraq?

And now for a brief primer on conventional wisdom and the war in Iraq:

A brief primer on conventional wisdom and the war in Iraq

Chapter One
For nearly two years, it was thought to be somewhere near the neighborhood of traitor to even suggest that US troops should leave Iraq before there was some kind of generally agreed upon Total Victory.

Chapter Two
After President Bush was re-elected and reality slowly overtook the maelstrom of politics in the United States, public opinion shifted firmly against the war and the persistent reports of American casualties that came with it.

Chapter Three
In late 2005, there are three main camps:

* The Bushies: Led by Bush 43 himself, these are the hardcore stay-the-coursers. I'd include the neocons in this group, Phillip, but I know that would reopen an earlier debate!

* The 'Tweeners: This group includes hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and, interestingly, a rising number of Republicans who are trying to respond to public unease to the war. The general message here is: we need to make progress now and start bringing troops home… or we might just have to start bringing troops home.

* The End-It-Nowers: No longer the bastion of Howard Dean and other dovish liberals, this camp rakes in more "names" everyday, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and new "name" Rep. John Murtha (D – PA).

Interestingly, all three camps don't differ very much on how to make progress in Iraq: train the troops, decrease American casualties, defuse insurgent capabilities, and so on. The entire concept of bringing in a broader international presence or United Nations support seems to have breathed its last breath with the defeat of presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

It's pretty amazing to think that there haven't been any big new ideas in terms of how to deal with Iraq for a long long time. Perhaps most assumed (and I'll include myself in this meta-camp) that the die had been cast with the lead-up to invasion and its aftermath and there were no longer any new ideas to put in play.

Enter Joe Conason and this intriguing solitary paragraph at the end of a Salon piece entitled "No Way Out" (emphasis is mine):

There is a decent and honorable way out that has been addressed by the Iraqis themselves but that no American politician, not even the brave Murtha, is willing to mention: negotiations with the Sunni insurgents. The elected Iraqi government, representing a population eager for us to leave, should begin talks with rebels who are willing to discuss laying down their arms, in exchange for an orderly and scheduled American departure. That is the only way to transform the US occupation from a stick into a carrot — and to extract some kind of victory from what is becoming a strategic disaster.

Is this heresy or the Big Idea needed to bring the US war effort out of its current stasis?

My take: this might very well be the answer that frustrated US leaders come to after years of guerilla fighting and further casualties, so they should think long and hard about it pronto-like.

What say you from across the In the Middle divide, dear Phillip?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Interesting framing, but I think that the actual different views on Iraq are a little different than you've painted them to be. For example, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman has recently reiterated his support for continuing in Iraq, reporting that real progress is being made and that Iraqis are far more optimistic about progress in Iraq than we are. I think that the average Iraqi would probably have a better idea about conditions in Iraq than most other people, don't you?

Don't forget also that people in America (the "general public"), along with members of the military and state and local government, believe that "efforts to establish a stable democracy" in Iraq "will succeed," according to a recent Pew poll.

So I don't think that the "conventional wisdom" as you've laid it out is accurate, which might make for difficulty in coming to a conclusion based on all of that!

Is a Big Idea needed? Would a Big Idea help? Or does progress come through a series of small ideas, constant refinements to a plan to deal with new circumstances? Sen. Lieberman and many others seem to think that many ideas now in play are working quite well.

In any case, Joe Conason's Big Idea can be summarized as this: negotiate with the insurgents. That idea doesn't bother me, but it isn't new. My surprise is that Joe Conason believes that we have anything to do with it.

The Bush Administration has stated repeatedly that Iraqis are in control of Iraq, and that United States troops are there at the request and with the support of the Iraqi government. If the Iraqi government asks us to leave, we will. If they are able to negotiate a cease-fire or treaty of some kind, then we will have effectively "stayed the course" and be ready to leave. The US is not in a position to negotiate with anybody, as that is the duty of the Iraqi government, not US commanders!

So we're sitting happily in the United States asking ourselves whether the Iraqi government should negotiate with those who are trying to kill them. I'd say that's up to them, and from what I've heard, they've already been doing so, off and on, for quite some time.

