Monday, July 30, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

Gonzales: Is This Enough to Get Rid of Him?
That was the question everybody was asking about Alberto Gonzales after his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, which was almost immediately contradicted by FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony. Has he finally committed a provable perjury?

Probably. The best analysis of Gonzales' testimony I've found is on the blog Anonymous Liberal. And TPMmuckracker does a great job explaining what we know about the warrantless wiretapping program the administration is trying to keep Congress (and us) confused about.

Here's where we've gotten to: When Fox News asked Senate Republicans to appear on its Sunday talk show to defend Gonzales, nobody would. Even partisan right-wingers like Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch attacked him.

A lot of people jump from here to the obvious question: Will Bush fire him now? The answer is no. And the reason you ask at all is because you're putting the wrong model on the situation. When you think of Bush as an American president and Gonzales as a cabinet official, it's incomprehensible why Bush hasn't fired him, or why Bush would say (after the April appearance before the Judiciary Committee in which Gonzales said some variant of "I don't know" more than 60 times) that he was "pleased with the Attorney General's testimony". But when you think of the Bush administration as a crime syndicate, it makes perfect sense. Again and again, Gonzales goes to Congress and endures a great deal of embarrassment, but confesses to no crimes and refuses to finger anybody higher up. What more could a Mafia boss ask of a capo?

In Case You Missed It
In Thursday's Washington Post, former Marine Commandant P. X. Kelley and Reagan White House lawyer Robert F. Turner wrote this op-ed column about the administration's new guidelines on interrogation:
we cannot in good conscience defend a decision that we believe has compromised our national honor and that may well promote the commission of war crimes by Americans and place at risk the welfare of captured American military forces for generations to come.
We had another case of a Bush political commissar with no scientific background interfering with government scientific reports. This time it was the surgeon general's report on global health problems. Surgeon General Robert Carmona's mistake was that he had just written a report and not a piece of political propaganda. He was told: "You don't get it. This will be a political document, or it will not be released." The decider, in this case, was HHS official William Steiger. Steiger is a godson of the first President Bush and the son of a former Republican Congressman. He appears to have no other relevant credentials.

The New York Times ran a piece on Colonel Stephen Abraham, the military lawyer who blew the whistle on the Guantanamo tribunals that are supposed to decide whether the detainees deserve to be held as enemy combatants. Abraham served on a three-person panel to judge one detainee. They found 3-0 that the government had not made its case. Was he set free? Of course not. The detainee was re-tried before a different board, who found 3-0 that he was an enemy combatant. Abraham was never assigned to judge another case.

Talking Points Memo put together a great video summary of last week's Sunday news shows.

O'Reilly vs. DailyKos
Bill O'Reilly's campaign to smear the liberal blog DailyKos as a "hate site" has been going on for a while, but I haven't mentioned it because it's meaningless to anyone who doesn't either watch O'Reilly or read Kos. Well, this week it became amusing enough to call to your attention. In response to a charge that DailyKos had a post up "calling for the violent overthrow of the government," Kos blogger Hunter wrote the satiric article Comrades, the Revolution is Upon Us.
We shall not be defeated. Once the revolution comes, the American right will be crushed under the mighty weight of our agenda. We shall confuse them all by being nice to children and the elderly; we shall sap their resolve by allowing black people to vote unhindered. We shall confound them via our insistence that illegal actions even by rich people should be prosecuted. They will be wounded by our commitment towards health care for all, then we will double the injury by treating their wounds using the very same programs. Their lungs will burn from the oppressively clean air: their green, lush yards will be choked with our expanding forests. Freed from the toxic scourge of DDT, Bald Eagles will return to the countryside and crap on their cars. We will call it Freedom Crap, and it will contain fish bones of Justice and unidentifiable, jelly-like chunks of Liberty.
O'Reilly, like so much of the Right, is basically a bully. Laughing at him is the best weapon in our arsenal. Oh, in case you're wondering whether his charge is true: probably. DailyKos has thousands of posts every day. You can probably find one advocating anything you want. If not, you can post it yourself.

