The angry author, a literary storm and 'one dead armadillo'

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles


After the recent flurry of damning political memoirs, not to mention
Michael Moore’s box-office busting documentaryFahrenheit 9/11, the Bush
administration might feel it has been dumped on quite enough for one
election season.
    But the worst may be yet to come, in the unlikeliest
of forms: a slim volume of fiction from the ordinarily mild-mannered minimalist
Nicholson Baker.
     Mr Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, features two
characters who spend much of its 115 pages discussing how to assassinate
President George Bush. They don’t actually do the deed, or even attempt
it, but the book is – according to early snippets – replete with deep-seated
anger and elegantly nasty epithets hurled at both the President and his
     Mr Baker’s publisher, Alfred Knopf, plans to
release the book on 24 August, on the eve of the Republican National
Convention in New York. To call it a provocation would be an understatement.
The author and publishers have no intention of giving anybody ideas –
to do so would be a criminal offence – but they are certainly playing
very close to the edge in a United States that, in the wake of the 11
September attacks, has shown no compunction about locking people up and
asking questions later, free speech rights be damned.
    There was no immediate official reaction yesterday
after extracts from Checkpoint were published in The Washington Post.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, the uniformed outfit charged with
protecting the President and other officials, told the Post merely that
“without seeing the work, a determination can’t be made at this time”.
    Likewise, it is impossible to tell whether Mr Baker’s
book will become a lightning rod for the competing political passions that
have divided the country, particularly over the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
Unlike Michael Moore, he has never laid claim to a populist mantle or
sought to attract attention to himself through overt rabble-rousing.
    Rather, his invariably short, literary novels – The
Mezzanine, U and I, A Box of Matches – have tended to dwell on such mundane
activities as riding an escalator, tying one’s shoelaces and weeding. Only
Vox (1995) raised any eyebrows because it dealt with the topic of phone
sex. In the pages of The New Yorker and in subsequent published essays,
Mr Baker has also railed against the over-hasty introduction of digital record-keeping
in public libraries and the abandonment of paper – not exactly an issue
to induce the White House security detail to reach for their revolvers.
     Checkpoint, though, is clearly something else.
According to the Post’s account, its two protagonists, Ben and Jay, talk
down and dirty about the Bush administration into a tape recorder during
an in-room lunch at a Washington hotel. Jay announces he’s going to assassinate
the President, and the men proceed to talk about both why and how he might
do such a thing.
     By the sounds of it, the novel is hardly The
Anarchist’s Cookbook – the fanciful methods the two men consider to
take out the most powerful politician on the planet include using radio-controlled
flying saws. Another tactic they discuss is a remote-controlled boulder
made of depleted uranium. Ben asks Jay: “You’re going to squash the President?”
Jay also has a gun and some bullets, but the book
appears to cover its tracks somewhat by having Ben express extreme misgivings
about using them. “If the FBI and the Secret Service … come after me because
I’ve been hanging out with you in a hotel room before you make some crazy
attempt on the life of the President,” Ben says, “I’m totally cooked.”
    More incendiary than Jay’s assassination fantasies,
in the end, may be the deep expressions of anger against the administration
the book dwells on. In that respect it is not unlike Joseph Heller’s 1979
novel Good as Gold, which included an extended rant against Henry Kissinger.
The difference, though, is that Kissinger had been out of power for two
years when Heller’s book was published; Mr Bush is in the middle of a bruising
re-election battle.
    Jay says he hasn’t felt so much hostility against
any other president – not Nixon, not Reagan. Jay says of Mr Bush: “He
is beyond the beyond. What he’s done with this war. The murder of the
innocent. And now the prisons. It’s too much. It makes me so angry. And
it’s a new kind of anger, too.” At one point, he calls Mr Bush an “unelected
[expletive] drunken OILMAN” who is “squatting” in the White House and “muttering
over his prayer book every morning.” At another point, he calls Mr Bush
“one dead armadillo”.

    Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are described as
“rusted hulks” and “zombies” who have “fought their way back up out of
the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling around with
grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going, ‘We – are
– your – advisors.'”
     Jay expresses outrage at the munitions the United
States armed forces have used in Iraq, including an updated version of
napalm. Jay says of the Iraq bomb material: “It’s improved fire jelly –
it’s even harder to put out than the stuff they used in Vietnam. And Korea.
And Germany. And Japan. It just has another official name. Now it’s called
Mark 77. I mean, have we learnt nothing? Mark 77! I’m going to kill that

    The title of the book is taken from an incident at
a checkpoint south of Karbala last year, in which US forces opened fire
on a Shia family of 17 travelling to southern Iraq to seek a safe haven.
Several family members died, including two young girls decapitated by the



Published: June 30, 2004 New
York Times

Vice President Dick Cheney spent about 20 minutes in Manager Joe
Torre’s office and in the clubhouse shaking hands with players before
the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox, 11-3, last night at Yankee Stadium.
    Cheney studied the photographs inside and outside Torre’s
office and asked Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher, why he was playing
the outfield in one picture. Cheney started watching the game from the
private box of the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner, switched
to a seat beside the Yankees’ dugout for a few innings, then returned to
Steinbrenner’s box.
….      During the singing of “God Bless America”
in the seventh inning, an image of Cheney was shown on the scoreboard.
It was greeted with booing, so the Yankees quickly removed the image.



Insurgency Showing Signs of Momentum

Analysts and some U.S. commanders say it could be too late to reverse
the wave of violence. Sunnis are seen as the stronger, long-term threat.

By Patrick J. McDonnell
Times Staff Writer

June 26, 2004 Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD — As this week’s coordinated violence demonstrates, Iraq’s
insurgent movement is increasingly potent, riding a wave of anti-U.S.
nationalism and religious extremism. Just days before an Iraqi government
takes control of the country, experts and some commanders fear it may be
too late to turn back the militant tide.
      The much-anticipated wave of strikes preceding
Wednesday’s scheduled hand-over could intensify under the new interim
government as Sunni Muslim insurgents seek to undermine it, U.S. and Iraqi
officials say.
    “I think we’re going to continue to see sensational
attacks,” said Army Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st Airborne Division
commander who will oversee the reshaping of Iraq’s fledgling security
      Long gone are the days when the insurgents
were dismissed as a finite force ticketed for high-tech annihilation by
superior U.S. firepower.

    Wreaking havoc and derailing plans for reconstruction
of this battered nation, the dominant guerrilla movement — an unlikely
Sunni alliance of hard-liners from the former regime, Islamic militants
and anti-U.S. nationalists — has taken over towns, blocked highways, bombed
police stations, assassinated lawmakers and other “collaborators,” and
abducted civilians.
      Although Shiite Muslim fighters took U.S. forces
by surprise in an April uprising, the Sunni insurgents represent a stronger,
long-term threat, experts agree. The fighters, commanders say, are overwhelmingly
Iraqis, with a small but important contingent of foreign fighters who
specialize in carrying out suicide bombings and other spectacular attacks,
possibly including this week’s coordinated strikes that killed more than
100 people.
    “They are effective,” said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F.
Metz, operational commander of U.S. troops here.
     The insurgent force has
picked up legions of part-time nationalist recruits enraged by the lengthy
occupation and the mounting toll on civilians. Whether the result of U.S.
or insurgent fire, the casualties are blamed on Americans.
     The anti-U.S. momentum is evident in both the
nation’s urban centers and the palm-shrouded Sunni rural heartland, where
resentment over military sweeps and the torturous pace of reconstruction
is pervasive. Support for the insurgency ranges from quiet assent to
participation in the fighting.
talking about people who are the equivalent of the Minutemen,”

said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who served as an advisor for the
U.S.-led occupation here. “They pick up their weapons and join the fight
and then go back to their homes and farms. It makes it so fluid. And the
media functions as the town crier, like the calls from the minaret.”