The assumption is that one can effectively negotiate with those who consider exploding civilians a viable tactic, and I'm not sure that's a good assumption. It has been made clear many times that US troops will withdraw as soon as attacks on troops and civilians stop, but that broadly-telegraphed opening position hasn't resulted in any response other than more bombs. Will more detailed negotiations with the elected Iraqi government fare better? I hope so, but I wouldn't count on it.

After all, we're told over and over that we're not facing an organized response, but an upswell of grassroots insurgency. So how would negotiating with a small set of leaders of an organization achieve anything of value?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I agree that we're going to have trouble finding common ground on Iraq if we can't come to at least a broad consensus on what the general read on conventional wisdom is at present. Every poll I've looked at over the last few months has been grim-as-grim for the president and for the war effort in Iraq. The media outlets I regularly visit – both conservative and liberal and in between – seem to reflect "my side" of the story as well.

I just did a quick Google search and got the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll numbers:

As President Bush launched a new effort Wednesday to gain public support for the Iraq war, a new poll found most Americans do not believe he has a plan that will achieve victory.

But the CNN/USA TodayGallup poll released Wednesday night also found nearly six in 10 Americans said US troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq until certain goals are achieved.

Very interesting, however, is that the story goes on to site that only 35 percent of Americans want to set a specific time table for withdrawal. That said, what might be the most interesting number is that 55 percent think that President Bush doesn't have a plan to win the war. After 2-1/2 years of war, more than half of all Americans don't believe there's a plan to win the thing!

Perhaps Joe Conason drew on this perception of quagmire (i.e. things aren't going that well but we can't really do much about it any which way) in drawing up his assertion to talk to the Sunni insurgents.

And while some in the more peaceful areas of Iraq might be optimistic about the future, the Sunni triangle continues to be a mess. Headlines like "Sunni group to abstain from Iraq poll" can not be cheering to anyone interested in seeing representative democracy flourish in Iraq.

After a few months of writing this column with you, Phillip, I understand that you're one of the more optimistic observers of the Iraqi equation. But I'm surprised that you believe that the United States would refuse to negotiate with the insurgents if we thought it was in our national interest to do so. Look at the trouble-spots around with world: we get up in everyone's business all the time, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Ireland to North Korea and on and on! We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and no one invited us to do so. If the Iraqi government asked us to leave today, it would put us in an awkward position but that doesn't mean we'd be gone in six weeks or even six months.

Now, I can definitely get behind many of your counter-arguments against the feasibility of negotiating with violent and loosely slung together factions. That said, if we pacify a few key groups within the Sunni triangle by, for example, making a few political concessions (and we can argue about what "we" means but let's just assume "we" is the Iraqi government backed very closely by a "persuasive" United States) that could, in theory, tip the balance to the good in the region. At least on the short-term.

A rock solid plan? Certainly not. But with the optimism of Lieberman and Bush and some others aside, I personally believe the time is right for new ideas on Iraq, both big and small.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

This could quickly turn into a discussion about polls at this rate? Ask yourself this: How would Americans know what President Bush's plan for Iraq is? He can hardly broadcast the details to those who wage war against us, right? Though the details of the plan surely change in response to tactical shifts on the ground, it would be foolishness to immediately send out a press release announcing the way in which we're deploying troops to respond to the new strategy. So what we know about his plan is that he intends to not abandon the Iraqi people, as his father did, and that the Iraqi military is being pushed to take an increasingly active role in operations, which they are doing.

So consider that more than half of the general public believes that we will succeed in bringing a stable democracy to Iraq, while roughly the same percentage say that they don't think President Bush has a plan to do so. In my view, that apparent conflict means that we don't understand the questions or answers as well as we might think we do! In any case, with only 35 percent of those polled stating that we need to set a specific timetable, it sounds like far more people agree with President Bush's plan (whether they realize it or not) than with the alternatives being offered by various Democratic members of Congress.

That's poll data, though, and as interesting as it is, I hate to think that we're waging war with poll data as a primary factor in decision-making. It's a factor, sure, and should definitely push the Bush Administration in the direction of better communication, as we've agreed in the past, but that's about it.

