Hi all

Posted by Mary Madigan

I just wanted to say hello to everyone and to say thank you again to Michael for the opportunity to guest blog. Wishing him and Spirit of America good luck in Lebanon. Once again, they’re where history is being made.

I just got back from vacation, and I’m just catching up on the news, so here’s a post about some recent driving adventures in Costa Rica.

Getting Lost is half the fun

I’ve always loved road trips. When we moved from New Jersey to California, I used the excuse of “visiting the family back east” to drag my kids on cross-country camping trips every summer.

For some odd reason they’ve forgiven me for this. Long, boring hours stuck in the back of a minivan are thankfully forgotten. They remember the friendly chipmunks in Estes Park, the horses that musically farted as they ran through our campground in Dinosaur National Park. They forget the night we drove through deserted, ghostly Nevada towns, searching desperately for a diner and a gas station.

A few years ago, we visited Thailand and Malaysia. I heard and saw so many bad things about traffic in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur that I decided to let someone else do the driving. Nobody warned me about Costa Rica, though, so during our recent trip there we went ahead and rented a car. The roads in San Jose and the cliffhanging mountain roads on the way to the Arenal Volcano were about as crazy as Bangkok was rumored to be – except for the lack of elephants.

For adventure, whitewater rafting and jungle tours are loads of fun, but they can’t compare to a drive down local roads.


Some Tico roadrules:

  • Motorbikes can ride on any section of the road, in any direction.
  • When driving around a blind curve in a no passing zone, always cross over the solid yellow lines to face oncoming traffic. Be prepared to veer over to the shoulder to avoid oncoming traffic. Hope that there is a shoulder.
  • The larger vehicle always has the right of way
  • Potholes can consume a small car. Swerve to avoid them.


  • Slow down for cows. They’re offended if you pass them on the right.
  • Roads and streets are not always well marked. And they’re in Spanish. What’s up with that?
  • No Hay Paso means do not enter. Ceda means yield, and Comidas Tipicas means that there’s some very good fried fish, rice with beans and ceviche at the restaurant around the corner.
  • A yellow ‘pelligro’ means that you’re about to drive or fall off a cliff. (In Malaysia, a sign that reads “!” means the same thing)
  • Sometimes red lights mean “stop”, sometimes they mean “oh, go ahead, you’ve been waiting long enough”. (like in Boston)
  • When you drive above the clouds, always slow down to admire the view


Knowing what I know now, the next time I’m in Thailand, I’ll be sure to rent a car. I’ve always loved to follow the road less travelled, even if that’s just another way of saying that I’m lost.


This weekend I’m going to Beirut, Lebanon with Spirit of America Founder Jim Hake. On Tuesday we’re kicking off a new project to support the Lebanese people in their fight for independence. I’d love to give you the juicy details right now. But we aren’t quite there yet, so stay tuned.

I’ll be in the Middle East for a couple of weeks. Guest bloggers Mary Madigan and Jeremy Brown will fill in for me here and take care of all your opinionated blather needs. Wouldn’t want to leave ya hanging.

In the meantime, I have to pack and get ready to roll. You’ll hear from me next live from Beirut.


Back Shortly

Sorry for the limited blogging. I’m preparing for a big project and will have an announcement shortly. Feel free to guess what it is in the comments!

Hitler in His Bunker

I need to see this movie, Downfall, on the day it’s released. Check out that trailer!

Contagious Democracy – The Second Breakup of the Soviet Union

The liberal revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe toppled communist dictatorships like dominoes in a chain. But most of the Central Asian republics remain authoritarian – and in some cases, totalitarian. Some, like Chechnya, weren’t able to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Empire at all, and are still officially parts of Russia.

But it looks like that process might not have stopped. It was just put on hold. Parts of the old Russian empire are convulsing again. And revolution may be just as contagious this time as it was last time. The Christian Science Monitor explains.

