The year in headlines: The nation and the world

by Jordan Green

Two thousand-seven was the year the United States’ economic decline on the world stage became apparent, with the subprime housing market collapsing, foreign capital withdrawing and the dollar losing value as a consequence.

Two thousand-seven was the year of the military surge in Iraq and deepening frustration with the occupation, the year President Bush escalated aggressive rhetoric against Iran.

It was a year in which a presidential election took on an increasing air of unreality with Republican candidates outdoing each other to show toughness against perceived foreign adversaries and border scofflaws, while Democratic counterparts vainly fantasized about reclaiming a bucolic past from before 9-11 plunged the nation into its current nightmare.

The most obvious economic manifestation has been the subprime mortgage meltdown in the housing market, as a nearly 10-year run of creative financing arrangements unraveled when interest rates adjusted upwards and financially-stressed homeowners defaulted. Once known as the largest subprime lender in the country, AmeriQuest had already closed its retail offices in the wake of a $325 million settlement when borrower Govan Tate, then 80, faced the foreclosure of his Greensboro house in September 2006. By early 2007, Tate was gone, his empty house vulnerable to thieves and drug dealers. Tate and AmeriQuest’s experiences were but a harbinger: According to a recent New York Times article, in January 2007, major subprime lenders started to collapse as defaults rose and Wall Street withdrew credit lines. Those in charge saw it, or should have seen it coming. Then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was reportedly warned by the late Fed Governor Edward Gramlich as early as 2000, but in 2004 Greenspan praised adjustable rate mortgages and deemed a national housing market bubble “most unlikely.” As to whether the subprime crisis was precipitated by fraudulent practices, Gramlich suggested the facts were self-evident: “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers? The question answers itself – the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.”

The past year has seen a litany of imperial scandals connected to the war in Iraq. As a measure of their scope from the foreign to the domestic aspects of the war, they are epitomized by the brutish behavior of North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide, which provides security for the State Department inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, and revelations that wounded veterans have been improperly cared for at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and wrongfully denied disability benefits.

The Blackwater affair took shape when employees opened fire on Nisour Square in Baghdad on Sept. 17, killing at least 16 civilians. A congressional committee also scrutinized an incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor killed a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president last Christmas. The scandal has been rife with conflicts of interest: The Nation reported in October that the State Department’s initial report on the Nisour Square incident was drafted by a Blackwater contractor. Later came revelations that the brother of now-resigned State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard was a Blackwater advisor, amid accusations that the inspector general attempted to hamper a Justice Department investigation of the company.

The Nation’s Joshua Kors broke the story in April of how Army Specialist Jon Town was knocked unconscious when a 107-millimeter rocket struck two feet above his head in Ramadi. After struggling with deafness, memory loss and depression, Town separated from the military. Doctors at Fort Carson diagnosed him with “personality disorder,” a pre-existing condition that allows the government to deny benefits. The Veterans Administration has never contested that post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by Sgt. Quentin Richardson of Greensboro resulted from his role in suppressing a detainee riot at Camp Bucca, but the VA tried to withhold his benefits because of separation pay received during an earlier period of service. The agency later acknowledged its error and refunded Richardson’s benefits.

As if the horrors of the war in Iraq were not enough, the Bush administration escalated its bellicose rhetoric against Iran this year. In October, Bush famously said, “We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Only it turned out that Iran hadn’t been pursuing nukes for more than four years. In early December, a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

The whistle had already been blown on the Bush administration’s apparent intentions to go to war with Iran by Flynt Leverett, a former national security advisor to Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Mann, who conducted secret negotiations with Iran on behalf of the administration. As reported in the November issue of Esquire, Mann told journalist John H. Richardson that she received a fax in April 2003 from the Swiss ambassador to Iran indicating that Iran was willing to make a raft of concessions to the United States. The proposal by a highly-placed Iranian envoy that was passed along by the Swiss go-between reportedly proposed that Iran would take “decisive action” against all terrorists in Iraq, end support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, abandon its nuclear program and recognize Israel in exchange for diplomatic relations with the United States. After being rebuffed by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Iran evidently dropped its plans to obtain nuclear weapons in spite of Washington’s cold hand.

Amid a year of war and rumors of war, a domestic atrocity struck Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Va. when student Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 people in Norris Hall and in a dormitory on April 16. The incident sparked national soul searching about intervention for the mentally ill, media and video-game violence and gun laws – including whether restrictions could be tightened to prevent the mentally disturbed from obtaining firearms and whether people should be allowed to carry guns into classrooms and other public areas to counteract criminal violence. In the midst of his killing spree Cho mailed a chilling videotape to NBC News in which he reportedly stated, “You had 100 billion chances and ways to have a voice today but you decided to spill my blood. You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands.”

Meanwhile, the US torture regime continued in 2007, prompting multiple controversies but as of yet no reform. The official discourse on torture has become so detached from reality that the word is rarely uttered by US lawmakers, officials or presidential candidates, and the press typically goes along with the arrangement to remain in the conversation. Earlier this month the CIA admitted that it destroyed videotapes showing harsh interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. On Dec. 19, the Washington Post reported that US District Judge Henry H. Kennedy ordered a hearing to determine whether the government violated a judicial order to preserve videotapes sought by defense lawyers representing detainees held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Concurrent with the CIA coverup, Congress has delicately sidestepped the issue of torture. In his October confirmation hearing for attorney general, Michael Mukasey declined to say whether he believed waterboarding qualified as torture. New York Senator Charles Schumer, one of two Democrats whose votes allowed the nomination to go forward, justified his support by saying Mukasey had assured him the administration would abide by a law banning so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which might seem like a baseline expectation for the nation’s highest ranking lawyer. “He flatly told me that the president would have absolutely no authority to ignore such a law,” Schumer reportedly said. “He also pledged to enforce such a law and repeated his willingness to leave office rather than participate in a violation of the law.”

Lawmakers may have had doubts about whether waterboarding constitutes torture, but retired Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, who presumably holds some expertise in the arts of war, assuredly did not. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hutson was quoted in In These Times as saying: “Other than perhaps the rack and thumbscrews, waterboarding is the most iconic example of torture in history. It has been repudiated for centuries. It’s a little bit disconcerting to hear now that we’re not quite sure where waterboarding fits in the scheme of things.”

One bright spot in an otherwise bleak year was the decision in October to award the Nobel Peace Prize to environmental activist and former US Vice President Al Gore and the International Panel on Global Climate Change, whose warnings about the peril of climate change have flown in the face of seven years of intransigence by the Bush administration.

Subsequently the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting in Bali, Indonesia, resulted in 187 countries – the United States among them – agreeing to further negotiations towards the goals of adapting to the negative consequences of climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s unclear whether the administration has undergone a conversion: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee published a report earlier this month pointing up “a systematic White House effort to censor climate scientists” that included “stifling discussions of the link between increased hurricane intensity and global warming” and “minimize[ing] the significance and certainty of climate change by extensively editing government climate change reports.”

Foreign policy challenges for the United States were not limited to Iraq and Iran in 2007. The Global War On Terror teetered in uncertainty when Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally, imposed emergency rule on Pakistan in November. The move was ostensibly made to give the government a freer hand in fighting terrorists and Muslim extremists, but critics note that the country’s supreme court was preparing to rule on whether Musharraf’s recent election as president was legitimate considering that he also headed Pakistan’s armed forces. Musharraf, who has since removed his military uniform, suspended the state of emergency on Dec. 15, but Human Rights Watch noted last week that Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry remained under house arrest. The group has complained of widespread abuses against lawyers who protested the emergency rule.

“At the police station, the station house officer started beating me and telling me to shout slogans in support of Musharraf,” Hassan Tariq, a lawyer in the Sindh province, told Human Rights Watch in an account of his Nov. 8 arrest. “I refused. So he punched and kicked me with a stick and something else. Other police officers present also joined in…. They kept taunting me and telling me to call Iftikhar Chaudhry for help and ordering me to shout slogans in support of Musharraf. They kept beating me like this until I passed out.”