Max Blumenthal, Again
Last week I mentioned Max Blumenthal's humorous video Generation Chickenhawk about his visit to the College Republicans convention. This week he's conventioning again -- with the evangelical Christians United for Israel. I first heard of this group and its high-roller preacher John Hagee by reading the book A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance by Zev Chafets. Hagee supports Israel for eschatological reasons: This is all part of the end times prophesied in Revelations.

In case you think this is a lunatic fringe that nobody takes seriously, the video shows a chunk of Senator Joe Liebermann's convention speech in which he compares Hagee to Moses.

Un Lun Dun
On my religious blog I discussed the children's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun by China Mieville, which is both incredibly imaginative and much more dangerous to the religious right than Harry Potter.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

It was, from my point of view, a grim week. You may not have noticed, because most of the mainstream media either didn't cover the worst of it or made it sound a whole lot more ordinary than I think it was.

Update on the Constitutional Crisis. You may have heard the words unitary executive as an explanation of the Bush administration's theory of government. If you've ever wondered what it meant, we found out this week when some anonymous administration officials talked to the Washington Post about executive privilege.

Here's the context: Former White House counsel (and Supreme Court nominee) Harriet Miers refused to show up when Congress subpoenaed her to talk about the White House's role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Congress can either shrug and say "I didn't really want to talk to her anyway" or it can find her in contempt. But here's the rub:
"A U.S. attorney would not be permitted to bring contempt charges or convene a grand jury in an executive privilege case," said a senior official, who said his remarks reflect a consensus within the administration. "And a U.S. attorney wouldn't be permitted to argue against the reasoned legal opinion that the Justice Department provided. No one should expect that to happen."
Why not? Here's the really scary part. As explained by former Bush official David Rifkin: "U.S. attorneys are emanations of a president's will." So once the President has decided that Congress doesn't need to know certain things, how could an "emanation of his will" challenge that finding in court? This is how the American system of checks and balances unravels: The executive decides on its own what information it will or will not release, and no one is in a position to challenge that decision. (Short of impeachment, which is just about the only arrow Congress has left in its quiver.)

That is the unitary executive theory in a nutshell. Up until now, America has been governed according to the belief that government employees had a duty to serve the country and the law. But under unitary executive theory, only the president has that duty. Everybody else in the executive branch serves the president, not the country or the law.

That's what's behind the Freudian slip Sara Taylor made when she testified on July 11. "I took an oath to the president," she said. Senator Leahy responded: "Did you mean, perhaps, that you took an oath to the Constitution?"

My entirely toothless protest is that I plan to ban the word dictator from my vocabulary. From now on I will refer to people like Saddam or Hitler or Stalin as unitary executives.

If you want more detail. Glenn Greenwald is all over this.

Congress? What Congress?
As if that wasn't enough, check out this tidbit. There's an executive order that explains how the government plans to continue operations if a major terrorist attack takes out its normal mode of functioning. Want to read it? You can't. It's classified.

That bothered some suspicious (paranoid? realistic?) Oregonians, so they asked their congressman, Peter DeFazio, to check it out. DeFazio is on the Homeland Security Committee, so he asked for the order to be delivered to Congress' classified "Bubble Room" where he could look at it.

Request denied. DeFazio's conclusion: "Maybe the people who think there's a conspiracy out there are right."

Check out Max Blumenthal's hilarious video Generation Chickenhawk about his trip to the national convention of the College Republicans. Chickenhawk is liberal slang for people who support war, but avoid military service. Dick Cheney is a founding chickenhawk, but he has hatched an entire brood in this generation of young people.