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN — The shock waves from Kyrgyzstan’s lightning revolution are spreading around the former Soviet Union – and into the heart of Russia – leading analysts to wonder which regimes might be next to face the peoples’ wrath.

Recent days have seen a spate of copycat protests launched by opposition groups that were perhaps hoping their own local authorities might fold and flee under pressure, as did Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev when demonstrators stormed his Bishkek complex last week.

About 1,000 people rallied last Friday in the capital of Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko runs the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe, to demand his resignation. Police quickly dispersed the crowd and dispatched the ringleaders to prison.

Two Russian ethnic republics, Ingushetia and Bashkortostan, have seen mass street demonstrations this week directed against Kremlin-installed leaders. Even in remote Mongolia, the former USSR’s Asian satellite, hundreds of protesters gathered last week to “congratulate our Kyrgyz brothers” and demand a rerun of last June’s disputed parliamentary polls.

Some experts see a common thread among these upheavals that began 17 months ago when Georgians overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in a peaceful revolt and continued with Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” late last year.

“Every situation is different, but a single process is unfolding,” says Valentin Bogatyrov, a former Akayev adviser and director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Bishkek. “Kyrgyzstan is a kind of trigger that will spread this unrest to our neighbors, and beyond. We are witnessing the second breakup of the Soviet Union.”

Bashkortostan is an absurdly complicated ethnic hodgepodge that makes Lebanon look like Japan by comparison. If it breaks away from Russia it, too, could fracture.

Ingushetia, like Chechnya, is mostly Muslim. The Islamic tradition there is, again as in Chechnya, a liberal/moderate one. If the people want out of the Russian Federation we had better loudly support them. Because if we don’t, the Islamist jihadis certainly will. Nothing good can possibly come of that, not for Ingushetia, not for Russia, and not for us. Look no further than – yes, once again – Chechnya for that object lesson.

Baathism, Racism, and Terror

There’s a new article by Kurdish writer Shirko Mula Qadir up on the Friends of Democracy site about the Baath Party’s connections to terrorism in the Middle East and fascism in Europe. He also has some hard-to-argue-with suggestions about what we (meaning the rest of the world) ought to do about that.

How About Howard Dean?

Glenn Reynolds nominates Vaclav Havel to replace Kofi Annan. I second that nomination. I can’t think of a single person in the world I’d rather see take Kofi’s post.

Austin Bay wants more nominations. Okay, how about Howard Dean? I kid, but only by half. He might be more likely than Havel to take the job if he could get it. And he’d be a lot more likely to get the job in the first place if he were nominated (by somebody other than me.)

Standing up to the Bush Administration earned him plenty of street cred all over the world. UN fetishists and apparatchiks go for that sort of thing. He’s also earning some street cred with me because he at least partly understands what’s wrong with the so-called “international community.”

Dean may have opposed the Iraq war, but he’s not a foreign policy limp noodle like Kerry. He just thought that one war in particular was dumb. Say what you will about him, but he doesn’t shrink from a fight. He’s the kind of man who likes to roll up his sleeves and get scrappy.

I already published this quote from an article he wrote last summer, and I’ll happily run it again.

Europeans cannot criticize the United States for waging war in Iraq if they are unwilling to exhibit the moral fiber to stop genocide by acting collectively and with decisiveness. President Bush was wrong to go into Iraq unilaterally when Iraq posed no danger to the United States, but we were right to demand accountability from Saddam. We are also right to demand accountability in Sudan. Every day that goes by without meaningful sanctions and even military intervention in Sudan by African, European and if necessary U.N. forces is a day where hundreds of innocent civilians die and thousands are displaced from their land. Every day that goes by without action to stop the Sudan genocide is a day that the anti-Iraq war position so widely held in the rest of the world appears to be based less on principle and more on politics. And every day that goes by is a day in which George Bush’s contempt for the international community, which I have denounced every day for two years, becomes more difficult to criticize.

