“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Bollettino

Back on September 8, LI took stock of Iraq and came up with five combinations, given the forces in play at the moment, which might come true. Here are the combinations and our analysis.


�1. American troops withdraw. We leave behind a stable, American friendly democracy, that pays America back its 200 billion dollars, with interest, in a timely matter.

2. American troops withdraw. The government that is left behind is less friendly to America than Kuwait, but more friendly than Iran. It is, however, stable, and has certain democratic aspects. The 200 billion dollars is not paid back.

3. American troops leave. The American friendly democracy that is left behind tries to repay the American debt, causing a nation wide rebellion. It is overthrown by a government that is hostile to America.

4. American troops leave. Iraq is riven with conflict. The 200 billion dollars is gone. The conflict lasts for a long time, is destabilizing, and no side in it is openly pro-American.

5. American troops don't leave, but have to stay indefinitely, due to conflict. Another 100 billion dollars is spent on Iraq, but the nation is riven with conflict. Casualties mount. No stability, no democracy, and increasing harm to American forces.

One can argue that there are innumerable subsets. There are. But I imagine each one simply enriches the detail of one or another item on this list.

The problem with the Bush solution is simple. It bets everything on 1. Myself, I think one has about the same chance as Dennis Kucinich has of being the next US president.

The second option is much more possible. But humans drive their own history -- it will definitely be made impossible the more Bush bets on 1. The other three options are progressively worse for American interests. And for Iraq.

So, rationally, for our 150-200 billion dollars -- money we are not going to see again -- I'd say the reasonable thing to do is to take 2 as a scenario and try to improve it. That means ... well, it means handing power over to the Iraqi cabinet, and letting Bremer tell rotary clubs in Indiana all about his splendid plan for an Iraqi constitution. It means getting real about the money -- this money isn't coming back. It means letting the Iraqis decide what kind of economy they want -- from the contractors they hire to repair oil wells to the market system they are comfortable with. Of course, the "Iraqis" don't operate in isolation. But we should certainly not get into a situation in which there is a puppet Iraqi elite that simply obeys Americans, and thus abruptly abridges its shelf life. The commentary I've read about Iraq is truly odd -- it is as if nobody even thinks about what happens when the Americans withdraw. The Americans are not going to enforce a permanent solution to the Iraq problem -- period. The arguments are all about the chaos that will ensue if we withdraw right now, and how we have to do this, and how we have to do that... But by the force of things (ah, Lucretian phrase!) the Iraqis are the ones who will be there when the Americans are long gone. The american exit strategy better be shaped with that reality in mind.�

Since then, we are happy to say that the Bush administration, with all the finesse of a gnat shooting an elephant gun, has actually committed itself to certain of the changes we recommended in our last graf. Congratulations, Bush-ites. Alas, for changes in a plan to be successful, they have to be timely, correspond with the changed circumstances (of which they are part � feedback, my dear Watson, is an inherent factor in any extended action), and have to project some kind of goal. By September 8, it was obvious that Bush�s people had lied about the cost of the war and who was going to pay for it. Bush�s 87 billion dollar speech was much like the patient finally admitting to the shrink that those dreams did signify something a little funny about his relationship to his parents. Actually, Bush looked much like a patient as he droned the speech out. Now, another bullet point of the plan � the incredibly silly search for a constitution that would guarantee a democracy in Iraq, as long as it didn�t give the majority in the country (the Shi�ites) the majority, is starting to crumble. But accepting reality in Iraq (which extends to such things as calling the war in Iraq a war, and not a war on terrorists or terrorism, which it isn�t) is not a hallmark of the dimwit D.C. occupiers. The goal from the beginning of the occupation has been to make Iraq free for free enterprise. Whether that idea is good or bad for Iraq is irrelevant � the question is, is it implement-able? The answer is no. The one thing the Americans can�t leave behind, with any confidence, is a set of laws that radically change the economic nature of the country.

Ah, but the reader exclaims, Mr. LI, incredibly prescient as you have been so far, sir, aren�t you committing an act of probabilistic hubris here?