You mention headlines that identify a "Sunni group," and I've previously mentioned National Public Radio stories which described how several other Sunni groups are deciding that they will participate in elections for the first time. No, the headline isn't cheering, but the question is whether that's because there's no cheering news at all, or because people aren't reporting it well (remember the Pew poll!), or because you and I just notice things that tend to support our outlook, and there's plenty of news both good and bad coming out of Iraq.

My point isn't that the United States would or should refuse to negotiate with insurgents in Iraq, but that such negotiation isn't something we can reasonably do. You mention our involvement in North Korea, which is an interesting example. North Korea demanded to negotiate with the United States, and President Bush refused. While accused of "unilateral" action in Iraq, he was criticized for not negotiating "unilaterally" with North Korea, but he insisted (correctly, it now seems) that only six-party talks would be effective in the long-term. Similarly, President Bush has insisted — and I believe that he will continue to insist — that Iraqis should determine the future of Iraq. It is the elected Iraqi government that should be making decisions about with whom they will negotiate, and I for one think that they will continue to do so and have already been doing so.

I'm sure we'd be happy to broker talks, as we've done between Israel and Palestine. Note that the Palestinian Authority now controls a border crossing without any Israeli or US troops involved, and that the negotiation took place between Israel and Palestine. That's a good model for future negotiations in Iraq as well.

In any case, I don't think that this idea is "new," since negotiations have been ongoing for quite a while, nor do I think the effort in Iraq lacks new ideas, big or small. More ideas are always welcome, of course, but I would hope that many would come from people more well-informed than the average NPR listener.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I don't think anyone is asking the president to reveal strategic military plans, Phillip, and certainly I'm not. But when you hear very little more than "stay the course" after 2-1/2 years of bloodshed, it's very understandable that the American people are unhappy. Inevitably, inexorably, we have to circle back to the lead-up to war and the history of the war up to the present. Public polls now consistently reveal that most people think the Bush Administration misled the nation into war. So I think the trust issue is now paramount. If a trusted leader tells us to hang on, that's one thing. But we have a situation in which we were virtually guaranteed all kinds of things: that we would be greeted as liberators (which we were in some ways but not others), that the war would be very short (true… if you believed "Mission Accomplished"; otherwise not so much), and that Iraqi oil would pay for the operation (definitely not true).

So I think many people now say, "Why should we believe you now?" And I really can't fault anyone for asking that question.

Let me finish up on polls before moving on: Where's the link to the Pew poll you've mentioned a few times? I'd like to see the numbers you mention before I concede any In the Middle ground.

I agree that it's very easy to latch onto news reports that support or support in part a preconceived notion or set of values. This is inevitably complicated by a situation in which we have 24/7 media coverage but very little factual on-the-ground reporting from the Iraqi streets and talking heads spinning spin from political parties that are inherently self-interested.

That said, I think we're finally seeing the president and Congress acting (if slowly and unsurely) because they rightly sense that the public is unhappy with the war effort as it stands. The truth is that the end is not in sight. And while you may be okay with having American soldiers in Iraq for decades, that's a political scenario that no politician on the left or right is willing to go near.

There are those who even believe that the longer we stay in Iraq, the more destructive it will be for US national security. What's interesting, and perhaps even unsettling, is that some of these voices come from conservatives. For example, Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret.), former National Security Agency Director under President Reagan, believes the only feasible course of action is to withdraw all American forces immediately. Far from taking a dovish point of view, he believes that all of our machinations in Iraq have made the world a safer place for al Qaeda.

I agree that the Democrats do not yet have a coherent strategy for what to do next, and neither does the White House. Joe Conason's thoughts on the potential for talking to insurgents, in my view, is a novel angle on what has become, for the most part, a stagnant debate in terms of strategy.

Finally, I'm not sure what you mean by "negotiations have been ongoing." Are you implying that we're already talking to the insurgents? If that's so, that counters your view that we should leave this sort of thing to the Iraqis. I'm also not sure what you mean in your reference to "average NPR listeners." Do you mean that Joe Conason is an average NPR listener? Or that I am?

