Friday, November 17

No Exit? What It Means to "Salvage U.S. Prestige" in Iraq
by Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, November 17, 2006

Things are always complicated. In the Washington Post, for instance, James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans recently suggested that it was far "too simplistic" to claim "the appointment of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld [represents] the triumph of Bush the Father's administration over Bush the Son's."

James Baker III Robert Gates, new Defence Secretary

Still, I prefer the analysis of Washington Post reporter (and author of Fiasco) Thomas Ricks. When asked by the Post's media columnist Howard Kurtz whether a Newsweek headline, "Father knows best," was just "an easy, cheap Oedipal way for the press to characterize what's going on," Ricks replied: "Well, just because it's easy and cheap doesn't mean it's wrong."

At a moment when every version of the dramatic arrival of James A. Baker III and Robert Gates on the scene -- and the scuttling of Rumsfeld's Titanic -- is at least suspect, it's still worth considering the bare bones of what can be seen and known -- and then asking what we have.

Permanent Facts on the Ground

As the New York Times revealed in a front-page piece by Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt on April 19, 2003, just after Baghdad fell, the Pentagon arrived in the Iraqi capital with plans already on the drawing board to build four massive military bases (that no official, then or now, will ever call "permanent").

Today, according to our former Secretary of Defense, we have 55 bases of every size in Iraq (down from over 100); five or six of these, including Balad Airbase, north of Baghdad, the huge base first named Camp Victory adjacent to Baghdad International Airport, and al-Asad Airbase in western Anbar province, are enormous -- big enough to be reasonable-sized American towns with multiple bus routes, neighborhoods, a range of fast-food restaurants, multiple PX's, pools, mini-golf courses and the like.

Though among the safest places in Iraq for American reporters, these bases have, with rare exceptions, gone completely undescribed and undiscussed in our press (or on the television news).

From an engineering journal, we know that before the end of 2003, several billion dollars had already been sunk into them. We know that in early 2006, the major ones, already mega-structures, were still being built up into a state of advanced permanency.

Balad, for instance, already handled the levels of daily air traffic you would normally see at Chicago's ultra-busy O'Hare and in February its facilities were still being ramped up. We know, from the reliable Ed Harriman, in the latest of his devastating accounts of corruption in Iraq in the London Review of Books, that, as you read, the four mega-bases always imagined as our permanent jumping-off spots in what Bush administration officials once liked to call "the arc of instability" were still undergoing improvement.

Without taking the fate of those monstrous, always-meant-to-be-permanent bases into account -- and they are, after all, just about the only uniformly successfully construction projects in that country -- no American plans for Iraq, whatever label they go by, will make much sense. And yet months go by without any reporting on them appearing. In fact, these last months have gone by with only a single peep (that I've found) from any mainstream publication on the subject.

The sole bit of base news I've noticed anywhere made an obscure mid-October appearance in a Turkish paper, which reported that the U.S. was now building a "military airport" in Kurdistan. A few days later, a UPI report picked up by the Washington Times had this: "Following hints U.S. troops may remain in Iraq for years, the United States is reportedly building a massive military base at Arbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq."

Kurdistan has always been a logical fallback position for U.S. forces "withdrawing" from a failed Iraq. But so far nothing more substantial has been written on the subject.

There is, however, another symbol of American "permanency" in Iraq that has gotten just slightly more attention in the U.S. press in recent months -- the new U.S. embassy now going up inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone and nicknamed by Baghdadis (in a sly reference to Saddam Hussein's enormous, self-important edifices) "George W's Palace."

It's almost the size of Vatican City, will have its own apartment buildings (six of them) for its bulked-up "staff" of literally thousands and its own electricity, well-water, and waste-treatment facilities to guarantee "100 percent independence from city utilities," not to speak of a "swimming pool, gym, commissary, food court and American Club, all housed in a recreation building" and it's own anti-missile system. Ed Harriman tells us that it's a billion dollar-plus project -- and unlike just about every other construction project in the country, it's going up efficiently and on schedule. It will be the most imperial embassy on the planet, not exactly the perfect signal of a sovereign Iraqi future.

The Uncovered War

Here's another mystery of Iraq (and Afghani) coverage: The essential American way of war -- air power -- has long been completely MIA, except at websites like this one. There has been not a single mainstream piece of any significance on the air war these last years, with the single exception of journalist Seymour Hersh's remarkable December 2005 report, "Up in the Air," in the New Yorker. ("A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower.

Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.")

It is, of course, an irony that the only American reporter to look up and notice all those planes, helicopters, and drones overhead has never been to Iraq.

Such modest coverage of the air war in Iraq as exists in our press generally comes in the form of infrequent paragraphs buried in wire service round-ups as in a November 14th Associated Press piece headlined, "U.S. General Confronts Iraqi Leader on Security":

"On Monday night, U.S. forces raided the homes of some Sadr followers, and U.S. jets fired rockets on Shula, their northwest Baghdad neighborhood, residents said. Police said five residents were killed, although a senior Sadr aide put the death toll at nine. The U.S. military said it had no comment."

This incident assumedly took place somewhere in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr city. In other words, we're talking about American planes regularly sending rockets or bombs into relatively heavily populated urban areas.

All you have to do is imagine such a thing happening in an American city to grasp the barbarism involved.

And yet, over these years in which such targeting has been commonplace and, in larger campaigns, parts of cities like Najaf and Falluja have been destroyed from the air, hardly a single reporter has gone to an air base like Balad and simply spent time with American pilots.

Not surprisingly, this remains a non-issue in this country.

How could Americans react, when there's no news to react to, when there's next to no information to be had -- which doesn't mean that information on our ongoing air campaigns is unavailable.

In fact, the Air Force is proud as punch of the job it's doing; so any reporter, not to speak of any citizen, can go to the Air Force website and look at daily reports of air missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The report of November 15th, for instance, offers the following:

Here's the crucial thing: American troop levels simply cannot be slowly drawn-down in Iraq without -- as in Vietnam -- some increase in the use of air power.

And yet, you can look far and wide and find no indication of any public discussion of this at the White House, in Congress, or in what we know of the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group. And yet, as the Iraqi chaos and strife grows while the American public increasingly backs off, air power will be one answer. You can count on that.

And air power -- especially in or "near" cities -- simply means civilian carnage. It will be called "collateral damage" (if anyone bothers to call it anything at all), but -- make no mistake -- it will be at the heart of any new strategy that calls for "redeployment" but does not mean to get us out of Iraq.

"A True Disaster for the Iraqi People"

On ABC's Sunday political talk show, "This Week," White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten had this to say: "I don't think we're going to be receptive to the notion there's a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out,
because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people."

With hundreds of thousands of dead and more following daily, it makes you wonder exactly what it's been so far for the Iraqi people, as Bolten sees it.

But perhaps he's right; perhaps the disaster behind us will be nothing compared to the disaster ahead, especially if Daddy's Boys, the Iraq Study Group, other Democratic and Republican movers and shakers, and all those generals and former generals floating around our world decide that this isn't the moment to rediscover a Colin Powell-style "exit strategy," but "one last chance" to succeed by any definition in Iraq.

Then, god help us -- and the Iraqis. Sooner or later, we'll undoubtedly be gone from a land so determinedly hostile to being occupied by us, but that end moment could still be a long, long time in coming.

Here, for instance, is Robert Gates' thinking eighteen months ago in a seminar at the Panetta Institute at California State University in Monterey on "phased troop withdrawals" from Iraq:

"But Mr. Gates qualified his comments, noting it sometimes takes time to accomplish your goals. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, ‘there are still American troops in Germany,' he noted. ‘We've had troops in Korea for over 50 years. The British have had troops in Cyprus for 40 years… If you want to change history, you have to be prepared to stay as long as it takes to do the job."

So hold onto your hats. Tragedy and more tragedy seems almost guaranteed, and the Pentagon has just submitted to Congress a staggering $160 billion supplemental appropriation request in order to continue its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Vietnam era, President Richard M. Nixon went on a well-armed, years-long hunt for something he called "peace with honor."

Today, the catchword is finding an "exit strategy" that can "salvage U.S. prestige." What we want, it seems, is peace with "dignity."

In Vietnam, there was no honor left, only horror.

There is no American dignity to be found in Iraq either, only horror. In a Washington of suddenly lowered expectations, dignity is defined as hanging in there until an Iraqi government that can't even control its own Interior Ministry or the police in the capital gains "stability," until the Sunni insurgency becomes a mild irritation,
and until that American embassy, that eighth wonder of the world of security and comfort, becomes an eye-catching landmark on the capital's skyline.