Well� okay, we are. No is too big, perhaps. But it is colorful, and it does bear the weight of history. It is a much better bet than the Bush bet.

For confirmation, one has only to go to Bush�s favorite occupation stories, the case of Germany and the case of Japan. Germany is more interesting. There were essentially two occupations of Germany, the American and the Soviet. The Americans never even broke up the criminal corporations that did the dirty work for the Nazis, and profited by it. Essentially, the Americans left the economic structure of Germany to be worked out by the Germans. The Soviets, on the other hand, re-did the whole system. They implemented Communism with a Non-Human face � Frankenstalin Communism � from the top. Result: East Germany became an economic basket case by the eighties, and was absorbed by West Germany � an act that showed the incredible opulence of West Germany, by the way � when the Wall fell.

So what are the combinations now?

Point for our side: we can now subtract the 200 billion the Iraqis are going to pay us. This should make combination 2, above, a better bet. So far, the resistance in Iraq has not produced a program, or a leadership. We are told repeatedly that polls show how much the resistance is disliked. We don�t quite believe that so much military activity could be carried out by so wholly an unpopular network. We think that even those people who tell American pollsters that they dislike the guerrillas might be thinking that the guerrillas are supplying messy but needed pressure on the Americans to get going. Otherwise, the impunity of guerrilla actions is pretty hard to fathom. On the other hand, since guerrilla activity seems to correspond pretty strongly to the map of Sunni Iraq, it is possible that he Shi'ite population doesn't even toy with this Machiavellian afterthought.

Alas, while the resistance hasn�t produced a program or a leadership, neither have the American sponsored Iraqi leaders. This is a leadership that longs for democracy without elections. Being perpetually appointed by democratic powers seems to suit them just fine. That is because they, too, stand for nothing. Chalabi has turned into a symbol of this hollow leadership. We once thought of Chalabi as a sort of Iraqi Mussolini. No longer. We think of him now as an Iraqi D�Annunzio. You�ll recall that the poet, D�Annunzio, seeing himself as the natural duce of Italy, organized a paramilitary force at the end of WWI and tried to take Trieste. D�Annunzio was much better at designing operatic costumes than coups. His was a fiasco, and his natural duce-ship of Italy soon went up in smoke.

The town meeting idea � that town meetings, rather than elections, are going to find the representatives to assemble the congress that assembles the constitution that lives in the house that Jack Bremer built � represents an unworkable compromise with democracy. Sorry, no dice, Jack. While it is natural that Bush should have a liking for the electoral college, and a dislike for popular elections, he shouldn�t assume that it makes a great foreign policy idea.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Bollettino

A country, X, is run by a corrupt family. The prime minister is notoriously greedy. There is a religious secret police. Another country invades this X, captuiring the family, and rooting out the old government. It proposes a constitution that abolishes the old secret police, creates modern property rights, and asserts the rights of men. The constitution is taken up by a convention composed of some of the leading businessmen in the country. In the meantime, the occupier�s army is met with resistance. The resistance is low level and unorganized at first. The occupier responds with force. The resistance grows. The occupier blames foreigners for the increase in resistance�

Sound familiar? This is pretty much the story of Napoleon�s invasion of Spain.

There�s a pernicious meme that emerged at the end of the �hostilities� in Iraq. The meme was that occupying Iraq would be much like occupying Germany or Japan at the end of World War II. Now, the elements of the likeness, here, were broadly two: The U.S. invaded another country. The U.S. occupied that country. This is about as far as we could go with that analogy. Not only is this a different country, with a very different history. Not only did the occupation of Germany and Japan take place in the face of the Soviet Union�s own occupation of what became East Germany, and of Eastern Europe. But the U.S. of that time was a much different place, too. It was coming out of a Great Depression and the incredible mounting of a war effort that overshadowed anything the U.S. government had ever done before. Etc.

This is not even to get into the finer grained differences of the Iraqi situation, in which the occupying reference would be to the British in 1920-25.

