Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sleeping again.

According to news reports, President Bush was sleeping when Saddam Hussein was executed.
Let's see:
6 AM in Iraq is 4 AM in Amstderdam
4 AM in Amsterdam is 10 PM in Washington.
Bush was not in Washington, but in Texas.
10 PM in Washington is 9 PM in Texas.
And Bush is sleeping.
A week or so ago there was a column in the paper here about the leaders of the "good old days" who slept very little. Churchill was reported to sleep as little as possible, but he always took a nap during the day. Especially during World War II Churchill could bring himself to get to bed early at all.
And now we are in a 'war aginst terrorism', in which our freedom hangs in the balance.
And our leader is already sleeping at 9PM.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Innkeeper

by Frederick Buechner

“That was a long, long time ago,” said the Innkeeper, “and a long, long way away. But the memories of men are also long, and nobody has forgotten anything about my own sad, queer part in it all unless maybe they have forgotten the truth about it. But you can never blame people for forgetting the truth because it is, after all, such a subtle and evasive commodity. In fact, all that distinguishes a truth from a lie may finally be no more than just the flutter of an eyelid or the tone of a voice. If I were to say, ‘I BELIEVE!’ that would be a lie, but if I were to say, ‘I believe…’ that might be the truth. So I do not blame posterity for forgetting the subtleties and making me out to be the black villain of the piece – the heartless one who said, ‘No room! No room!’ I’ll even grant you that a kind of villainy may be part of the truth. But if you want to speak the whole truth, then you will have to call me a villain with a catch in your voice, at least a tremor, a hesitation maybe, with even the glitter of almost a tear in your eye. Because nothing is entirely black, you know. Not even the human heart.

“I speak to you as mean of the world,” said the Innkeeper. “Not as idealists but as realists. Do you know what it is like to run an inn – to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees,” said the Innkeeper, “and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

“Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet – just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window – just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere – only the wind, the wind…

“Of course I remember very well the evening they arrived. I was working on my accounts and looked up just in time to see the woman coming through the door. She walked in that slow, heavy-footed way that women have in their last months, as though they are walking in a dream or at the bottom of the sea. Her husband stood a little behind her – a tongue-tied, helpless kind of man, I though. I cannot remember either of them saying anything, although I suppose some words must have passed. But at least it was mostly silence. The clumsy silence of the poor. You know what I mean. It was clear enough what they wanted.

“The stars had come out. I remember the stars perfectly though I don’t know why I should, sitting inside as I was. And my wife’s cat jumped up onto the table where I was sitting. I had not stood up, of course. There was mainly just silence. Then it happened much in the way you have heard. I did not lie about there being no room left – there really was none – though perhaps if there had been a room, I might have lied. As much for their sakes as for the sake of the inn. Their kind would have felt more at home in a stable, that’s all, and I do not mean that unkindly either. God knows.

“Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there,” the Innkeeper said. “I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. Fifteen steps to the cellar, and watch out for your head going down. Firewood to the left. If the fire goes out, the heart freezes. Only the wind, the wind. I speak to you as men of the world. So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. As for what I heard – just at that moment itself of birth when nobody turns into somebody – I do not rightly know what I heard.

“But this I do know. My own true love. All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come – we all of us do – our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.

“Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for the Innkeeper. Pray for me, and for us all, my own true love."

Friday, December 22, 2006

Mideast rules to live by

It would really be good if our government had some understanding of how things work in the Middle East. I know from my experience working in other cultrues how important it is to understand how the other person thinks, without passing judgement as to whether that is the correct way to think or not. The worlde is made up of different cultures, and we need to learn to work within that framework. We don´t have any choice. This article by Thomas Friedman is good along those lines.

For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany — not Iraq.

Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all — they won’t believe it.

Rule 4: In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding. If I had a dollar for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasir Arafat, I could paper my walls.

Rule 5: Never lead your story out of Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq with a cease-fire; it will always be over before the next morning’s paper.

Rule 6: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away.

Rule 7: The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: “We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it’s too late. It’s all your fault for being so stupid.”

Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas — like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It’s the South vs. the South.

Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” And when it’s strong, it will tell you, “I’m strong, why should I compromise?”

Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. Saddam used to be the iron fist in Iraq. Now it is us. If we don’t want to play that role, Iraq’s civil war will end with A or B.

Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel’s mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can’t understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”

Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs’ first priority is “justice.” The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars. For Iraq’s long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.

Rule 14: The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi had it right: “Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes.”

Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can’t want it more than they do.

Monday, December 18, 2006

"This week a top general at the Pentagon said the War on Terror could take a 100 years to fight. President Bush was furious about the 100-year prediction and said, 'Stop setting a fixed timetable'" --Conan O'Brien

"They had the Iraqi Commission report and President Bush says he will not make a decision about getting us out of Iraq until 2007. He says he wants to give it some careful thought ... unlike getting us into Iraq." --David Letterman

"Did you know former President Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other at the same time? That was Garfield. When President Bush heard about it, he said, 'We had a talking cat for president?'" --Jay Leno

Monday, December 11, 2006

Changing with every wind

Here you have it again.

"Like most Americans, this administration wants to succeed in Iraq," the president said yesterday after 90 minutes of discussions and a briefing from Baghdad.

Before the elections, "most" Americans were accused of not wanting to win but wanting to lose, especially if they openly raised questions about the progress in Iraq.

If you figure that the Democrats won the election with a small majority, and they were the ones questioning Bushes' policies, and thus were accused of being unpatriotic and wanting to lose, this is quite a change of perspective.

Makes one long for the good old days of John Kerry.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Clinton in Holland


Yesterday Bill Clinton gave a speech in de Soestdijk Palace in Holland, the former home of Prince Bernhard and Queen Juliana.

His William J. Clinton Foundation is working together with the Dutch Postcode Lottery to fight AIDS, poverty and promote environmental responsibilty.

I know I had said I would put a short hold on bashing Bush while waiting for his response to the midterm elections, the TSG and other input into the Iraq war and situation. But the contrast between the speaking skills of these two men is so enormous I can't let it pass by.

I listened to the speech via the website of the Postcode Lottery. A few remarks:

Clinton has the innate ability to get a crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. I realize you can say it is fake, a put-on, that he is a charlatan. I don't think so. I do public speaking for a living, and I know what it takes to get a crowd sitting on the edge of it's chair. You don't do that day in and day out if you are a fake.

He is extremely articulate, makes very few grammatical mistakes, and knows exactly what words to give to what he wants to say. And it has been known for a long time that his mastery of facts and figures is superb.

Specific facts and stories are placed in the context of larger themes and developments. The listener knows, at the end of a speech, how to think and how to act. It is a real learning experience to listen to him.

After the speech was over, Clinton received a light bulb that is being developed in the Netherlands. It produces a certain amount of light using 75% less energy.

Clinton's off the cuff remark was (and he had just come back from a long trip to Asia): "When I saw a Buddhist monk meditating in Asia, I thought to myself that I also could use a little bit of enlightenment. I didn't know I would be getting it this soon."

The master.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

You say it, then I won't have to

Watched the press conference with Blair and Bush today (live).

I was interested to see how Bush would act and what he would say after yesterday’s ISG report came out.

One thing stands out in the report – it is a plea for unity in the American government and people:

What we recommend in this report demands a tremendous amount of political will and
cooperation by the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. It demands
skilful implementation. It demands unity of effort by government agencies. And its success
depends on the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization. Americans can
and must enjoy the right of robust debate within a democracy. Yet U.S. foreign policy is
doomed to failure—as is any course of action in Iraq—if it is not supported by a broad,
sustained consensus. The aim of our report is to move our country toward such a consensus.

I actually agree with Rush Limbaugh (3 times divorced, caught coming across the border recently with Viagra – what does he need that for with no wife? – and admitted drug addict) that the plea for consensus and bipartisanship seems to be the primary goal of the drafters of the report. I don’t agree with Limbaugh's usual rant and rave that it is because they want America to be defeated.

I was planning to give Bush a lot of slack and be easier on him than I have been in the hope that he would really start to change his language and perhaps even his thinking. The jury is still out on that, but today’s press conference was not encouraging.

I actually got the idea that he gladly lets the ISG and, today, Tony Blair, say the hard things that need to be said so he doesn’t have to say them. It seems that that was also the mission of Robert Gates yesterday in front of the Senate.

“You guys say the hard stuff, that gives me the chance to just agree with you without having to say it myself.”

He did today repeat his contention that we are in an ideological struggle. My question still remains: it seems obvious that you don’t fight an ideological struggle only with military means. What other means are we using to fight – and win – that struggle? I don’t sense any understanding of those issues on his part.

I still will give Bush a chance. I hope he gets on track, I really do.

But I do continue to be embarrassed by his (mis)use of the English language. And, honestly, sometimes it looked as if Tony Blair (an Englishman who takes great pride in the English language) was really suffering watching George speak.

A few direct quotes:

A report chaired by James Baker…..
We will support the democrat government of Mailiki…
I talk to families who die…
We must remove obstacles necessary to achieve the vision….

Lord, help us….(again - or keep doing it - or something)

Blowing the enemy's "mind"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Rumsfeld's memo

With the elections of November 2006 - and thus the need to politicize so much of its rhetoric - over, it is becoming more and more clear what a mess the Bush administration has made of the Iraq situation, and how much of the election rhetoric has been disingenuous and political in nature.

And now this has been made startlingly clear in the leaked Rumsfeld memo. I have read the memo and it is absolutely shocking, when you consider that it was written one day before the elections.

While - and perhaps even on the same day - Bush was shouting “stay the course!”, Rumsfeld was writing: In my view it is time for a major adjustment.

With Bush insisting “we are winning and we will win”, Rumsfeld was writing: clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.

The Democrats were being accused of “cut and run”, and of therefore not wanting us to win in Iraq because they were suggesting withdrawal. Rumsfeld was writing: conduct an accelerated draw-down of U.S. bases. We have already reduced from 110 to 55 bases. Plan to get down to 10 to 15 bases by April 2007, and to 5 bases by July 2007 and begin modest withdrawals of U.S. and Coalition forces (start “taking our hand off the bicycle seat”), so Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country.

While Saddam Hussein was being sentenced to death, Rumsfeld proposed the following: provide money to key political and religious leaders (as Saddam Hussein did), to get them to help us get through this difficult period.

The cynicism of these statements is breathtaking in the light of almost 3000 U.S. soldiers dead: Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not “lose” (quotation marks are Rumsfeld's).

Recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) — go minimalist.

And the final below-the belt-blow to his credibility, that of the Bush administration and the honor of those who suffered and died in Iraq is his “less attractive option”: Continue on the current path. Those who wanted to consider another course in Iraq were painted as unpatriotic, while the Secretary of Defense is calling "stay the course" a less attractive option.

It would, of course, be doubly cynical if the White House was using this memo and other "leaks" occuring now to prepare the ground for a change of rhetoric and stance. I remember when Bush declared that leaks would not be tolerated in his administration. Now he's not saying anything.


I saw John Kerry live on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. He was very articulate and knowledgeable. He could speak easily of the different factions vying for power in Iraq, and of the difference between Persians and Arabs.

I’ll bet 99% of the American public couldn’t follow what Kerry was saying, including George Bush.

You certainly never hear George Bush speaking with any kind of sophistication about these complex and extremely important matters. ("One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards.")

If I had to choose between which evil was worse, this mess in Iraq or getting a blow job in the Oval Office, the choice would be easy.