Imagine. That's all we want. That's our dignity.

And for that dignity and the imagined imperial stability of the world, our top movers and shakers will proceed to monkey around for months creating and implementing plans that will only ensure further catastrophe (which, in turn, will but breed more rage, more terrorism that spreads disaster to the Middle East and actually lessens American power around the world). [...more]
America Faces a Future of Managing Imperial Decline
by Martin Jacques, The Guardian, Novenber 16, 2006

Bush's failure to grasp the limits of US global power has led to an adventurism for which his successors will pay a heavy price

Just a few years ago, the world was in thrall to the idea of American power. The neoconservative agenda not only infused the outlook of the White House, it also dominated the global debate about the future of international relations. Following 9/11, we had, in quick succession, the "war on terror", the "axis of evil", the idea of a new American empire, the overarching importance of military power, the notion and desirability of regime change, the invasion of Iraq, and the proposition that western-style democracy was relevant and applicable to every land in the world, starting with the Middle East.

Much of that has unwound with a speed that barely anyone anticipated. With the abject failure of the American occupation of Iraq - to the point where even the American electorate now recognises the fact - the neoconservative era would appear to be in its death throes.

But what precisely is coming to an end?

Neoconservatism in all its pomp conceived - in the Project for a New American Century - that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world could be remade in the American image, that the previous bipolar world could be replaced by a unipolar one in which the US was the dominant arbiter of global and regional affairs. In fact, the Bush administration never came close to this. For a short time it did succeed in persuading the great majority of countries to accept the priority of the war against terror and seemingly to sign up for it: even the intervention in Afghanistan, in the aftermath of 9/11, elicited widespread acquiescence.

But the US singularly failed to command a majority of states in support of the invasion of Iraq and garnered even less support when it came to global public opinion. It demonstrated its unilateral intent by ignoring its failure to gain assent within the UN and invading Iraq, but the subsequent failure of its Iraqi adventure has served only to reinforce its isolation and demonstrate the folly of its unilateralism. Its strategy in the Middle East - always the epicentre of the neoconservative global project - lies in tatters. [...more]

... it is increasingly confronted with a world marked by the growing power of a range of new national actors, notably - but by no means only - China, India and Brazil.

Just six years into the 21st century, one can say this is not shaping up to be anything like an American century.

Rather, the US seems much more likely to be faced with a very different kind of future: how to manage its own imperial decline. And, as a footnote, one might add that this is a task for which pragmatists are rather better suited than ideologues.

Martin Jacques is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, London School of Economics
Sunday, November 12
The 1918 U.S. 24-cent airmail stamp known as the 'Inverted Jenny' is seen in this picture from November 2, 2005. A Florida voter may have unwittingly lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by using an extremely rare stamp to mail an absentee ballot in Tuesday's congressional election, a government official said Friday. The 1918 Inverted Jenny stamp, which takes its name from an image of a biplane accidentally printed upside-down, turned up Tuesday night in Fort Lauderdale, where election officials were inspecting ballots from parts of south Florida, Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom told Reuters. (Mystic Stamp Company/Handout/Reuters)

Remembering Arafat : Palestinian children, wearing chequered scarves and shirts bearing the picture of later Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, carry wreath during a parade in their Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in the Lebanese southern port city if Sidon, to mark the second anniversary of the death of their historical leader. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayat)

Marijuana plants growing under lights. Wary of their funny-tasting burgers, two New Mexico cops arrested three employees of a Burger King restaurant they had visited after finding that the meat they were sold was laced with marijuana.(AFP/File/Robyn Beck)
Friday, November 10
Thank You, America
The Guardian, November 9, 2006

For six years, latterly with the backing of both houses of a markedly conservative Republican Congress, George Bush has led an American administration that has played an unprecedentedly negative and polarising role in the world's affairs. On Tuesday, in the midterm US congressional elections, American voters rebuffed Mr Bush in spectacular style and with both instant and lasting political consequences. By large numbers and across almost every state of the union, the voters defeated Republican candidates and put the opposition Democrats back in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years.

When the remaining recounts and legal challenges are over, the Democrats may even have narrowly won control of the Senate too. Either way, the results change the political landscape in Washington for the final two years of this now thankfully diminished presidency. They also reassert a different and better United States that can again offer hope instead of despair to the world. Donald Rumsfeld's resignation last night was a fitting climax to the voters' verdict. Thank you, America.

