Unidentified Flying Words

Nine recent strange sightings from our bizarro world

| Mon Aug. 23, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

In the last couple of weeks, if you weren't ducking UFWs (Unidentified Flying Words), perhaps you were wishing you could be transported to Roswell, New Mexico, or Nevada's infamous Area 51 where the strangest thing you might run into would be well-preserved, if spindly, alien bodies of a sort seen too regularly in the movies and on old episodes of The X-Files to hold any surprises for you. On the other hand, the rest of our world seemed an odd combination of a comedy of errors and alien terrors. Let me then just offer 9 recent strange sightings from our bizarro world.

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1. The harmonics of civilization (foreign front): On August 8th, according to the BBC, "speaking to reporters in Najaf…, a heavily-guarded Mr. Allawi said there would be no negotiations with 'any militia that bears arms against Iraq and the Iraqi people. The outlaws have to lay down their weapons and leave the city's holy sites including the Imam Ali shrine."

From at least early August, our prime minister in Iraq, former Baathist Iyad Allawi, has been calling the (chose one: young / ambitious / anti-American / fiery / rogue / radical / renegade / rebel / populist) cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers "outlaws." Strangely enough, so has our Secretary of State Colin Powell. It's lovely, isn't it, that Allawi and Powell not only see things in such an eye-to-eye way, but are coordinating in such a mouth-to-mouth manner, linguistically speaking. We know this is so, because translation from the Arabic never gets in the way. Allawi, a former exile who like many of his confreres in the "interim administration," has planted his roots abroad (not to speak of possessing a British passport), expresses himself regularly in English. In fact, as our nightly TV news so often makes clear, the PM gives numerous news conferences in English (as do others among his colleagues). This evidently seems so natural to our press corps in Baghdad that no one even thinks to comment on it. But for just a moment, imagine the unimaginable. The President of the United States steps to the podium to begin a White House press conference and launches into Arabic. Oh well, I know it's too ridiculous to consider. But it certainly tells us something about where Allawi's prime audience lies and where he is trying hardest to solidify his base. Perhaps one day someone in the press will find this curious enough to make something of it.

Oh, and good news for "sovereign Iraq" on another front! It turns out that Coalition advisors are helping the Iraqis get an air force aloft. In fact, according to the Associated Press, the Iraqi Air Force, once formidable under Saddam Hussein, is being relaunched more or less as I write, though admittedly its initial flights didn't exactly break any sound -- or power -- barriers. "Iraqi pilots on Wednesday flew two Seabird Seeker SB7L-360 reconnaissance aircraft on what the U.S. military described as 'limited operations missions intended to protect infrastructure facilities and Iraq's borders.'" But you always have to start somewhere, don't you? Anyway these two "light reconnaissance planes" are just the first of a planned mighty fleet of 10 (count-em, 10) such planes. (Saddam's air force had 750 aircraft back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War when he was our guy in Baghdad.) In the meantime, "British military officials helping form the new force are focusing on map-reading and navigation." Worthy goals indeed! I assume the maps are in English.

2. The French connection (or clash of civilizations, domestic front): About ten days ago Vice President Cheney mocked Senator Kerry for using the word "sensitive" ("sensible" in French) in a speech he gave to a "journalists of color" convention in which he discussed how he would run the war on terror. There's a crime for you. (Forget for a moment that Cheney, Bush and, it seems, everyone else in the administration has used "sensitive" the same way and that, addressing the same group the day before, the President had said, "Now in terms of the balance between running down intelligence and bringing people to justice obviously is -- we need to be very sensitive on that.". After all, when you say "sensitive" with a bow-legged swagger, it evidently gains an unexpected machismo.) Kerry's response? In essence, he was ready to attest that he's as insensitive a lout as the next presidential candidate when it comes to conducting a war. And he made this point even clearer a week ago by reassuring the American public that, should some time machine suddenly zip him back to the moment when he cast his vote on that war resolution, knowing everything he now knows he would still give the power to go to war to this President. Now, if that doesn't establish his bona fides for genuine insensitivity, I don't know what does.

In any case, the Bush administration promptly followed up with a further attack on Kerry's sensitivity, attempting to deepen its critique into a genuine clash of civilizations. According to the Los Angeles Times, Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon accused the Senator of nothing less than advocating -- gasp! -- French-style "socialism" within the United States and naturally, since we know the bent of the French (or is it the "bend" of the French?), "appeasement" overseas.