     The nimble enemy has kept just far enough ahead
of coalition forces to raise the question in Iraqi minds: Who will be
here in the long run, the U.S. and its allies or the insurgents?
    The characteristics of the insurgency in Iraq are
familiar from earlier campaigns in Vietnam and elsewhere, Hoffman wrote
in a recent paper: “A population will give its allegiance to the side
that will best protect it.”
     Also like past insurgency campaigns, this one
combines classic guerrilla tactics — ambushes and other attacks on occupying
troops — with ruthless terror, including the massacres of religious worshipers
and restaurant patrons and the beheading of hostages.
The insurgents’ decentralized command structure,
Hoffman said in an interview, echoes the atomized nature of the Al Qaeda
terrorist network. Thus, the arrest of deposed President Saddam Hussein
in December was not nearly the intelligence windfall that U.S. authorities
had predicted. Nor did his capture dry up funding for the insurgents.

     Although U.S. officials have labeled Jordanian
fugitive Abu Musab Zarqawi a mastermind in the wave of attacks that has
shaken the country since last year, commanders say the insurgents’ coordination
is unclear.
“We can’t find … a particular command and control
structure that leads to one or two or three particular nodes,
” Metz
said. “But I’m confident there are some leaders who have the wealth to continue
… paying people to do business.”
     U.S. authorities have jailed dozens of cell
chiefs but watched in frustration as the groups have regenerated and
fought anew. “These kinds of networks, you chop off one part and the other
part keeps on moving,” Petraeus said.
     The insurgents have other strengths: plentiful
weapons (in many cases, looted from unguarded armories at the end of the
invasion last year); easy mobility, in the form of a relatively modern
highway system; and communications, in the form of cellphones and access
to regional television channels such as Al Jazeera.
Defeating a force this entrenched and energized is difficult, commanders

     “There are some insurgent leaders who wanted
to talk to us,” said Army Col. Dana Pittard of the 1st Infantry Division
in Baqubah, an agricultural city northeast of Baghdad that was the site
of fierce fighting Thursday. “But there are others who are hard-core
and just don’t get it.”
    Trying to defeat such a foe militarily can drag
opposing forces into a withering cycle of violence, especially in a culture
where families feel obliged to avenge the death of loved ones.    
    “The nature of this culture is you can’t win a war
of attrition with them,” said Col. Robert B. Abrams of the Army’s 1st Cavalry
Division in Baghdad, “because it’s a circle of violence — there will always
be someone in the family who will pick up arms. Unless you want to kill
too many people. Which of course we never want to do.”

    The insurgents have time on their side: U.S. forces
are already under pressure to leave. And the Sunni fighters are armed
with another major advantage: They have no need to win, only to sow instability.
Their goal is to stand in the way of the caretaker government as it navigates
a difficult path toward elections scheduled for January. Whether the nation
will be sufficiently secure for free elections in six months is in doubt.
      The murky guerrilla movement first emerged
in the spring of 2003 with sporadic attacks on troops after the ouster
of Hussein’s regime. U.S. forces were just consolidating their control
of Iraq and basking in their relatively easy march to Baghdad.
   At the time, U.S. officials — notably L. Paul Bremer
III, the chief American administrator here — dismissed the embryonic
opposition as “dead-enders” who owed their allegiance to Hussein. Their
initial attacks were amateurish, often involving kamikaze assaults on
U.S. armored vehicles or crude roadside bombs jerry-built from stray
munitions, wires and makeshift triggers.
     Amid the triumphant declarations, it is now
widely agreed, the U.S. leadership was disastrously slow to anticipate
that this primitive enemy could grow into a formidable foe.
     What Bremer and other officials failed to
appreciate fully was postwar Iraq’s combustible character: a nation brimming
with arms, munitions and disenfranchised young men with military training,
all primed to be stoked by ruthless and well-funded Baath Party operatives
embittered in defeat.