Islam for Dummies
Novelist Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) gives a serious answer to the question "Why do they hate us?"
America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.
He recalls what happened to his childhood home: Lahore, Pakistan. In 1980 the US decided to use Pakistan as its base in aiding the Afghan resistance against the Soviets. Suddenly Lahore was overrun with well-armed Islamic fundamentalists and the cheap Afghan heroin they used to fund their rebellion. Pakistan has never been the same since. Pakistanis all remember this, while most Americans don't even know about it. Hamid's conclusion is striking:
The challenge that the United States faces today boils down to a choice. It can insist on its primacy as a superpower, or it can accept the universality of its values. If it chooses the former, it will heighten the resentment of foreigners and increase the likelihood of visiting disaster upon distant populations -- and vice versa. If it chooses the latter, it will discover something it appears to have forgotten: that the world is full of potential allies.
Harry and His Peers
You can't talk about this week without mentioning Harry Potter, who sold more than 8 million books on Saturday, including one to me. The best Harry article I found was this one by Laurel Wamsley, who belongs to Harry's generation. "The real fantasy of these novels," she writes, "was not a world where magic exists, but a world in which we were all chosen ones."
I now realize what I didn't get at 14, or even at 20: I am a full-blood muggle. Everyone I know is a muggle. Even my heroes are muggles.
If you want more insight into the generation who grew up in parallel with Harry Potter (and were probably too cool to read what their younger siblings were reading) check out the book Generation Me by Jean Twenge.

So that's what impressed me this week.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Am I Missing?

Help me out here. Most of the time when I post, it's because I think I understand something and I want the rest of you to understand it too. But today I'm posting because I don't understand what the Republicans are doing, and I'm hoping maybe you do.

In high school I used to play a lot of chess. And I remember very clearly the euphoric feeling I got whenever an opponent who usually beat me seemed to be cheerfully blundering into a trap. I learned (the hard way) to be suspicious of that feeling. Because it often meant that my opponent saw something I didn't.

So: Republicans. Iraq. 2008 elections. They're marching off a cliff, aren't they? Are they really that dumb? Or do they see something I don't?

Let's turn the board around and try to play the red pieces instead of the blue ones. In particular, let's look at the board from the point of view of my Republican senator, John Sununu of New Hampshire, who's up for re-election.

Here's what John has working against him: New Hampshire got swept by the Democrats in 2006. We overturned our entire delegation in the House: two Republican incumbents lost to two Democrats, neither of whom started with a whole lot of name recognition. Our Democratic governor got more than 70% of the vote. We turned over both houses of the state legislature. It was a blue tidal wave, and the Republicans were lucky not to have a senate seat in play.

But that was last year. Let's look at the current polls. In 2002 Sununu beat then-governor Jeanne Shaheen 50-47. Shaheen hasn't announced another run, but a poll by Manchester TV station WMUR has her ahead 54-38. Sununu leads the three announced Democratic candidates, none of whom has Shaheen's name recognition, but in no case does he get more than 44%. That kind of poll is death for an incumbent. It says 56% of the state knows him and is looking for somebody else. Sununu's favorable/unfavorable split is 43/35, the lowest it's been since he was elected.

But John is wildly popular compared to his leader, President Bush. An ARG poll from late June claims that only 14% of New Hampshirites approve of the job Bush is doing -- the lowest rate in the nation. 79% disapprove. That poll doesn't break out specific issues, but I have to think a lot of the problem is Iraq. New Hampshire isn't a haven for liberal peaceniks (that would be Vermont) but even our conservatives are the pragmatic penny-pinching kind rather than the America-kicks-butt kind. In New Hampshire, Iraq is one of those big expensive government programs that we don't see any benefit from, and Bush is one of those out-of-touch Washington types who thinks he knows better than we do.

So Sununu has started to soften his rhetoric on Iraq. He now supports a proposal to endorse the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. Already in January he was saying stuff like, "We made significant mistakes after Saddam Hussein's fall" and "ours is not an open-ended commitment." He straddled on the surge: He approved of the new tactics, "but they can be implemented without a significant increase in U.S. troop presence."

But when push comes to shove, he votes with Bush. As recently as May, he said: "Telling members of al Qaeda, militias or insurgent groups the date we will begin and end troop withdrawals is irresponsible.” And last week he held firm with the Republican filibuster against the Democrats' proposal to force a withdrawal of most U.S. troops by April.

Now, I've never thought much of Sununu's political philosophy, but he's always seemed like a smart politician. What's he thinking? These are the only possibilities I can think of:

Things will look better in Iraq by election day. In other words, he'll be able to make the case: "Things looked tough in Iraq for a while, but aren't we glad the Congress didn't panic like my opponent did?"