"'It's not John Kerry's fault that he looks French,' Smith told reporters on the conference call arranged by the Bush campaign. 'But it is his fault that he wants to pursue policies that have us act like the French. He advocates all kinds of additional socialism at home, appeasement abroad, and what that means is weakness for the future.'"

The Bush administration onslaught, which only escalated with the Swift Boat ads controversy, began just as Kerry looked to be pulling ahead in the polls in almost every significant battleground state (including, for the first time, Ohio) and emblematically ABC News political director Mark Halperin and his staff had just written in an on-line memo, "This is now John Kerry's contest to lose." Hmmm, well, maybe not exactly.

There is, however, a chance that Kerry could turn this "French" attack to his advantage. After all, Al Gore did terribly in rural and small-town America in the 2000 election. The Kerry/Edwards team wants to improve significantly on his performance. So let me point out that there are, by my count, at least twenty-one states in our imperfect union with a town or very small city named Paris. Talk about potential, especially if the Senator is willing to give his "I dreamed I was in Paris" speech.

To be evenhanded, I have a suggestion for the Bush campaign as well, as it ramps up to do one of the few things it's still capable of doing in an election season in which events seem not to be trending its way -- attack Kerry mercilessly on every hesitation and peccadillo: Perhaps it's time that the President, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Iyad Allawi hold coordinated press conferences in Washington, Baghdad, and Uzbekistan (the next time Powell visits) to brand Kerry a "sensitive outlaw."

3. The war record and the war on record: Hand it to Kerry, by the way. He spent his whole convention acting militarily tougher than Thou ("reporting for duty…"), but faced with two post-convention moments that called for a little tough-mindedness, he shied off both of them. He hesitated to hit back as soon as those scurrilous ads questioning the war record he'd bet everything on appeared, and then watched silently as the media managed to turn them into a top-of-the-news he-said/he-said story. It was a moment which brought to mind Michael Dukakis's disastrous response to a scurrilous question by CNN's Bernard Shaw in a 1988 presidential debate about whether he'd ask for the death penalty for someone who raped his wife. And it's enough to make anyone cringe.

Maureen Dowd in a fine New York Times column Sunday (Kerry: Slo-Mo on Swifties) commented on the dismal slowness of the Kerry response to challenge:

"Charging on Thursday that Mr. Bush wants the Swift boat sleazoids 'to do his dirty work,' Mr. Kerry reached for yet another Vietnam reference and water metaphor: 'When you're under attack, the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attack.' The Skipper would do well to get a swifter boat. How pathetic is it that he's playing defense on Vietnam when W. didn't even serve?... It makes sense for W. to use surrogates to do his fighting, just as he did when he slid out of Vietnam and just as he did when he sent our troops to fight his administration's misbegotten vanity war in Iraq."

Give Karl Rove credit, of course. The neocons and Pentagon hawks adored TV face-time, but Rove, whom you almost never see, is the administration's real face-time expert. Perhaps Kerry will prove lucky, even on the Swift boat ads, but other people are doing his work for him. In a front-page exposé, Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, for instance, did a devastating job last week of laying out the tangle of funding, friendship, and influence that reaches from the Swift Boat ads right to the top of the Bush White House ("...a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove"). In the meantime, the officer who commanded the Swift Boat next to Kerry's, now an editor at the Chicago Tribune, spoke out this weekend, after 35 years of self-enforced silence, seconding the accuracy of Kerry's memories ("The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there.,"); while the White House found itself forced to "fire" Kenneth Cordier, as an adviser on veterans issues after it "learned" (as the press politely put it) that he was featured in one of the Swift Boat ads.

The potentially far more damaging Kerry moment, however, was his response (see point 2 above) to the President's war resolution question. At the moment when a new Pew poll indicates that Iraq is likely to be the crucial issue, the "trump card," in swaying swing voters in this election and just when a PIPA poll indicates that a majority of Americans are coalescing around the idea that invading Iraq was at least a "mistake" ("Americans' opposition to the Iraq war continues to grow, with 69 percent of the pubic now saying that the Bush administration launched the war based on incorrect assumptions, according to a survey released Friday… Other polls this summer have found a similar erosion of support for the Iraq war. A Gallup poll in July found that 50 percent consider the war a mistake, and an Associated Press/Ipsos poll this week found that 53 percent said the war was a mistake."), Kerry gave away any leverage he might have on the issue. He simply, quite pathetically, with a single answer that undoubtedly was debated among his advisors beforehand, sidelined himself on the subject while opening himself to Bush's ridicule. (In the meantime, note that in that PIPA poll, a combined 53% of Americans either indicated a desire to have American troops withdrawn from or at least drawn down in Iraq.) Kerry has, in the words of Hearst columnist Helen Thomas, thrown away his "ace in the hole." So much for heading his electoral Swift Boat into a storm of fire.

