James Ridgeway

Trump Wants to Bring Back Torture - For Thousands of Americans, It Never Went Away

Among the many calamities ushered in by the Trump era is a renewal of the national debate over the legitimacy of physical torture. The President, unsurprisingly, has long been in favor of it, asserting repeatedly that “torture works,” and promising to bring back practices “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding.

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How the Bush Administration Covered Up the Saudi Connection to 9/11

In his New Yorker article, posted on the magazine’s web site last week, Lawrence Wright tells how the Bush administration deleted 28 pages in the 2002 report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 911 probably because they describe in detail the Saudi connection to the Al Qaeda attack and Saudi financing of its operatives in the United States—people who knew two of the hijackers, and may well have been used as conduits for Saudi cash. Some of the money may have come from the royal family through a charity.

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The Horror and Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement

“While waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving,” W writes to me. “Today was the day I decided to end my life.”

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Kids in Solitary Confinement: America's Official Child Abuse

Molly J said of her time in solitary confinement:

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Who Ran Away with Your 401K?

Like most people whose quality of life depends upon the fluctuations of an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), or other acronym-soup retirement account, I was born long before such things existed. It's easy to forget, now that more than half of us have been made shareholders, that until well past the middle of the 20th century, most people had nothing to do with the stock market: Wall Street was for the wealthy and the reckless. It was a world most Americans didn't understand and, after 1929, didn't trust. Some lucky people had pensions, but few had the privilege of even thinking about retirement. They were too busy trying to survive the present -- which in my childhood meant the Great Depression and then World War II.

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Finally the Feds Crack Down on Right-Wing Terrorists

When the Department of Homeland Security warned in April that the financial crisis and Barack Obama's election were inflaming right-wing extremists, many conservatives were outraged. But a spate of high-profile murders this year has prompted questions about whether the government should have been more proactive. In April, Richard Poplawski, a 22-year-old frequenter of white supremacist websites, was charged with fatally shooting three Pittsburgh cops. In May, former militiaman Scott Roeder was accused of gunning down abortion doctor George Tiller (he pleaded not guilty this week). In June, 88-year-old neo-Nazi James von Brunn allegedly killed an African American security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Only then did the government spring into action. Later that month, federal agents in three states moved against a prominent far-right leader and his associates, with almost no attention from the national press.

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Five Scandals that Could Put Republicans in Jail

The stately Russell Senate Office Building stands at one corner of a domestic Green Zone, just northeast of the Capitol building at the intersection of Delaware and Constitution avenues. In the past few years a maze of blockades has sprouted along the shaded avenues and curving drives of the Capitol complex. Checkpoints are patrolled by heavily armed police; guards watch for suspicious characters and prohibited items (which now include food and beverages; cans, bottles, and sprays; and bags larger than 13 by 14 inches). At the Russell Building, visitors encounter another set of barriers and metal detectors before being granted admittance to the elegant structure. Then, at the top of a sweeping staircase, they'll find a room walled in white marble, draped in deep red, overhung by a gilded ceiling, and fronted, altarlike, with a raised dais.

Here in the humbly named Caucus Room, the U.S. Congress has held some of its most famous public hearings, beginning with a 1912 investigation into the fate of the Titanic. The Watergate hearings unfolded here in the early '70s, beneath the ever-watchful gaze of Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.). It was here that Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), the first Southern black woman elected to Congress, declared: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."

But in the past six years, congressional investigations of such bold, searching nature have disappeared. In a post-9/11 environment of silence and fear, the mood inside Congress has mirrored the bunkers and barriers outside: No one dares question the military or the intelligence services too closely, or to push the president too far. The Caucus Room continues to be used for party meetings and social events, and every so often there is a potted inquiry, as in the case of the 2003 hearings on the space shuttle. But on issues of war and peace, of corruption and graft, of civil rights, civil liberties, and constitutional breaches, meek questions are the rule, answered by dull assurances from the White House.

If the Democrats win back control of Congress (or even one of its chambers), if they can come up with the requisite moxie, and if they can muster the political will to reach out to their own base as well as to disaffected Republicans, they will have an opportunity to begin to change all that. They will need to overcome the myriad obstacles the Bush administration has created to keep lawmakers from obtaining and releasing critical information, such as its resistance to briefing congressional committees on intelligence issues, or its heavy hand in redacting congressional reports. When explosive information has leaked out -- the fact that documents offering "proof" of Saddam Hussein's intent to buy uranium from Niger had been forged, or that the United States is operating a network of secret prisons in other countries -- the administration's response has focused on condemning critics for politicizing national security -- a charge before which the Democrats usually crumble.

