Saturday, April 29, 2006

The (inevitable) politicization of "United 93"

United 93, which I saw yesterday, is a chillingly effective film, a real-time, real-world version of the TV show 24, except this time there is no Jack Bauer to take down the terrorists and pilot the plane to safety.

But I haven't reviewed a film since I took a stab at a Sam Peckinpaugh western back in 1973, so I won't start now. Rather, my focus is on the inevitable political debate about the film -- specifically, the attempts by conservatives to employ the film for their own ideological purposes, to use the film as a rhetorical weapon that can be aimed at (a) those who oppose President Bush, (b) those who have soured on the war in Iraq, or (c) liberals, elites, or "the media" in general.

It's probably inevitable that this is already happening, given our polarized climate. And the film itself is ripe for activist exploitation, because it has no political context of its own. It has no "agenda." It is a vivid rendering of what happened, with no speculations about why. As a result, people with an agenda are well positioned to spin the film their way.

Consider these random comments, just over the past few days:

1. A popular conservative website,, believes that United 93 will make it "cool" to like Bush again, because the film will remind people that radical Islam is the enemy and that Bush has been fighting this enemy:
"Admit it, you're scared that the dirty, unwashed masses are going to get brainwashed into restoring a Democrat majority and locking the conservatives in a cellar for fifty years. Scary prospect, I know. But, I'm here to let you know it is totally unfounded....Hating Bush has become mainstream (but) I'm predicting that very soon the backlash will begin. It might be a movie star that starts it...
"There is a rapidly rising tide of anti-'radical Islam' that will soon sweep over mainstream media. People are getting real sick and tired of being told that terrorists are people, too. The movie United 93 is going to set off a fresh new debate about this among the general populace."

2. Commentator Rich Lowry, writing on the conservative National Review website, argues that United 93 is needed right now, as a morale booster: "We could be losing a major battle in the War on Terror in Iraq and seeing a flagging of resolve in the war generally." And he says that those Americans who are too squeamish to see the movie apparently also believe that "it's never too early to be defeated..."

3. Rush Limbaugh says that "liberalville" doesn't want to see this movie because "the left is not through trashing Bush and his culpability and his responsibility for 9/11." Liberals don't want to see the movie, he says, because "the movie doesn't blame Bush. The movie doesn't blame the United States government."

4. Religious right leader Gary Bauer emailed his supporters to say that "America's cultural elites are doing their best to 'pan' the film before the curtain goes up. They would prefer it if you stayed home and watched Brokeback Mountain on DVD instead. Don't listen to them - go and remind yourself of what happened on Sept. 11 and why it matters...At a time when some Washington politicians are still confused about that, this movie is a great reminder."

5. On the redstate website, someone posted a comment warning that "if the left tries to vilify this movie too much, it might bring out the same crowds who flocked to The Passion of the Christ."

6. On the conservative website, one of the commenters says that liberals don 't want people to see the new movie because "liberals are offended by the remembrance of 9/11."

Well, let's quickly unpack some of those remarks. It would seem that the conservatives believe, or want to believe, that there is a burgeoning liberal war being waged against this movie, just like there's a war on Christmas.

Frankly, I don't see it. Bauer talks about "cultural elites" panning the movie, yet I pick up Friday's New York Times, the beating heart of the so-called cultural elite, and I find a rave review of the movie. My own newspaper, in blue-state Philadelphia, just gave the film its highest rating. I also seem to recall that the best book about that flight, Among the Heroes, was written by Jere Longman of the New York Times.
Meanwhile, at last check, I still haven't heard any "Washington politicians" dismissing the importance of 9/11. Although I have read that a North Carolina Republican congressman has been opposing federal funding for a United 93 memorial.

And contrary to Lowry's argument, it somehow seems possible that many Americans are fully capable of seeing this movie, recognizing the lethal threat of terrorism -- yet still believing that Iraq has been the wrong place to fight the war. That would include many of the people who live in Rush's "liberalville." I would bet that some of the people who died on that plane had voted Democratic in previous presidential races.

