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December 26, 2008

How Much Is There Beyond Our Differences?

This week, the JOURNAL presented BEYOND OUR DIFFERENCES, a film that explores the commonalities that unify mankind's religious and spiritual traditions, focusing on the universal threads of hope for positive change and healing throughout the world’s cultures.

We invite you to discuss in the space below.

December 19, 2008

Guest Blogger: Sarah Chayes on Negotiating with the Taliban

(Photo by Robin Holland)

There was one issue Bill and I did not have time to address in our interview today: the notion of negotiating with the Taliban.

It has been startling to witness the parade of international policy-makers, not to mention members of the Afghan government, now opining that way out of that country's gut-wrenching situation is to cut a deal with those who are victimizing its population. For, make no mistake, no matter how this prospect may be packaged, "reconciliation" with Taliban, at the level at which exploration is now underway, will involve some kind of power-sharing.

The proponents of this approach rest their case on a couple of fallacies. One is that "no insurgency has ever been defeated without negotiation" -- one of those assertions that takes on the force of truth by dint of repetition. It ignores all the diversity in texture and outcomes of insurrections down the years. Not to mention the question of whether what is happening in Afghanistan can really be called an insurgency.

This is not just a matter of semantics. The second fallacy, which I have heard perpetuated even by some Kabul-based Afghans, is that the Pashtuns in the Afghan south generally favor the Taliban. I live in Kandahar, the former heartland of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. I have lived there since the week he was chased out. I can attest that the support for the Karzai regime and its international backers at that time, and for the next several years, was unanimous. Kandaharis suffered the worst punishment at the hands of the draconian Taliban regime, and were delighted by its demise, and filled with hope for the new chapter in their nation's history that opened in December 2001.

Two things have happened since then. One is that the Pakistani military intelligence agency has been diligently reconstituting the Taliban which it first created in 1994. The injection of this newly reconstituted Taliban back into Afghanistan represents something closer to an invasion by proxy than it does an insurgency. And secondly, Afghans, including Pashtuns in the south, have been bitterly disappointed by the behavior of the Karzai government. The word "corruption" does not do justice to the scale of the phenomenon.

It is the people's objection to their treatment at the hands of government officials that explains the headway the Taliban "invasion" has made. In some cases, Afghans are making a calculated judgment: the Taliban are threatening all those who collaborate with the Afghan government, and the Afghan government is abusing the people. So why take the risk that allegiance to Kabul entails? In other cases, the Taliban are actually providing services in a more respectful and equitable fashion than the government. In other cases, people are turning to the Taliban simply out of a sense of outrage, as a kind of protest vote. None of these adds up to a groundswell of ideological support for the Taliban movement or an active desire for its return to power. More like acts of desperation by a population that has no means of recourse.

We, the international community -- led by the United States -- have never called to account any of the Afghan officials we ushered into power back in 2001, and have backed with our money, our weaponry, and our moral support, ever since.

Sarah Chayes poses the following questions. What do you think?

  • Why, after seven years of effort, are we thinking about inflicting the Taliban, again, on the long-suffering Afghan people? Why does that seem like a solution to this problem?
  • Why is it so hard to imagine that Afghans, like most of us, wish to be governed by a respectful, educated cadre of people who are open to suggestions and to whom ordinary people have access for the redress of grievances?
  • Why has it come as such a surprise that when we empowered known and previously repudiated criminals, providing them an unfettered and unchallenged grip on power and public resources, Afghans became disaffected? Why is that disaffection seen as a sign of the Afghans' inveterate tribalism and resistance to government of any kind, rather than as a sign of their attachment to basic democratic principles?

  • Changing U.S. Policy for Afghanistan?

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with former NPR journalist Sarah Chayes, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for seven years, about her experiences and thoughts on what course the United States should pursue there.

    Expanding on her WASHINGTON POST guest column that criticized the "appalling behavior" of U.S.-backed officials who are often drawn from repressive pre-Taliban regimes, Chayes said:

    “What we've really done is set up a monopoly on the exercise of power. It's the opposite of everything that we consider to be democracy -- we've allowed an abusive concentration of power in the hands of the executives, in particular, on a local level like the provincial governors and their acolytes. Because we've convinced ourselves and often we have to -- and by "we" I mean us and our NATO allies -- convince our own public opinion that this is a democratically elected representative government of Afghanistan in order to justify the sacrifices in money and troops and things like that. But the Afghans see it differently... They are all telling me, 'You brought these people back into Afghanistan. We had repudiated them in the early 1990s.. You brought them in and now you're backing them up, and you are making it impossible for us to make our voices heard and have any leverage on the behavior of these people.'”