In US domestic terms, the 2006 midterms bring to an end the 12 intensely divisive years of Republican House rule that began under Newt Gingrich in 1994. These have been years of zealously and confrontational conservative politics that have shocked the world and, under Mr Bush, have sent America's global standing plummeting. That long political hurricane has now at last blown itself out for a while, but not before leaving America with a terrible legacy that includes climate-change denial, the end of biological stem-cell research, an aid programme tied to abortion bans, a shockingly permissive gun culture, an embrace of capital punishment equalled only by some of the world's worst tyrannies, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and his replacement by a president who does not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. The approval by voters in at least five more states of same-sex marriage bans - on top of 13 similar votes in 2004 - shows that culture-war politics are far from over.

Exit polls suggest that four issues counted most in these elections - corruption scandals, the economy, terrorism and Iraq.

In the end, though, it was the continuing failure of the war in Iraq that has galvanised many Americans to do what much of the rest of the world had longed for them to do much earlier. It is too soon to say whether 2006 now marks a decisive rejection of the rest of the conservative agenda as well. Only those who do not know America well will imagine that it does.

The big questions under the new Congress will be the way that Mr Bush responds to this unfamiliar reduction in his authority and whether the Democratic win will push the president into a new Iraq policy. At his White House press conference yesterday, Mr Bush inevitably made plenty of suitably bipartisan and common-ground noises. He had little alternative. But they rang hollow from such a tarnished and partisan leader. It will take more than warm words in the immediate aftermath of an election reverse to prove that Mr Bush is now capable of working in a new way.

The departure of the disastrous Mr Rumsfeld has come at least three years too late. But it shows that Mr Bush has finally been forced to face the reality of the Iraq disaster for which his defence secretary bears so much responsibility. As the smoke rose over the Pentagon on 9/11, Mr Rumsfeld was already writing a memo that wrongly pointed the finger at Saddam Hussein.

He more than anyone beat the drum for the long-held neoconservative obsession with invading Iraq. It was he who insisted, over the advice of all his senior generals, that the invasion required only a third of the forces that the military said they needed. He more than anyone else is the architect of America's humiliations in Iraq. It was truly an outrage that he remained in office for so long.

But at least the passing of Mr Rumsfeld shows that someone in the White House now recognises that things cannot go on as before. Business as usual will not do, either in general or over Iraq. Mr Bush's remarks last night showed that on Iraq he has now put himself in the hands of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by his father's consigliere James Baker, one of whose members, Robert Gates, an ex-CIA chief, was last night appointed to succeed the unlamented Mr Rumsfeld. Maybe the more pragmatic Republican old guard can come to the rescue of this disastrous presidency in its most catastrophic adventure. But it has been the American voters who have at last made this possible. For that alone the entire world owes them its deep gratitude today.
Top Ten Ways we know We have Lost in Iraq
Informed Comment, Juan Cole, November 04, 2006

Top Ten Ways you can tell we have have lost in Iraq:

10. When your daily news frequently includes an item like this: Reuters reports that

'Police found 56 bodies and a severed head in different parts of Baghdad over the last 24 hours, an Interior Ministry source said. The bodies showed signs of torture and bullet wounds.

Then you know you have lost in Iraq.

9. When 7 US GIs are announced dead on an ordinary day in Iraq, then you know you are not exactly winning.

8. When the Shiites, the primary beneficiaries of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, think the US is too pro-Sunni, you know you have lost in Iraq.

7. When the US military is so clueless that it planned to send a notorious Abu Ghraib figure, Sgt. Santo Cardona back to Iraq to train police then you know that you have lost in Iraq.

6. When 3,000 Iraqis a day are fleeing to Syria and Jordan and United Nations High Commission on Refugees is being overwhelmed, then you know we have lost Iraq. (That is a million a year! Iraq's population is 27 million).

5. When you start having teach-ins in Ann Arbor (shades of 1965) then you know it is all over with.

4. When even cities the US has destroyed like Fallujah are again becoming centers of insurgency, then you know you have lost in Iraq.

3. When finding Saddam guilty is so controversial that it may provoke waves of violence among Sunni Arabs, you know you have lost in Iraq.

2. When the Neoconservatives are suddenly against having invaded Iraq, then you know the Iraq War is lost. Talk about rats and a sinking ship! [Vanity Fair link here.]

