The Better Rhetor

Saturday, February 01, 2003
He Gassed His Own People
(And Other Forms of Proof)

Stephen C. Pelletiere, writing in yesterday’s New York Times (yes, you must register) writes that the familiar and emotive charge that Saddam Hussein "gassed his own people" may be complicated by the actual facts of the case.

Pelletiere, who was a CIA senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, claims that the Kurdish people killed by gas at Halabja were not targeted by Saddam but were caught in a crossfire between the Iraqi and Iranian sides, and that it was likely the Iranian cyanide gas that killed them. (He also suggests that the struggle for Iraq is not about oil but about water, specifically the Iraqi river system of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Greater Zab and Lesser Zab. The Tigris and the Euphrates, Pelletiere writes, could someday the source of a "Peace Pipeline" that could eventually bring water to Israel. No blood for water?)

While the information on how the Kurdish villagers died is likely little consolation to their families, it does have implications for the U.S. rationale for war.

From the beginning, George Bush’s appeals for war have fallen heavily on the side of pathos rather than logos, have relied more on emotion than on logical and factual evidence.

The State of the Union address was the most recent example. We got horrific stories of torture and rape, but little in the way of verifiable proof. We were asked to imagine doomsday scenarios such as hijackers with chemical and nuclear weapons, but were given scant evidence that such people had gotten these weapons, or were getting these weapons, or, most relevant, were getting these weapons from Iraq. From a rhetorical perspective, the president’s argument depended not on objective proof but on scaring the shit out of people.

The other constant in Bush’s rhetoric of invasion has been the absolute evil of Saddam Hussein. (Let me say, as virtually everyone else has said when commenting on these questions, I too think Saddam is a monstrosity, and I would like to see him gone. The question is how best to do this). In making his case, Bush has frequently invoked the "evil" of Saddam and has repeatedly spoken of Saddam "gassing of his own people." The latter charge is meant to bring all fair-minded people to the conclusion that anyone who would perpetrate so grotesque an act deserves whatever he’s got coming to him, including a shower of cruise missiles. "Gassing his own people" has become for Bush what Richard Weaver called an Ultimate Term, or a kind of absolute that trumps all further discussion and argument. He "gassed his own people!" What else do you need to know? Let’s get the bastard!

Well, I guess we need to know if the bastard did, in fact, gas his own people. If he did, then we need to weigh that along with the other arguments for or against invading Iraq. And if he didn’t, then we also need to weigh that among the available evidence.

What we don’t need, however, is the president of the United States repeating a charge that may not, in fact, be true. So is it true? Did Saddam Hussein gas his own people? Stephen C. Pelletiere says no. I have no idea. But I sure would like more discussion of this.

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Of good writing and thoughtful commentary, make Blue Streak a daily visit. We like the taste in music, videos, and books. Heck, we like it all.

If You Want the Weekly Lowdown. . .

Go to The Weekly Lowdown. Sharp, funny, and challenging, although we disagree mightily with the favorable reviews of a few wacko right-wing pundits. But, hey, it's supposed to be a big tent, isn't it?

Friday, January 31, 2003
Some of Us Really Have to Stay On Our Medication

Peggy Noonan, apparently watching the State of the Union while listening to Ride of the Valkyries and knocking back a few quarts of "Point O’Lite":

(Thanks to the inimitable Skimble.)

[...] In the first, domestic part of the [State of the Union] speech he was serious and contained, but in the second part of the speech, on Iraq, there was a shift. His voice seemed lower and there seemed a kind of full head-heart engagement in his grave but optimistic message. For a moment I though[t] of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big "S" on his chest.


I felt at the end of the speech not roused but moved, and it took me a while to figure out why. It was gratitude.


A steady hand on the helm in high seas, a knowledge of where we must go and why, a resolve to achieve safe harbor. More and more this presidency is feeling like a gift.


It’s a gift, all right. Can we return it now?

Cheering Cheney

I don’t want to be too critical of any outfit that gives Paul Krugman a regular microphone, but could the New York Times please not drool quite so much over the carpets when writing about Dick Cheney? How is it "reporting" when your sources are the usual gallery of toadies and lickspittles—Cheney’s underlings, in other words—who can be reliably counted upon to give breathless accounts of the Great Man’s deep cerebral powers and his awe-inspiring powers of, well, whatever. Who's next to be interviewed? His third grade teacher and date for the high school prom? Grill 'em!

Nonetheless, a few gems creep do through:

The vice president has largely disappeared from public view since his high-profile campaign appearances last fall. But he is hardly invisible to the president, the man Mr. Cheney's aides call his only constituent.

Indeed. The American people, the democracy, the greater good and all that need not apply. Will he someday claim he was just following orders?

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman, is the administration's chief schmoozer and enforcer, and often gives counsel on national security. Two months ago, Senators Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, and Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, sought Mr. Cheney's advice about traveling to Baghdad to meet with Mr. Hussein about the fate of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot shot down in the 1991 Persian Gulf war whose remains were never recovered.

"The vice president weighed in and said now was not the time to go," Mr. Roberts said. The senators wrote a letter to Mr. Hussein instead

Nice to know that a Democratic congressional rep raises his hand to get the VP's permission before going to the bathroom in Baghdad. Are you listening, Florida voters?

Friends note that Mr. Cheney, who dislikes the backslapping of the campaign trail, dislikes losing a lot more.

"One of the formative experiences of his life was being chief of staff during the Ford presidency when they lost the White House," said former Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota, now an influential lobbyist, who served with Mr. Cheney in the House. "If you've been through that experience, you don't want to go through it again."

I kind of think it would be good for him, don’t you?

Dick Cheney reminds me of theWizard of Oz, a man hiding himself from the public, pulling levers to retain his own power, and BS-ing anyone who has the temerity to question him—a group that apparently does not include reporters from the New York Times.

For a revealing look at the scam behind the curtain, check out Josh Marshall.

Say My Glory Was I Had Such Friends

From The Liquid List, via Atrios.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, which featured Vice President Cheney as its opening luncheon speaker yesterday, one of the various exhibition booths hawking paraphernalia had some virulently anti-Muslim vinyl bumper stickers, for $3.95, including one that said: "No Muslims -- No Terrorism."

Sources said an attendee at the group's 30th annual conference, at the Crystal City Marriott, called Cheney's office to complain and a Cheney aide called CPAC organizers to express "strong displeasure."

The booth operators removed the anti-Muslim stickers from the rack before Cheney spoke -- though they left up some more tasteful items, such as the stamps that said: "WANTED! Crimes against children," and had a picture of former attorney general Janet Reno, "A.K.A. 'The Butcher of Waco.' " And they left others supporting the Confederate flag and such.

But the offending stickers were not really taken off sale. When a Washington Post reporter asked about the anti-Muslim bumper stickers, a booth attendant smiled and reached behind a sheet, saying conference organizers had ordered her to take them off display.

"Somebody doesn't believe in free speech," she complained, offering them for $2.75 apiece.

The Emperor Has Spoken:
Now Disobey

Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive fearlessly makes the case.

Thursday, January 30, 2003
SOTU Revisited

The Institute for Public Accuracy has put together a point-by-point rebuttal of the State of the Union address, and it ain’t pretty. Activists, scholars, educators, and others respond. Here are a few excerpts:

Bush: To lift the standards of our public schools, we achieved historic education reform which must now be carried out in every school and in every classroom so that every child in American can read and learn and succeed in life.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families: "Bush’s education plan is in jeopardy because of the economic problems nationwide. States and localities are forced to cut education budgets because of their enormous budget deficits."

Leah Wells, peace education coordinator of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation: "The No Child Left Behind Act also deprives students of their right to privacy under section 9528, which mandates that the Local Education Agency release students' contact information for recruitment purposes. This is a dangerous infringement on students' abilities to make informed decisions about their privileged information, and furthermore undermines schools' abilities to be advocates for the students' privacy since the NCLB act also states that federal funds may be denied to schools who refuse to release their students' information."


Bush: My budget will commit an additional $400 billion over the next decade to reform and strengthen Medicare. Leaders of both political parties have talked for years about strengthening Medicare. I urge the members of this new Congress to act this year.

Zuckerman: "Unfortunately, the President’s plan would require the elderly to choose between the current system -- which does not include prescription drugs -- and a new system which would include some prescription drugs but have other, less desirable changes. The speech doesn’t explain what they are, but other information suggests that either the elderly would have to join an HMO to get their care, or would have to pay extra for better medical care."

Bush: We are working closely with other nations to prevent further attacks. America and coalition countries have uncovered and stopped terrorist conspiracies targeting the embassy in Yemen, the American embassy in Singapore, a Saudi military base, ships in the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Gibraltar. We’ve broken Al Qaida cells in Hamburg and Milan and Madrid and London and Paris -- as well as Buffalo, New York.

Richard Couto, professor in the PhD program for leadership and change at AntiochUniversity and author of Making Democracy Work Better, he has recently returned from Iraq with a group of academics: "The president overstates the case of an Al Qaida cell in Lackawanna (near Buffalo). Before the six men have even come to trial, the president has declared their guilt."

Bush: Now, in this century, the ideology of power and domination has appeared again and seeks to gain the ultimate weapons of terror.

Jennings: "The ideology of power and domination has indeed appeared again, this time in Washington. The rich irony of this passage actually surpasses anything Orwell wrote in his novel 1984."

Bush: Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.