Kofi Annan would never, ever, think or say anything like that. And I seriously doubt his replacement will ever think or say anything like that. Howard Dean might not be ideal, as Vaclav Havel would be. But he’d be such an improvement over Kofi Annan I’d pop a champagne cork if somehow, miraculously, he got the job.

He’d be at least slightly more likely to get Europeans to listen and work with us. He’d also be willing to kick some ass when it needs some kicking. As far as domestic politics go, he might help bridge one gap between American liberals and conservatives. He could make conservatives happy because he’d do a much better job than Kofi Annan. And because he’s such a hero to activist liberals, he could help them see that the UN really is broken. They won’t listen to Bush, but they will listen to him.


Tim Blair is “it” in the book game, thanks to me, and he posted his answers to the questions just as Guido was rummaging around in the closet for his baseball bat. Because it’s Tim Blair we’re talking about here, there are plenty of laughs to go around.

The Conservative Crack-Up

The “conservative majority” sure didn’t last very long.

Eric Deamer volunteered for a get-out-the-vote campaign to re-elect President Bush in New Hampshire. He even had a gun pointed at his head for his efforts. But now he regrets that decision and pens his own essay in the emerging “buyer’s remorse” genre among intellectuals of the center and center-right.

Read it. Then read his follow-up. Then come on back.

Now, personally, I’m not experiencing buyer’s remorse — at least not yet. I voted for Democrats in Congress precisely so someone will be there in Washington to fend off whatever the right-wing of the GOP decides to throw at us. I have less to regret than Eric and other remorseful souls (like Michelle Catalano) have.

I expected a bunch of crap from the Bush Administration that I wouldn’t agree with or like. What else is new? I was never happy about voting for Bush in the first place, and I’m not happy about it now either. But I’m not wistfully longing for a coulda-been Kerry Administration. The very idea makes me shudder, especially while we’re in the midst of a showdown in the Middle East with the Syrian Baath regime.

Unlike Eric and Michelle, I never joined the Republican Party. I factored in the wholly predictable Republican arrogance and obnoxiousness into my decision well in advance. So I’m not at all shocked that the party is behaving badly and that moderates are taking a walk. I know how they feel because I went through the same thing with the Democrats. If you’re on the center-left or the center-right both of our two parties will eventually steamroll right over the top of you.

If the Republicans want my vote again they are going to have to earn it. They only got part of my vote last time because I needed a port during the storm that blew the old left coalition to pieces. The Democrats could easily play the same role next time if they get their act together while the Republicans lose it. Absolutely nothing is permanent in politics – including the current shake-up. All the talk I hear (even often in my own comments section) about how the Democratic Party is supposedly dead is a laugh riot. The party that wins elections is whichever party is in less ridiculous shape than the other.

Free advice for Republicans! Purge Tom DeLay. You pitched Newt Gingrich over the side, and he was far less worth the bother than the former vermin exterminator from Texas. (Good God, is it really that hard to find respectable normal people for the top roles in Congress?) Give James Dobson the Sister Souljah treatment. Give him the Energizer Bunny of Sister Souljah treatments until he bitterly hates your guts. (I know, I know, that’s about as likely as Nancy Pelosi kicking Michael Moore in the balls on national TV while wearing her heels.) If you think Dobson and his ilk can keep you in power while you’re pissing off the left, the center, and the center-right moderates you’re proving Jane’s Law all over again.

Jane’s Law: The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.

But hey, don’t listen to me. What the hell do I know? I don’t even know who I’m going to vote for in ’08. (Hint!)

Elections are won in the center. If you can’t remember that most obvious of political factoids and the Democratic Party nominates someone — anyone — who isn’t a foreign policy limp noodle, the only place you’re going in 2008 is the political boondocks.

Because I’m “It”

Nancy Rommelmann tagged me and said I’m “it.” So now I have to answer a bunch of questions or a goon named Guido will show up on my porch with a baseball bat. So here goes.

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Fahrenheit 451, of course. That way I might stand a chance.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Yeah, Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings.