1. When the Bush administration freely gives out to terrorists Iraq's old 1980s blueprints for building an atomic bomb, then you know we are just screwed as long as these people are in power. And they say they are better at protecting our security!

Outlaw Empire Meets the Wave
5 Questions for Our Future

by Tom Engelhardt, November 8, 2006,

The wave -- and make no mistake, it's a global one -- has just crashed on our shores, soaking our imperial masters. It's a sight for sore eyes.

It's been a long time since we've seen an election like midterm 2006. After all, it's a truism of our politics that Americans are almost never driven to the polls by foreign-policy issues, no less by a single one that dominates everything else, no less by a catastrophic war (and the presidential approval ratings that go with it). This strange phenomenon has been building since the moment, in May 2003, that George W. Bush stood under that White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared "major combat operations have ended." [...more]

Extremity on Display

So, just past the midterm election mark of 2006, what's left of the New Rome? You could say that George W. Bush's dark success story has involved bringing his version of the United States into line with the look of the "rogue" enemies and terrorist groups he set out to destroy. By the time Americans went to the polls on November 7th, 2006 to repudiate his policies, he had given our country the ultimate in makeovers, creating the look of an Outlaw Empire.

We now have our own killing fields in Iraq where, the latest casualty study tells us, somewhere between 400,000 and 900,000-plus "excess Iraqi deaths" have occurred since the 2003 invasion. And do you remember Saddam's "torture chambers" (which the President used to cite all the time)? Now, we are the possessors of our own global prison system, our own (rented, borrowed, or jerry-rigged) torture chambers, our own leased airline to transport kidnapped prisoners around the planet, and a Vice President who has openly lobbied Congress for a torture exemption for the CIA and spoke glibly on the radio about "dunking" people in water. And, thanks to a supine Congress, we have the laws to go with it all.

The administration went after the right to torture or treat captives any way its agents pleased in places not open to any kind of oversight remarkably quickly after the September 11th attacks. By late 2001, Donald Rumsfeld's office was instructing agents in the field in Afghanistan to "take the gloves off" with a captive. (Inside the CIA, as Ron Suskind has told us in his book The One Percent Doctrine, Director George Tenet was talking even more vividly about removing "the shackles" on the Agency.) Inside the White House Counsel's office and the Justice Department, administration lawyers were already hauling out their dictionaries to figure out how to redefine "torture" out of existence. But why such an emphasis on torture (which is largely useless in the field, as everyone knows)?

What administration officials grasped, I believe, is this: If you could manage to get the right to legally employ extreme (and normally repugnant) acts of torture, then you would have in your possession the right to do anything. Think of the urge to abuse as the initial extreme expression of this administration's secret obsession with the creation of a "wartime" commander-in-chief presidency which would leave Congress and the courts in the dust.

If you want to measure where this has taken Bush officialdom in five years, consider their latest legal defensive measure. According to the Washington Post, the administration has just gone to court to declare American "alternative interrogation techniques" -- which simply means "torture" -- as "among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets." It is trying to get a federal judge to bar "terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons" from even revealing to their own lawyers details about what was done to them by American interrogators. In other words, torture is now to be put in the secrecy vault like a national treasure. Next thing you know, we'll be sending it to the Smithsonian.

Reflected in this desperate maneuver, you can catch a glimpse of an administration driven to the extremity of going to courts it despised -- and thought it had cut out of the process of foreign imperial governance -- simply to bury its own extreme misdeeds. You can feel the fear of the docket (and perhaps of history) in such a stance.

Another example of the extremity into which this administration has driven itself and the rest of us lies in an editorial published in the four main (officially private) military magazines, the Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times, and Marine Corps Times, on the very eve of the midterm elections. It called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation just after the President had given him his vote of confidence once again. Realistically speaking, this can only be seen as an extreme military intervention in the American electoral process.

In so many ways, the American Constitutional system has been shredded and this -- whether we are to be an outlaw empire (and a failing one at that) -- is what Americans were voting about this last Tuesday (though it was called "Iraq").

The Wave

The history of recent American politics at the polls might be seen this way: Not so long after he declared the successful completion of his Iraqi dreams, George W. Bush found himself, to the surprise of his top advisors and supporters, hounded by Iraq's Sunni insurgency. He essentially raced not John Kerry (who recently offered yet another example of his special lack of dexterity on the campaign trail) but that insurgency to the finish line in November 2004. With a little help from his friends in Ohio and the Rove smear-and-turnout operation, he managed to squeak by. Then, in another of those milestone moments on the way to disaster, he declared that he had "political capital" to spare and would spend it.

The next summer, two storms hit the endlessly vacationing President in Crawford, Texas -- Hurricanes Cindy and Katrina. Cindy Sheehan tore away the bloodless look of casualty-lessness in Iraq (where body counts, body bags, and the return of the dead to these shores was being hidden away from both cameras and attention). She gave a mother's face to a son's death and to a nation's increasing frustration.

Katrina revealed to many Americans that the Bush administration had been creating Iraq-like conditions in the "homeland." And that was more or less that.

The President's approval rating plunged under 40% and has (a few momentary blips aside) bounced around between there and the low 30s ever since. By election 2006, presidential "capital" was a concept long consigned to the dustbin of history.

Imagine where that "capital" will be by 2008. Our President has been wedded to his war of choice in a way unimaginable since Lyndon Baines Johnson quit the presidential race after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Based on what's happened so far, there's every reason to believe that, in 2008, he will still be wedded to it (as would potential Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain) and his approval ratings may be bouncing in the 20%-30% range by then.

So what part of the 2001 dream team and its "vision" of the world are we left with? To answer this, you first have to realize that yesterday's electoral "wave" of repudiation is hardly an American phenomenon. It's global and, if anything, we were way late into the water.

All you have to do is look at the latest polling figures (which are but extensions of previous, similar polls) to see that wave in country after country.

The most recent international survey of opinion -- in Britain, Canada, Israel, and Mexico -- found that Bush's America is viewed as "a threat to world peace by its closest neighbors and allies." In Britain, the land of the "special relationship," only Osama bin Laden outranks our President as a global "danger to peace." While he comes in a dozen points behind bin Laden, he does manage to best Kim Jong Il, North Korea's grim leader, as well as those shining stars of the diplomatic firmament, the President of Iran and the leader of Hezbollah. And these are the countries most likely to have positive views of the U.S.

As hectorer-in-chief, George W. Bush has, hands down, used the word "must" more than any combination of presidents in our history. Only recently, he repeatedly told the North Koreans that they must not develop (and then test) nuclear weapons; he told the Iranians that they must halt their nuclear program; and his minions told the Nicaraguans that they must not vote for former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The results: The North Koreans tested a weapon; the Iranians went right on enriching uranium; and the Nicaraguans, poverty-stricken and threatened with nothing short of economic ruin if their democratic vote went into the wrong column, simply ignored him.

In fact, the global part of the election was long over by November 7, 2006. For vast majorities abroad, the vision of the U.S. as an Outlaw Empire is nothing new at all. The wave here has perhaps only begun to rise, but here too those presidential "musts" (along with the President's designation of the Democrats as little short of "enemy noncombatants") have begun to lose their effect. Hence the presidential plebiscite of yesterday.

No matter what else flows from it, the fact that it happened is of real significance. A majority of the American people -- those who voted anyway -- did not ratify Bush's Outlaw Empire. They took a modest step toward sanity. But what will follow?

Here, briefly, are five "benchmark" questions to ask when considering the possibilities of the final two years of the Bush administration's wrecking-ball regime:

Will Iraq Go Away? The political maneuvering in Washington and Baghdad over the chaos in Iraq was only awaiting election results to intensify. Desperate call-ups of more Reserves and National Guards will go out soon. Negotiations with Sunni rebels, coup rumors against the Maliki government, various plans from James Baker's Iraq Study Group and Congressional others will undoubtedly be swirling. Yesterday's plebiscite (and exit polls) held an Iraqi message. It can't simply be ignored. But nothing will matter, when it comes to changing the situation for the better in that country, without a genuine commitment to American withdrawal, which is not likely to be forthcoming from this President and his advisors any time soon. So expect Iraq to remain a horrifying, bloody, devolving fixture of the final two years of the Bush administration. It will not go away. Bush (and Rove) will surely try to enmesh Congressional Democrats in their disaster of a war. Imagine how bad it could be if -- with, potentially, years to go -- the argument over who "lost" Iraq has already begun.