4. The right gives flip-flopping a good name: Last week, while Senator Kerry carefully reached down and nailed both feet to the floor, at least three figures on the right showed genuine flexibility in considering our Iraqi adventure. Retiring Congressman Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee and vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who like Kerry voted for the war resolution, wrote a letter to his constituents admitting error. Indicating that for most members of Congress, "the element of a WMD-terrorist link was a key factor" in the vote, he then went on to say:

"Knowing now what I know about the reliance on the tenuous or insufficiently corroborated intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD arsenal, I believe that launching the preemptive military action was not justified. .. I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition."

In the meantime, on the op-ed page of the New York Times, a canny right-wing strategist, Edward N. Luttwak, offered a curious plan for withdrawal from Iraq (Time to Quit Iraq [Sort of]), one tailored to the majority of Americans who don't want to "abandon" that country. It was, in fact, a shrewd plan shaped to provide cover for any government. Luttwak suggested challenging Iraqi Shiites in particular as well as various neighboring countries by threatening withdrawal unless they indicated a real desire for us to remain and acted accordingly. He wrote:

"This is no diplomatic parlor game. The threat of an American withdrawal would have to be made credible by physical preparations for a military evacuation, just as real nuclear weapons were needed for deterrence during the cold war. More fundamentally, it would have to be meant in earnest: the United States is only likely to obtain important concessions if it is truly willing to withdraw if they are denied. If Iraq's neighbors are too short-sighted to start cooperating in their own best interests, America would indeed have to withdraw."

Luttwak made the interesting claim that Americans actually have far less to lose than we imagine in any "abrupt" withdrawal scenario: "But [the threat of withdrawal] would be based on the most fundamental of realities: For geographic reasons, many other countries have more to lose from an American debacle in Iraq than does the United States itself."

In the meantime, hawkish columnist George Will, while not calling for a withdrawal, took another look at Iraq and saw, where the Bush administration was still insistently claiming "progress," a nightmare of a very special sort that could involve the "unmaking of a president." He wrote in the Washington Post:

"A house so divided cannot stand. If it is the prime minister's will, or that of Iraq's embryonic democratic institutions, to conduct with insurgent factions negotiations that strip the Iraqi state of an essential attribute of statehood -- a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence -- the U.S. presence will become untenable. Untenable even before what may be coming before November: an Iraqi version of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive of 1968. To say that the coming offensive will be by 'Baathists' is, according to one administration official, akin to saying 'Nazis' when you mean 'the SS' -- the most fearsome of the Nazis. Such an offensive could make Sadr's insurgency seem a minor irritant. And it could unmake a presidency, as Tet did."

So just remind me: If a Republican Congressman, a right-wing columnist, and a smart, if neolithic, strategist are ready to think the unthinkable and suggest versions of the unsuggestible, and if the American public is just starting to prepare itself to imagine the unimaginable, does John Kerry really have to lock himself in an Iraqi cell, order himself into a contorted position, and toss away the key?

5. Welcome to Baghdad… er, New York… (Bring Earplugs Department): Here's great news in the war on terror -- the Long Range Acoustic Device, straight from testing on the urban battlefield of Iraq, has arrived in New York, according to Tom Hays of the Associated Press. It is a machine-cum-"non-lethal" weapon, "developed for the military and capable of blasting warnings, orders or anything else at an ear-splitting 150 decibels." Two of these creatures are being tested "at an airfield in a remote section of Brooklyn" by New York's Finest, a staging ground where they're also testing out arrest procedures on police cadets chanting "no peace, no justice." The Department recently bought the two sound weapons for $35,000 a pop. As Ros Davidson of the Glasgow Sunday Herald comments, "They… have never before been used outside a war-zone." Think of New York as the Big Earlobe.