The post-WWII analogy, however, was right to give us a sense that the U.S. has done this before. Hell, we could have produced tons of analogies, from Haiti to Panama, for that matter. Alas, for the general chickenhawk right, the analogy operated as a sort of holy writ. This is where it became pernicious. With all those batty references to Churchill and MacArthur in his mind, Bremer made the cardinal error of the occupation so far, disbanding the Iraqi army. And the idea of a supreme council of exiles attracting the support of the natives � the Adenauer solution, diffused, this time, among Chalabi-bots � is still buzzing like a bee in the bonnets of the D.C. Napoleons around Rumsfeld and Cheney.

A bad analogy generates bad arguments. The current mania on the right is to dig up obscure newspaper articles about the occupation of Germany that criticized the pace, structure or doing of it. Well, the occupation of Germany did have its problems. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1962, well after Adenauer was established as a reliable U.S. ally, five thousand of West Germany�s eleven thousand judges had been active in the courts under Hitler. The German war crimes investigation unit was only founded in 1958. Even very prominent war criminals had little trouble �hiding� in West Germany through the sixties. Etc. But the main lesson, here, is that there isn�t a lesson. We don�t need an analogy to tell us about Iraq. We have � Iraq.

There was a recent debate at Oxford over the proposition: we are losing the peace in Iraq. Now, the proposition itself was ridiculous. There is no peace in Iraq, so how can we be losing it? The general sense, however, was that the occupation is going badly. The pro-war side won. The speech by Josh Chavetz starts out with the non-sequitor that because the German occupation was a success (or partially � wonder what the East Germans make of that success?), and because the initial American policy was criticized by the press at the time, by a law of historical commutation, the Iraqi policy will be a success. This is, I guess, how they teach political science at Oxford. It is definitely the reason political science is considered a joke science by natural scientists. Here�s how Chavetz�s speech makes its case:

I must begin with a word of apology for my lack of preparation. Not only was I just asked yesterday to speak, but I was also laboring under the apparent misapprehension that we would be addressing the resolution that "This House believes that we are losing the Peace." Yet I find that the honorable gentleman who has just spoken in the affirmative [Jeremy Corbyn, MP] has talked about the war - about Vietnam, oil, Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair, international law, weapons of mass destruction, sanctions, and so on. While these are all issues worthy of serious discussion, I must confess to being somewhat baffled at how these normative questions bear on the empirical resolution that I was told we were to debate.

And an important empirical question it is. Three of the most widely read American magazines have recently run stories on how the occupation is going, and the verdict is unanimous. "Americans are Losing the Victory" screams one. "How We Botched the Occupation" is on the cover of another. "Blueprint for a Mess" is the verdict of the third.

Actually, I've taken some liberties with two of those headlines, so let me start over. "Blueprint for a Mess" is indeed the cover article in this week's New York Times Magazine. But "Americans Are Losing the Victory" is from the January 7, 1945 issue of Life magazine, and the full headline is "Americans are Losing the Victory in Europe." The Saturday Evening Post on January 26, 1946 ran "How We Botched the German Occupation."

Here�s an idea: maybe what�s botched, here, is the analogy. Especially considering that on January 7, 1945, we were advancing with troops into Germany, still � not occupying the damn place. And considering that, in 1946, botching the occupation probably referred to the threat of the Soviets, rather than a renewal of Naziism. Although maybe we should pursue the analogy further and ask what the effect of FDR donning a combat uniform and proclaiming mission accomplished � oops, or proclaiming, under a banner of mysterious origin that read, mission accomplished, that the hostilities were over � maybe we should wonder what effect that would have had on the war.

Incidentally, some say you can date the downfall of Napoleon to the committment of troops to Spain.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Bollettino

LI�s prize for the best essay in an academic journal goes, in a unanimous decision, to the Lawrence Lipking�s Chess Minds and Critical Moves in the Winter 2003 New Literary History.