Is an Attack on Iran on the Agenda? Despite all the alarums on the political Internet about a pre-election air assault on Iran, this was never in the cards. Even the hint of an attack on Iranian "nuclear facilities" (which would certainly turn into an attempt to "decapitate" the Iranian regime from the air) would send oil prices soaring. The Republicans were never going to run an election on oil selling at $120-$150 a barrel. This will be no less true of election year 2008. If Iran is to be a target, 2007 will be the year. So watch for the pressures to ratchet up on this one early in the New Year. This is madness, of course. Such an attack would almost certainly throw the Middle East into utter chaos, send oil prices through the roof, possibly wreck the global economy, cause serious damage in Iran, not fell the Iranian government, and put U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq in perilous danger.

Given the administration record, however, all this is practically an argument for launching such an attack. (And don't count on the military to stop it, either. They're unlikely to do so.) Failing empires have certainly been known to lash out or, as neocon writer Robert Kagan put the matter recently in a Washington Post op-ed, "Indeed, the preferred European scenario [of a Democratic Congressional victory] -- 'Bush hobbled' -- is less likely than the alternative: ‘Bush unbound.' Neither the president nor his vice president is running for office in 2008. That is what usually prevents high-stakes foreign policy moves in the last two years of a president's term." So when you think about Iran, think of Bush unbound.

Are the Democrats a Party? If Rovian plans for a Republican Party ensconced in Washington for eons to come now look to be in tatters, the Democrats have retaken the House (and possibly the Senate) largely as the not-GOP Party. The election may leave the Republicans with a dead presidency and a leading candidate for 2008 wedded to possibly the least popular war in our history; the Democrats may arrive victorious but without the genuine desire for a mandate to lead.

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats in recent years were not, in any normal sense, a party at all. They were perhaps a coalition of four or five or six parties (some trailing hordes of pundits and consultants, but without a base). Now, with the recruitment of so many ex-Republicans and conservatives into their House and Senate ranks, they may be a coalition of six or seven parties. Who knows? They have a genuine mandate on Iraq and a mandate on oversight. What they will actually do -- what they are capable of doing (other than the normal money, career, and earmark-trading in Washington) -- remains to be seen. They will be weak, the surroundings fierce and strong.

Will We Be Ruled by the Facts on the Ground? In certain ways, it may hardly matter what happens to which party. By now -- and this perhaps represents another kind of triumph for the Bush administration -- the facts on the ground are so powerful that it would be hard for any party to know where to begin. Will we, for instance, ever be without a second Defense Department, the so-called Department of Homeland Security, now that a burgeoning $59 billion a year private "security" industry with all its interests and its herd of lobbyists in Washington has grown up around it? Not likely in any of our lifetimes.

Will an ascendant Democratic Party dare put on a diet the ravenous Pentagon, which now feeds off two budgets -- its regular, near-half-trillion dollar Defense budget and a regularized series of multibillion dollar "emergency" supplemental appropriations, which are now part of life on the Hill. What this means is that the defense budget is not what we wage our wars on or pay for a variety of black operations (not to speak of earmarks galore) with. Don't bet your bottom dollar that this will get better any time soon either. In fact, I have my doubts that a Democratic Congress with a Democratic president in tow could even do something modestly small like shutting down Guantanamo, no less begin to deal with the empire of bases that undergirds our failing Outlaw Empire abroad. So, from time to time, take your eyes off what passes for politics and check out the facts on the ground. That way you'll have a better sense of where our world is actually heading.

What Will Happen When the Commander-in-Chief Presidency and the Unitary Executive Theory Meets What's Left of the Republic? The answer on this one is relatively uncomplicated and less than three months away from being in our faces; it's the Mother of All Constitutional Crises. But writing that now, and living with the reality then, are two quite different things.

So when the new Congress arrives in January, buckle your seatbelts and wait for the first requests for oversight information from some investigative committee; wait for the first subpoenas to meet Cheney's men in some dark hallway. Wait for this crew to feel the "shackles" and react. Wait for this to hit the courts -- even a Supreme Court that, despite the President's best efforts, is probably still at least one justice short when it comes to unitary-executive-theory supporters. I wouldn't even want to offer a prediction on this one. But a year down the line, anything is possible.

So we've finally had our plebiscite, however covert, on the failing Outlaw Empire of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But what about their autocratic inclinations at home. How will that play out?

Will it be: All hail, Caesar, we who are about to dive back into prime-time programming.

Or will it be: All the political hail is about to pelt our junior caesars as we dive back into prime-time programming?

Stay tuned.

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