I do listen to NPR, though I couldn't tell in what way I am or am not average.

But I'll leave the last word to you, sir.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I linked to the Pew Research poll last week, complete with an inline graphic! Here it is again.

With "average NPR listener," I was referring to myself, since I've heard on NPR several times now that Iraqi officials have been in negotiations with Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups. There was heated debate even among Iraqi government officials about whether negotiating with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was something that ought to be done, but the reports were that it was proceeding. That was several weeks ago, and it's why I've been so surprised to hear you describe Conason's proposal as "novel."

It's both funny and sad that I hear you say things and I wonder how on earth you could have missed major events X, Y, and Z, while I'm sure you hear me say things and wonder the same thing about A, B, and C. For example, I distinctly remember President Bush addressing the nation in 2001 and stating that the "war on terror" would be long and hard, and I definitely got a "many years" vibe from that. Secretary of State Rice has also stated several times that we're in this for the long haul. And yet you say that "no politician on the left or right" is willing to state such things! Or another example, I'm pretty sure I've linked to that Pew Poll at least twice, and yet you apparently never read it, or even my summary of it (with a chart!). Of course, I'm sure that the reverse is true as well. I've clearly not seen (or remembered) the polls you have that reveal how dreadfully the American people view the war effort, or how badly things are going in Iraq. I wonder how much of the Great Divide in American politics is due primarily to information filtering?

Nevertheless, is a rare place in which left and right come together and hear each other out — hopefully listening rather than waiting for a chance to argue!

Let me see if I can restate some of the views that have come up today: I think that we agree that the Bush Administration has not done a very good job of communicating about the war in Iraq to date, though they are showing some small signs of progress very recently. From early mistakes like the "Mission Accomplished" banner — which may have been technically true, but now seems fairly ridiculous in light of more than 2000 dead soldiers — and apparently inflated estimates of Iraqi troop strength, people don't trust what they hear from the White House, and I don't blame them. I think that mistrust is reflected in the apparently conflicting polls, in which people don't think Bush has a good plan, but think it's all going to work out anyway. It isn't really the plan they don't trust, it's Bush himself!

I think one point of disagreement between us actually could turn to agreement if we made a distinction between long-term over-arching plans and more immediate tactical or strategic shifts. There really can't be very many long-term over-arching plans at this point. Either we leave before things are stable, or we remain until things are stable. The rest is primarily details and definitions. We haven't heard a new long-term over-arching plan in a long time, because many people believe that the current plan (stay until things are stable) is working. Tactics and strategic choices on the ground is a different matter entirely, and where I think most of the problem lies.

The current strategy on the ground is "Clear, Hold, and Build," and all of the reports I've seen so far on this approach have been positive. Even within that, there are many different lower-level tactical decisions to be made based on the resistance encountered, and I'm confident that military commanders on the ground are learning as they go. Could things be better? Of course. War is hell, and no amount of technology is ever going to change that. But people like Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who claims that this war is unwinnable, are in a distinct minority.

We should be open to new ideas and new strategies, and what I know of the military tells me that we're probably not quite as open to suggestions as we could be. We could probably also be applying a little more pressure to the Iraqi government to accelerate their timetable, though neither you nor I are likely to ever know what sort of things are happening behind the scenes in terms of diplomatic pressure.

The biggest question of all is whether we will win this war. Some experts believe it is unwinnable, while others believe we are well on the way to winning it. A very select few are calling for immediate withdrawal, while others run the gamut of opinion from a phased but scheduled withdrawal to troop increases. When the people who've dedicated their lives to understanding situations like this can't agree, I don't expect armchair generals like you and I to land exactly on the same page, either.

As time goes on and the war continues, we will need to begin demonstrating more serious progress, or the will of the American people will fail and we will abandon Iraqis to the jihadists who wish them to fail in building a stable democracy.