    American troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for more than seven years since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. In an appeal to rethink U.S. policies there, journalist Eric Margolis suggested that Afghan history and culture undermine prospects of military victory and successful nation-building:

    “Everything that happens in Afghanistan is based on tribal politics. Taliban came from the heart of the Pashtun tribal grouping, the world's largest tribe which also accounts for up to 20% of Pakistan's population. Tribal and clan loyalties trump all political alliances... Today, U.S. and NATO forces are not fighting 'terrorists' in Afghanistan but a loose alliance of Pashtun warrior tribes whose resistance to foreign occupation is legendary. They are descendants of the same Pashtun mountain warriors who battled Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. All these invaders were eventually defeated... In Afghanistan, we are not fighting "terrorists" but a medieval tribal people who just want to be left alone.”

    What do you think?

  • Can the United States and NATO change Afghanistan for the better? Why or why not?
  • Given Afghan history and culture, do you think a functioning modern government is possible there? Why? If not, what should be the goals of the next administration?

  • Should Governments Raise Taxes During a Recession?

    In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with New York Governor David Paterson (D) about his efforts to balance his state’s budget amidst the economic crisis. The governor’s plan, which requires legislative approval, proposes dozens of new fees and tax increases on such goods as digital entertainment and sugary soft drinks, while cutting spending on education and social services.

    Paterson said:

    “Obviously there aren't many places for governors and legislators to go. You're gonna have to cut healthcare and education because they comprise huge amounts of state budgets. There is a lot of pain in the downturn of this economy, and I think 2009 will be the year that people feel the pain... I'm thinking that the sooner we respond to this crisis, the stronger and faster that we'll emerge from it and that perhaps we can learn a lesson about budget priorities in that we as governments have made the same mistake that consumers have made running up $950 billion in credit card debt... We were seduced by this societal doctrine that you can just keep borrowing and pushing problems off to the future. The future has now stared us right in the face and we're in economic peril.”

    Some voices have come out against Paterson’s taxing and spending proposals, arguing that raising the costs of living and business are counterproductive in times of economic hardship. Elizabeth Benjamin of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS quoted comments from New York Conservative Party chairman Mike Long:

    "Long noted that Paterson's budget actually increases spending slightly, which the chairman finds 'unacceptable' and proof that the governor, while he talks tough about taxes, is in fact 'conflicted' by his 'big nanny-state government beliefs.'

    'Spending must be cut, every bit of waste must be eliminated, every program that can be consolidated should be, every available option to reduce the tax burden must be made before any tax is raised,' Long said... 'The new taxes you propose will only drive more businesses and people out of New York. Every leading economist knows you cannot tax your way out of a recession and with your new tax proposals, you are proving that "people start thinking of ways to spend money."'"

    What do you think?

  • Should government raise taxes during a recession? Why or why not?
  • Are you in a state with severe budget woes? How are your elected officials proposing to cope with the economic downturn?

  • Ask the Reporters: EXPOSÉ on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL

    This week, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL collaborated with EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS to follow the story of a journalist, Eric Nalder from the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, as he reported on a whistleblower's account of abuse of military housing contracts.

    We thank Eric Nalder of the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER for taking time to answer your questions, which you can post below. We will post his response in a few weeks.

    Michael Winship: Corruption Destroys Afghanistan

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Corruption Destroys Afghanistan
    By Michael Winship

    Just when you’ve finally gotten your mind around the enormous $700 billion financial bailout – even if none of us are really sure where all that money’s going – there comes an even greater, breathtaking price tag.

    The amount is $904 billion -- that’s how much we’ve spent on American military operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, since the 9/11 attacks; 50 percent more than what was spent in Vietnam, reports the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. Their study does not include the inestimable toll in human life.

    Of that money, nearly 200 billion has gone to Afghanistan, where 31,000 American troops are nearly 60 percent of the NATO peacekeeping force. When he becomes President, as promised during his campaign, Barack Obama will oversee the deployment of at least another 20,000 troops there.

    This has been the deadliest year for American forces in Afghanistan since the war began. Our military faces a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, better trained, better armed, supported from sanctuaries in Pakistan. But in an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s WASHINGTON POST, Sarah Chayes – the former National Public Radio reporter who has lived in Kandahar province since shortly after 9/11 – argued that America’s and Afghanistan’s biggest problem comes from within – our continuing support of a corrupt and abusive Afghan government that’s driving its people back into the arms of the fundamentalists.

    Chayes, who organized a co-op of Afghan men and women making skin care products from herbs and botanicals as an alternative to the opium poppy trade, wrote, “I hear from Westerners that corruption is intrinsic to Afghan culture, that we should not hold Afghans up to our standards. I hear that Afghanistan is a tribal place, that it has never been, and can't be, governed. But that's not what I hear from Afghans.”