The last book you bought is:

Stainless by Todd Grimson. I bought it in part because according to James Ellroy (author of LA Confidential) Grimson is the hippest writer in America. But the real reasons are because he’s a fellow Portlander, he’s been a regular in my comments section for two years, and I just now found out (after all this time) that he’s this famous writer type person.

The last book you read:

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland is the last book I finished. I read it a few weeks ago in one sitting. I haven’t done that since I graduated from college 13 years ago. (It helps that the book is a short one.)

What’s the book about? Tough question to answer. Let’s just say that it opens with a Columbine-style shooting at a high school and follows four characters through ten years of the aftermath. It would be unfair to Coupland’s surprising story if I said anything more. I put the book down weeks ago and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

What are you currently reading?

One for the Road by Tony Horwitz. It’s a travel book about his hitchhiking adventures Back O’ Bourke (the Australian Outback). I picked it up because his Baghdad Without a Map is the best travel book I’ve read yet about the Middle East. He makes trips to Libya and Yemen into laugh riots. On the one hand, Libya is about as funny as Romania under Ceausescu. But it’s also a wickedly surreal place, and Horwitz captures it all perfectly.

Five books you would take to a deserted island.

* The Collected Works of William Shakespeare — for reasons that ought to be obvious, and I don’t care if that’s cheating.

* Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe — because what the hell else am I supposed to relate to?

* Lord of the Flies by William Golding — to remind myself that things could always be worse.

* Stock Investing for Dummies – because you just never know.

* My own Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. (The one I haven’t written yet.)

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

* Sheila O’Malley — because she’s always book-blogging anyway, so I doubt she’ll get mad.

* Tim Blair — because I just know whatever he reads is funny and smart.

* Dr. Frank — because I’ll bet what he reads is cool. And I want to know what it is.

Sheila. Tim. Dr Frank. You’re it. Answer the questions, or answer to Guido.


I don’t have time to write anything exciting tonight, but I don’t want to leave you with nothing. So here’s some linkage.

Ace of Spades says his intitial reaction to September 11 was wrong. So was mine for the first week or so, until I found my way out of the freaky Chomskyite hole I briefly crawled into. Ace and I erred in exactly opposite ways. It’s a good thing he and I didn’t battle anything out in person at the time. We both would have been wrong, and we both would have been jerks about it.

Nelson Ascher wonders why Erwin Rommell, a Nazi, is frequently praised as a brilliant general while Ariel Sharon is not.

Dean Esmay starts a worthwhile argument with his libertarian and conservative friends.

I’m Shutting Up Now

I tried to write another long post about the Terri Schiavo case and decided half-way through that I need to delete it. It’s time to move on to something that’s either more important, more fun, or at least less gruesomely voyeuristic. Eric Deamer is right. Everyone needs to shut up – especially that id of reptilian conservatism otherwise known as Tom DeLay.

UPDATE: I would like to say one more thing in the “keep your mouth shut” department. Tom DeLay might find himself slapped with a libel suit if he doesn’t watch it.

He followed with a torrent of invective against her “estranged” husband, Michael Schiavo, now living with another woman, a man with whom he had been trading insults since Thursday.

“No care for 15 years. No therapy. No nothing,” DeLay said, his voice awash in scorn. “What kind of man is that?”

I’m no expert in this case, and I really don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. But I have seen plenty of references to pieces of information that suggest what DeLay is saying from the bully pulpit of Congress about Schiavo – a private citizen – isn’t true. You don’t have to prove malice to win a libel suit. Reckless disregard for the truth is enough.

To Save or Not to Save

Almost everyone knows about the Terri Schiavo case by now, so I won’t get bogged down in the details. But here’s a quick summary for those who are out of the loop: She’s been in some sort of vegetative state for fifteen years, her husband has fought to take her off life-support, and her parents have fought to keep her on it. A Florida court recently ordered her feeding tube removed, and now the Republicans in the White House and Congress want the issue decided in federal courts. George W. Bush is even mucking around with his schedule in order to sign legislation as quickly as possible.

