1. wastefully or recklessly extravagant: prodigal expenditure.
2. giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually fol. by of or with): prodigal of smiles; prodigal with money.
3. lavishly abundant; profuse: nature’s prodigal resources.
4. (noun) a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance; spendthrift.
Maybe the end of the year has me feeling reflective but I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the general shape of the Bush presidency instead of current events (except: Thank God for Dodd). The magnitude of his failure will probably become more generally accepted over time but even now there is enough evidence to get a clear view of just how bad he’s been. One way to look at it is though the prism of profligacy: In many different ways he inherited abundance and used it completely up.
The easiest to measure and most obvious is the federal budget. In 2000 the U.S. had a budget surplus of 236 billion dollars. It turned in to a 157 billion dollar deficit by 2002 and 412 billion by 2004. In other words, over a half trillion dollar reversal in four years. Or let’s look at it another way. If you were given a million dollars every day it would take over 1775 years to hit the 648 billion mark. That’s how big it’s been. Granted President Santa Claus had lots of willing elves in Congress working to wrap up all those presents, the bottom line is he never vetoed a spending bill and never made any attempt to be a responsible steward of the nation’s finances. (By the way, deficits are nothing more than deferred taxes for our children. His mania for not raising them now to pay for his reckless spending will be dimly regarded by those who end up having to cover it.) As the only nationally elected official he could have stood above the wrestling match over who would benefit from all this largesse and enforced a general principle of discipline. Instead he began with wealth and spent it into debt.
After 9/11 the U.S. enjoyed a tremendous outpouring of support. There was an effort shortly after to suggest it was all ephemeral and question its sincerity but I hope by this point most people can agree that we had a spike in good feelings toward us and failed to do anything with it. No, it wasn’t going to remain that high any more than Bush’s approval rating was going to stay at 90%. But there was a chance to translate that good feeling into a long lasting improvement in our image abroad, and such general affection amounts to more than being the global homecoming queen. It makes other nations more willing to work with us on issues of global importance, more willing to believe our stated intentions and makes it easier for us to isolate rogues. Imagine if, after the Taliban fell, Bush announced an Afghanistan Marshall Plan that would focus NATO time, energy and money on rebuilding a country that for a generation had known only war and oppression. What if small-scale investments were seeded throughout the country to start creating a broad base of development, improvement and prosperity? If we had chosen that instead of marching into Iraq the good feelings the neocons sneer at would not have dissipated as they have. He was given good will and turned it into animosity.
Bush has done no favors to his party. For all the talk not too long ago about a permanent Republican majority there has been a remarkably swift fall. Starting with 221 GOP members in the House in 2000, it went to 229 in 2002 and 232 in 2004 before the 2006 defeat brought it down to 202. We’ll see how it goes next November but at the moment the Democrats are in much better shape and stand to gain even more. Going from 221 to 202 is roughly a 10% drop. They could drop another 10% in 2008 and I’d say a loss of 5-10 seats is a pretty safe bet. Under this president the party is no longer identified with fiscal responsibility, rectitude, limited government, prudence or any other traditional conservative values. Instead they are now identified with militarism, authoritarianism, torture, cronyism and incompetence. Barring a surprise from Ron Paul this will be the image of the party (with the 2008 nominee adding intolerance for good measure). In short, Bush will leave office on the heels of a rout largely of his own creation. He inherited a majority and is leading it to the brink of ruin. (Perhaps these realizations are what’s really behind this era of lachrymose pachyderms.)
These are just a few examples. It seems that George W. Bush is wasteful by nature. Whether looking at the economy, the government, Americans’ native optimism, his party or anything else the pattern seems to be the same - what he gets control of, he taxes to exhaustion. His political epitaph deserves to read: Here lies a prodigal man.
Last week it was trouble with Britain, this week it’s Canada:
You get one bite at the asylum apple, the agreement says, because you will get a fair shake in either country. But the deal, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, sets conditions based on the international conventions, and Justice Phelan said the United States had in recent years not lived up to them.