Bennoune: "This is certainly true. However, President Bush appears confused about the role of international law and the need for all nations to obey it. Earlier in the speech, he said: ‘The course of this nation (the U.S.) does not depend on the decisions of others.’ Some nations, in his view, seem to have to follow international law, while others seem to have a mandate from the oft-invoked God, and don’t have to follow such mundane rules. This completely undermines the universality of international law, one of its central tenets….

Bush: Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.

Jennings: "One can imagine all kinds of things, from goblins and ghosts to things that go bump in the night. It hardly seems presidential, or even marginally responsible, for a high U.S. public official to engage in this kind of speculation. It apparently is designed to stimulate fear, which will in turn generate support for a war already decided upon."
For the complete text, go here.

Visage of the Chimp

I’ve just discovered The Smirking Chimp, and what a grand discovery it is. I want one of the t-shirts!

(Full disclosure: I discovered the Chimp when they re-posted my piece on the rhetoric of Thomas Friedman. But we would have liked them anyway, of that we are sure.)

Rushing Rush

Rush Limbaugh. What a card. For years he has been peddling lies, smearing adversaries, and indulging in some of the most twisted, hateful rhetoric on your radio dial. Given the degraded state of talk radio, that’s saying something.

Democrats have been afraid to take him on, as they get savaged not only by the apparatchiks of the right, which is to be expected, but also by such pseudo-critics as the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, who actually described Limbaugh as "policy oriented." (That must be what Republicans mean by a "big tent": One large enough to accommodate the dissemblers, the panderers, the malicious and the vicious.)

But the good folks at Take Back The Media have had just about enough, thank you, and have launched a boycott of Limbaugh’s advertisers, hitting where it hurts. The campaign is picking up steam and threatens to dislodge the chortling one from his crooked perch. What a fall that would be.

When a New Planet Swims into His Ken
Better and Best Blogs (con’t)

We at the Better Rhetor are increasingly cheered (and humbled) by the sheer amount of intelligence and good writing to be found in Blogistan. (I didn’t coin that term—who did? Bob Somerby? Can’t recall.) Some of the folks taking our breath away these days are Avedon Carol at The Sideshow, Jeanne d’Arc at Body and Soul, Ampersand at Alas, a Blog, and David Neiwert at Orcinus, whose catalog of "newspeak" we especially like.

I plan to blogroll all, though I don't know when. Promises, promises.

Sunday, January 26, 2003
We Need More Val Harts II:

Portland activist Val Hart redefines the "axis of evil":

For my part, I've been moved to begin defining the "axis of evil" in our own country as (1) greedy capitalists (e.g., CEO's of Enron and Worldcom who took the money and ran); (2) spineless politicians (e.g., all those Senators running for re-election last fall who voted to give President Bush all the authority he feels he needs to make war on Iraq, the sole exception being the late Paul Wellstone); and (3) ineffectual news media.

Works for me. David Frum take note!

We Need More Val Harts

Letter from Portland, Maine activist Val Hart to the Maine Sunday Telegram.


An essential part of the print media's mission is to provide timely and accurate and comprehensive coverage of important breaking news stories. In covering the huge antiwar rally in Washington last weekend, it was apparently Mission : Impossible for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The first clue was where the Telegram chose to place the story. It was subordinate to two other stories on the front page, including one on "Maine Rx case to be argued this week." Issues of war and peace matter less than prescription drug prices?

The second clue was the headline ˆ "30,000 march in Washington against Iraq war." Only later do we find that the 30,000 marchers were actually "part of a much larger crowd that packed the . . . Mall." The Washington Post reported that the crowd numbered somewhere between 30,000 and 500,000, with most estimates in the 100,000 to 200,000 range, and that "regardless of the exact number, the crowd yesterday on the Mall was the largest antiwar demonstration here since the Vietnam era."

Do numbers matter? No, not in an ethical sense. One person screaming in the wilderness can demonstrate more moral strength than a million sitting in silence. But yes, in a political sense. Those bent on making war may listen more closely to 500,000 protesters than to 30,000. And those who didn‚t go to Washington, but wanted to, are more likely to take heart. A functioning democracy depends on good reporting. Press Herald, please give this story the attention it deserves.

Val Hart
Peaks Island, ME

The Most Radical People in America

They work against war in all its pretexts, they organize against the corporate abuse of human beings, they bring the destitute into their homes and feed them, and they would wash the feet of their enemies. They pray a lot. If you are interested in a truly radical response to contemporary American life, visit the Catholic Worker Movement.

You Are Not Alone

Good sites for anti-war activism can be found here, and here, and here. Thanks to Kev Cross.

Freidman II

So in Wednesday’s column, Thomas Friedman lays out what liberals need to think about before saying "no" to war. Conclusion? They should say "yes" to war.

In today’s column, Friedman raises the red flags that conservatives need to acknowledge before they go to war. Conclusion? They should say also "yes" to war—as long as they do so "humbly," with allies, and with a genuine commitment to nation building.

Either way, the answer is war.

Was there an actual question?