    Chayes followed up that article with an interview conducted by my colleague Bill Moyers on the latest edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on PBS. She told him that the United States and its NATO allies have had to convince themselves and public opinion in each of their countries that “this is a democratically elected representative government [in] Afghanistan in order to justify the sacrifices in money and troops. But the Afghans see it differently.”

    What they see instead, she said, is a restoration to power under President Hamid Karzai of the gunslinging, crooked warlords who were repudiated when the Taliban first started taking over vast parts of the country a few years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The “appalling behavior” of officials in the current government, including rampant bribery, extortion and violence, is a serious factor in the Taliban resurgence – it’s estimated that they now have a “permanent presence” in 72 percent of the country, according to one think tank, the International Council on Security and Development.

    Chayes said, “There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government.”
    An Afghan woman in her cooperative compared it to "a man trying to stand on two watermelons. The Taliban shake us down at night, and the government shakes us down in the daytime."

    The Taliban are aided and abetted by Pakistan, Chayes continued: “It has been obvious to me that the Pakistani military intelligence agency [ISI] has been basically creating, orchestrating this so-called Taliban resurgence since the end of 2001. So why are we paying Pakistan $1 billion a year?

    “… We need to realign our policy… What you have in Pakistan is a fledgling civilian government that's kind of fighting for its life. And it's not in a position to be able to challenge this military intelligence agency very powerfully. We need to get with that government and figure out and scheme with it how do we reign in this state within the state that is the military intelligence agency, which has been manipulating and instrumentalizing religious extremism for the past 20, 30 years… in a very myopic way, to forward its regional agenda both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan?”

    Additional American troops are important now, Chayes said, and suggested that NATO allies who face opposition at home to sending additional combat forces could instead send a corps of experienced officials – from retired mayors to agriculture experts – who could rigorously mentor Afghan public officials and potentially reform their ways. Reconstructing infrastructure is important, she said, “But you don’t get infrastructure if you’re passing it through corrupt channels.”

    So if nothing changes, Bill Moyers asked, should American men and women continue to give their lives in support of a government overrun by Afghanistan’s criminal class? Chayes rephrased the question: “If we are not willing to even begin to challenge President Karzai… then why are we sending people to die?”

    In his tour of Iraq and Afghanistan this past week, President Bush told Karzai that he could count on us no matter who’s in the White House: “It’s in our interest that Afghanistan’s democracy flourish.”

    To which Sarah Chayes’ friends in Kandahar would reply, “What democracy?”

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    December 17, 2008

    EXPOSÉ: Michael Riley Answers Viewer Questions on Reservation Justice

    We thank reporter Michael Riley of the DENVER POST for taking time to answer questions about the controversial justice system on Indian reservations across America.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Riley are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


    Question: I was aware of the complicated judicial system enforced in the Native American reservations, but I was appalled to find out the statistics that involve so many unsolved crimes and lack of any accountability by the US Attorneys and the FBI. Has there been any improvement since the exposure of the DENVER POST investigation and how can we help to raise more awareness to the public?

    -- Sara Pollock

    Answer: Thanks for the question, Sara. As far as I can tell, there has been little improvement in the situation since the publication of the series -- in part because the Department of Justice doesn't acknowledge even now that a problem exists. There was a recent experiment on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota that did show some results, however.

    The Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented what they called a "surge" -- significantly increasing the number of police officers on that reservation in an effort to dampen rising crime. The surge was designed to be temporary, but did show some success (after an initial increase, arrests suddenly dropped). It shows that more resources can make a difference. But those resources will have to be sustained over time -- and that will cost a significant amount of money.

    Question: What didn't necessarily come through is what the possible solutions to this problem are, so I would like the reporters to comment- Do they feel that we should subject sovereign nations to the same laws and systems of the rest of the country? Or, should we try to compel the U.S. Attorneys, FBI and DOJ to do a better job at enforcing the law in Indian Country?

    -- David Armstrong

    Answer: Thanks for the question, Mr. Armstrong. The question of solutions is a complicated one and I'd suggest reading the fourth part in the DENVER POST series, which you can find on-line and which tries to get at the question in detail. One of the things that the series finds is that this problem has been hiding in plain sight for decades, and that successive administrations have tried and failed to address it in any comprehensive way - partly because the political will simply hasn't been there.

    But yes, the possible solutions break down broadly in two ways. You could push for more aggressive investigation and prosecution of Indian country crimes by the federal government - in other words, keep the current legal framework but find ways to make it function better. Or you could give tribal nations more power (and presumably more resources) to investigate and prosecute serious crimes themselves - especially the authority to sentence those convicted of serious crimes to more than a year in tribal jail.

