Respond to this Article January/February 2004

Tilting at Windmills

High and mighty ... Sex in the city ... Corn syrup...

By Charles Peters


You may have been puzzled when I referred earlier to the "occasional CIA officer" who had the enterprise to break out of the embassy. Weren't all CIA people out there spying on someone? The fact is that usually it's been mostly the NOCs who were "out there." NOC means non-official cover, which in turn means the spies who are really spies, as in Kim, operating without diplomatic immunity, their covers ranging from street-sweeper to businessman. The trouble is that NOCs--Valerie Plame was one--have been a small minority of agency operatives abroad. Most of them work under diplomatic cover and --as this magazine explained long ago ("Murder by the Book," by James Fallows, April 1976)--are absurdly easy for foreign intelligence agencies to spot. Because they become part of the diplomatic community, they and their spouses tend to become preoccupied with the internal affairs of embassy life, including perks, to the detriment of their work outside.

Guerrillas in the missed

Just imagine how eagerly Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld must have anticipated The History Channel's new documentary, "Nazi Guerrillas," which the cable blurb described as "revealing the post-World War II Nazi loyalists who used guerrilla tactics to halt reconstruction." Surely, here would be the proof that they were right when they said that the Germans had terrorized U.S. troops just as the Iraqis are doing today, with the implication that this would not prevent the triumph of democracy in Iraq any more than it had in Germany. Unhappily, their hopes were dashed. The show's first half was about what Nazi guerrillas did while the war was still on. In the post-war period, a few bombs appear to have exploded, but in marked contrast to Iraq, only one U.S. soldier was killed. The documentary's conclusion was that, whatever resistance existed was "quiet," "passive," and mostly designed to keep the allies from finding out who had been a Nazi.

High and mighty

Did you know that in 1970 the United States had the world's lowest rate of traffic fatalities? Guess where we rank now. Eighth. We were still second lowest in 1985. What has been the big change since then? Could it be the SUV?

Green Zone blues

For seven years, I traveled extensively around the Third World visiting Peace Corps programs. One of the most consistent complaints of our volunteers concerned the tendency of other Americans to live together in compounds, isolated from the people of the country in which they were living. Whatever social contact they had with the locals was usually confined to the elite. There were, however, some brave exceptions to this rule, an occasional foreign service officer or CIA agent who would break out of the compound. Alas, even those exceptions do not seem to be present in Baghdad, where Americans are confined to a "Green Zone," four square miles surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire.

Those who are supposed to work among the Iraqis or who simply want to find out what's going on out there face a daunting prospect: "Forms must be filled out explaining the reason for the outing, requesting transportation and a protective detail," reports The Washington Post's Ariana Eunjung Cha. Inside the barricade is a Little America, with Monday Night Football, hamburgers, pizza, swimming pools, a new gym, and joggers running down the streets. And at Little America's heart, incongruously, is Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, with its "marble hallways and velvet chaises."

To put it gently, the zone is not conducive to getting to know the average Iraqi, much less win his heart and mind. "The Americans are behind the walls in the palace. They have difficulty knowing what's going on. I call it the Green Area Syndrome," one AID contractor told the Post. "You want to feel like you're of the people, but when you are here, there are rules and you can't go out and you can't talk to them. You are isolated," added an interpreter.

The decline of public television

What has happened to educational television? Three of the 10 most popular shows on PBS last year were from Suze Orman's "How to Get Rich" series. Then on Sunday Dec. 7, both the Maryland and Washington, D.C., public television stations featured "The Brain Beauty Connection," described as "Nicholas Perricone offers advice on skin problems, including acne, wrinkles and sagging skin." What comes next? No doubt a foot surgeon will advise ladies on how to shape their feet to fit fashionable footwear.

Custom-made boat

Two years ago, Congress gave the Washington area $324 million for an anti-terrorism project. Three Washington Post reporters looked into how it had been spent:

"The district funded a popular jobs program, outfitted police with leather jackets, and assessed environmental problems on property primed for redevelopment. In Virginia, a small volunteer fire department spent $350,000 on a custom-made fire boat. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments used some of the money for janitorial service. In Maryland, the money is buying Prince George's County prosecutors an office security system." It's those Prince George's County prosecutors that you know are the terrorists' prime targets.

This kind of article is done far too infrequently. Too often the press--and therefore the ordinary citizen--accepts the passage of a bill which purports to solve a problem as actually solving it. That is very often far from what actually happens. That's why I call the passage of the bill "make-believe." What counts is how it is implemented.