6. Great reporting in America, the fallout: The Washington Post recently… well, what did they do actually? The editors let media columnist Howard Kurtz acknowledge in an exceedingly modest way their exceedingly poor prewar reporting and placement of articles, something the New York Times had sorta apologized for (admittedly, on inside page 10) months earlier. But remind me, where's the rest of the media? How about the prime-time network news? How about our major magazines? How about… but why go on. Recently, in the PIPA poll mentioned above, we were reminded of the lingering results of the mainstream media's prewar policy of highlighting all the news that was fit to print (according to a range of experts that ran from Colin Powell to Dick Cheney): "More than half of Americans, 54 percent, continue to believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a program to develop them before the United States invaded last year… Half believe Iraq was either closely linked with al-Qaida before the war (35 percent) or was directly involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on this country (15 percent)."

And these shameful figures represent significant drops from wartime highs! If anyone out there in the mainstream has the urge to apologize, just jump right in. Don't let us stop you.

7. Positioning troops abroad, positioning sources at home: Last week, the Bush administration announced new plans to change our global military "footprint." Over the next decade, we'll be drawing down our troops in Germany, South Korea, and Japan and ramping up minimalist bases that will allow for even quicker interventions just about anywhere in what used to be called the Third World, but now, more accurately, should be considered the major oil lands of the planet. In addition, from the former Baltic SSRs and Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union through the former Georgian SSR to the various Stans of Central Asia, we'll also be working hard to fulfill an early Cold War urge not just to contain, but to "rollback" the Soviet Union, now in the shrunken guise of a weak but still nuclear-armed Russia.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld visited Russia just before the President announced the new repositioning plans and, of course, swore up and down that nothing of the sort was happening. But plot it out on a map. On this one, the eyes don't lie. From the Pentagon, however, came remarkable vagueness about the details of the new plan. According to the Pentagon's number three hawk, Douglas Feith, for instance: "'U.S. forces must be positioned around the world so they can respond to events. 'We do not believe that we know where we might have to do military operations… We therefore cannot be confident that we are based where we're going to fight. And for that reason, we need to have a force posture that allows for flexibility.'" Hmm...

"The United States will continue to speak with allies around the world on this program. U.S. officials will continue to negotiate with allies on the American footprint in their regions, Feith said." Are you sure that's not feetprints?

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, a background briefing was held for reporters eager to know about the shape and placement of those future feetprints. Despite dazzling blather about "mil to mil relationships" and "your domestic BRAC analysis," the backgrounder managed to offer next to no information whatsoever, but provided a splendid in person introduction to a few of those wonderful, wacky guys who exist daily on our front pages in news anonymity. The presentation began with a certain flair:

"Staff… It is on background, so if you'd refer to the two individuals closest to me as senior military -- senior Defense officials, and of course senior military official, and on the end is our senior State Department official." [Wouldn't you know that the "senior State Department official" would be on the end…]

"Q Why is this on background?

"STAFF: This is on background because again this is part of the process briefings that we're trying to continue to provide for you with respect to giving you a better understanding of where the department is headed in this direction. And I think that the president made the announcement today and that's why we're keeping this one on background.

"Q And the gentleman in the middle? What's your attribution today?

"SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL: Senior military official…"

And so on. My question is do you address him as "Senior," "Mil" (as in those mil-to-mil relations), or "Lieut. Gen. Official?" Anyway, now you understand why there are all those odd non-identifications in our papers. Their moms seem to have named them that way. What a burden to carry through life.

8: Peaking oil/Peaked world: 1999 and 2004: If you happen to be a barrel of crude oil, the world is panting for you right now. As Ashley Seager of the British Guardian reported Saturday, "Oil prices have set records in 15 of the past 16 trading days and prices are up a third since the end of June, stoking fears that the world economy could be knocked off course by rising fuel costs."

Just the other day, as oil was surging toward the $50 a barrel barrier (or former barrier), David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post, was starting to imagine the $65 barrel of crude oil and the "recession" (likely as not depression) that would go with it (As Oil Prices Boil…). "You wouldn't know it," he began, "from the running-on-empty rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign, but crude oil prices hit an all-time high this week of more than $48 a barrel. Some economists are warning about a full-blown energy crisis, with prices rising to $65 or more until they bring on a global recession that finally slows demand."

With prices peaking (and peaking… and peaking…), the world looks a tad more peaked than it did not so many months ago and "peak oil" -- the possibility that the limits of fossil fuel resources on this globe of ours might in our lifetime, even in the coming decade, run up against the soaring desire for the stuff -- looks ever less like the stuff of fantasy. In that light, I thought it might be interesting to revisit a few comments Dick Cheney made back when he was the CEO of a giant energy company. Now, we all know, courtesy of our media, that control of global energy resources had nothing (or next to nothing) to do with the invasion of Iraq and global energy flows and resources were the last things on the minds of neocon and Pentagon hawks, national security advisors, or even vice presidents while they were hatching plans to dominate the world forever and a day.

But you see, back before Dick Cheney became our Veep, a whole year-plus earlier, before, that is, he forgot all about the importance of energy in our world and cut all ties with Halliburton, the company most involved in (and that seems to have sucked the most money out of) our Iraqi adventure, he had a few choice words for a sympathetic audience gathered at the Institute for Petroleum on a relevant subject or two. He was introduced by Chris Moorhouse, who reviewed his career in and out of government and then commented, "Not surprisingly, with such a wide ranging career in politics and now at Halliburton, Dick Cheney [h]as a deep interest in the geo-politics of the energy industry,"

Cheney then went on point out that oil remains basically "a government business" and to lay out briefly some of the math behind peak-oil fears:

"For the world as a whole, oil companies are expected to keep finding and developing enough oil to offset our seventy one million plus barrel a day of oil depletion, but also to meet new demand. By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from?"

If you happened to be a vice president with the kind of power no vice president has ever had, you might give a passing thought or two to securing some of that oil -- if you were still worried a year-plus later about where it was going to come from. He also offered the following assessment of oil in our world back in the distant days of 1999:

"Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world's economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality. The degree of government involvement also makes oil a unique commodity. This is true in both the overwhelming control of oil resources by national oil companies and governments as well as in the consuming nations where oil products are heavily taxed and regulated… It is the basic, fundamental building block of the world's economy. It is unlike any other commodity."

Actually, here's the strange thing about our media and the latest Iraq war: If Iraq had indeed been the global capital of soapflakes or leisurewear, I guarantee you fears and speculations about either product would had garnered far more press during those months of war and occupation than (until very recently) oil did.

9. Presidential campaign layoffs: The Bush campaign seems to be shedding jobs (at least momentarily) as it travels the battleground states. For much of this year, the President has spent much of his public time addressing mainly American troops at military bases, where crowds are essentially guaranteed (not to say ordered) to be friendly in nature. But more recently, the campaign has developed methods for ensuring all-friendly crowds off military bases. Tickets to Presidential stops in battleground states are usually given only to friendly folks who sign actual loyalty oaths to Bush-Cheney or are vetted for their loyalties at the gate.

As Michael Kennedy wrote in the Minneapolis, Tribune, recalling a childhood period in the 1960 campaign when he attended both Nixon and Kennedy rallies with his father:

"That is a great memory, but I guess that kind of experience can't happen this year. Oh, it can with the Democrats. They still don't really care who comes to see John Kerry or John Edwards. It's come one, come all, as far as they're concerned. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're just glad you came. With President Bush it's different. Loyalty oaths and frisking people is now standard procedure for admission to a Bush rally. Plus, any signs of support for the Democrats and you're out on your fanny."

And anyone who appears in a hostile t-shirt, watch out. "Last month, Charleston City Council apologized to two protesters arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts to the president's July 4 rally. The pair were taken from the event in restraints after revealing T-shirts with Bush's name crossed out on the front and the words 'Love America, Hate Bush' on the back. Trespassing charges were ultimately dismissed." According to Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post, our "jobs" President now seems to regularly speak at plants where, essentially, the workers are laid off for the day.

"When he spoke at a Boeing Co. plant outside in Ridley Park, Penn., you might have been forgiven for thinking that he was actually speaking to Boeing workers. But, just like when he spoke at a union hall in Las Vegas last week, the room was filled with invited guests. Workers had the day off."

Ditto at Kell Container in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, which the President visited workerless. (The workers then had to do their work at less convenient hours.) Froomkin also quotes "Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman [who] writes about two people who weren't invited. They used to work 'next door to the cardboard-box plant where Bush will speak today, in the factory of Mason Shoe Manufacturing' until all the machinery and jobs went to China." Ah well, if factories are empty to begin with, advanced planning will just be that much easier!

And then there was the graphic designer who somehow got into a Bush rally and heckled the President about those missing weapons of mass destruction. After being drowned out by the crowd ("Four more years!") and led away, he actually lost his job. He was fired from "an advertising and design company for offending a client who provided tickets to the event."

Read regular dispatches by Tom Engelhardt at Tomdispatch.com