    Each is harder than it might sound. Improving the federal record of investigating and prosecuting Indian Country crime would likely require substantial new resources for a Department that is already juggling many priorities, including organized crime, terrorism investigations, big drug cases, among others. As the series points out, it would also require creating a culture in the Justice Department that validates those prosecutions and investigations in a way that doesn't occur now.

    On the other hand, giving Indian nations power to prosecute felonies would also require a big infusion of money and training (many tribal judges and prosecutors don't have law degrees, for example); tribal justice systems would all have to meet basic requirements for protection of the accused that aren't always in place now (many tribal justice systems don't provide indigent accused with defense lawyers); and their verdicts would presumably have to be appealable to federal court, something not all tribes would agree to.

    Since the series was published, Sen. Byron Dorgan, chair of the Committee on Indian
    Affairs, has introduced comprehensive legislation in the Senate that tries to combine the two approaches. It would expand tribal authority to sentence offenders to up to three years in prison. It would also push the Justice Department to more aggressively pursue Indian Country crime, in part by requiring the publication of crime and prosecution statistics - something that doesn't regularly occur now and which might pressure FBI investigators and US Attorneys to take a more results-oriented approach to reservation crime.

    But that said, the bill hasn't yet made it out of committee. And past experience suggests that it is likely to face substantial obstacles during the legislative process (lawmakers historically have been skeptical of giving tribes more power to prosecute felonies, for example, in part because constituents in border towns don't like the idea that they can be tried in tribal courts for serious crimes, even if those crimes are committed on reservations).

    Question: A landmark report! As you wrote the series and talked to various people, what thoughts do you have for a proposed solution and are there groups moving on those

    -- Barbara Webber

    Answer: Thanks for the question, Barbara. Just building on what I said above, the Dorgan bill -- called the Tribal Law and Order Act -- is one attempt at a comprehensive solution that has a lot of innovative ideas in it. The problem is that similar efforts have been tried before, both by Congress and by successive presidential administrations. The politics are tricky. Communities near reservations often oppose giving tribal courts more power, and they can carry a lot of weight with their lawmakers. The tribes themselves aren't always willing to do things that would be necessary to strengthen tribal courts, including allowing tribal verdicts to be reviewed by federal courts and updating tribal codes to conform with things that some lawmakers will see as necessary if those courts are given more authority - training requirements for lawyers and judges, free defense attorneys for defendants who can't afford them, etc. And then there is the question of who pays for it all. Stronger tribal courts would also require new prisons - existing ones are already overburdened and that's when tribes can only sentence prisoners to a year. Tribes generally want the federal government to pay for updated prisons and more training. Lawmakers would like tribes -- especially those with healthy budget balances due to gaming or minerals -- to pay for part as well.

    Outside of Congress, the group most active on the issue is the National Congress of American Indians, which represents hundreds of tribes and their interests in the Capitol. They have worked closely with lawmakers for years to craft various solutions and have had important input on the Dorgan bill.

    It's that legislation that will test whether Congress sees this as a priority issue and can overcome the complicated politics involved. Unfortunately, history doesn't provide a lot of evidence for optimism.

    Question: I have worked as a Registered Nurse for several years on the Navajo Nation and have seen first hand the abuse and lack of prosecution of the offenders. I know of a MD who had to personally go to the State Attorney General to even get an investigation of a repeated rapist. I too would like to know, what do you see as a solution? What can/should a non Native living there be doing? Thank you for bringing this to the public.

    -- Don Cusick

    Answer: Thanks for the question, Don, and for personalizing the problem a little more through your own experience. I hope the answer to the previous question addresses the issue of potential solutions. You do raise an interesting question about what non Natives living on or near reservations can do. Certainly pressing the FBI and the local U.S. Attorney's office to be responsive to Indian Country crime might help. Bringing examples like the one you mentioned to the attention of the press and public is one way to hold authorities accountable. That should be part of a larger effort to educate the public about this problem and potential solutions. There is often resistance in communities bordering reservations to give tribes more authority to prosecute felony crime. Certainly, those courts must meet standards for the protection of the rights of the accused. But prejudice and misunderstanding can also play a role in that resistance and education always helps.

    Question: Has anyone in Congress seriously taken up the mantle to get jurisdiction handed back to the tribes and teeth put into the punishments they can assign? And whose head needs to roll in the FBI for this serious mismanagement of their mandate?

    -- Lin Neiswender

    Answer: Thanks, Lin. Heads have not rolled at either the FBI or the level of the DoJ leadership in general over this issue. Officially, the Department of Justice simply doesn't see the problem and has made that case in public forums several times since the series has been published. If there is no problem, no one needs to be held accountable, right? Obviously many other people disagree, including important lawmakers. And as I said in previous answers, there is now an important effort to give tribes more power to prosecute felony crime on Indian lands, although it would still be much more limited than the power enjoyed by state or federal courts. The Dorgan bill is a compromise, and we'll just have to see whether even that compromise can succeed.