Lemon squeezer

Another example of the kind of "what happens after the bill passed" reporting that I admire comes from the Charleston Gazette, which has looked at what happened to a program to provide cars to people trying to get off welfare and go to work. The purpose is laudable. Practically every study of welfare recipients has shown that lack of transportation is a serious obstacle to their getting and holding jobs.

In West Virginia, the reporters found that the program is working just as intended for some people, but they also found that quite a few of "the state's poorest citizens received cars with seat belts that didn't latch, mufflers that dropped off, and steering wheels that fell into their laps ... Agency officials set up deals with used car dealers who sold, repaired, and towed the same cars, giving them an incentive to sell lemons." The lemons would have to be towed, giving them that profit in addition to the one on the sale. And then its repairs would produce still more profit. One dealer made nearly $1 million from the program.

Sex in the city "You have absolutely no educational background in semiconductors, do you?"
"That's correct," was the reply.

Neil, whom you may recall for his front-man involvement with the notorious Silverado Savings & Loan, was asked whether he knew that the numerous Asian women who were offering him sex were prostitutes. He replied that he did not, that they had not asked for money.

"You have to admit that its pretty remarkable for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with him?"
"It was very unusual," Bush replied.

Monday, bloody Monday

American bombs killed nine children in an Afghan village which we bombed because a single suspected terrorist was reported to be there. The New York Times ran this story on page 1, on the same day, Dec. 8, that The Washington Post put it on page 16. It seems to me that the Times was right, and the Post wrong. The story is a perfect illustration of the tragedy that results from using overkill in the pursuit of bad guys, a problem that we now see on a much wider scale in Iraq.

One wonders if the Post made this mistake, as it had made similar errors of news judgment on a good many Monday mornings, because the Monday paper is put out by the skeletal second team which works on weekends. Or was it downplayed because the editor making the decision was a member of the Post's hawkish faction? One can't help noticing that some days the Post seems to be out to expose the errors of Bush's foreign policy. But on other days, front-page stories and op-ed pieces seem to have been dictated by Paul Wolfowitz.

Discharged linguists

But I should credit the Post for recently putting on its front page the story, reported here several months ago, of how the Pentagon stupidly discharged fluent Arabic speakers simply because they were gay, even though they were desperately needed by our forces in Iraq. The Post's Anne Hull found Kathleen Glover working in Washington for a swimming-pool maintenance company, "skimming leaves and testing chlorine levels." She had been trained in Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Calif., but she was, like 37 other linguists, discharged for homosexuality.

Bad bills

My friend the columnist Matthew Miller condemns the Democrats who voted against the prescription drug bill but opposed the filibuster which could have defeated it--Joe Biden, Jon Corzine, Tom Daschle, Mark Dayton, Tim Johnson, Herb Kohl, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, and Harry Reid. Such votes do seem inconsistent, but there's some very good guys in that group and I have some sympathy for their position. It was a bad bill. But refusing to let it become law would have kept the Congress from declaring that prescription drugs should be part of Medicare. That is, in itself, an historic step.

As a former legislator, I understand the desirability of getting laws that take such steps on the books. You can then fight to fix their imperfections. As a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, I co-sponsored with Sen. Paul Kaufman a bill establishing the state's Human Rights Commission. As the bill passed, the commission was toothless. But it did assume for the state a responsibility for the human rights of its citizens. That crucial first step was taken. Teeth were added later, and I understand that the commission has since done considerable good.

The prescription drug bill may yet turn out like the human rights bill--if the Democrats campaign to correct what is wrong with it. They have a powerful case that, in my opinion, will win them lots of votes. The same principle applies to what I think should be the other main concerns of the campaign--education and terrorism. Just as on prescription drugs, the Republicans have taken actions that sound good but really aren't. The Democrats can make hay by clearly pointing out what's wrong with the GOP policies and saying what they would do instead.

Wise words

Moshe Yaalon recently told journalists that, in the words of The Washington Post's Molly Moore, "Israel's military tactics against the Palestinian population were too repressive and were fomenting explosive levels of 'hatred and terrorism' ... Crackdowns, curfews, and roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were crippling the lives of innocent Palestinians, and that the military's tactics were now threatening Israel's own interests."