Still, there is a chance that some of the gutsier Dems, with the support of an increasingly fed-up public, could make progress toward exposing the truth.

But if lawmakers of either party do not begin to reclaim their constitutional powers -- by asking questions such as those listed below -- it's not hard to envision a time when visitors may come to the venerable Caucus Room as if to a museum, to learn about a bygone era when congressional investigations still served as a check on the imperial presidency.


1. Who lost Iraq?

It goes without saying that a congressional investigation -- a joint inquiry by both houses, given the gravity of the matter -- should address the causes, conduct, and effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, going back to the days immediately after Bush's election when the plans for invading Iraq were laid (see "A War Foretold," Page 61). But beyond that, the conduct of the war on terror has raised myriad vital questions that, at another time, would have been subjects of full-fledged inquiries on their own: the Pentagon's failure to adequately equip troops with armor, ammunition, radios, and the like; the use of mercenary forces; the contracting process; and the government's efforts to manipulate the press through outside PR agencies. Also worthy of scrutiny is the role of oil and gas, including the work of the secret Cheney energy task force, which points to prewar discussions with the ceos of major companies about Iraqi oil.

A congressional investigation into the Iraq war must make full use of subpoena power and must be prepared to forward findings of illegal acts to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. Just as important, public hearings could provide an opportunity -- and protection -- for would-be whistleblowers: Recall that Daniel Ellsberg didn't take his trove of documents, showing the Defense Department's true assessment of the war in Vietnam, to the New York Times until after he had been rebuffed by congressional Democrats. Somewhere inside the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies today's Pentagon Papers are waiting.

2. Who blew 9/11?

It's high time to follow up on the startling discoveries of the Senate and House's joint inquiry, back in December 2002, on pre-9/11 intelligence. In reconstructing the hijackers' trail, the inquiry's staff discovered that the FBI had failed to report, and had later balked at making public, information showing that it knew that a bureau informant in the San Diego Muslim community had socialized with two of the hijackers, and that another man who had been investigated by the FBI had rented an apartment to one of them. Both of the future hijackers had been closely followed by the CIA as they made their way from the Middle East to Malaysia; the agents lost track of the men before they boarded a plane to California, where they then lived openly, with driver's licenses and a phone book listing in their own names. So far, no one has been able to discover how they escaped detection by the FBI -- and why the bureau refused to let Congress find out what happened.

The joint inquiry also discovered a Saudi spy operating in California -- the same man who had rented an apartment to one of the hijackers -- along with suggestions of a larger network, according to former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.). The spy nominally worked for a Saudi government contractor, and the committee followed a money trail going back to the royal family and the Saudi government, according to Graham. This was a tantalizing find. Congressional sources have suggested that Saudi spooks may have been sent to California to keep tabs on Saudi students who might be tempted by democratic ideas; it has also been speculated that some of these undercover agents could have become enmeshed with Al Qaeda. In any event, the White House has adamantly refused to declassify 28 pages of the final committee report that dealt with Saudi Arabia. When Congress later set up an independent commission to look into 9/11, it pointedly ordered the panel to "build upon the investigations of other entities" such as the joint inquiry. Yet the commission's report glossed over many questions involving Saudi Arabia. A new select committee could pick up where other probes left off.

3. How wide is the domestic surveillance net?

In the mid-1970s, the Church Committee, named after Idaho Democratic senator Frank Church, put out 14 separate reports that exposed the intelligence agencies' abuses of law. The Pike Committee, named after Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.), conducted a parallel inquiry in the House, focusing mostly on the CIA. Among other things, the investigations discovered the notorious COINTELPRO operation to spy on and disrupt left-wing groups. Thirty years later urgent questions are once again piling up: Just what is the extent of the agencies' spying inside the United States? What are the true motivations and outcomes of this surveillance? How much money is going into spying programs? There is much evidence that domestic intelligence gathering is not limited to the infamous NSA surveillance project. The ACLU, for one, has obtained numerous files describing FBI cooperation with local police in joint terrorism task forces that have targeted groups such as Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

4. Is Big Oil pulling an Enron?

The last serious investigation of the oil industry concluded in 1952 with the Federal Trade Commission's staff report on the International Petroleum Cartel, published by the monopoly subcommittee of the Senate. That study laid out a now-familiar pattern: A major concern of the oil industry has always been the threat of surpluses driving down prices. To prevent surpluses, oil and gas companies have employed means such as instituting quota systems, closing off reserves from market, and setting up cartels, or agreements among producers.

Today, while many experts believe oil will soon run out, there is no actual shortage that could be blamed for driving up gas prices. The hurricanes of 2005 did not put the supply in any serious jeopardy, nor was lack of refinery capacity a real factor. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, refineries along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere frequently run below capacity, meaning that there was some slack in the system.)

There is, however, evidence to suggest practices reminiscent of Enron's market rigging: Last year, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a California-based consumer group, released a series of internal memos from Chevron, Texaco, and Mobil that laid out the industry's thinking. A Texaco memo, for example, warned that "supply significantly exceeds demand year-round. This results in very poor refinery margins and very poor refinery financial results. Significant events need to occur to assist in reducing supplies and/or increasing the demand for gasoline." An investigation would subpoena internal company documents and take testimony from oil executives under oath -- not just in an "unsworn" chitchat like the sideshow put on by the Senate commerce and energy committees last year -- to discover whether the companies conspired to rig prices or manipulate supply.

5. Who's making money off your retirement?

It's been predicted that at least 1 in 10 retirees in 2020 will teeter on the edge of financial collapse or plunge into outright poverty. Social Security is just a small bit of the problem. The potentially much bigger challenge is the disappearance of pensions, most of which have been replaced with 401(k)-type accounts dependent wholly on the securities market. This is an enormous shift: Corporations have succeeded, with amazingly little protest from labor, in transferring the cost -- and the risk -- of retirement from employer to employee. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. provides some backup when a company with a standard pension plan goes under (think United Airlines). With 401(k)s, there is no insurance. The Securities and Exchange Commission is supposed to regulate mutual funds, which handle most 401(k) money; the sec has nowhere near the resources to keep tabs on the $9 trillion business, so policing is largely left up to the funds themselves.

Before this crisis grows greater, Congress ought to launch a serious investigation into the retirement system. We've got to know all the ways companies are bailing on their pension plans -- by converting them into 401(k)s, by filing for bankruptcy, or simply by quietly not paying into (or "underfunding") them for years at a time. We need to understand who controls the money in 401(k)s, what the hidden costs are, and to what extent these accounts are threatened by Wall Street conflicts of interest. For example, thanks to deregulation laws passed during the Clinton administration, commercial banks can now sell the mutual funds that their investment-banking arms manage, but investors have no recourse if their 401(k)s lose value because of bad management. With Social Security privatization refusing to die, and Wall Street eager to get its hands on that money, Congress should do some due diligence.

BONUS: Grounds for impeachment?

Congressional investigators digging into the aforementioned questions cannot ignore the possibility of impeachment proceedings against Vice President Cheney, who figures prominently in almost every one of the scandals engulfing the administration. It was Cheney who ran the government's response to the 9/11 attacks without constitutional authority, at one point ordering shoot-downs of commercial planes and what would turn out to be a medevac helicopter; who led the secret meetings of administration officials and oilmen to set energy policy; who allowed Ahmed Chalabi to play the U.S. government like a violin; who very well may be the origin of the whisper campaign that culminated in the Plame leak; and, of course, it was Cheney's former employer (and source of continuing deferred compensation paychecks) that benefited enormously from no-bid contracts in Iraq. Judicial Watch, the conservative legal outfit in Washington, has unearthed an email dated March 5, 2003, sent by an Army Corps of Engineers official whose name had been blacked out, that said of a pending deal under which Halliburton would rebuild the Iraqi oil industry, "We anticipate no issue since the action has been coordinated w VP's office." There's plenty more where that came from; whether any of Cheney's actions constitute "high crimes and misdemeanors" is for Congress, and the nation, to debate.

Read about additional questions the Democrats should be asking at MotherJones.com.

Voters Set Republicans Loose on the World

The war against Iraq is now a done deal. Casting ballots last night, the voters showed virtually no opposition to attacking Saddam Hussein, instead reinforcing the congressional approval for President Bush's military aims and sending yet another signal to the United Nations to move or get lost.

For politicians in both parties, the steady Republican gains clearly signaled the Democrats would not get revenge for Al Gore's loss in Florida two years ago. In his home state of Texas, the president was unassailable. Bush may have squeaked into office in 2000, but this election shows that people like him. It also showed that war can submerge domestic scandal, whether political or economic. The Clinton Dems liked to say, "It's the economy, stupid." Not when there's talk of war, it's not.

For their part, the Democrats, led by the Clinton-era centrists, turned their party into Bush lookalikes, heavy on jingoism and light on fiscal responsibility. Without the fluke return of New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg, the Republican control of the Senate would be even more conclusive. This election may seem to indicate listless drift, but it reaffirms the conservative majority. In tone, it takes us back to the Eisenhower '50s.

On the home front, Republican control of the Senate goes a long way toward removing the Democratic rear-guard action against Bush's right-wing judicial appointees. Up to now, the Democrats have blocked these nominations. The one barrier to the administration's steady encroachment on civil rights has been a handful of federal district and appellate judges. Those jurists are about to get some mighty conservative company.

Reform of the federal courts has been the single most important goal of the right-wing Republicans since Ronald Reagan. During his presidency, Reagan and the New Right suffered a crushing defeat when conservative Robert Bork failed to win Senate approval for a Supreme Court position. But that defeat led only to a redoubling of the Republican resolve. Today the Supreme Court is safely in conservative hands. Some say that dominance allowed them to pick the current president. Now they'll extend that reach, making decisions large and small to steer democracy down the course of their choosing.

With a conservative congress, the right-wing administration has the green light to reorganize and rewrite constitutional safeguards of civil rights under the regimen of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Certain federal judges have blocked outright or dragged their feet on letting the administration go ahead with unfettered search and seizure, not to mention imprisonment without a hearing or even charges let alone trial. They've tried to force the administration to follow the rule of law in dealing with hundreds of 9-11 detainees. A Republican majority means that kind of safeguard will soon be history.

The Spoils of War

As they prepare to make war on Iraq, cowboy-in-chief George Bush and his cohorts have pulled out all the stops. They're trying to convince us that this act of pure aggression is a "preemptive" move that will allow Americans to sleep more peacefully in their beds, while the Iraqi masses cheer the conquerors who have starved them for a decade and then bombed them to smithereens.

And that's just for starters. In the imaginations of Bush and his advisers, this Wild West approach to the Middle East stands to knock out Syria's despot, rein in the Saudi royal family, inspire the neighboring Iranians to their own pro-American putsch, banish the Palestinians to Jordan, and clear the way for Israeli settlers.

The doctrine of the preemptive strike is the perfect strategy for ushering in a new century of neocolonialism, unfettered by any need to respect sovereignty or self-determination. Better still, it's going to mean big bucks for whoever gets in on the ground floor. Before the war can begin, the movers and shakers in Washington and around the world have their eyes on divvying up the spoils.

Military Vendors

First in line to benefit from the war is Dick Cheney's old company Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root -- or, more colloquially, just Brown & Root -- which has cornered the market in supplying American armies of "liberation" around the globe. Launched in the 1930s amid a maze of political deals and lucrative government contracts, the Texas oil construction outfit built airstrips, roads, harbors, and military bases in Vietnam, and later provided similar services in Zaire, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

As Bush Senior's secretary of defense, Cheney oversaw the privatization of the military's logistics operations. Journalist Robert Bryce, who has chronicled the construction company in minute detail, reports Brown & Root won contracts of nearly $9 million to help the government implement those policies, giving it a natural leg up. During the 1990s, records show, it earned more than $2.5 billion for military support -- much of it during Cheney's time as a top Halliburton executive.

With Cheney back in the White House, Brown & Root's fortunes have only improved. Last spring the Army Operations Support Command awarded it an open-ended deal to work with army engineers and "provide for the construction of base camps and their infrastructures, including billeting and dining facilities; food preparation, potable water and sanitary systems; showers; laundries; transportation; utilities; warehouses and other logistics support." How much has Brown & Root already made under this contract -- and how much does it stand to make in Iraq? We may never know. The numbers are classified.

Agricultural Interests

Before the first Persian Gulf war, Iraq had become a sizable market for American rice, wheat, and chickens. In the last half of the '80s, the United States sold $4 billion in food to Iraq. Twenty percent of the American rice crop went there at one point in the 1980s.

In 1988-89 the United States exported 521,000 tons of rice to Iraq, making it our number one consumer. More recently, the figure has been zero. A spokesperson for the U.S. Rice Federation, which takes a dim view of the sanctions, wouldn't comment on the current situation. But it's safe to say there would be nothing like a war, regime change, and the subsequent lifting of sanctions to open up this lucrative market once again.

Big Oil

Oil, clearly, is the commercial jackpot in this war. Even under the sanctions, Iraq provides us with 9 percent of our oil supply. Until this spring, we were buying half of all Iraq's oil exports. But oil is also the carrot the U.S. is holding out to potential allies. As Bush with his left hand assures the American people that he will fight to secure their energy supply, with his right he's giving away future Iraqi oil to buy support from the French and the Russians.

At the recent Group of Eight summit in Canada, Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly told Bush he couldn't care less whether Saddam got the heave-ho, as long as Russia got compensated for about $12 billion in outstanding loans to Iraq, and $4 billion owed them for transporting Iraqi oil. Meanwhile, the Russian oil companies are scrambling to save their recent deals. LUKoil, for one, signed an exploration contract in 1997. "We're against this war," said LUKoil's flack Dmitry Dolgov in Moscow. "We don't know about the United States, [but] we know that our government and our president promised us to back all our interests in Iraq under any possible event." And Slaveneft -- which, according to one story, is actually financed by Saddam Hussein himself -- wants in.

The French, too, want American assurances they won't lose oil concessions. "We have no operations right now, as it isn't legally possible," said Tomas Fell of Totalfinaelf, the giant French oil concern hungry to develop two fields in southern Iraq. "If we could legally operate in Iraq, we would be very interested in working there."

Other smaller outfits are hoping to cash in on oil deals: Petro Vietnam, China's National Petroleum Corporation, and Indonesian companies are all eyeing the Iraqi fields.

Publicly, the big international oil companies remain above it all. When asked if the Exxon Mobil had any operations in Iraq, flack Lynn Durano of Exxon Mobil said, "Absolutely not." As for the upcoming war, Durano added, "It would be totally inappropriate to speculate on a war with Iraq. Exxon has not been involved with any topical discussions regarding a war in Iraq." A Shell spokesperson likewise had no comment on the sanctions or the possibility of war, saying only, "We obey the law."

However, it is well known that the majors, reeling from attacks on their environmental policies and with an invidious history of meddling in the third world, need stability to drill oil and protect the billion-dollar-plus investments in pipelines. Lucio Noto, former Exxon Mobil vice chairman, said in a recent interview, "I think in many cases [sanctions] do not achieve the intended objective. In many cases they hurt groups of people we are not intending to hurt. I believe they take us out of the ball game and leave the playing field to other people. And I think if you look at the track record, they have been singularly ineffective."

The prospect of a black-gold rush in Iraq means the United States can exchange oil futures for support for the war. But over the long haul, the war may produce unanticipated consequences for the oil companies -- and thus for their native son George W. Bush. Robert Mabro, who heads the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, a British think tank, argues there is no doubt that a new pro-American Iraqi government will initially seek to maximize the volume of production. "This output-maximization policy, particularly if pursued at a time when the market is oversupplied, could cause prices to collapse" and thus destabilize the region. "Bad seeds sowed now will inevitably produce in the end their poisonous flowers," warns Mabro.

Saudi Royals

There's another potential monkey wrench in the rosy scenario for big business. If there's war, the one man Bush will need is Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, crown prince of Saudi Arabia. His kingdom is America's surrogate in the Middle East, providing the U.S. with a secure military base and acting as a stabilizing force within OPEC, absorbing the ups and downs of oil prices. More than anyone else in the royal family, the prince knows how to handle the quarrelsome local tribes -- including the Wahhabi, whose religious fundamentalism influences Osama bin Laden and many of his followers -- and how to stave off any fundamentalist revolt by doling out jobs in the Saudi National Guard.

But by all reports, al-Aziz is getting tired of being Our Man in Riyadh, taking in billions in oil dollars and then recirculating them back to the United States through defense contracts. He wants a more independent policy.

He also has close dealings with Syria's strongman, President Bashar al Asad, and has been trying to persuade the International Monetary Fund to help modernize Syria's economy with the understanding that Saudi Arabia stands behind any deal. Bush hawks who see Iraq as the starting point for a world war that takes out Syria will run hard up against the Saudis. The Saudis also are financiers of last resort if Lebanon goes down the drain.

Most important, the prince has reached out to Iran with the goal of forging a common oil policy. A report last month from the Petroleum Finance Company -- a consulting firm in Washington which works with Aramco, the joint U.S.-Saudi oil company -- pointed out that a united Saudi-Iranian oil front would become the heartbeat of OPEC, and would wield extraordinary power. Should either or both of these two nations decide they've had it with Bush, all they have to do is let the much-heralded free market take over, flooding the globe with crude and sending oil prices into a steep dive. Lower prices would wipe out not only smaller international companies that have been enticed into oil play by high prices, but could wipe out the domestic oil companies in the United States, causing sheer political hell for Bush in his little oil bastion of Houston.


Additional research: Gabrielle Jackson, Rebecca Winsor and Josh Saltzman.

November Surprise?

The word among wags in Washington is that George W. Bush will invade Iraq right after the fall congressional elections, giving himself time to get the war out of the way before his own presidential campaign swings into gear. An attack before November would be difficult because the desert would be too hot for troops to maneuver with all their biochemical gear, or so the argument goes.

More importantly, launching an expensive -- and hard to justify -- assault amid a suspect economy and heated midterm battles for the House would be politically tricky, at a minimum. What's more, say those who purport to know, the defense industry needs time to build up its stock of smart bombs, run down in the razing of Al Qaeda strategic positions and Afghan villages.

With all the press speculation focused on an attack in February or March, an autumn shot might be a surprise. Since American allies in the Middle East are skittish about letting us launch attacks from their soil, aircraft carriers will be much more important than during the Persian Gulf War. By November, five of them -- each carrying up to 85 planes, including 50 strikers -- will be near enough to carry out raids. Finally, Bush's current major foreign-policy advisers, Ariel Sharon and the rest of the Israeli right, are pushing the president to go for it. They're even vaccinating hundreds of key emergency responders for smallpox, just in case the Iraqi president retaliates with an unprecedented biological assault.

"Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose," Raanan Gissin, a senior Sharon counselor, told The Guardian over the weekend. "It will only give Saddam Hussein more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction."

As a practical matter, while modest reservations against an attack have been voiced by such luminaries as former Daddy Bush top aide Brent Scowcroft and retiring House heavy Dick Armey, most of the criticism is actually thumb-sucking by people like Henry Kissinger, who are skilled at being on all sides all the time. The only real opposition in Congress is from the right-wing Republicans. The Democrats are demure.

The political opposition, such as it is, pretty much thinks war is in the cards. "My feeling is that the administration has staked so much in it that they're going to have an awful hard time backing down," says Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and author of the anti-imperialist treatise 9-11. "I suspect that they're putting such a heavy stake in it to make it difficult to back down."

Chomsky says the current hawks are mostly recycled Reaganites, bullies who steamrolled dissent in the '80s and can be expected to do the same now. "Anytime they wanted to ram through some outrageous program, they would just start screaming and Congress would collapse," he says. "I mean, it's not just Congress; it's the same in what's called intellectual discussion. Very few people want to be subjected to endless vicious tirades and lies. It's just unpleasant, so the question is, Why bother? So most people just back off."

Those Reaganites have had their own dealings with Hussein, and they remain preoccupied with him now. They were there when the U.S. helped Iraq with its chemical warfare against Iran, as The New York Times reported on Sunday, letting the world in on what everyone in Washington knew already. In fact, as Iraq gassed its enemy, the U.S. actually removed the nation from its list of terrorist states and enthusiastically increased military and other aid across the board to help Saddam beat the fundamentalist Muslims in Iran.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq never was a predictable ally for the West. In the early 1970s, Saddam signed a friendship pact with the Soviets, nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company, and strongly opposed Israel. But in the face of Iranian fundamentalism, the U.S. sought ways to curry favor with Iraq against Iran.

After re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1984, the U.S. expanded its guaranteed agricultural exports to Hussein. Saddam shifted away from collective farms and toward tree crops, chickens, and dairy products, a changeover that went hand-in-hand with the relocating of the population from the countryside to the cities. At one point, the U.S. sold as much as 20 percent of its entire rice crop to Iraq. And Saddam wasn't just buying food. In December 1990, Village Voice writer Murray Waas documented the U.S. sales of military hardware -- weapons systems and helicopters -- to the Iraqis, shipments that armed Saddam with weapons he later used against us in the Persian Gulf campaign.

Despite having our own equipment at his disposal, Saddam quite quickly went down to defeat -- a lesson not lost on Hussein's military commanders or on neighboring nations. Chomsky argues the Iraqi army would fare no better this time, but he warns against false confidence on the part of the White House. The last time around, Mideast leaders wanted Hussein out of Kuwait. This time, they want the U.S. out of their affairs. "If I was in the Republican Guards, I'd just hide my rifle and run," Chomsky says. "They're just going to get devastated. And I also suspect that the guys in Washington may be right in their assumption that the rest of the region and the world will be so intimidated that they won't do anything. That's a possibility. On the other hand, the whole place might blow up. It's just flipping a coin -- you've got no idea."

The only certainty, it seems, is that the U.S. will attack. "I think this war will happen, and I think it's likely to be right after the midterm elections or sometime in winter 2003," says Chris Toensing, editor of MERIP Report, which tracks the Middle East. The thinking of the administration is that "the U.S. is strong enough that none of these countries [Britain or the Middle Eastern allies] can mount an individual challenge to the United States, and that they won't, and that they will protest until the last moment, and when it becomes clear that the war is going to happen, then they will be quiet and let it go on and assist in various ways, either quiet or open. . . . The group of policy-makers that's really pushing this forward, that's really driving the policy, the really hawkish group, believe in American unilateralism as, not just a necessity, but a virtue. It's the first principle of their international relations."

Morton Halperin, senior director for Democracy at the National Security Council under Clinton and a present director at the Center for National Security Studies, thinks Bush will at least solicit the support of Congress before going in, but not because of the War Powers Act or any other legal requirements. "He will consult because people will tell him that this is going to be very expensive, it's going to be very complicated, we're going to have to stay there for a long time, and you don't want to do it without having gotten the permission of Congress," says Halperin. "And at the end of the day they're not going to turn you down." Turning dove on Iraq proved painful for Democrats before, he says, and they're not about to take that chance again.

These days, the smartest opposition to attacking Hussein comes from quarters like the left-leaning Foreign Policy in Focus, which has published a point-by-point rationale on its Web site, foreignpolicy-infocus.org.

• The war would be illegal, the group argues. The dispute with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction rightly belongs to the UN, not the U.S. If the U.S. on its own decides to attack Iraq because it violates a Security Council resolution, then any other member of the Security Council, acting on its own, can attack any other country, thereby creating international anarchy.

• Our allies in the region oppose the war. Kuwait itself has been mending fences with Iraq, which has agreed to respect Kuwait's sovereignty. Kuwait is opposed to a new attack by the U.S.

• There is nothing to show that the government of Iraq had links to Al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists.

• None of the 9-11 hijackers were Iraqi, no major figure in Al Qaeda is Iraqi, and no Al Qaeda funding has been traced to Iraq.

• U.S. officials have admitted that there is no evidence that Iraq has resumed its nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. After the 1991 war, all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems were destroyed. Before UN inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, they reportedly oversaw the destruction of 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 liters of live chemical weapons agents, 48 missiles, six missile launchers, 30 missile warheads modified to carry chemical or biological agents, and hundreds of pieces of equipment with the capability to produce chemical weapons. "In its most recent report," writes Foreign Policy in Focus, "the International Atomic Energy Agency categorically declared that Iraq no longer has a nuclear program."

• "Iraq's current armed forces are at barely one-third their pre-war strength," the group argues, with a nonexistent navy and a tiny air force. Military spending is one-tenth of what it was in 1990.

• Iraq is not a military threat to its neighbors, most of which have sophisticated air-defense systems. The think tank quotes Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, who noted in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot: "The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero."

Research: Joshua Hersh, Gabrielle Jackson, and Cassandra Lewis.

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