    “It’s not clear to me that we ever developed a coherent
campaign plan for conducting a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Andrew
Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington
think tank. “We were unprepared for it [and] late to recognize it.”
Perceived U.S. heavy-handedness in Sunni enclaves such as Fallouja,
west of the capital, provided fuel for the movement, as did the mass
roundups and sweeps of thousands of young Sunni men suspected of anti-coalition
activity. The U.S. decisions to disband Iraq’s armed forces and bar many
former Baathists from government jobs fed the growing resentment — and
As disillusionment with the occupation grew, the armed resistance
spread throughout the Sunni heartland, from greater Baghdad to the vast
expanses to the west and north. Many young men flocked to the cause,
whether out of principle or to earn some cash.
Hussein loyalists, including members of his secret police services,
provided funds and logistics for the movement, officials say. Though
themselves largely secular, they played on religious feelings and fears
that Sunnis — long the dominant group in Iraq — faced marginalization
in a U.S.-backed regime favoring the Shiite majority.
“They don’t want this new government to come into power because
they’re fearful that the Sunni will be outvoted by the majority Shia,”
said Abrams of the 1st Cavalry Division. “They’ll go from being the haves
under Saddam to being the have-nots. They’ve got a lot to lose.”
    Sunni imams spurred the insurgency, and Arab jihadists
specializing in suicide attacks beat a path through the nation’s porous
One U.S. colonel formerly charged with guarding the western borders
with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan said a virtual “jihad Super Bowl”
took place last spring and summer as foreign militants poured in.
The campaign here has again emphasized that counterinsurgency is
not the United States’ strong suit. Its military units today are trained
for swift, high-tech wars against conventional armies — the war they fought
with remarkable success on their way to Baghdad in 2003.
     In the last year, U.S. commanders trained incoming
units in counterinsurgency tactics. They shifted intelligence analysts
from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the search for anti-American
guerrillas. They bolted armor to Humvees and figured out ways to detect
roadside bombs before they detonated. And still they’re struggling to catch
up to the insurgents, although commanders defend the progress made.

    “We made real headway,” said Maj. Gen. Charles H.
Swannack Jr., who commanded the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the
region known as the Sunni Triangle for seven months until the Marines
took over in April.
     The key question now, Swannack and others agree,
is not whether U.S. troops can defeat the insurgents in individual battles
but whether the provisional Iraqi government and its fledgling security
forces can stop the bombings and assassinations that make Iraqis feel
All say the new Iraqi forces are ill-equipped
to control the insurgents, and in some cases disinclined to take on their
neighbors and tribal brethren.
U.S. officials hope to change that
by election time. Some hope that the Iraqi security officers, once properly
trained and outfitted, will be able to confront the foe more effectively
because of their cultural familiarity.
      “There is something of a force-multiplier
effect when the Iraqis take the field because each Iraqi soldier should
be more capable than an American soldier in his body language and cultural
knowledge,” said Col. Christopher Langton of the Defense Analysis Department
of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

     On the political front, the new Iraqi government
appears to be looking for ways to co-opt the Sunni hard-liners with talk
of amnesty and reconciliation, but to date there are few takers. The Fallouja
solution — in which Marines retreated from a bloody siege, essentially
turning the town back over to Baathist elements and their insurgent allies
— has reduced clashes, but has also created a guerrilla redoubt. The last
week saw three U.S. bombing strikes in Fallouja that commanders say targeted
Zarqawi’s followers.
    Such prospective accords with the Sunni bloc risk
alienating Shiites and the ethnic Kurds, the nation’s other major population
    Much attention has focused on the insurgents’ grip
on Fallouja, but the recent attacks in Baqubah underscore the guerrillas’
muscularity and range throughout the Sunni region.
    “Since the fall of the regime, not a single penny
was allocated to this town,” said Awf Abdul Rida Ahmad, the mayor of
Buhriz, an agricultural suburb and insurgent stronghold of 40,000 southeast
of Baqubah.
   U.S. and insurgent forces fought a two-day battle this
month that left more than a dozen insurgents and a U.S. soldier dead,
the Army says.
   As in Fallouja, U.S. forces withdrew after days of
gun battles. An uneasy peace prevails today. Many celebrate the mujahedin,
and graffiti praises Hussein and denounces the Americans and those who
    “The people here are very peaceful, and all they want
is stability and peace of mind,” said the mayor, who denied the presence
of insurgents in Buhriz and said calm would prevail if the Americans
just stayed away
. “This is not a town of criminals or thugs.”
Times staff writers John Daniszewski in London, Mark Mazzetti and
Doyle McManus in Washington and special correspondent Suhail Ahmed in
Buhriz contributed to this report.