On precisely this point, today I found a posting from a resident of liberalville. He was airing his views on yet another conservative blog. He wrote:

"My wife and I are going to see United 93. I think it's a 'must see' film....What's puzzling me is why anyone thinks liberals do not or would not admire and respect the passengers and crew for their courage. I'd like to think that many, even most, Americans, in similar circumstances, would at least attempt to re-take control of the plane or would do what they could to stop the terrorists.
"Who are the liberals who ridicule or criticize the people on United 93? Have any of you conservatives found examples? Or are you making a purely ideological argument that goes like this: there are liberals who disagree with either the decision to attack Iraq or the conduct of the war--and such people are (supposedly) logically compelled to mock or despise the heroic actions of the Americans on the plane.
"Speaking for myself, I am both a liberal and an admirer of valor when I see it. To suggest that there is a contradiction here is to commit oneself to a vicious dogmatism that exploits the attack on America for a partisan cheap shot."

The urge to politicize art is strong in our culture today. But an argument can be made that there are times when drama works best in the absence of an imposed agenda, and without interference from those who would seek to claim the work for their cause.

There is a poignant moment in United 93, for example, that should be allowed to stand on its own. As the end draws near on the doomed plane, the film cross cuts between the terrorists and passengers, praying quietly and desperately to their respective Gods. The moment plays as a profoundly human tragedy that traverses all ideological boundaries. Just like the film itself.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The taint on the guru

Don't you love the way scandal-impaired Washingtonians always seem to be exuding such unmitigated joy when they pay a visit to the grand jury? Take Karl Rove, for instance. This week, the architect of President Bush's political career waltzed along to the courthouse door like a guy who was holding box-seat tickets for a big ballgame on the Fourth of July.

Such is the requisite pose for a power guru under constant threat of indictment. We're getting some reports that Rove's legal status will finally be resolved this spring -- he could be charged with perjury in the Valerie Plame leak case, or he could be absolved despite evidence that he did participate in the leak -- but, politically speaking, the damage has already been done. Rove's long battle to elude special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's dragnet has clearly contributed to the Bush administration's widening credibility gap.

In 2003, the story broke that somebody in the White House had leaked Plame's identity as an undercover CIA official, as an act of retaliation against her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. When Rove's name was floated as a possible culprit, the White House quickly dismissed such talk as "totally ridiculous." Press flak Scott McClellan told the press that Rove had personally told him the same thing; as McClellan put it, Rove "didn't condone that kind of activity and was not involved in that kind of activity."
But the cover story blew up when Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper told the grand jury that Rove was involved in that kind of activity. Because he had discussed Plame's CIA status with Cooper, on the phone.

Which brings us to this week's Rove appearance before the grand jury, his fifth.
Maybe he was just helping Fitzgerald tie up a few loose ends, so that the prosecutor could concentrate on Scooter Libby, the ex-vice presidential aide, who faces trial on a perjury charge in the Plame case. But it's quite plausible that Rove could wind up with Libby in the docket as a criminal defendant, because, by all indications, Rove this week was still trying to explain why, during a 2004 grand jury appearance, he had somehow failed to mention his conversation with Cooper.

His lawyer last autumn told Fitzgerald's sleuths that Rove's amnesia was genuine, that his conversation with Cooper had simply slipped his mind. But now the word (from sources in the Rove camp) is that Rove has added a new explanation: it would have been a "suicide mission" to deliberately conceal his chat with Cooper, because he knows that as a rule such information always surfaces in the end.

Will Fitzgerald and the grand jurors buy that defense?

Here's the problem with it: Back in 2003, the general assumption at the White House was that such information would not surface in the end -- because reporters always stay mum and never name their leakers. How do I know this? Because Bush himself said so.
On Oct. 7, 2003, Bush said: "I have no idea whether we'll find out who the (Plame) leaker is -- partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers."