This is who we’re alienating. We have begun to exhaust the patience of longtime friends and allies. This is why “Just wait till 1/20/09” is a bad idea. The Prodigal Man can still do a great deal of damage until then.
Q: What’s the difference between the current and former Attorney General?
A little over two months ago I wrote that we may have been at “the moment newly-emboldened actors began a decisive push against an overreaching executive” (hat tip me) and a couple weeks after that “[o]ne way or another by the end of the year things will look very different” (ibid). I’m glad I hedged my bets on the first one, and my unfavorable scenario for the second seems the likeliest to come to pass. Congress looks like it will continue to be timid on war policy and oversight, and now appears to be complicit in torture.
On war policy, here was David Obey on October 1st:
Obey said more war funding would not be approved unless it is linked to a plan to bring home U.S. combat troops by January 2009.”As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have no intention of reporting out of committee any time in this session of Congress any such (war funding) request that simply serves to continue the status quo,” he said.Now, however, war funding without timelines is fine as long as some additional spending is included. So we’ve gone from no war funding without timelines to some war funding without timelines provided a bargain could be struck. Based on past experience it seems safe to say this is the midpoint to the final destination of war funding without timelines, no bargains. When he first came out with his timelines requirement I was hopeful he’d stick to it even though I wasn’t that familiar with him. Now I am: He is unwilling to stand behind what he says and is an all-too-typical profile in cowardice.
The abdication of responsibility on war policy, as big as it is, is only a part of this Congress’ disgrace. I think if we could only have one statement to sum up this session it would be (hat tip Prairie Weather): “I took no notes; it was five years ago; and this feeble grandma just ain’t that good!” Jane Harman sums up all that is contemptible in the body with that little epigram. Consider the enormity of the betrayal conveyed in those few words. First, she took no notes. Why is that? She was told she couldn’t. She was in that meeting as a member of the Intelligence Subcommittee. Its whole purpose is oversight of intelligence activities. It’s unclear on whose authority note taking was prevented but it’s entirely clear that Harman went along with it. Couldn’t she have whipped out a legal pad and simply asserted that she required notes in order to perform her oversight role? Couldn’t she have made some noise to that effect? Gone public with it if she was refused? What prompted her to be so meek and submissive on such an important issue? What is the point of oversight if those you are charged with overseeing are dictating the terms?
“It was five years ago.” This appears to be part of the emerging attempt to get us to ignore what we’ve done (as in, “second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair”). Crimes are crimes and those who commit them should be liable for punishment as long as the statute of limitations has not expired. Her intent seems to be to excuse her not remembering and to discourage us from wanting to look at it because it was so long ago. That is offensive. We are talking about crimes committed in our name, or to put it more plainly, crimes we committed. That’s you and me, pal. We elected them and they authorized those crimes in our name, so we committed them as much as if we were holding the prisoners down ourselves. If we as a country hope to make any claims of moral or ethical probity we are obligated to confront our crimes no matter how painful and shameful it may be.
“[T]his feeble grandma just ain’t that good.” Nauseating. If she really is nothing more than a weak little old lady she needs to leave Congress immediately. Our representatives MUST be that good, Ms Harman. We depend on you to be that good precisely so we don’t end up in situations like this. We are in the midst of a crisis that you helped midwife. You ran for Congress, got elected and made it on to an influential committee. After all that careful, deliberate, thoughtful action you now claim to be an imbecile. It’s hard to imagine a more insulting statement.
Keep in mind I haven’t covered the impotent Senate Judiciary Committee, the toothless press releases (hat tip Raw Story) that now have a “protest too much” subtext or any other of a number of other failures. Not too long ago I thought the problem was an authoritarian executive. It’s much bigger than that. It’s time for us to mentally write off an entire generation of leadership.
A bit hat tip to Prairie Weather for the post “Torture, brutalities, and secretive, illegal trials conducted by CIA and US military commanders continue”. The NY Times and Washington Post stories cited are perfectly reasonable examples of what we can expect from a secretive and authoritarian executive. We shouldn’t even pretend to be outraged by such conduct by now inasmuch as it’s the logical outcome from that situation. An instructor of mine once said “nothing happens to us that we do not create, promote or allow.” This is now ours.