Seriously, go to a library, LI reader, and check out this essay. It is astonishing. Lipking, a professor at Northwestern, is a chess master. He�s also a member of the upper echelon of the lit crit establishment. These are two exclusive circles � and usually mutually exclusive ones, too. By way of an extended comparison between chess and literary criticism, Lipking does a lot in the essay: he sets up a memorial to(and carps a bit at) William Wimsatt, who was also a chess fanatic; he makes a distinction between problem setter and player that I have been waiting for all my life; he riffs on an extremely funny chess passage in Beckett�s Murphy; he considers what criticism does, and why it does it the way it does it now, and why it did it the way it did it when he became part of the �game;� he makes a tentative foray into the touchy question of genius, re the genius of certain chess players; and he asks, where have all the poet/critics gone?

Here�s the passage on problem creators vs. players:

�Nevertheless, a great gulf separated the two of us [Wimsatt and Lipking]: he was a problemist, I was a player. The distinction between these habits of mind is so fundamental that, like yin and yang, it can be used to divide the whole intellectual world into contrary pairs�for example, Plato the problemist and Aristotle the player, or Being and Becoming. The problemist seeks perfection of form and idea (or "theme"), and arranges the pieces artistically to realize that theme in the purest and most elegant way. The player seeks the excitement of a constantly shifting struggle against a recalcitrant foe, and subordinates considerations of beauty and style to the most efficient method of winning. A move is best, for the problemist, when most ingenious; for the player, when most advantageous. A problemist needs to be original; a player needs to be tough. 2 In practice, to be sure, the two habits of mind often mingle. Most problemists also play games, and most players sometimes solve problems. Yet Wimsatt was not at all a strong player, and difficult problems usually baffle me.
On one occasion he showed me a "slender Indian" he had composed, which "has cropped up again and again in my conversations with new chess friends and has worked as a kind of touchstone. No chess player who had an acquaintance with problems has ever failed to solve it almost upon inspection. No player who was largely uninitiated in problems has ever been able to solve it at all" (HC 15). [End Page 156]
By chance, since I recognized the signs of an "Indian," the solution leapt to my mind, and its clever logic was pleasing. 3 Yet the artificial world of the problem also annoyed me. In a game Black would have resigned long since, nor would anyone care if the mate took five moves rather than four. Players are prejudiced against such devices.�

For myself, this passage put a silver ball in motion. Bing bing bing, it touched all the lights. My early intellectual life, really up until around 35, was spent under the problemist spell. I actually considered myself a maker of formal structures, of interesting problems with multiple solutions. I loved that sentence of Novalis�s: God is a problem whose solution is another problem.

But I have been slowly realizing that I am not a great maker of problems. Usually we divide our lives between the head and the heart � but in my case, the division was between my head and my character. My character is a player. I find my current novel much more interesting than my previous novels because I am writing it to win. Not just to win money, although that is a major point, but to win in terms of a certain kind of novel. One that is exterior, and oriented towards what language indicates � character and action � rather than interior, and oriented towards what language is � the density of it, the matter of it. I used to be obsessed with the idea that the way a person spoke materially embodied a certain history � by accent, by phrases, by hesitations, one could tease out the whole layered geneology. The voice was literally, in this reading, the conscience. Whether that is true or not, however, I am much less concerned with that resonant realism in what I am writing right now.
If I still haven�t convinced you to read the Lipking, I�ll paste two more grafs here on the subject of winning, playing, art and criticism. Where Lipking uses criticism, I substitute the phrase, novel writing �

�To speak for myself, the deep pleasure of chess can rival the spell of great music. In the best games there comes a moment�the one that Satan and his Watch Fiends cannot find 11 �when the balance of tensions in a position reaches its climax and the mind is challenged to see through all the ramifications. This is a dangerous moment for a player like me, because time seems suspended while the analysis lasts, and the clock keeps ticking away. When I indulge this luxury too much, time pressure will finally ruin me. But the pleasure is usually worth it. Just as some critics gradually go to the heart of a poem, surrendering to the process for its own sake rather than any rewards that may follow, a chessplayer can savor a game whether winning or losing. Both as a player and critic, I prize these moments of incredibly focused attention. They do not last long in chess, unfortunately. Once the game is over, its aftereffects do not linger and spread as they sometimes do with poems and music. Chess draws on cognitive powers like those of the critic, but not on the other capacities that a critic requires, where all the senses and feelings come into play. Even a very good game does not tell us, like Rilke's Apollo, to change our lives. But subject to that limitation, the pleasure of chess is intense. Unlike Rilke's Apollo, it affirms unashamedly that the head is important.

"Yet chess and criticism are not always a pleasure. Professionals regard them as hard work, and amateurs tremble at the constant prospect of humiliation. An emphasis on the euphoria of playing the game, as if competitors were connoisseurs, neglects the harsh demands of practical play, when artistry often bows to sheer will power. Successful players cannot afford to aestheticize chess. The best move, like the best critical interpretation, often involves resisting a tempting, ingenious, or pretty idea and choosing a line that is ugly, brutal, and sound. Self-command scores over self-admiration. From this point of view my surrender to pleasure might be considered not only a weakness�a covert problemist undermining a player�but also a fundamental denial of the nature of chess, and perhaps of criticism as well. Chess, a skeptic might say, is by no means an art. It is a game, a contest between opposing sides; and someone who forgets about winning and losing might as well play with himself. And another skeptic might add that chess is also a science, a systematic pursuit of objectively optimal moves, while art consists of subjective illusions that veil or manipulate data. A similar point could be raised about the task of the critic. Despite Oscar Wilde's embrace of the critic as artist, in practice most critics seem more like policemen, or at least like debaters and judges�devoted to games and systems rather than art. The art of a critic arouses mistrust, as Wilde understood quite [End Page 165] well, because it represents a confusion of realms, as when a flashy referee gets tangled together with wrestlers. The pretensions of chess to be more than a game provoke the same misgivings. Such activities cross the line between work and play; apparently no one knows how to define them.�

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Bollettino

The bankruptcy of the establishment Dems

There�s an exchange on Talking Points Memo between Josh Marshall, who runs it, and a buddy, John Judis, one of those ubiquitous liberal honchos who is regularly trotted out to make lame arguments on major league op ed pages, and within his stomping ground, The New Republic. The New Republic has been campaigning against Howard Dean, with comic ineffectuality, since last January (comic, since they keep running that blurb from Howard Kurz, about how the Democratic candidate has to �win the TNR primary.� Right. Judis�s letter is couched in that higher form of brainlessness that passes for political wisdom in the salons of establishment Dems. It lost them one presidential election and the Senate --- but of course, such losses pale, in the minds of such as Judis, with what happened thirty two years ago in 1972. Those who remember parts of their history too well, to paraphrase Santayana, by way of Freud, are doomed to repeat it.

Here�s most of the letter:


�I share your sentiments completely. The only thing I'm semi-certain about is Dean's lack of electability in November. I think it is because I lived through the McGovern campaign, as did some of those ex-Clinton people who have tried to pump up Clark. The similarities grow with every day. Not just the insurgent voter enthusiasm, the new ways of fundraising, and the bevy of flummoxed opponents, but also the economy (artificially stimulated by Nixon through the Fed and by Bush through the dollar just in time for election year) and the war (raging, but bound to quiet some by election time, and to raise prospects of peace). The economy deprives the Democrat of the issue that would allow him to attract working class votes; the war splits the Democrats, but not the Republicans. True, there are more "Starbucks" voters now than in 1972, but on the other side Bush is far more popular than Nixon was. Nixon was actually trailing Muskie in polls, which is why he thought he needed all the dirty tricks. I fear a cataclysm in the fall if the Democrats nominate Dean.�

This could have come from Tom Daschle�s super-ego � the same Daschle who said, about the compliant senate voting a blank check to Bush to make war in the Middle East, �now that�s over, we can get back to the economy.� These people truly don�t see what is right in front of their noses. The similarities with McGovern are trite. The idea that the war is just gonna simmer down, with the resistance melting away, is from Donald Rumsfeld�s May playbook � it looks silly now, and it will look even sillier as Bush bungles from one homemade solution to another. The truth is, the administration doesn�t just want to defeat the guerrillas in Iraq � they want a conservative showpiece in Iraq, something like Chili on the Euphrates. This is the dream they have clung consistently to, and there is no indication whatsoever that they have been swayed by the Reality principle. This is the true comparison with Vietnam. It isn't military, but attitudinal. Johnson saw Southeast Asia as another version of Delta Mississippi, with himself and the Pentagon supplying the necessary Great Society programs. Bush sees Iraq as a sort of Texas, where privatization and the right kind of can do businessmen will get the whole thing on-line and up to speed. That's a permanent illusion, we think. If there are any analogies to past elections, it should be more like Nixon vs. Humphrey.

As for the economic pickup � to be spooked because of a good quarter, and an uptick in employment that is, incidentally, one hundred thousand short of the standard Bush projection, is either na�ve or blind. Of course the economy is going to grow, but I wouldn�t bet on the deficit shrinking. I also wouldn�t bet on unemployment going down far enough that it recedes as an issue. So the Dem candidate ought to be able to talk about both of those things � and the only one I see crafting a realistic message is Dean. Dean is also the only candidate who knows that the electorate doesn�t punish an adaptive candidate � all the fingerpointing about previous positions just looks silly. Who cares what Dean said about Medicare in 94? It is an unlikely issue for the Republicans, anyway � what are they going to do, accuse Dean of secretly wanting to bring down the cost of Medicare?

There are, of course, a number of wildcards, but they are mostly not in Bush's favor. There is the possibility of another terrorist attack on this country -- and there is the growing possibility that terrorists might interrupt the oil economy of the Saudis. If that happened, the spike in oil prices would unwind this leveraged economy like nobody's business.

What Judis hates is the prospect of a Democratic president who does not particularly care for his kind � that niche of D.C. liberals who are always finding liberal reasons to support conservative policy. Those people have created a silly putty party, that presses out pale imitations of Republican programs. That�s a deeply dumb thing to keep on doing. Judis should look not to 72, but to 2002.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

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Bollettino

The rightwing media is so focused on the building of schools in Iraq that they have neglected a triumph of free enterprise: the building of concrete barriers. The NYT story, today, is enough to warm the cockles of Christopher Hitchens� heart. His buds among the occupiers � oops, liberators � are, of course, in intimate touch with the silent majority of Iraqis. But intimate touch doesn�t mean having the nasty things around you all the time, does it? Far better to seal yourself in with, say, a 9,000 pound concrete structure, �12 feet tall, is 9 feet wide, 4 feet thick at the base and 8 inches thick at the top.� Good fences make good neighbors, Frost wrote. In that spirit, the Occupation authority has been following the motto: �good concrete walls make good conquerors.� As things get better and better in Iraq, as we are making good progress, as many a hawk has to pinch himself not to move there, lock stock and barrel, so good are the circs (the affection of the people, the joy of being in the company of giants like Chalabi � it amazes me that Brit expats like Sullivan and Hitchens are still living in D.C. when they could be where the action is), the barrier has become a kind of status symbol.

�Miles of the barriers circle Baghdad's "green zone," the quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods were American occupation authorities live. But in recent weeks, as bombers have broadened their target list, the hulking walls have been installed around hotels, police stations, government ministries and private organizations. Every day, it seems, another facility is hidden behind a towering concrete wall.�
This is an entirely new take on the old Vietnam era idea of declaring victory and going home. We are going to create an enclave in Iraq that is so entirely bombproof and impenetrable by Iraqis that it will be a new, triumphant Iraq within Iraq. An Iraq we can rule. An Iraq that we have reformed. An Iraq that is entirely English speaking, and composed of men and women who are wholly on the Defense department contractor dole. Is this a great country, or what? No wonder Bush is practicing saying, �it�s morning in America.