It's hard for me to imagine he believes that things will actually be better in Iraq. There's no sign of either a stable government forming or a workable plan for dividing the country. American troops have their fingers in the dike of a civil war. We can either keep taking casualties while things get slowly worse, or we can pull back and watch things get worse faster. Neither option gives Bush supporters much to run on.

But maybe there's a way to put lipstick on the pig, to engineer another purple-finger feel-good moment just in time for the 2008 elections. You get some Sunni/Shia/Kurd compromise plan announced in say September, announce plans for troop withdrawals, and actually have a few troops come home to great fanfare in mid-October. The whole things falls apart shortly after the polls close, of course, but who cares about that?

That was essentially the 2004 strategy: We pulled our troops back to base and kept casualties down in October, then sent the Marines into Fallujah five days after the election. There were 64 American deaths in Iraq in October of 2004, and 137 in November.

Any chance that could work? Or that Sununu could believe the Bush people could pull such a thing off? It seems like such a long shot. I can't believe he's counting on it.

There's still time to switch. The idea here is that Sununu is supporting Bush to avoid having a primary battle, but as soon as it's too late for a Republican challenger to mount a campaign he'll take a strong stand against the war. This would allow him to project a reasonable-moderate image by election day.

Maybe. And it would fit with the equivocal rhetoric that so far is not reflected in his votes. But the problem is that it leaves him holding the bag: The Iraq War is an admitted disaster. We sacrificed (by then) 5,000 lives and maybe a trillion dollars for nothing, and John Sununu supported it.

So he has to be able to claim that the failure is somebody else's fault: The war he supported could have worked and should have worked, but somebody else screwed it all up. The Iraqis, certainly. We gave them a chance to build democracy, but they refused to take it and blah, blah, blah.

This noble-but-stupid take on the war might fly in the old confederacy, where doomed idealism carries a certain romance, but I can't picture it working in pragmatic New Hampshire. You trusted the camel-drivers to build a democracy? John, what were you smoking?

He needs a more credible target for blame.

The Democrats stabbed our troops in the back. This is the Harry-Reid-nightmare scenario: The Democrats succeed in forcing a pull-out before election day, and the Bush people do the passive-aggressive thing to make it look as bad as possible. Wholesale blood-letting ensues, and now it's the Democrats who are left holding the bag. Our fine troops would have won the war if we'd held firm just a little longer, but now their lives have been wasted, and so on.

The problem is this: How does this scenario come about unless Republicans like Sununu switch sides? The only way it happens is if 41 Democrats filibuster an Iraq appropriation bill. And they show no signs of doing that. Bush will continue to veto any pull-out bill, and it takes 67 Senate votes to override. So 17 Republicans have to vote for a pull-out (assuming Liebermann will be in the Bush bunker until the bitter end). You can't get there without including Sununu on that list.

That's the problem with styling yourself as a moderate. Nothing changes unless you change, so you don't have the option of blaming somebody else for how things shake out.

Something else happens to take Iraq out of the spotlight. This is the they-know-something-I-don't scenario. Sununu knows we're going to attack Iran. He knows there's going to be another 9/11. He knows Bush is planning to declare martial law and cancel the 2008 elections. What could it be?

I'm struggling with this option. It's the only one that makes sense to me in the abstract, but anything specific I fill in looks paranoid. The Iran or the 9/11 scenario could easily backfire on the Republicans unless it's carefully timed and scripted. I can't imagine any such scripting that doesn't involve a considerable amount of treason. Can you? And I can't imagine Cheney sharing such a plan very widely. Could the Congressional Republicans have just gotten a "trust us, you don't want to know the details" message?

And if they had such a plan, why didn't they use it 2006? Wouldn't Sununu look at his two defeated Republican colleagues in the House before he trusted Rove et al to take care of him?

So that's as far as I get. When I go back and sit behind the blue pieces, it continues to look like my opponent is an idiot. But I'm having real trouble believing that.