    December 12, 2008

    Wartime Presidents and the Rule of Law

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with political commentator Glenn Greenwald about the Bush administration’s assertion of expanded presidential powers and the prospect that Barack Obama may renounce them in favor of a traditional American vision of the rule of law.

    Glenn Greenwald said:

    “What we have in the last eight years is not merely a case of individual and isolated law breaking. It’s a declaration of war on the whole idea of law itself, on the idea that our political leaders are constrained in any way by the limitations of the American people imposed through our Congress... The last two years running for President, [Obama] renounced the core theories of the Bush administration that vested the President with the powers we’ve been describing and vowed that he would renounce them almost immediately upon taking office... I think he needs to say that he doesn’t intend to view himself as being above the rule of law, that he intends to be faithful to the vision and design of the founders that the President, like everybody else, is subject to the rule of law and to the laws that the American people enact through their representatives in Congress.”

    Political science professor Jean Edward Smith of Marshall University suggested that the Bush administration’s actions are part of a historical continuum including numerous previous presidents in times of war:

    “'The Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime President,' wrote Francis Biddle, F.D.R.'s attorney general during World War II... National survival or, perhaps more accurately, the President's perception of national survival always takes precedence. George W. Bush has been no exception... Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and in several states he ordered the trial of civilians by military tribunals... [Woodrow] Wilson requested that Congress give the president absolute authority to censor the press in the event of war, to make it a federal crime to promote the success of America's enemies and to close the mail to any material deemed 'of a treasonable or anarchistic character'... The 1942 relocation of Japanese-Americans from their homes on the West Coast was, in [Franklin] Roosevelt's view, simply another act of wartime necessity dictated by the risk to America's defenses.”

    What do you think?

  • Do you expect Barack Obama to renounce or dial back the executive powers that the Bush administration asserted? Why or why not?

  • Is it appropriate for Presidents during wartime to disregard the Constitution in the name of national security? Why or why not?

  • An Act of Civil Disobedience amidst the Economic Crisis

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week's JOURNAL reported on the laid-off Chicago workers who successfully occupied their shuttered former workplace, Republic Windows & Doors, for several days to procure money and benefits.

    Bank of America had eliminated Republic's credit line because the company was unable to operate profitably in the current economic climate. In the face of political and public pressure following broad media coverage of the workers' sit-in, Bank of America restored Republic's credit to cover the severance and benefits to which the workers are legally entitled.

    Bill Moyers talked with legal and economic scholar Emma Coleman Jordan about the federal government's bailout efforts and asked her about the workers' actions in Chicago. Jordan said:

    "It is an opportunity that these workers took to stand up directly, and it's interesting because they targeted not just their employer, Republic Windows & Doors, but they targeted Bank of America. If you saw those signs, they explicitly understood the connection between finance and the closing of the plant. Bank of America -- $25 billion [recipient from the federal government] Bank of America -- cuts off the line of credit to Republic Windows & Doors... And the workers simply said, 'This is not fair. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.' And they took direct action. I think that's a healthy thing for our democracy."

    Some critics have suggested that Bank of America acted irresponsibly to extend credit to a failing business that will not be able to repay the loan. Andy Busch of BMO Capital Markets wrote:

    "This is the path the United States is heading towards as the recession takes its toll and government reaches further and further into the private sector to stabilize the economy. Initially, the moves are welcomed as workers are looked after, jobs are created, and big business vilified. However, the government forcing banks to make loans to companies that can't make the payments perpetuates the weak credit problem and keeps the cycle going. This cycle deploys capital to non-productive uses and keeps it from flowing to solid companies that can create new jobs."

    What do you think?

  • Was the Republic Windows & Doors workers' civil disobedience an appropriate reaction to their situation? Why or why not?
  • Did Bank of America make the right decision to restore the credit line? Is it sustainable to continue doing so with other failing companies in the future?
  • Are there limitations of using civil disobedience to work toward a better society?

  • Michael Winship: Bush's Farewell Hallelujah Chorus

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Bush's Farewell Hallelujah Chorus
    By Michael Winship

    With all the interviews President Bush has been giving out lately, you’d think he has a new movie coming out for Christmas.

    ABC, NBC, NATIONAL REVIEW, MIDDLE EAST BROADCASTING, the Real Clear Politics website – even a talk with the WASHINGTON POST’s NASCAR expert. For a fellow who’s sometimes gone for months without a press conference, suddenly, the President’s a regular chatterbox, spreading the word in these final days that his eight years in office really, really weren’t all that bad. Honest.

    Regrets, he’s had a few. But only a few. Or so he told ABC’s Charlie Gibson: “I think I was unprepared for war… In other words, I didn’t anticipate war. Presidents – one of the things about the modern presidency is that the unexpected will happen.”

    But of course he anticipated the war. He and Cheney and the neo-con biker gang had been gunning for an invasion of Iraq long before 9/11. Not that Gibson followed up and asked about that.

    This is a President, you’ll recall, who once said he couldn’t think of any mistakes he’s made. Instead, he regrets what he sees as the blunders of the intelligence community, not himself. “The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq,” he said to Gibson. “A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is [sic] a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess."

    Truth is, as far as intelligence goes, the President heard what people thought he wanted to hear, shaped it to his purpose, turned his agents loose to scatter rumors and hearsay on the Sunday talk shows, and bullied a frightened Congress into compliance. He stirred up fears of smoking guns and mushroom clouds where there were none.

    Nor was he ready to take the rap for the financial meltdown, even though he said he was sorry people were losing their jobs and savings. As he explained to ABC’s Gibson, “You know, I'm the President during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived in President, during I arrived in President."

    Odd syntax aside, point taken. Many of the seeds of economic woe were planted by lax oversight and deregulation during Bill Clinton’s watch (and Ronald Reagan’s and that of the President’s father). But whatever happened to, “The buck stops here?”

    This legacy tour – few dare call it victory loop – is all part of a strategy, the WASHINGTON POST reported, devised two months ago at a meeting in the White House, when White House counselor Ed Gillespie “began meeting with agency heads as part of an effort aimed at compiling the major accomplishments of the Bush administration.”

    The LOS ANGELES TIMES got hold of two pages of positive talking points that have been sent out to officials so they can be included in speeches and interviews. According to the Times, the memo states that the President “‘kept the American people safe’ after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lifted the economy after 2001 through tax cuts, curbed AIDS in Africa and maintained ‘the honor and the dignity of his office.’”

    Would that the mainstream media would open up the questioning to the rest of us. For one, Mr. President, did you value abject loyalty over know-how and wisdom? MOTHER JONES magazine reports that recently Republican Senator George Voinovich asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for questions to ask Barack Obama’s political nominees. He got back more than he bargained for – a 150-page list of issues left undealt with during the Bush years.

    Among the revelations within the GAO’s report, according to the magazine’s Jonathan Stein, “The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture have no plan to work together in the event of a food-borne disease outbreak or terrorist attack. The Department of Defense's security clearance process takes so long it jeopardizes classified information. The EPA's chemical risk assessment program is improperly influenced by private industry…

    “Problems like the politicization of the Justice Department are not mentioned. But this report serves as a peephole into the myriad internal problems of the executive branch, depicting a federal bureaucracy that is rife with mismanagement, inefficiency, and faulty communication practices--all of this combining to jeopardize both the nation's health and security.”

    No one has asked George Bush about this. Instead, the reporters granted the President’s valedictory interviews have asked perfunctory softball questions about Iraq and the economy, then segued to inquiries about domestic life in the White House and what he’ll do in Texas after January 20.

    For one, the man who NEWSWEEK once said was too busy making history to read it, is going to write some – he told NATIONAL REVIEW’s Byron York and Rich Lowry that his interview with them was “jumping jacks for my own book that I’m going to be writing.”

    Will it answer any of the tough questions? Perhaps. But almost certainly not the biggest one, from which he will divert, splintering off into a thousand digressions and self-deprecating anecdotes: Why?

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    Guest Blogger: Allen Johnson on Bush's Environmental Policies

    Allen Johnson is coordinator for Christians for the Mountains, an advocacy group that organizes Christians to protect the environment. The organization, which was featured in the 2006 MOYERS ON AMERICA documentary IS GOD GREEN?, has a special focus on the region of southern Appalachia. We'd like to thank Allen Johnson, who previously wrote an update about mountaintop mining, for sharing his thoughts on the Bush administration's recent changes to the nation's environmental regulations.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Allen Johnson are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    A failed Bush administration is firing final salvos from its sinking ship in the form of administrative rules changes, “a thank you” to 8 years of special interest support. One particularly odious ruling revises a Clean Water Act prohibition of mine waste fill within 100 feet of a stream. Not that the prohibition had been enforced. Flagrant violations have buried many hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams in a coal mine extraction process called “Valley Fill.” Simply put, valleys make convenient places to dump waste rock separated from mined coal. But at least the prohibition on stream burial had given environmental groups legitimate ground for lawsuit. Bush’s farewell fiat knocks the legs out of these legal recourses.

    Governors from the coal states of Kentucky and Tennessee pleaded against the ruling. To no avail. Nor did the Bush administration consult the incoming Obama administration…of course not. Rather to time the rule change to hamstring the incoming president. And such rules once in place can take years to undo.

    This is “spitting in the eyes” of the voters. Such dictatorial rulings by an outgoing president, especially in light of impending environmental policy shift, subverts our representative democracy. The election is over. Bush has a few months to clear out while Obama gets on board. The electorate has spoken. Voters want the new guy making decisions for the future.

    Which means the Bush administration has hijacked the aspirations of the rising generation. In fact, until this week Bush was seeking to relax pollution controls on power plants, precipitating a howl of protest including the ire of 6 Northeastern governors.

    As a Christian active in advocacy for God’s earth and justice for its inhabitants, certain theological ramifications rise to my mind.

  • Several hundred years of Hebrew political history is recorded in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. The writers remark upon the death of each king whether he “did what is right in the sight of The Lord” or “did evil in the sight of The Lord.” Leadership in regards to idolatry was the major indictment, with oppression and injustice also in the mix. What are the idols of our age, and what are the responses of our leaders in commerce, government, and religion in response to these idols?

  • Jesus emphatically stated that one cannot serve both God and Mammon (money), but will love one and hate the other (Matthew 6:24). Which one of these “masters” is being served in the rules revision of the Clean Water Act?

  • The Bible speaks of intergenerational covenant (Hebrew berith) in that God commits to preserve the earth for all future generations of humans and other living creatures (Genesis 9:8-17). How do the Bush regulatory revisions align with God’s covenantal promise for future generations?

  • Inasmuch as a tipping point for Bush’s own election success was his preponderance of Christian votes, how do Christians square their faith with Bush’s closing actions?

  • December 5, 2008

    Bill Moyers Asks: What's Your Take on What's Wrong with the American Political System Right Now?

    Talking with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) on this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked the following question:

    "There is a profound sense in this country that something truly dysfunctional has gone wrong with our system. It ain't working. And they don't hear anybody really addressing the deeper symptoms of that, and it's not working for regular people anymore. What's your take on what's wrong with the American political system right now?"

    (For Senator Feingold's reply, click here.)

    What do you think? Do you think it can be fixed and, if so, how?

    Guest Blogger: Mark Johnson on PLAYING FOR CHANGE

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    We'd like to thank Mark Johnson, creator/director of PLAYING FOR CHANGE: PEACE THROUGH MUSIC, for sharing some additional thoughts with THE MOYERS BLOG. We invite you to respond below.

    (Please note: Playingforchange.com -- which requires the Flash player -- does offer free audio of the many of the songs from the film, and projects that DVDs and CDs will be available in early 2009.)

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Mark Johnson are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.
    PLAYING FOR CHANGE is a movement uniting people all over the world through music and inspiration. It all began about seven years ago as my producing partner, Whitney Kroenke Burditt, and I assembled a group of like-minded people with cameras and a mobile recording studio. We embarked on a journey across the globe in search of music and human connections.

    We started the journey with the idea that with an open mind and positive intentions we can find ways of uniting people as the human race. Music has always been the universal language and we followed its path from city streets to Native Indian reservations, African villages and the Himalayan Mountains. I could never have imagined that we would discover a world with so much love, hope and inspiration. In a world with so much focus on our differences I am proud to have discovered that people everywhere believe in creating a better world together.

    Throughout our travels we created songs around the world such as “Stand By Me” and “One Love.” These songs and videos offer musicians who have never met in person the ability to collaborate and unite through the power of music. We also interviewed all of the musicians and learned stories of how music has helped to persevere through struggles all over the world. These collections of songs and interviews serve as a reminder of the power of the human spirit as well as a means of further illustrating our global collective conscience. We live in a world with way too many starving children and way too many warring nations. As a human race we come together for birth, and we come together for death, what brings us together in between is up to us. Stop and listen to the universal language of music and bring that positive energy with you everywhere we go.

    The vision of PLAYING FOR CHANGE extends far beyond just music and film. We have established the Playing For Change Foundation to build music and art schools for kids around the world. We have recently returned from Gugulethu, South Africa where we constructed the first Playing For Change Music School. We plan to build many more schools, each equipped with cameras and a recording studio so supporters all over the world can watch recitals and performances in the schools we are building together. We can use these schools as sources of inspiration and a means of breaking down negative stereotypes among people everywhere. In the words of one of the artists featured in PLAYING FOR CHANGE, Vusi Mahlasela, “The world is immigrating into a global village, the question is how much do you want to belong.” Learn more about PLAYING FOR CHANGE, and together we can accomplish much more than we ever can apart.