It’s easy to see both sides of this one. Peggy Noonan does the best job summing up the “conservative” side: “There is a passionate, highly motivated and sincere group of voters and activists who care deeply about whether Terri Schiavo is allowed to live. Their reasoning, ultimately, is this: Be on the side of life.”

“Be on the side of life.” It sounds right and feels good. “Pull the plug” sounds wrong and feels horrible. I truly hate to say this, but I think I’m just barely on the “pull the plug” side in this particular case. I’m not proudly or happily on that side. Nor am I completely on that side. If the details were slightly different I wouldn’t be on that side at all. Just thinking about it is painful, and it isn’t my problem.

In any case, it’s none of my business. I wouldn’t tell somebody else what I think they should do in a dilemma like this unless they asked me to do so. I can only say what I would probably do if the decision were mine. Still, when you really get down to it, I’m not 100 percent sure I could order another human being’s plug to be pulled. I had to euthanize two of the koi in my backyard pond last summer. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do under the circumstances I still felt like an evil despicable bastard for doing it. I was shocked by how guilty that made me feel. And they were just fish. They were beautiful fish, but they still were just fish.

The only reason I’m thinking about Terri Schiavo at all is because her story has become a media and political circus. An excruciating philosophical and moral conundrum, one for which there are no easy or even right answers, has been turned into yet another partisan “culture war” bitch-fest. It’s all so degrading and corrosive.

I’m not at all impressed with either the White House or Congress right now. This is so obviously not the federal government’s business that I’m embarrassed to even point it out. Whether Terri Schiavo lives or dies is of supreme maximum importance to her friends and family. It’s only important in a symbolic and voyeuristic way to anyone else – and that’s only because the media refuse to let go of it and political activists refuse to stay out of it.

George W. Bush isn’t intervening to save one person’s life. I really truly hate to say this, but it’s true: he has more important things that he needs to tend to. For him this is all about politics.

Here’s how the White House or Congress can score some genuine points with me: do something about people who are taken off life-support because their families ran out of money. (See Mark Kleiman for some details about that gruesome business.) Now there’s a real national problem. And doing something about it requires a lot more than grandstanding. Where’s the “right to life” crowd on that?

Right-Wing Idiotarianism Redux

Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position, and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around from the left.Clint Eastwood to Time magazine. (Hat tip: Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, who now has his own blog.)

I’ve been vaguely aware of who Michael Scheuer is for a while, but I didn’t realize until now just how much of a whackjob the man really is. Andrew Apostolou read his book Imperial Hubris so I don’t have to. And he takes Scheuer’s latest outbursts apart in his newest Tech Central Station column.

Michael Scheuer, whose book Imperial Hubris lambasts US strategy in the war against al Qaeda, has attracted attention for recent public statements on Israel. The former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Scheuer claimed at the Council on Foreign Relations in February that Israel controls the debate on US foreign policy. As important as Scheuer’s hostility to Israel is his underlying message: that to keep Israel happy, the US must kill innocent Muslims.

While Scheuer’s views on the Middle East are unpleasant, they are not far from the orthodoxy among retired diplomats. The view of the superannuated foreign service mainstream is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core issue in the Middle East and that the stumbling block to a settlement is Israeli policy rather than Palestinian terrorism. No wonder that Scheuer went largely unchallenged at the Middle East Policy Council, which is headed by a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, with his remark in January that when the US deals with Israel it becomes “the dog that’s led around by the tail.”

Still, Scheuer has gone beyond the cocktail party consensus with coarser claims that Israeli diplomacy, and by implication its domestic and often American Jewish support base, is “probably the most successful covert action program in the history of man.”