One last thing, since I have the last word this week! In trying to wrap my brain around difficult subjects, I often find it useful to reverse the questions. So I ask, how is this war going from the perspective of those who fight against us? Do the insurgents have the support of the Iraqi people? It appears to me that their support is dwindling as quickly or more quickly than our own. Have they ever succeeded in disrupting elections? No, they haven't. Their enemies (the Iraqi security forces) are growing in number and effectiveness while they themselves are killed by advancing coalition troops, so the ratio is contantly changing against them. Iraqi people stand in lines for hours to join Iraqi police forces, despite those lines being a frequent target for boms. Jordan is holding rallies calling for the death of Zarqawi, and Al Jazeera is sometimes running material that does not portray the "resistance" in a positive light. Recent bombings have taken place in Arab countries, presumably because it is much easier to carry out bombings there, and each time those bombings have resulted in a turning tide of opinion in that area against the bombers. Things are really not going well for those who are fighting against us in Iraq, and it seems that the only hope from their perspective is that we withdraw!

Which might tell us something.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, Vice President Cheney, and, most recently, John Murtha.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Recent Blogcritics articles on sidebar!

I got a hold of some snazzy code that allows the most recent Blogcritics articles to show on the right-hand sidebar.

Word up!

In The Middle: John Murtha

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito, Jr

Polls showed President Bush's approval rating to be plummeting, and it seems that his political foes were eager to push their advantage. Even some Democrats who had voted in favor of invading Iraq publicly apologized for their votes and began to call for withdrawal plans. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha went even farther, calling for the United States military to "immediately redeploy" troops, withdrawing from Iraq. Representative Murtha is certainly passionate, but I wonder how much credibility he can claim to have, given his record on the war in Iraq.

Prior to the Iraq authorization vote in 2002, Murtha questioned the resolution on primarily strategic reasons (it might alienate allies to go ahead without United Nations approval), but ended up voting for it anyway.

In 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandals, he called for more troops to be sent to Iraq, arguing that, "We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today," and "We either have to mobilize or we have to get out."

So far this seems reasonable. I, too, was worried a bit about the lack of UN support, though I decided eventually, as did many others, that UN support would never come, no matter what Hussein did. The Abu Ghraib revelations were disheartening, and I would certainly have supported more troops had the military leadership called for them. Still, that was a tactical decision, one that should be made free from political influence. Whether political issues are unduly influencing those decisions, I don't know, but certainly Rep. Murtha's statements don't represent politics-free decision-making, either.

Where things start to seem a little odd is later in 2004, with a bill introduced by Democrat Charles Rangel. Introduced in 2003, the bill would have reinstated a military draft, a political ploy designed to publicize the claim (which began in 2002) that a mandatory draft was unavoidable, and that President Bush was trying to avoid the issue until after the 2004 election. The bill was forced to a vote in 2004 in order to clear it off the docket, and even the bill's sponsor voted against it. Only two people voted in favor of reinstating the draft, and one was John Murtha. Of course, once the 2004 election cycle was over, nobody mentioned a draft again.

Just before Thanksgiving, Rep. Murtha seems to have decided that troop increases were no longer enough, and began to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. On November 17 on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in an interview with Margaret Warner, Murtha said, "I say that the fight against Americans began with Abu Ghraib. It began with the invasion of Iraq. That's when terrorism started." That comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who remembers September 11, 2001, I'm sure! Still, Rep. Murtha is no critic of the military, and his intentions are clearly found at least in part on a concern for troops who are fighting what seems to him to be an unwinnable war.

But still we have an odd contrast between Rep. Murtha's statement and his votes, because after calling for an immediate withdrawal on the 17th, he voted against a bill suggesting just that the next day! The bill was defeated by a vote of 403 to 3 with six abstentions.

Let us make no mistake: What John Murtha actually said on Thursday, November 17, was this (emphasis added): "I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy—immediately redeploy. No schedule which can be changed, nothing that's controlled by the Iraqis, this is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target... My plan calls for immediate redeployment of U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces to create a quick reaction force in the region, to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines, and to diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq."

This may actually not be a bad idea, and I would support this plan if the military commanders were to call for it as the best way to proceed.

Republican Duncan Hunter took those words and turned them into a resolution, which said, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately. Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." It is against that resolution that John Murtha voted.

I have to wonder, what's going on with John Murtha?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I think that Rep. John Murtha is a very interesting figure to emerge at the center of the ongoing debate about what to do about Iraq, Phillip. Murtha, a fairly conservative Democrat, has strong ties to the military and defense issues throughout his career as a military man and politician both.

I see Murtha's statement on redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq as a passionate stand by a man who deeply believes a change in policy is needed to make things better — both in Iraq and for American forces and long-term security for the United States. Indeed, his character, values, and beliefs now stand at stark odds with the President, who again today (Wednesday) rattled off standard and (verrrry…) long-standing slogans about staying the course and fighting until victory is at hand.

You seem to imply, Phillip, that Murtha's call for redeployment might be a political ploy designed to increase support for the growing anti-war sentiment in Congress (driven by relentlessly gloomy and across-the-board poll numbers). I can understand why some might feel this way, but I think a closer look at the actual proposal is warranted. The idea is that Iraq won't stand up for itself until it is basically forced to. Therefore, American forces would, under this plan, redeploy to neighboring or nearby areas so that they could easily go back in should it be necessary. This is actually a very interesting way to pull American soldiers away from the specter of Sunni-Shiite civil war yet put them in position to stamp out terror cells and training camps quickly and efficiently. I'm not military expert enough to comment upon the viability of such a plan, but I believe we've reached a time where many options should be closely examined under the umbrella of free and open debate.

The reason why Murtha voted against the forced vote by the GOP a few weeks ago (and talk about ploys, that was about as big of one as you can get!), as far as I understand it, is because that bill called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, and not the redeployment as sketched out above.

As far as military commanders asking to redeployed, the sad but certain truth is that this will never happen. It can't happen — at least in public — because soldiers are trained to attempt to complete the mission, whatever the odds. In any event, we've seen already what happens to high-ranking officials and soldiers who question Bush administration policy. It's up to our civilian leadership to change course based upon recommendations and facts on the ground. A significant problem here may lead back to the "Bush Bubble," or the tight circle in which President Bush surrounds himself, unpunctured by contrarian voices and, as has been famously stated, any form or news or media reporting.

So I think what we have is two clear positions emerging, with Bush on one side and Murtha as a new and leading figure on the other. Most others are in the middle, the confused and muddled variety and not the sharp as tacks, witty, and vivacious varietals found at In the Middle.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

The Hunter resolution was definitely a stunt, intended to do exactly what it seems to have done: force Murtha to take a stand rather than rely solely on rhetoric. They're all stunts, and it's all politics. The interesting point is the stand Murtha took when it came to a vote.

Placing a lot of emphasis on the word "redeployment" overlooks the fact that Murtha spelled out the details of what he was talking about. Details that can be summed up succinctly as "withdraw from Iraq, but stay close by just in case." In other words, a plan entirely consistent with the Hunter resolution, which was also consistent with Murtha previous statments about needing to "get out."

As I mentioned, originally, I'm not against the general idea, I just want it to be driven by the military commanders on the ground, not politicians thousands of miles away. A recent Pew poll reveals that military personnel and the general American public are the two groups which have the most positive opinion of the progress in Iraq, and I think that's telling. While it is certainly the case that public disputes from military commanders are unwelcome for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the message that sends to those against whom we're fighting, privately the opinions of the officers on the ground ought to be given the highest level of consideration, and I believe that they are.

Tactics have changed many times since the original invasion of Iraq, and continue to change in response to changing conditions. I heard a report on NPR recently in which two congressmen, one from each party and both recently returned from Iraq, expressed how impressed they were by the progress that is being made there, as Iraqi troops are more involved over time with military operations, and as those against whom we're fighting control less and less ground. We are making progress, though the progress is slow and expectations are high due to both unrealistic ideas in the age of Media War and also false hopes trumpeted as realities in the early days of the war.

I don't actually think that Murtha and Bush are very far apart in their views. Both want to see the troops come home, and both want to see Iraq succeed. I believe that Bush feels that he has to send a message of unwavering committment, to demonstrate to those who would otherwise press against what they perceive as weakness on our part that we will not bow under the pressue of more or bigger explosions. I think Murtha is more concerned with how people here in the the United States perceive things, and also, because he isn't the President, has more freedom to suggest things than Bush does. Both of them also, of course, care quite a bit for the safety of the troops.