The phrase “Verschärfte Vernehmung” is German for “enhanced interrogation” and we convicted Nazis at Nuremburg for using it. The same phrase is used to describe the torture we’ve engaged in and allow to continue, and by the way while we’re going through these semantic exercises and trying to break through the President’s stonewalling there are flesh and blood people whose lives are wasting away. Even if they are guilty of every crime cooked up in the fevered dreams of our leaders we should consider it beneath us to leave them in limbo. Of course as digby notes there’s a reason for that: “The only solution they can think of is to just keep them locked up forever, like monsters they created in some scientific experiments gone wrong.” Um, and by the way the rest of the world notices too.
Finally, an idle question: Anyone hear from David Obey lately?
According to Wikipedia the State Secrets Privilege (SSP) is “an evidentiary rule - e.g., doctor-patient, lawyer-client or priest-penitent privilege - created by United States legal precedent. The court is asked to exclude evidence from a legal case based solely on an affidavit submitted by the government stating court proceedings might disclose sensitive information which might endanger national security.” It also says its origin is based in English common law. In theory it sounds like a great idea. In practice it hasn’t worked out so well. Kevin Poulsen put it best when he wrote that cases where it’s been invoked seem “a pantheon of injustice”. There are lots of scattered cases of it through the last thirty years or so but under George W Bush we’ve had a quick succession of them to give us the chance to focus on it.
The first argument against it is that it isn’t even a law. In an example of judicial activism the usual suspects don’t get too excited about, the Supreme Court decreed it into existence in U.S. v Reynolds. It’s a judicial precedent based on custom, and if you really want to be a strict constructionist you should consider the ruling an outrageous infringement on the legislature’s prerogatives. If state secrets are so urgent and precious, let the House and the Senate pass a law concerning them and have the President sign it. What is so provocative about that? As it stands I think the courts have latitude to interpret the law and respect traditions and precedents (though not be bound by them). There are, however, a lot of people who start hyperventilating when the court does something interpreted as legislating from the bench. Those folks should be expected to oppose the SSP on fundamental belief.
I believe there’s a much more compelling argument against it, and that is the importance of transparency. We ought to believe that government is obligated to disclose what it is up to. In fact, we ought to be substantially biased in favor of it. Looking at Poulsen’s examples gives you all the idea you need about what happens when government is allowed to claim national security in order to prevent disclosure: It uses the claim to cover up embarrassing or incriminating details. In none of the examples is there an actual national interest at stake. We should proceed on the assumption that that is always the case and dispose of the whole thing. In the extremely rare cases where national security is at stake there will probably be other, more compelling issues that would allow the protection of the secrets. And in the positively microscopic percentage of cases where even that wasn’t true let me give you an analogy.
I’m in the jury box and Jack Bauer is in the dock. He Ramboed his way into Pakistan and caught Osama. Took him alive not dead because he’s a professional and wouldn’t even take bin Laden’s life needlessly. On the way back to the plane his captive let slip that he knew about a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan that would explode shortly. Jack tortures the answer out of him, notifies the government, experts are rushed to the scene, the bomb is defused and the day is saved. But torture is illegal because of those darn civil liberties types and now he has to stand trial. Know what? I vote him not guilty. I suspect every jury you could convene in this country would do so as well.
The SSP is the same in that the reasons given for it are as exceedingly rare as the “ticking time bomb” scenario used to justify torture. The problem is that as with torture the SSP will inevitably be abused once it is legal, and as with torture we should consider that price unacceptably high. It is a privilege that prevents us from knowing what our government is doing, and that veil of secrecy is a very appealing tool for cover-ups in the best of circumstances. In a time where the President has an authoritarian streak it will (big hat tip Marcy Wheeler) be invoked with alarming frequency.
The point is this: You state the principle and you live by it. And when the nearly unique exceptions pop up you trust that a well-informed citizenry will understand and make allowances as needed. We have almost no secrets that require an SSP. Overturn it. We’ll be sensible about it if someone asserts it in a true national security emergency.