In other words, at the time Rove failed to mention his talk with Cooper, he had no reason to believe that Cooper would give him up. Cooper only did so -- much later, in July 2005 -- because Fitzgerald put the squeeze on him.
And the record shows that Rove began to revise his initial testimony only after it became clear that Fitzgerald was single-mindedly determined to get Cooper's side of the story.

Rove reminds me of a character in Bullitt, the famous Steve McQueen cop movie. Just a little, anyway. Steve is trying to interview a flophouse hotel manager who may know something about a crime that had been committed upstairs, but the manager isn't talking. Finally Steve says he's going to take the manager downtown because he's "not trying hard enough," and suddenly the manager's eyes light up and he says, hey, wait a sec, as a matter of fact, I do remember a few things...And he wriggles off the hook.

Maybe Rove wriggles off the hook; maybe Fitzgerald will conclude that Rove has seen the light. That may not help repair the political damage at the White House, but at least Rove would be freed up to address the GOP's number one priority: figuring out a way to minimize the electoral damage in November.
And who else believes in Bush more than Rove? As Rove said back in 2004, his client is "one of the most educated, thoughtful, brightest presidents we've ever had."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Gaps in the rough draft of history

Today I am pondering the mystery of Tyler Drumheller.
If the name seems unfamiliar, it's because he has been widely ignored over the past week by the news outlets of America. That includes the newspaper which employs me.

First, the ill-reported information:
Drumheller, an ex-spook, is arguably at least as important as the dissenting retired military generals who have been calling for Donald Rumsfeld's scalp. He too is newly retired from his job -- as chief of the CIA's European operation -- and he has gone public (on CBS' Sixty Minutes and on MSNBC's Hardball) with first-hand evidence that the Bush administration hyped the prewar intelligence on WMDs and stonewalled the stuff it didn't like.

Basically, Drumheller helped recruit a high-ranking Iraqi source who had the inside skinny on Saddam Hussein's non-existent stockpile. The source was Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri. As Drumheller told MSNBC the other night, Sadri reported to the CIA -- and the CIA in turn told the White House -- that Hussein had no WMD capability, that "it was nowhere within years of completion, either nuclear or biological."

Drumheller said the White House at first was "enthusiastic" to learn about Sabri's "high-level penetration" of the Hussein regime, but that their enthusiasm waned as soon as they heard what Sabri had to say. This was in September 2002, at a time when President Bush and Vice President Cheney were beginning their series of speeches contending that Hussein had the capability to launch weaponry against the U.S. homeland.

But word got back to Drumheller that the White House was not interested in Sabri's evidence absolving Hussein. As Drumheller told CBS last Sunday, "We said, 'well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'"

Looking back today, Drumheller's conclusion is that "the policy was set. The war in Iraq was coming, and they were looking for intelligence to fit the policy."

Drumheller's credibility is buttressed by the fact that two other key sources also shared his conclusion. Bush's British government allies, writing in what are now known as the Downing Street memos (none of which have been contested by the White House), concluded during the summer of 2002 that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." And another former CIA official, Paul Pillar, wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that "official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions (and) intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made..."

It gets more interesting. Drumheller says he was interviewed three times by the Bush-chartered Silberman-Robb Commission, but his testimony never made it into the final report. Perhaps this is why: I am quoting here from the report itself:
"(H)ow policymakers used the intelligence they were given" was an issue "not within our charter." can reasonably ask: why has the Drumheller story been largely ignored by the press?The New York Times did an advance of the CBS interview last Saturday, with no follow up. No major newspaper early this week ran anything. The Associated Press ran a brief summary on Sunday, but nothing else. The Washington Post hasn't done a piece. My own paper attributes its silence on the story to lack of space.

Dan Froomkin, an online political commentator at the Washington Post, has also tracked the story; when the topic came up yesterday during an online chat with readers, he admitted he was flummoxed by the lack of coverage ("I can't possibly explain why").