The primary difference between their positions as I see it, aside from their relative abilities to speak freely, is that Bush believes that the Iraqi troops are making substantial progress right now, while Murtha believes that they will only make substantial progress with the pressure of stark necessity.

Still, I can't help but think that some of what we're seeing is political grandstanding, an attempt by critics of President Bush to use the time of the year — when people are thinking about family and missing their loved ones — and Bush's falling poll numbers in ways that aren't even necessarily the most effective at actually accomplishing their goals.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

While I agree that politicians act like "politicians" nearly all the time, I still have to wonder why you seem to imply that Murtha's actions are purely Machievellian in nature. In my view, he immediately has credibility as a lifelong military man and foreign policy hawk who stood up from the back benches of Congress to demand change to a policy he in some ways helped to craft. To me, that shows backbone and courage and the fortitude to demand progress and accountability and transparency from our government.

I can't tell you exactly why Murtha voted against the Hunter resolution. Members of Congress get into "trouble" all the time for these kinds of in-house machinations (see: John Kerry, '04), which was exactly why the House GOP rolled out what could only be described as a designed mousetrap. But personally I'll take him at his word in stating that his preference is that changes in military policy should be driven by the commanders on the ground. Last night on Hardball, Murtha echoed what many others are saying in expressing that military commanders are privately horrified at the war effort but refuse to say so in public. This presents a conundrum, which circles me back to what might be a general unwillingness by the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush inner circle to change policy in the face of bad information, intelligence, and voices of dissent. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell would likely be the first to tell you that breaking
into that inner circle is a nearly impossible task.

I agree that Bush's and Murtha's goals are very closely related, as are the views of the vast majority of both parties and the American people: leave Iraq safe and secure and preserve American security and the lives of as many of our citizens and soldiers as possible. I disagree that the politics are being driven by the "time of year" as much as the normal souring of the American public toward foreign military adventures that drag on and don't show visible signs of progress. This is exactly where Bush's "stalwartness" gets him into trouble, as it should. Expressing unbound optimism and bumper sticker slogans can demonstrably yield political victory but it can't turn the tide on a murky-to-ugly military picture.

Many of our In the Middle columns seem to circle back to a few Big Picture questions (and as we all know, I'm a Big Picture guy). One that most are asking and will continue to ask is: How is the war really going? As Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, recently said, perhaps the government and namely the president needs to do a better job of explaining how the war is going in unadorned and unspun terms. This leads back to my call for transparency.

If 2005 has shown us anything, it's that the American public is desperate for honest leadership. That may well be one of the largest factors in why John Murtha is now a household name.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I agree completely that we need more information about how the war is really going. I think Bush's speech this week might signal the beginning of just such a change in strategy. I hope so! I understand that they've been reluctant to spell things out for fear that our very media-savvy opponents in this struggle will learn important things from satellite television, but I think the time has come when the concerns of the voting public need to outweigh that fear in most cases, allowing for a certain amount of short-term secrecy for tactical reasons.

One other concern they've probably had involves the short-term mentality of many people, who really seem to expect any military operation to be wrapped in about as long as it took to film Saving Private Ryan. If we have a bad week, or bad month, in the ongoing war effort, will short-sighted people call for withdrawal too soon? Will such fears cause military commanders to avoid taking necessary risks, in order to manage the images and numbers we see here at home?

Still, I'd like to see maps, and charts, and lists. I suspect those would reveal a somewhat different picture of the situation in Iraq than the mental image many people have, but there's only one way to know for sure!

I don't think I'd say that Murtha moves are "purely" manipulative, but I think that there is a strong element of politican showmanship in the timing and nature of his statements. As a congressman, he has avenues which he could pursue which would be more likely to result in action, but chooses instead to spend his time on television talk shows and at press conferences. I have to believe that this is in large part an effort to create an image like the one you described, in which Murtha is seen as the anti-Bush, despite their views being far more similar in reality than those of many other members of Congress.

Murtha's somewhat inconsistent back-and-forth speechifying suggests to me that there is a little more going on there than a natural progression of ideas.

In any case, I think we agree that the time has come for more transparency about what's going on in Iraq, and the poll numbers to which I linked a little while ago suggests to me that CNN and Fox News are not necessarily the best sources, given a strong tendency to pessimism.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

CNN and Fox News have something in common?

Okay, but seriously… I'll counter and say that Murtha's Stand (how's that for grandiose?), coupled with diving poll numbers and general unease about the war throughout Washington, are the very factors that brought out Bush's speech this week. So while you might see it as grandstanding and speechifying, I actually see it as actions that have brought about results (i.e. spelling out the beginnings of a strategy, to be kind) not seen in two-and-half-years of war!

I think Bush has proved that he's immensely capable of not listening to detractors, the media, or anyone else (perhaps not even his father or Bush 41's able foreign policy team) once he's made up his mind about something. When Bush says "stay the course," I for one believe that that means until the end of time, if not sooner. One of Bush 43's problems has always been his inability to change course (while staying on it, of course) in the face of changing data and changing times and public demands, from tax cuts to stem cell research
to Iraq.

Fred Kaplan's Slate piece covering Bush's speech does a really good job of summing up the somewhat little, hopefully not too late substance of the National Security Council's newly printed "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." That said, it's better than nothing, and perhaps it's a start to a coherent Iraq strategy.

I can't fault patriots, whether it be John Murtha or John McCain, for demanding that from the president.

Focusing on the future, Kaplan did an excellent job in pointing out four crucial factors that Bush continues to ignore. They are:

  • The potential for the U.S. occupation to fuel the very insurgency its fighting

  • The huge X factor of the ability of the Iraqi military and police forces to effectively handle security on their own

  • The enormous strain on the U.S. military in terms of personnel, recruiting, and morale

  • The fact that the vaunted war on terrorism does not come close to the level of threat posed by Nazism, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union

Those factors could well point the way to the next installment of In the Middle, I should think.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, and Vice President Cheney.

Friday, November 18, 2005

House Rules: GOP Forces Vote On Iraq Troop Pullout

In a maneuver likely timed to swing political momentum away from Democrats and those who are now calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, House Republicans will hold a quick vote tonight on just that (see San Francisco Chronicle story here).

Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha, a longtime military "hawk" and supporter of the war effort, just this week called for the immediate pullout of troops from Iraq. In a classic bit of political theater, all members of the House will now be forced to publicly declare whether or not they agree.

The Republicans and the White House are attempting to call Murtha's bluff, if it can be called such. While the outcome of the vote won't be in question, the politics surrounding the decision to hold it in the first place will be.

Because the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans – many still loyal to the White House and President Bush, even in the face of nosediving poll numbers across the board – it is almost certain that the vote itself is a formality and will essentially change nothing in terms of the United States' Iraq policy.

This ploy may also be seen as a reaction to a surprise Senate vote this week that passed with bipartisan support. While it was non-binding, it did send the first major signal to the White House that Congress is not willing to blindly tow the line on the longstanding policy that may be boiled down to phrases such as "Stay the Course" and "Not a Day Longer." This bumper-sticker approach may have served Karl Rove and the GOP very well in several successive elections, but in terms of substantive policy it looks to be a decisive loser in 2005. The Senate resolution was in effect a call for a plan to bring about some kind of resolution in Iraq. It was, in a sense, a plea for change to a policy that has altered very little since the invasion of two and a half years ago.

Will tonight's House vote be seen as a decisive step to turn the tide of public opinion back to the post-9/11 days of American flag waving and patriotic bravado, or will it be seen as an overreaction and misstep by a ruling party that seriously has lost its way over the last year?

The question may boil down to this: Are people looking for political machinations, or are they looking for real change?

As goes Iraq may go the election chances for many candidates in the 2006 elections, now less than a year away. Congress is feeling the proximity of next November, which certainly can account for the recent developments in both chambers.

Whether or not this urgency produces better results for the people in Iraq and our soldiers in harm's way remains to be seen.