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Scheuer cited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as evidence of the alleged Israeli “covert action” program. According to Scheuer, the museum is designed to make Americans feel guilty about the Holocaust, thereby preventing any questioning of US policy towards Israel. The ignorance of Scheuer’s statement is nearly equal to its chauvinism. Anybody who has visited the Holocaust Museum will know that its entrance is bedecked with the standards of American army units that liberated concentration camps, which the museum is currently celebrating with a special exhibition.

The obvious inconsistencies of Scheuer’s views are entirely lost on him. Replying to a like-minded questioner who called Israel “the spoiled child of Western civilization”, Scheuer said in February that “I certainly, as an American, find it unbearable to think there’s something in this country you can’t talk about. That’s really my spiel I guess on that, sir.” Scheuer’s use of the word “spiel” was an unintended irony on his part. Similarly, the most convincing refutation of Scheuer’s notion that US-Israel relations cannot be talked about is the frequency with which Scheuer talks about them, in every public appearance and in a best-selling, widely circulated book.

Scheuer’s views on Israel are not surprising given his politics. He is an old-fashioned Republican who scorns promoting democracy overseas. Speaking at the CFR, Scheuer called President Bush’s State of the Union address “warmed-up Wilsonianism”, which is not a compliment as he described Woodrow Wilson in Imperial Hubris as a “bloody-handed fantasist.” Responding to a questioner at the same event who asked if killing terrorist enemies would not simply create more enemies, Scheuer replied that “My books are pretty nationalist, ma’am. I don’t much care.” Indeed, Scheuer is so “nationalist” that he has recently written for LewRockwell.com, a neoconfederate, isolationist website that vilifies President Abraham Lincoln.

So far, so far to the right of Pat Buchanan, but Scheuer is more than a new eruption of a mildly irritating cyst on the extremity of the American body politic. The truly dangerous and inflammatory aspect of Scheuer is that, in essence, he blames the mayhem and bloodshed caused by Islamist terrorism not on bin Laden and al Qaeda, but on those who built the Holocaust Museum.

There’s plenty more where that came from, and it only gets worse. Scheuer advocates a savage war against the civilian population of the Middle East because, in his crackpot mental universe, those pesky Zionists leave us no other option. He goes so far over the top I can’t help but wonder if he’s looking for an excuse to indulge atrocity fantasies. He doesn’t seem to be bothered much by that sort of thing. After all, we’re talking about a man who looks at the Holocaust Museum and, instead of thinking never again, weaves conspiracy theories.

He defensively says such “bloody-mindedness” is “neither admirable nor desirable.” But he’s the only “important” person I know of who advocates it, so…feh. And yet, at the same time, he wants the US to adjust its foreign policy in order to placate the supposedly legitimate grievances of Osama bin Laden.

He’s a man who somehow, incredibly, managed to cobble together an ideology that incorporates talking points from the far-left goon squad at International ANSWER and the darkest fantasies of the right-wing lunatic fringe. All this while heading up the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. He’s the ne plus ultra of idiotarians, and has no business working anywhere near government ever again.

Friends of Democracy is Back

Many of you already know that I edited the Friends of Democracy site before, during, and after the Iraqi election in January. The job was a temporary one, or so I thought then. But we decided to keep going and re-tool the site so we can continue publishing news and views from Iraq indefinitely.

We’re finished with the transition now, and the new-and-improved site is ready to go.

The articles we choose to publish are English translations from Iraq’s new and expanding Arabic-language blogosphere. If you don’t understand Arabic you won’t be able to read regularly-updated authentic Arabic-language blogging anywhere else on the Internet. We’ll be adding new articles almost every day. So please be sure to bookmark the site, tell your friends and family if they’re interested in this sort of thing, and — if you have your own blog — help spread the word.

In my opinion, the site is better now than it was. That’s partly because I’m doing more work on it. I’m not only selecting the stories we publish. I’m also thoroughly line-editing the translated pieces so that reading our site will be easier and more enjoyable.

Please give it a look. And don’t miss Al-Witwiti’s excellent Letter to the Next Iraqi President.


Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog