Friday, September 14, 2007

Coming to terms: six years on
(and seventeen months of Bush still to go)

Malcolm freely admits he is still trying to get a perspective on the madness of these last six years.

The event

He arrived home mid-late afternoon, that Tuesday. Before he was into the house, his wife called out that his daughter was safe. Why? What?

All television channels were rolling the news feed: the smoke and horror of Manhattan, three thousand miles away and five hours time difference.

His daughter should have been going into work in one of the buildings which subsequently collapsed. She should have arrived at the World Trade Center by the PATH link from Hoboken. (Until now, Malcolm had thought that meant "Passage under the Hudson". He now sees it means "Port Authority Trans-Hudson" Corporation.)

What saved the daughter was the baby, just a few months old, and needing to be delivered to the day-care facility. He had filled his nappy, twice, so she had missed two trains. As a result, and somewhat flustered, she pulled in very late at Hoboken to be told that the PATH was not operating, and that everyone should go home. Hoboken station is right on the waterside, and the plume of black smoke just across the river was only too obvious.

Cell-phones were not working, partly because of the consumer overload, partly because of deliberate official intervention, and partly because the aerials on top of the WTC had been taken out. Her husband was in Dallas, Texas, at a conference. She could not contact him. By some strange dispensation she was able to phone London. So a strange bouncing of messages took place. She phoned London. London phoned the husband's sister in Los Angeles. She phoned Dallas. And vice versa. And for some time.

The husband, and three New York colleagues, rented a car (the only transportation available, remember) and drove, non-stop, from Dallas to New York: thirty hours, 1550 miles. They were not the only ones.

The daughter assumed that the rest of her team, for whom she felt responsible, could be under the rubble: in fact all were safe, but she would not know that for two days. Other members of her company, with whom she had worked, were on American Airlines flight 77.

That evening, the 9th September, she eventually arrived back at her hometown, and collected the baby from day-care. Later she discovered that the nursery helpers, way past their usual hours, were still caring for two uncollected children. Learning that, she says, was the moment it all closed in on her.

The consequences

Perhaps those subjective recollections were what clouded Malcolm's objective judgments. Or perhaps he merely went with the flow.

The deposing of a fascist dictator is a good thing, yes? And Saddam Hussein and his Baathist régime were a blood-bespattered lot, who had consciously moulded their structures and methods on the Nazi example.

There was, and is, clear and incontrovertible evidence that Saddam's Iraq was a military threat, that it had invaded its neighbours, and deliberately and earnestly sought weapons of mass destruction. Nay-sayers should refer to the Supergun Affair, and recognise that Saddam did initiate both nuclear weapons and biological weapons programmes. What the US and UK did not know (because the Iraqi totalitarianism was so opaque) was that these had not been sustainable.

So far, so ...

Malcolm is still not sure whether he would not repeat his acceptance of the military option.

Organising the aftermath

When the American and British forces crossed the Rhine in 1945, and brought about the collapse of the Third Reich, what happened next (at least in the Western Zones of Occupation) was well rehearsed.

The US Army had some practical experience: they had administered Mexico in 1847-8, the former Confederacy after 1865, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba after the Spanish-American War, and the Rhineland after World War I. From this experience, a committee in the War College in 1939-40 had actually produced a manual on administering occupied territory.

Nor were the British, having run an empire, any further behind.

As early as the beginning of 1941 the Intelligence Training Centre of the War Office began courses at St John's College, Cambridge, "to train officers in postwar reconstruction and other missions incident to military operations in foreign countries".

Some fifty months later the investment paid off. And three years after that, a new, dynamic and democratic Federal Republic of Germany was up-and-running. And after that came the Wirtschaftswunder.

Anyone who wants to get into this period, in Malcolm's view, should start with the fiction and romance, and then work back to the history. Leon Uris creamed the popular market with the near-weepie Armageddon, published in 1963, but covering the period from the mid-1940s to the Berlin Airlift. Still available (if only on the second-hand market), still as good as any other historical thriller. For a less emotive, more satisfying read, then it's John le Carré, including his impression of Bonn as A Small Town in Germany. In passing, for Malcolm, Len Deighton (especially the historical reconstructions Bomber and Fighter, and the marvellous Bernard Samson series) trumps le Carré every time. Philip Kerr's revived Bernie Gunther (of whom, doubtless, more anon) also catches the mood.

Au suivant!

And then ...

A briefing paper prepared for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers eight months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq concluded that the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a "protracted and costly" postwar occupation of that country.

... the memo "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action" notes that U.S. "military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace," but adds that "little thought" has been given to, among other things, "the aftermath and how to shape it."

Who is thereby seen to be derelict of their duty? Who should be held responsible?

Clearly the American authorities bulldozed their way through (and apparently without) any contingency planning. That implies we can no longer trust the Pentagon's forward planning (including that of General Petraeus, just this last week) until they prove themselves and their judgments to the contrary.

Equally, the UK systems, under the new Prime Minister, need to be more wary, more transparent, more credible and less credulous in their actions and interpretation of American initiatives.

And now...

A wholesale stream of "I told you so" confessions and self-exculpations are being loosed on the public. As token of that, by courtesy of the New York Times Book Update, Malcolm receives notice of The Terror Presidency (a nice, ambiguous title, that) by Jack Goldsmith. Malcolm regards the New York Times Sunday edition (which arrives in umpteen sections over two days), of which the book section is just one part, one of the journalistic delights of the world. It makes our domestic Sunday Times seem small beer.

Goldsmith was for just nine months, from the autumn of 2003, head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the US Justice Department. As such he was, effectively, the main scrutineer of legal opinion on the actions of the Presidency.

Goldsmith was a conservative republican loyalist, and got his job on that basis. Even so he found the White House's shenanigans unacceptable. Here's he lays out his stall:
I was briefed on some of the most sensitive counterterrorism operations in the government. Each of these operations was supported by OLC opinions written by my predecessors. As I absorbed the opinions, I concluded that some were deeply flawed: sloppily written, overbroad, and incautious in asserting extraordinary constitutional authorities on behalf of the President. I was astonished, and immensely worried, to discover that some of our most important counterterrorism policies rested on severely damaged legal foundations.
Goldsmith puts that, and himself, in a very specific, significant and physical context: sitting under the framed photograph of a predecessor, Elliot Richardson. Richardson had been ordered by Nixon to sack the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox (and so frustrate further investigation into Watergate): Richardson had refused, and honourably resigned.

The New York Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, says:
The portrait of the Bush administration that Mr. Goldsmith — who resigned from the Office of Legal Counsel in June 2004, only nine months after assuming the post — draws in this book is a devastating one. It is a portrait of a highly insular White House obsessively focused on expanding presidential power and loathe to consult with Congress, a White House that frequently made up its mind about a course of action before consulting with experts, a White House that sidelined Congress in its policymaking and willfully pursued a “go-it-alone approach” based on “minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense.”
Malcolm sees a sad truth in that; it tells us nothing new. It reinforces all that we felt, and feared about the Bush/Cheney Administration.

For Malcolm, that leaves three areas of questions:
  • How many more of these "revelations" are to come from other White House defectors and discards? Can this Prsidency be besmirched any further? Will this one emerge as the most discredited Presidency of modern times? Or of all time?
  • How can the next Presidency clean the Augean stables, rebuild a relationship with the people (not just the American people, but those of the entire US sphere of influence) and live, like every previous President had to, eventually, within and under the Law? And when will the Supreme Court scent the wind, assert itself, and regain its pre-eminent position in the tripartite system?
  • Can we wait that long?
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