    Michael Winship: Obama's Familiar Orbit

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Obama's Familiar Orbit
    By Michael Winship

    I keep thinking about that tool bag. You know – the one that the astronaut accidentally let loose while she was repairing the International Space Station last month. Now it’s in orbit, more than 200 miles above the Earth. There’s even a Web site where you can track its exact location, if that’s your idea of a good time. NASA figures the 30-pound bag of equipment will burn up harmlessly as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere sometime next June.

    For now, it’s up there, floating silently and uselessly, which, if you think of government as a sort of national toolkit for protecting and improving the lives of its citizens, could be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the last eight years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing done – except with the kind of blunt hammers that see everything as a nail and cause more harm than good.

    It’s probably not for nothing that both NEWSWEEK and TIME had the word “fix” on their covers this week. We’re in need of major repairs in this country, at every level. That celestial tool bag orbiting above our heads might have come in handy. Its contents include two grease guns, a scraper and a trash bag – all things that could be useful for an incoming president seeking big changes in Washington.

    But, I hear you asking, where is the change? Despite all the campaign rhetoric, so far, President-Elect Obama’s announced appointments haven’t exactly rattled the cages of the Beltway establishment; no one has emerged from the left, for example, who would give DC politicos a good, healthy case of the vapors.

    It’s consensus building, say his supporters; he’s putting together a team of people with experience and know-how who can insure continuity and stability in a time of crisis. This is a process of synthesis -- the new ideas will come from him. Obama’s a smart guy, they say. Not to worry -- he’s got this covered.

    As he himself said at his December 1 press conference, “I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.”

    Maybe that’s so, and it would be unfair to judge a presidency that doesn’t even officially begin for another seven weeks. We all wish Barack Obama godspeed and good luck. But you’ll forgive me for being a little nervous. You can call his appointments a “team of rivals,” if you like – that currently in vogue, nostalgic reference to Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln manning his cabinet with those who ran against him for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- but in truth, it seems more like a team of the same old, same old.

    To work toward solving our economic crisis Obama has brought in many of the same old Clinton hands who helped us into this mess via deregulation and the wink of a blind eye to the big financial institutions – the same ones that have either sunk beneath the waves or that we’re bailing out now.

    The Bush administration made the economic disaster worse, but both Barack Obama’s designated Secretary of the Treasury – Tim Geithner – and his choice to direct the National Economic Council, Larry Summers (a former Treasury secretary), are pals of Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who left Treasury to join Citigroup, where he’s now a director and senior advisor. Yes, folks, Citigroup – the bank the government now has agreed to insure against projected losses of $306 billion – on top of bailouts totaling $45 billion.

    Same old, same old in national security and foreign policy, too -- Bob Gates, Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement, stays on at the Defense Department for at least for a year; General James Jones, seasoned military man and friend of John McCain’s becomes national security advisor. And, of course, there’s Senator Hillary Clinton, the next Secretary of State. At Monday’s press conference, President-Elect Obama was asked pointedly about their past differences:

    PETER BAKER, NEW YORK TIMES: … Going back to the campaign, you were asked and talked about the qualifications of the -- your now -- your nominee for secretary of State, and you belittled her travels around the world, equating it to having teas with foreign leaders; and your new White House counsel said that her resume was grossly exaggerated when it came to foreign policy. I'm wondering whether you could talk about the evolution of your views of her credentials since the spring.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Look, I'm in -- I think this is fun for the press, to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign.

    BAKER: Your quotes, sir.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: No, I understand. And I'm -- and you're having fun. (Laughs.)

    BAKER: I'm asking a question.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: But the -- and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not -- I'm not faulting it. But look, I think if you look at the statements that Hillary Clinton and I have made outside of the -- the heat of a campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure and in order to do that we have to combine military power with strengthened diplomacy.

    So let me get this straight – we weren’t supposed to take seriously anything that was said during “the heat of a campaign?” Doesn’t that invalidate the time and effort we spent evaluating the differences between the candidates before we cast our votes? I’m just asking.

    Equally disconcerting are the paeans of praise for the appointments coming from those who so bitterly opposed Obama’s election just a month ago. “Reassuring,” said Karl Rove. Karl Rove! “The new administration is off to a good start” – so sayeth Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “This will be a valedictocracy,” conservative David Brooks gushed in THE NEW YORK TIMES. “Rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes.”

    O brave new world, that hath such people in it. Maybe it’s true, as Republican campaign consultant Mark McKinnon wrote Monday, that, “The political classes have briefly sobered up and decided to act responsibly, selflessly and -- dare we say it -- in the best interest of the country. The times are simply so serious, so dangerous, so calamitous that we can’t afford politics as usual.”

    I truly hope so, but a healthy dose of skepticism dictates that I'll believe it when I see it. Look out for tool bags, falling from the sky. And possibly a flying pig or two.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

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