Is it because Drumheller (and Sabri) have been discredited? Nope. The White House hasn't attacked them, preferring instead to release only a rote sentence: "The President's convictions about Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD were based on the collective judgement of the intelligence community at that time."

So here's my professional judgement on this: Bush's credibility on Iraq is at such a low ebb (check even the Fox News poll) that it's no longer considered "news" when his WMD stance is publicly contested by credible people who are adding new facts to the historical record. A majority of Americans have already concluded that Bush was selling a bill of goods, so much of the press reaction to Drumheller is basically, "Yeah, tell us something we don't know already."

Well, it was Ben Bradlee, the famed Post editor, who said that journalism was the first rough draft of history. Maybe we'll have to be rescued by the historians.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Democrats get Snowed

Democrats this morning seem to be ecstatic about the transfer of Fox News host Tony Snow to the thankless job of White House press secretary. They have been busy circulating all the embarrassing things that Snow has said lately about President Bush, including his contention last November that Bush has become, well, "something of an embarrassment."

I've been getting peppered with emails on this topic: Snow in various commentaries has indeed called Bush "impotent," "listless," and "guilty" of mishandling Katrina and the Dubai ports deal. Snow once said that Bush talked "like a soul tortured with Tourette’s.” That's just a very small sampling. The Democrats, in other words, are excited at the prospect of watching an outspoken conservative broadcaster morph into a droning flak for the embarrassment-in-chief.

Maybe that will happen, who knows. And maybe Snow won't be able to handle it. There once was a press secretary, Jerry terHorst, who quit the Gerald Ford administration in 1974 because he couldn't square his integrity with the dictates of presidential flackery.

But, after 24 hours of reflection, my contrarian instincts now tell me that the Democrats are actually doing Bush a big favor at the moment.
Playing right into Bush's hands.
Making Bush look good.

Democrats are basically advertising today that Bush is not an insulated bubble boy, after all; that Bush is willing, in fact, to reach out and hire a guy who has repeatedly busted his chops on national radio and TV; that Bush is not terminally addicted to being surrounded by yes men. Those pithy Snow quotes - here's one early list, from a pro-Democratic group - appear to be proof of that.

Moreover, the Democrats, by openly advertising Snow's iconoclasm, have undercut their own longstanding contention that Fox News and all its hirelings are just lickspittles of the administration.

No doubt, if Bush had hired somebody with a track record of mindlessly echoing the Bush line, Democrats would be unified today in saying that Bush remains in a bubble, impervious to outside criticism.

But what we see, instead, are Democrats contradicting each other.

We have one party organ (the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) circulating Snow's anti-Bush remarks, yet we have another party organ (the Democratic National Committee) sticking with the bubble theme and painting Snow as a mouthpiece: "This is an interdepartmental move from one part of the conservative infrastructure to another that allows a darling of the right-wing to deliver the same misleading message, cherry-picked information and spin to the American people."

So it's another Democratic mixed message.
Score that a PR win for the White House.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Short cuts

Since I have been drafted this morning to write a newspaper analysis for tomorrow's paper on the politics of rising gas prices (which is a somewhat phony political issue, as I mentioned here), permit me on the blog today to employ the Walter Winchell method.

Walter Winchell, for those of you too young to remember, was the radio columnist who always began his broadcast by saying "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the ships at sea" -- and then proceeded to opine in quick bursts on a number of developments, and never at length.
(Stanley Tucci played him in an HBO movie, in case you're interested.)

So let's go to the news. Good morning, Blue State and Red State America:

1. I see that John McCain, in his ongoing quest to undercut his straight-shooter credentials as the price for winning the '08 GOP nomination, is now taking money from a pair of Texas brothers who had pumped $2 million into TV ads that had slimed him as a polluter during the 2000 campaign.
Back then, McCain had assailed the pro-Bush Wyly brothers as "coyotes" whose tactics epitomized "everything I have been fighting against." Back then, McCain said on the stump that the Wylys should "keep their dirty money in the state of Texas." But now he's happy to cash it.
McCain is also taking money from two businessmen who in 2004 contributed a total of $1.3 million to the folks who wrote Swift Boat ads attacking McCain's fellow vet John Kerry. Back then, McCain called those ads "dishonest and dishonorable." But today, McCain aide John Weaver says the senator is happy to welcome anybody who wants to advance McCain's "reformist agenda."
The question, of course, is whether there will still be any "reformist agenda" by the time all of McCain's new establishment friends climb aboard.

2. I see that Tony Snow, the Fox News anchor, is reportedly very close to becoming President Bush's new press secretary. A Fox news guy at the Bush podium...there's a stretch. As the jokesters are wondering: Is the White House going to give him back pay?
But seriously folks, David Gergen, a former White House aide who served a range of presidents, tells CNN that a Snow appointment would be good for America:
"Tony Snow does have the leverage that neither of his predecessors would have had. And that is, if he walks out on (the Bush aides) because they're not open enough, it would be hugely devastating to the administration, so, that he, unlike Scott McClellan, can go in and say, 'gentlemen, this isn't good. The press has a legitimate need here. We have got to give it to them.' And they know that the moment he walks out the door and disgusted, if they are really totally closed or they lie or whatever, that is a bleak, bleak day at the White House."

If Snow is in charge next winter during Scooter Libby's trial, that might be the test.

3. Speaking of Bush, a new poll in Connecticut puts his approval rating there at a sub-Nixonian 24 percent. One might assume that this could spell trouble for several GOP congressmen who are seeking re-election in that state. But maybe the Nutmeg mood might be a bigger burden for Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman - staunch defender of the Iraq war, and the 2005 recipient of a televised cheek smooch from the president himself.
Lieberman is being challenged in a primary by a liberal antiwar mogul named Ned Lamont, and he's already being forced to air TV ads for the first time in over a decade("I already know that some of you feel passionately against my position in Iraq. I respect your views, and while we probably won't change each others' minds, I hope we can still have a dialogue and find common ground on all the issues where we do agree,'' he says to the camera.)
Quite a comedown for a guy who fell just a few hanging chads short of being vice president of the United States.

4. I wrote the other day about Democratic congressman Allan Mollohan, and his apparent attempt to singlehandedly undercut his party's "culture of corruption" attack on the GOP. Now I see that today's Wall Street Journal has found a new tidbit:
Last year, Mollohan apparently bought a 300-acre farm, in partnership with the head of a defense firm that had collected a $2.1 million contract -- thanks to a little codicil that Mollohan slipped into a 2005 spending bill.
I think it was the late Spy Magazine that used to call this kind of behavior "Log Rolling in Our Time."

5. I was startled to open my email last night and discover a letter from two congressional leaders assailing "price-fixing, collusion, gouging, and other anti-competitive practices" and calling for a government investigation of the oil companies. It has to be Chuck Schumer, right? Or maybe the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee? Or maybe a grassroots group that was borrowing a phrase from Jimmy Carter's populist outbursts during the late '70s?
Nope. This was House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
It's interesting how election-year panic can make two avowed conservatives sound like liberals.

6. A clever political move by Hillary Clinton. She has requested that the Senate Armed Services Committee provide a forum for all those retired military brass who have been assailing the Iraq war and demanding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. She thinks they should be allowed to "air their views" in a hearing.
As a tactic, it's a potential win-win for Clinton:
If a majority of the committee members agree to invite those guys to a hearing (all 11 Democrats would vote yes, and they'd only need two of the 13 Republicans), then the hearing itself would embarrass the Bush administration. Yet if the committee refuses to hold a hearing, or insists that such a hearing should be closed to the public, either of those scenarios would look like a coverup...and also embarrass the administration.
Either way, she'd be keeping the dissident generals front and center. She herself hasn't even joined their call for Rumsfeld's resignation.

Well, I guess I'm not much good at Winchellesque brevity. But here's one:
More entries later.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Whiffing on the I-word

(NOTE: This was actually posted on Monday afternoon. It was written Sunday night, hence the date in the title.)

I just caught Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel's act on the latest episode of Bill Maher's HBO show, and I have to say, it was quite revealing - not about Emanuel, but about the current state of the Democratic party.

Emanuel, as most of you probably know, is the ex-Clinton aide who now chairs the Democratic campaign to retake the U. S. House in 2006. Maher, as most of you probably know, is the sardonic comedian who continues to demonstrate (along with Jon Stewart) that some of our most incisive political dialogue occurs not on the Sunday morning talk shows, but on their topical entertainment shows.

Anyway, Emanuel showed up to hawk a new book and talk up the Democrats' '06 election prospects, and Maher asked him, "How are the Democrats gonna blow it this time?" Emanuel responded by outlining what he views as his party's five-point blueprint for victory. In other words, an actual issue agenda:

1. "We have to balance the budget and put our fiscal house in order."
2. "Make college education as universal in the 21st century as a high school education was in the 20th century."
3. "If you work, you get health care."
4. "A hybrid-based economy, cut America's dependence on oil in half in 10 years."
5. "Create an institute for science and engineering," to develop jobs.

There you have it. But, to take a guess what issue is kind of important these days, yet is totally AWOL from this list? The issue that the Democrats' liberal base does seem to care a lot about?

I know, that's not a tough one at all:

Somewhat surprisingly, Bill Maher, who is generally a sharp questioner, failed to ask Emanuel about the absence of the I-word. So let's ask the question here: is it plausible that the Democrats can float their own version of a Contract with America, yet fail to state a position on the signature issue of the Bush administration?

This is not new for Emanuel. Last November, when he was asked about Iraq and the '06 election, he stated: "At the right time, we will have a position." So another question might be, "When is the right time, anyway?"

The problem, of course, is that the war divides the House Democrats (some want a withdrawal timetable, others don't), and the party remains petrified that if they assail the war too strongly, Karl Rove (now in charge as chief GOP strategist) will find a way to paint them all as Osama bin Laden's comrades in arms. Hence Emanuel's conspicuous avoidance of the I-word.

It's a political dilemma, however, because success in the '06 election hinges on an outsize turnout, and the liberal Democratic base is generally antiwar, and wants the party to at least engage on the issue.

David Sirota, one of the party's more vocal liberal activists, made the point last autumn, arguing that Democratic caution "has been the downfall of the party in recent years. People go to the polls to vote for political leaders with guts...not connivers, prevaricators, or cowering, weak-kneed wimps who are willing to make public political calculations while Americans die overseas. Until the party shuts up those in its midst who have no moral compass and who are willing to use their prominence to reinforce a soulless image, Democrats will always face a nagging credibility gap with the American people."

The same concerns persist today. The Democratic National Committee has just concluded a spring meeting in New Orleans, and, as this report indicates, the absence of an Iraq message has not gone unnoticed. Chairman Howard Dean gave a speech on Saturday that outlined a rudimentary '06 agenda, a la Emanuel, but again there was nothing substantive about Iraq. It was striking to see a former chairman, Don Fowler, contend that the party can do well in the '06 elections "if we find ourselves a message."
And here it is, late April. I've been hearing that line for over a year.

Perhaps the Democrats can win back a chamber on Capitol Hill by just hewing to the default position; certainly, this report today on GOP gloom, written by a conservative journalist close to Rove, might tempt Democrats to simply play rope-a-dope on Iraq.
But there's a big reason why the congressional Democrats are doing so poorly in the polls (70 percent say the Democrats are doing a fair or poor job), even while an unpopular war is being hung like a millstone around the President's neck. It's because most Americans, including a fair share of diehard Democrats, perceive that the party is still failing to articulate core convictions on the issues that matter most, even during this seemingly fortuitous election season.

And I question whether Emanuel's call for a science institute will send the party's stock soaring.

Blaming the messenger

Those retired military generals who have risen up against the Bush administration (see my newspaper column today) find themselves under fresh attack this afternoon. It's getting nastier.

The brass-knuckled punch comes courtesy of a conservative website, which today is running a cartoon that depicts the dissident generals as puppets of the terrorists, thereby implying that, by speaking out against Donald Rumsfeld's prosecution of the war, they are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. (This charge used to be leveled mostly at liberals and antiwar activists. Now, apparently, it has been extended to include certifiably macho guys who have risked their lives and the lives of their troops on the ground in Iraq.)

The loftier attack today comes from Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, a prominent neoconservative and member of one of the Washington think tanks that prepared the early rationales for going to war in Iraq. He writes on the Wall Street Journal website that military generals, as a group, are prone to "vanity and pique, institutional parochialism and thwarted ambition, limited introspection and all the other foibles of proud men." Having thus sought to dispel any impression that the dissidents might be admirable people, he moves to his core argument:

The dissidents' behavior is "destructive of good order and discipline in the armed forces, and prejudicial to functional civil-military relations...The retired generals have, in effect and perhaps unwittingly, made a case for disloyalty. Indeed, their most troubling belief is that an officer's civilian superiors--and the secretary of defense stands in the chain of command just below the president--do not merit the loyalty that they, as military superiors, would deserve and expect."

And Cohen says that the dissidents have invited these attacks on their motivations and character: "A general is equally a fool if he thinks he can engage in partisan polemic without becoming a political target, with all the miseries for himself, and degradation to his honor and profession, that that entails....Accustom the American people to the public sniping and bickering of generals, and generals will soon find that the respect on which they now count has evaporated."

These kinds of attacks (my story today cites many others) help explain why one of the dissidents, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, seemed a tad defensive this morning on CBS' Face the Nation. It seemed like he spent almost as much time establishing his bona fides to speak out, as he did actually speaking out.

He quickly volunteered that he fought on the ground in Iraq not once, but in two tours of duty. He said that his dad had fought in Korea and Vietnam. He said that his decision to go public against Rumsfeld was "gut-wrenching," and that he couldn't have gone public prior to retirement because he would have had to resign on the spot and thus abandon his troops. He also felt compelled to volunteer that he had no personal agenda, that he's not mad at Rumsfeld for trying to overhaul the Army. (Some attackers have charged that the dissidents are really alarmed at Rumsfeld's "transformation" reforms, not at the war itself.)

My point: If the administration and its supporters can succeed in focusing the discussion on the generals' right to speak out, rather than on the substance of what they are saying, the better it is for Rumsfeld and the President.

But I question whether they will ultimately succeed. The fact is, the dissident generals have surfaced at a time when most Americans are already seriously questioning the war. As retired Lt. Col Andrew Bacevich told me the other day, "Nearly two-thirds of the country already believes that the war is stupid and poorly run. These generals will only confirm and underscore the majority's preexisting viewpoint." (The latest Gallup: 65 percent dislike Bush's handling of the war, and 57 percent say the war was a mistake.)

And, regarding the substance of what Batiste and others are alleging -- that the war effort has been marred by a slew of strategic and tactical errors -- there are plenty of experts out of uniform, experts with strong national security credentials, who are saying the same thing.

I'm not talking here about the Democrats, of course. (They still seem to feel that speaking in unison against either the rationale or execution of the war will cost them votes.) I'm talking, rather, about people like Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon aide, John McCain national security aide, and winner of the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
Cordesman has just written a report, released a few days ago, entitled "American Strategic, Tactical, and Other Mistakes in Iraq: A Litany of Errors." The litany goes on for 10 pages.
It's available as a PDF. I suppose that he too belongs in that aforementioned cartoon.