A Novel’s Plot Against the President

Character Fantasizes Bush Assassination

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page C01

In Nicholson Baker’s new novella, “Checkpoint,” a man sits in a Washington
hotel room with a friend and talks about assassinating President Bush.
     It’s a work of the imagination and no attempts
on the president’s life are actually made, but the novel is likely to
be incendiary, as with Michael Moore’s documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
      Flush with the headline-generating success of
“My Life,” by Bill Clinton, Alfred A. Knopf is planning to publish Baker’s
work Aug. 24, on the eve of the Republican National Convention. “Checkpoint”
is 115 pages long and will sell for $18.
     In the book, two men — Ben and Jay — meet at
the fictional Adele Hotel and Suites in Washington. It is midday. They
eat a bag of bagel chips and order lunch from room service. They talk
into a tape recorder.

Ben: Obviously you have something on your mind.

Jay: That’s true.

Ben: You could begin with that.

Jay: Okay. Uh. I’m going to — okay. I’ll just say it. Um.

Ben: What is it?

Jay: I’m going to assassinate the president.

Though it is against the law to threaten the president in real life,
a work of fiction is usually protected by the First Amendment.
     “Under a big 1968 Supreme Court precedent, Brandenburg
v. Ohio, speaking of assassinating the president cannot be forbidden
or punished unless the speaker’s purpose is to provoke an assassination
attempt and that is likely to be the effect,” says legal scholar Stuart
Taylor Jr. of the National Journal. “It’s quite possible in the wake of
more recent developments — 9/11 especially — the court might modify that
in some kinds of cases. But it’s almost inconceivable that the court would
allow punishment of a novelist for what one of his characters says about
killing the president.”
    “Without seeing the work,” says Charles Bopp, a spokesman
for the Secret Service, “a determination can’t be made at this time.”
   Books have played roles in certain American tragedies.
Timothy McVeigh handed out copies of “The Turner Diaries” before the Oklahoma
City bombing. John Hinckley Jr., would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, and
Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, both carried copies of “The
Catcher in the Rye.” James Edward Perry followed 22 of the recommendations
in “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors” in the 1993
Silver Spring contract killings of Mildred Horn, her quadriplegic son, Trevor,
and Trevor’s nurse, Janice Saunders, according to prosecutors.
     Baker’s fiction is written like a script for
a two-man play. It is satirical at some points, serious at others. There
are fanciful flourishes and fierce, furious fits of anger.
    The critically admired Baker is a master of written-from-a-weird-angle
fiction. His novel “Vox” was basically a phone-sex conversation. And
“The Mezzanine” is a 135-page meditation on an escalator ride.
    In “Checkpoint,” the main character, Jay, rants and
rages against Bush. He says he hasn’t felt so much hostility against any
other president — not Nixon, not Reagan.
    Of Bush, Jay says: “He is beyond the beyond. What he’s
done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons.
It’s too much. It makes me so angry. And it’s a new kind of anger, too.”
    He is outraged that the United States armed forces
have used napalm-like bombs in Iraq. He says: “It’s improved fire jelly
— it’s even harder to put out than the stuff they used in Vietnam. And
Korea. And Germany. And Japan. It just has another official name. Now it’s
called Mark 77. I mean, have we learned nothing? Mark 77! I’m going to kill
that bastard.”
   He uses expletives to identify the president. At one
point he says, “He’s one dead armadillo.”
    Much of the book is serious polemic, based on Baker’s
reporting. The title, “Checkpoint,” comes from a story that Jay read in
the Sydney Morning Herald about a Shiite family of 17 that was seeking safe
haven in southern Iraq in 2003. At a checkpoint south of Karbala, U.S.
forces opened fire on the family’s Land Rover. Several family members died;
two young girls were decapitated by the gunfire. Jay chokes up when recounting
the story to Ben.
    Some of the ways Jay envisions killing the president
are ludicrous. One is radio-controlled flying saws that “look like little
CDs but they’re ultrasharp and they’re totally deadly, really nasty.”
     Another is a remote-controlled boulder made of
depleted uranium.
   “You’re going to squash the president?” Ben asks Jay.
    But Jay also has a gun and some bullets. And Ben realizes
at one point that even if Jay is crazy, he is still talking about killing
a sitting president. “If the FBI and the Secret Service . . . come after
me because I’ve been hanging out with you in a hotel room before you make
some crazy attempt on the life of the president, I’m totally cooked,” Ben
says. “Yes, you were talking a lot of delusional gobbledygook about homing
bullets, but basically your intent was clear. I’ll have to say that. I’m
    Jay calls Bush an “unelected [expletive] drunken OILMAN”
who is “squatting” in the White House and “muttering over his prayer
book every morning.”
    He calls Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld “rusted hulks” and “zombies” who have “fought their way
back up out of the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling
around with grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going,
‘We — are — your — advisers.’ “
    Cheney, Jay says, is “hunched, man, the corruption
has completely hunched and gnarled him. His mouth is pulled totally over
on one side of his face.”
    The novel, says Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards, “is
a portrait of an anguished protagonist pushed to extremes. Baker is using
the framework and story structure as a narrative device to express the
discontent many in America are feeling right now.”
    Bogaards says: “It is not
the first time a novelist has chosen fiction to express their point of
view about American society or politics. Upton Sinclair did it. So did
John Steinbeck. Nick Baker does it with more nerve and fewer pages.”