How were Israel's interests being hurt? By "increasing hatred for Israel and strengthening terrorist organizations." Wise words to which I hope Israeli hawks and their American counterparts will attend. They just might, because Moshe Yaalon is not some gutless dove. He's a general and the chief of staff of Israel's armed forces.

President pothole

Although I like all of them better than Bush, I still haven't made up my mind about which Democratic candidate to support. Gephardt strikes me as the nicest guy, the one I'd most like to have as a friend, but he's far too much of an old liberal. Joe Lieberman is the second nicest guy, and I love his sense of humor, but he's sounding more and more like Zell Miller. I admire Kerry for his service in Vietnam, the bravery he demonstrated while there, and his fight to end the war when he came home. Unfortunately, he totally lacks Gephardt's human appeal. Howard Dean has been great on the war in Iraq. He's too arrogant, but he's my first choice as of now. John Edwards is my friend Walter Shapiro's dark horse, and mine too, despite his dismaying lack of government experience. Wesley Clark would be my bet to win if he didn't keep interrupting impressive appearances with odd statements, as when he was explaining how he mastered domestic issues while he was commanding an Army base:
"I owned every pothole. I made sure they had the right kind of underwear in the commissary."

Turkey day

The administration continues its mad rush to strip consumers of the slim protections left after three years of Bush. The latest example is, appropriately enough, turkeys. In 2002, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture identified which turkey producers had failed salmonella tests. For example, nearly half the turkeys at ConAgra's Longmont, Colo., plant tested positive.

So as Thanksgiving 2003 approached, consumer advocates asked the department for the results of the latest testing. But according to The Washington Post's Cindy Skrzycki, no answers came. Why so? Because they had decided to stop testing, which prompted one consumer advocate to ask, "Who is the turkey at USDA that stopped testing turkeys?"

Getting on the bus

Partly because I was fascinated by trains as a child and, more rationally, because, for many years, trains were obviously environmentally preferable to buses, I have long had a pro-rail, anti-bus bias. Now, however, we have buses running on natural gas, and metropolitan areas that have sprawled in a way that often makes rail an impractical solution. It's time to abandon my prejudice. Buses are a lot cheaper. They can also serve a variety of routes that do not attract enough riders to fill a train but would fill a bus.

Loser identity

In West Virginia, nearly half of the homicides are committed by a spouse or by a domestic partner. About 80 percent of the fatalities in these cases involve guns.

These facts make a compelling argument for gun control. Few politicians present this case. Looking at what happened to Al Gore, they don't want the same thing to happen to them. Their fear is far from groundless; an amazing half of all the state's households have guns.

"Many West Virginians own guns because they grew up with them," explains the Charleston Daily Mail, to which I'm indebted for the foregoing facts. "And in a state where law enforcement can take a long time to arrive, people are accustomed to keeping the means to mount an effective self-defense."

If you've ever flown over West Virginia, you must have noticed how the state is divided by mountains and hills into a series of valleys, the narrowest of which are called hollows. If you live at one end and the sheriff is at another, your 911 call is not going to be answered quickly. Another factor not mentioned by the Daily Mail is that West Virginians love to hunt. I remember how eagerly my father looked forward to joining his brothers each fall to hunt quail in their native Monroe County. (A travel tip--the view from the top of Oak Hill Cemetery outside the county seat, Union, is one of the loveliest you'll ever see.)

The point is, though there are many arguments that make those who resist gun control seem stupid, and even immoral, the fact is that in a state like West Virginia, gun ownership is a custom so thoroughly grounded in tradition that it is not likely to be uprooted soon.

As I was working on this item, I glanced up and saw one of those bulletins running across the bottom of the CNN news that runs every half hour. It said "Democrat Gavin Newsom elected SF Mayor: favors abortion, gun control and gay marriage." I agree with Howard Dean that this is not the party identity that is going to spell victory next November.

Home shopping

My wife and I have lived in the same house for 42 years. When my mother died a few years ago, she had lived in hers for 55. But the average American homeowner buys a new house every six years, according to a recent article by Motoko Rich in The New York Times. Less than 10 percent have lived in the same house for more than 30 years. Indeed, a stunning 20 percent report having just moved into their homes within the last 15 months. It looks as if buying a house has become as casual as buying a car. When people go off to grandma's for Thanksgiving, they'd better call to find out the address.

Material issue

The second smart step to take in the war against terrorism, after going into Afghanistan to overthrow Osama bin Laden's Taliban protectors and disrupt al Qaeda, was not to invade Iraq, which didn't have weapons of mass destruction, but to secure the dangerous weapons that did exist and which the terrorists might acquire. But as Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator who has led the world effort to meet this problem, tells Reuters, "the war in Iraq had distracted the United States and diverted resources from securing unconventional weapons materials in regions like the former Soviet Union."

Most of the material is in the former Soviet Union. But the danger is considerably wider. For example, there are some 100 poorly protected research reactors spread around the world in some 40 countries, "containing ... usable uranium." Add to this Reuters report this news from The Washington Post: "There have been dozens of cases of trafficking in radiological materials over the past three years, along with what some weapons experts describe as a disturbing new trend…a surge of interest among criminal groups.... Gangs have stalked and stolen radiological devices to sell for profit or to use in crimes ranging from extortion to murder."

Cruise control

Why haven't conservatives endorsed gay marriage? It would seem to be an answer to the reckless promiscuity that, especially among males, is the most serious moral problem of the gay community and, when the sex is unprotected--as it increasingly is among young men--all too likely to spread AIDS, which is exactly what is happening right now. HIV infection, which had been declining in the 1990s, rose 17 percent among men having sex with other men between 1999 and 2002, according to a recent survey reported by Anahad O'Connor in The New York Times.

I'm therefore delighted to report that at least one conservative, David Brooks, supports gay marriage. "The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments, it is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage."

Secretive police

Franz Kafka would love this one. The U.S. Park Police Chief, Teresa Chambers, recently told reporters that she needs reinforcements. Her forces are being stretched too thin by their new responsibilities to provide security for conspicuous terrorist targets like the Washington Monument. Instead of getting more money, however, she anticipates a $12 million budget shortfall this year. Sounds to me like she has reasonable concerns. But Dan Murphy, the Bush administration's deputy chief of Park Service, has removed Chambers from her job and placed her on administrative leave, saying that she had violated rules against lobbying and commenting on pending budget matters.

When reporters asked the Park Service for copies of the rules Chambers is supposed to have broken, a spokesman said: "We're not willing to discuss this." The Park Service has also refused to tell Chambers's lawyer what rules she broke or how she broke them.

The old gang back in Prague couldn't have handled it better.

Corn syrup

I've been a fan of Jim Lehrer for years. I like Margaret Warner, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez, and the rest of the gang. I do, however, have a beef. It is their failure to take on ethanol, the fuel made from corn. Recently in a segment about the pending energy bill, there was not even a hint that there might be something wrong with the bill's enormous subsidy for ethanol. Indeed, the program treated the preservation of that subsidy as a justification for the grant of immunity to the notorious MTBE, a fuel additive which, in the words of The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray, has "an unfortunate tendency to leech into the groundwater," posing a threat to public health.

Ethanol is a major product of Archer Daniels Midland, a principal sponsor of Lehrer's show. It seems to me that fact should have been noted in the energy segment, as should the fact that ethanol is a net energy loser, requiring more energy to make than it provides, and that most energy experts think neither it nor MTBE is now needed.

The Importance of Being Curious

Reporters covering Howard Dean have noticed that he never asks them questions. Paul Krugman thinks this betrays their self-importance, which is certainly a possibility. My worry, however, is that it reflects a lack of curiousity on Dean's part. Great presidents are insatiably curious. FDR was always asking questions. And think of Jack Kennedy dealing with his greatest challenge, the Cuban missile crisis, constantly probing his colleagues for information and advice. Also, it helps to like reporters, as Kennedy and FDR did, enough to take an interest in them and what they think. This affection tends to be returned, resulting in more sympathetic coverage.

Gandhi the capitulator

I understand why conservatives get mad when they see war protesters attacking the United States but not Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. I also get upset when the protesters suggest that war is wrong, period. I think we were right in going after Osama when the Taliban refused to surrender him after 9/11. Sometimes war is necessary. The clearest example is the war against Hitler. I'm now doing research on that period for a book on Wendell Wilkie, and came across a story from the June 23, 1940, New York Herald Tribune. France had just surrendered, leaving Britain to stand alone against Hitler. The story quoted Mohandas K. Gandhi as praising the French for what they had done. "I think French officials showed great courage...the greater bravery of suing for peace." He believed that the occupation of France would give Hitler "not the pleasure of having an empire, but the burden of sustaining its crushing weight." In the long run, he might have been right, but in the short term, millions of Jews, among many others, lost their lives.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government.

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