Help me out.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Obama in Manchester

Of all the candidates coming through New Hampshire, Barack Obama has been the one I wanted to see most. I saw John Edwards three times in 2004. Hillary Clinton I think I know pretty well. Everybody else on the Democratic side is a long-shot, and everybody on the Republican side is still trailing None Of The Above. The interesting question is Obama.

He can draw crowds. He can raise money. He can give a good speech. But is he the real thing? I had tried to see for myself three times. Twice I waited too long to get a ticket to a limited-seating event. Once I got snowed out. Today in Manchester I finally succeeded.

Now that we're about half a year from the New Hampshire Primary, I'm starting to get more serious about who I should support. And that is changing the way I listen to candidates. I find I don't really care so much about the fine distinctions in policy that separate the Democrats. Because it's not like the Bush administration is close to doing things right and only needs a little fine-tuning. It's like they're in Texas when they ought to be in Minnesota: Anybody who points north has the right idea.

So all the Democrats want to at least start pulling troops out of Iraq. They all want to move in the direction of universal health care. They all decry torture and the loss of human rights both here and abroad. They all want to appoint more liberal judges. They all think the gap between rich and poor has gotten too large. They support doing something about global warming.

I'm not going to lose sleep about wonky policy stuff that separates them. If President Edwards could pass the Obama health plan, I think he'd be happy. Or vice versa. Some Democrats want to pull completely out of Iraq and some want to leave a residual force, but however you pull troops out it's going to take a while. Things will happen during the withdrawal process, and a president who starts out to do one might easily wind up doing the other. That's not going to decide my vote.

What am I listening for? Three things: I try to listen for authenticity, though I'm not sure I'm sharp enough to tell the difference. Second, I'm listening for how a candidate's mind works. That's why I really wanted to hear Obama answer unscripted questions. When I listen to President Bush, it's obvious to me that he's been prepped with a handful of canned answers, and he listens to a question just long enough to decide which one to start reciting. Some of them, I think, he understands no better than a parrot saying "Polly want a cracker." Bill Clinton, on the other extreme, can listen to a question and pull together the facts and ideas necessary to craft a unique answer for that particular person.

I want the next president to have a Clinton mind rather than a Bush mind.

Finally, I'm picking somebody to carry my message to the world. So as I listen, I'm also trying to figure out how this candidate will sound not just to me, but to the rest of America. Is s/he going to be able to go all over the country and speak to people in words and images that will get through to them? (That, by the way, is why I'm hoping that Gore stays out of the race. I admire Gore tremendously and think he'd make great decisions as a president. But he's not the voice I want making my case. His new book is a great example. I love the thinking that went into it, and I wish I could have edited it before the public saw it.)

By those standards, Obama did great Friday in Manchester, when I finally got to see him. (I had tried to see him three times before. Twice I didn't call soon enough to get one of the limited number of tickets. Once I got snowed out.) He talked in the round for a little less than an hour, splitting the time almost evenly between prepared remarks and questions. He covered the policy positions I expected and sounded like he both understood them and authentically supported them. He answered questions smoothly and directly. And he spoke in terms that were clear without seeming dumbed down.

His critique of the Bush administration had just the right amount of emotion: warm but not shrill. I had worried that his talk would be all feel-good abstraction, but he had command of the wonkish stuff without getting lost in it. The abstract themes -- hope and the desire Americans have to be for something rather than just against something -- were there, but they didn't crowd out a discussion of health care (Obama believes a health plan covering all Americans could be passed during the next president's first term.) or energy policy. (He wants the CAFE standards on gas mileage to gradually rachet up to 45 miles per gallon.)

The questions did not seem planted. The first questioner challenged the Democrats' congressional strategy for getting our troops out of Iraq. Obama had talked about working towards 67 votes in the Senate to override a veto. The questioner wanted to know why we didn't instead go for 41 votes to filibuster the next bill appropriating money for Iraq. Obama pointed out that he had voted against the last Iraq appropriation, but that there were only (I think he said) 22 votes against it. (Somebody at DailyKos pointed out that the actual number is 12. That may be what he said.) Getting 41 votes to block funding, he claimed, would actually be harder than getting 67 votes to mandate a withdrawal. Not sure I agree, but it was a clear and direct explanation. He threw the ball back into our court and urged us to put pressure on New Hampshire's two Republican senators.

This allowed Obama to get back into his discussion of Iraq, which is nicely framed. He does not make a war-is-bad speech. Instead he argues (as most Democrats do) that Iraq has diverted attention from the real Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It's not whether you are a hawk or a dove, it's whether you've got your eye on the real threat."

One questioner said her medical bills had forced her into bankruptcy. Obama had the sense to realize that it was better for the crowd to understand the reality of her situation than to hear a repeat of his health care plan, so he asked her follow-up questions before going into his answer.

The final question was from a Vietnam veteran, who said that the veterans' health system was not working, and in particular mentioned the scandal about Walter Reed hospital. This allowed another good sound bite: "Part of planning for a war is planning for the veterans after the war."

In short, I'm not completely sold yet, but Obama addressed my major worries. If he winds up being the nominee, that's not going to break my heart.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Praise the Glorious Freedom Fighters of Anbar Province

Remember when Osama bin Laden was a "freedom fighter"? Maybe not. It's been a while -- way back before Ronnie told Mikhail to "tear down this wall" and Evil was vanquished forever.

Wait. My bad. I guess Evil wasn't vanquished forever. Anyway, back in those days the Evil Empire had its headquarters in Moscow. They sent their orcs to invade Afghanistan, and heroes from all over the Middle East made their way to places like Tora Bora to hide out and strike the Soviets when they least expected it. They were like Zorro or Robin Hood and his merry men or something. And we helped. We sent money, weapons, and CIA advisors. It was a glorious victory, David slaying Goliath and all that. Remember those guys? Today we call them Al Qaeda.

Now let's talk about Anbar Province.

Anbar was all but written off by a Marine intelligence report last August. And then, well, I'll let Senator Lindsey Graham tell the story:
The surge is producing results. The biggest result from these brave men and women’s new effort is that the Sunnis who’ve tasted al-Qaeda’s life in the Sunni part of Iraq, Anbar province—when he [Senator Webb] was running for the Senate, it was declared lost. Well, it has, it has been recaptured. And the people living in Anbar have chosen to align themselves with us, because al-Qaeda overplayed their hand.
Got that? The surge is working almost as well as that heroic Afghan struggle against the Evil Soviets. It's been so successful, in fact, that (according to the Initial Benchmark Assessment that the administration just sent to Congress) "The provincial government ‑‑ for the first time in a year ‑‑ is now able to meet in the province." Wow. You really know you've "recaptured" a place when the government is able to meet inside the territory it's supposed to be governing.

How did we do it? Well, we found some new good guys: the tribal sheiks of Anbar. They are the ones who are "aligned with us" now. A lot of them used to be insurgents, but they're freedom fighters now. Like Osama.

Wait. My bad. Osama isn't a freedom fighter any more, is he? How does the President talk about him now? Like this:
Now we're in a new and unprecedented war against violent Islamic extremists. This is an ideological conflict we face against murderers and killers who try to impose their will.
Freedom fighters, killers -- it's so hard to remember whether we're at war with Eurasia or Eastasia, isn't it? I get confused.

But thank God the President doesn't get confused. He always knows what to do. And I especially thank God that he's been able to find new Good Guys that we can give money and weapons and advice to.

With the help of such wonderful people, I'll bet we'll soon vanquish Evil forever.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

Introducing WIMTW: One of the reasons I started blogging was that the things I wanted to talk about weren't being covered very well in the larger media. I was having that I-must-be-crazy feeling, because so many important and dangerous things were happening and nobody else seemed to care.

Since then a lot of the issues I care about have started getting more attention. And because I don't want to repeat what other people are already saying just to hear myself talk, I've been blogging less about politics and court decisions. Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory blog on the Salon web site, for example, has claimed a lot of the territory I used to cover, and does a darn good job with it. (He also writes often and fast, and somehow manages to complete books on the side. I don't think there are any performance-enhancing drugs for writers, but I've started to wonder.)

But it has occurred to me that just because I'm finding this stuff, that doesn't mean everybody else is. So I've been thinking I might do more good in a more editorial role. I'm not going to stop writing my own articles, but my new goal is to put out a post every Monday morning about What Impressed Me This Week. The target audience is people whose lives don't allow them to obsessively trawl the Internet and would like somebody to show them where the good stuff is.

Iraq: Most of the really good coverage of Iraq comes from foreign journalists. This week the British paper The Guardian put up a video by photographer/film-maker Sean Smith. He follows an American battalion around Baghdad for a few days and talks to a couple of the guys during their downtime.

It's a powerful and complex portrait: Everybody is scared. The Americans are scared of being blown up or picked off by snipers. The Iraqis are scared that the Americans will get trigger-happy and shoot them for no reason. While Smith is with them, the Americans kill a couple of Iraqis. Were they bad guys, or just ordinary Iraqis who panicked when the Americans challenged them? It's hard to say. Tomorrow the same Americans have to go out and patrol again, without knowing whether or not they did the right thing today.

How NeoCons Think: Another British reporter, Johann Hari of The Independent, did an interesting and at times hilarious bit of undercover reporting: He went on the National Review cruise. National Review is the iconic conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley. They charter a cruise ship every year so that readers can hobnob with the celebrity conservatives whose writings appear in the magazine.

If you want to know what such people say when they think no liberals are listening, Hari's article Ship of Fools will tell you. One tidbit just to whet your appetite: When people find out that Hari is British, they keep asking if he's planning to move to the US when the Muslims take over Europe. They're serious.

Blowing My Own Horn.
Over on my religious blog Free and Responsible Search, I wrote something about the God-is-a-crutch metaphor that atheists often use dismissively. It's called The Go(o)d Crutch, and it examines the ways in which a God-concept could be useful even if there turns out to be no actual God.

In general, I've tried to keep my religious writing separate from my political writing, because I figure that the potential audiences are different. Until lately I had a separate email list for my religious pieces. But I'm going to try to blog shorter religious pieces more often, and I don't want to pepper people with email. So the way to keep track of my religious writing is going to be on the blog.

Constitutional Crisis: Back in January I wrote a piece about impeachment, and how I thought the overall confrontation between Bush and Congress would play out. It's been going more slowly than I expected, but following the course I predicted:
We won't know for sure whether there's a smoking gun until someone tries to find one. Personally, I believe the investigations were ignored or suppressed [by the previous Republican Congress] because there is a smoking gun, probably a whole arsenal of them. I expect this to become increasingly obvious as the Democratic Congress starts asking reasonable questions and getting stonewalled by the administration. I expect this to escalate into a full-scale constitutional crisis, where Congress will either have to threaten impeachment or admit that it isn't an equal branch of government any more. ... Maybe it shakes out like this: Congress sets the cut-off date [for withdrawing from Iraq] some time in the summer, and Bush ignores it, opening up the prospect that our troops in the field will suddenly have no supplies. Congress relents, because they care about the lives of our troops and aren't willing to play chicken with them. But Bush has proved that he is willing to play chicken with the lives of our troops. Congress votes another two months of funding and starts impeachment hearings.
Well, the Democrats have been more cowardly than I expected, particularly about Iraq, but the Constitutional showdown is fast approaching. Bush is taking an across-the-board position that Congress has no right to whatever information he decides he doesn't want to give them. This goes down to such simple questions as: When did the White House find out that ex-football-star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, and were they involved in hiding this fact? You may think it's hard to argue that this issue has such national security implications that Congress can't be allowed to know, but they're arguing it. Basically, Bush has decided to wave red flags in front of Congress and say, "Impeach me. I dare you."

Anyway, the central front in the battle right now is Harriet Miers' refusal even to show up when subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee to talk about the US attorney firings. The White House is asking the old playground bully question: "What'cha gonna do about it?" Over on the FindLaw web site, John Dean has this situation analyzed far better than I could have. And Glenn Greenwald has a clear discussion of the Tillman case and what it means about White House secrecy policies.

So that's what impressed me this week.