a Lighter Shade of Bush

By William M. Arkin
today’s Los Angeles Times.

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly
for Opinion. E-mail:

June 20, 2004
SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry
got a boost last week when 27 retired U.S. diplomats, admirals and four-star
generals, including a number of prominent Republican appointees from former
Bush and Reagan administrations, publicly urged Americans to vote President
Bush out of office.
    They did not explicitly endorse Kerry, but the old
warriors and insiders find themselves far more comfortable with the
Massachusetts senator than with Bush when it comes to their favorite
subject. Not only has Kerry firmly surrounded himself with Clinton standard-bearers
on foreign policy and defense, but he has espoused his own brand of warmongering.
    I would love nothing better than to see Bush out
of office, but Kerry is a gloomy alternative. Worse yet, in the short
term, his “me too, only better” approach to the war on terrorism could
actually serve to make the United States less safe.
    Kerry’s defense plans might be a slam-dunk for the
atherosclerotic set in the national security community, but here is
the alternative that the senator offers to Democrats and people of liberal
values in November:

•  no plan to withdraw from Iraq, not even the kind of “secret
plan” the late President Nixon offered on Vietnam, and no change in Afghanistan;
•  continuation of Bush’s preemption policy;
•  a larger military with many more special operations units,
plus accelerated spending on “transformation,” which in today’s defense
jargon means creation of greater capability to intervene around the world
on short notice;
•  a new domestic intelligence agency and a vastly beefed-up
homeland security program.

Kerry’s defense advisors see much of this as innocuous rhetoric
to protect the Democratic candidate’s flanks from traditional conservative
accusations of being soft on national security. At the same time, it
represents a calculated strategy to “keep your head low and win.”
In his stump speeches, Kerry stresses a spirited dose of alliances,
the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a return
to what he calls an “America that listens and leads again.” He roundly
criticizes the Bush administration on Iraq, Afghanistan and homeland security.
He promises as commander in chief that he will  never ask the troops
“to fight a war without a plan to win the peace.”
     All that is to the good. Yet when Kerry describes
the contemporary world, and the challenges that the U.S. faces, he sounds
just like the president, the vice president and Defense Secretary Donald
H. Rumsfeld. Terrorism, he says, “present[s] the central national security
challenge of our generation.” Preventing terrorists from “gaining weapons
of mass murder” is his No. 1 security goal, and Kerry says he would strike
first if any attack “appears imminent.” The senator promises to “use military
force to protect American interests anywhere in the world, whenever necessary.”
On May 27 in Seattle, he promised to “take the fight to the enemy on every
continent” (I guess that probably doesn’t include Antarctica).
     Beyond rhetoric, Kerry proposes to add 40,000
troops to the Army and to double the “Special Forces capability to fight
the war on terror,” presumably jumping from the current 48,000 to 96,000.
    On homeland security, there isn’t a constituency
that Kerry doesn’t pander to. National Guard, local government, police,
firefighters, public health services, even AmeriCorps — the modest domestic
equivalent of the Peace Corps — all should be beefed up, he says, to
“protect America.” He even proposes a new “community defense service”
of homeland security wardens à la civil defense in the Cold War,
which would surely be the looniest club that ever existed.
    Even his serious proposals are problematic. The homeland
security plan is defeatist and out of control. On the Army, though it
sounds as if adding active-duty troops would solve the current overburden
in Iraq and relieve the National Guard and reserves, the reality is that
adding 40,000 to the end strength would take two or more years, according
to one of Kerry’s own advisors. Special Forces are even more difficult
and time-consuming to manufacture.
    But the biggest problem is that the basic premise
of military growth is that we will continue to fight at the Bush pace.
And relying more on special operations? That’s the Rumsfeld doctrine: fast
and light, covert and unaccountable. But anyone who is not an administration
toady must recognize by now that ninja magicians can do only so much
and that the cost of not having enough regular soldiers on the ground
is a theme that runs from Tora Bora and the postwar insurgency in Iraq
to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
     Special-ops troops tend to get you involved
in, well, special operations. Making them a centerpiece of U.S. military
planning and force structures builds a bias into the decision-making process
that favors covert action and the unfortunate belief that we can prevail
over terrorism by killing terrorists faster than they are recruited.
Kerry proposes these buildups because he accepts the central premise
of the Bush administration: Terrorists are so threatening that we must
sacrifice our liberties, change our government and military and, ultimately,
our way of life in order to fight them.
     In this 60th anniversary year of D-day, I find
it astounding that anyone could be so callous and ahistorical as to point
to the threat we faced from a Nazi foe that truly had the capacity to
destroy our way of life and compare it to a few thousand or even a few
tens of thousands of terrorists who, at their worst, can do no more than
threaten to panic Western society with random bloodshed. It is equally absurd
to compare the war on terrorism to the Cold War, when the United States could
literally have been destroyed by thousands of nuclear weapons (a possibility,
though not a threat, that persists today from Russian and Chinese nukes).
    Intelligent people, and I assume that includes
Kerry, must begin to challenge the basic premise behind the post-9/11
hysteria. Terrorists may be a growing threat, and we may be unprepared
to deal with the challenges they pose, but they have no hope of destroying
our society. Only we can do that.

    By overstating the threat and overreacting to incidents,
we not only give terrorists exactly what they seek, but we seem to create
a panicked environment that clouds our judgment when it comes to intelligence,
propels us into military adventures abroad and distorts our priorities
at home.
     Americans should demand a certain level of
competence and accountability from their government to protect them,
but the Bush (and Kerry) approach is not securing a peaceful future.
In fact, the entire war on terrorism, based on the false assumption
that it is a war for our survival, seems to be feeding hatred and aggravating
the fault lines.

     We need to rethink this problem, pure and simple,
and Kerry needs to unburden himself from the conventional wisdom.
     Otherwise, for many in the Islamic world, Kerry’s
adoption of the Bush administration’s worldview and strategies merely
reinforces the idea that the United States is indeed the problem, that
there is a clash of civilizations that only might can resolve and that Islam
will be an American target no matter who is president. If reducing terrorist
attacks is the goal, I can’t imagine more dangerous perceptions to foster.
     The United States would be safer with a Democratic
political platform that demonstrated fundamental disagreement about
our current course.  
     It’s tough in a campaign season to stop worrying
about the polling booth and start thinking afresh about national security.
So here is one final argument against Kerry’s muscle-bound “me-too-ism,”
an argument rooted in domestic, not foreign, policy concerns: For young
people energized by the Howard Dean campaign, for liberals and the silent
majority, Kerry’s carbon-copy campaign conveys the impression that political
involvement doesn’t matter. Whether you back Kerry, stay home, vote
for Ralph Nader or stick with the Bush team, the result will be the same.

    If revitalizing American democracy and reinforcing
its most precious values are our key objectives, I can’t imagine a worse
message for a Democratic presidential candidate to be sending.