While Musharraf raised the specter of Muslim extremists to justify his political aims in Pakistan, nativists in New York State ginned up a different threat to national security in the United States. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants – an effort to provide for the safe regulation of drivers who travel from home to farms and construction sites Ð was abandoned against a backdrop of howling outrage.

There seemed to be no limit to the political hyperbole when the plan was announced: The Nation reported that State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco fancied aloud that “somewhere in a cave with his den of thieves and terrorists” Osama bin Laden was popping a cork on the champagne. Similarly, upstate Republicans reportedly distributed fliers picturing a turbaned jihadist armed with an assault rifle under the banner, “Democrat county legislators want to make it easier for illegals and terrorists to get driver’s licenses.”

The episode appears to foretell the discourse in next year’s presidential election. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was called to the carpet by moderator Wolf Blitzer in a CNN debate on the matter of her initial support for the Spitzer plan and subsequent disavowal as the proposal hit the rocks. Barack Obama and John Edwards reportedly parsed it. Only Bill Richardson came out in unequivocal support. The New Mexico governor is quoted as saying: “I signed it. My law enforcement people said it’s a matter of public safety…. We wanted more people to be insured. When we started with this program 33 percent of New Mexicans were uninsured. Today, it’s 11 percent. Traffic fatalities have gone down. It’s a matter of public safety. States have to act when the federal government and Congress doesn’t.”

In the presidential race, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee have presented themselves as formidable challengers to heretofore respective frontrunners Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. As potentially the nation’s first black president, Obama has summoned the promise of a color-blind America as a candidate with an optimistic style who, incidentally, rarely harps on the theme of race.

His Lincolnesque tone of conciliation is matched with a measured specificity on policy issues, and rival Edwards’ anti-corporate campaign appears to have influenced Obama towards a more populist agenda. The Los Angeles Times reported from Iowa last week that Obama supports raising the minimum wage and harnessing it to inflation. “He favors closing the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a phased withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq over 16 months,” the report said. “He proposes giving college students a $4,000-a-year tax credit in exchange for community service, and boosting federal education funding by $18 billion a year to pay for higher teacher salaries, better early childhood programs and more aid for disabled students.”

On the Republican side, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came from behind to lead better-funded rivals Giuliani and Mitt Romney in Iowa. Progressives will like his passion for healthcare and education, but may chafe at his support for the flat tax and endorsements by Christian fundamentalists like Tim LaHaye. Like Obama, Huckabee projects an image of open-handed inclusion that cuts across against the grain of the current fearmongering. Huckabee reportedly met scholar Cornel West, an Obama supporter, after the PBS presidential debate at the historically black Morgan State University. Citing support for Huckabee among African Americans in Arkansas, West reported to New York Times columnist Frank Rich: “I said, ‘You are for real.’ Black voters in Arkansas aren’t stupid. They know he’s sincere about fighting racism and poverty.”

In foreign policy, Huckabee puts some miles between himself and bellicose rivals Giuliani and Romney. Huckabee writes in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs: “American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad…. We must first destroy existing terrorist groups and then attack the underlying conditions that breed them: the lack of basic sanitation, healthcare, jobs, a free press, fair courts Ð which all translates into a lack of opportunity and hope. The United States’ strategic interests as the world’s most powerful country coincide with its moral obligations as the richest. If we do not do the right thing to improve life in the Muslim world, the terrorists will step in and do the wrong thing.”

Huckabee’s platform, at least in tone, echoes an essay in the Nov. 19 issue of The Nation by Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. “American politicians should cease implying that Muslim nations and individuals are different from, or somehow more dangerous than, any other group of human beings, a racist idea promoted by the Christian and Zionist right,” Cole writes. “They should acknowledge that most Muslim nations are US friends and allies. A wise American policy toward the small networks of Muslim extremists would reduce their recruitment pool by the quick establishment of a Palestinian state and by a large-scale military drawdown from Iraq, thus removing widespread grievances.”

The Democratic candidates may end up falling into the same imperialistic rut that has proven so disastrous for George W. Bush and would likely deepen under most of his would-be successors from the GOP.

“If [Democrats] have been quick to denounce neoconservative fantasies of empire for having alienated much of the world, their nostalgia for a return to the hegemony of the Truman Ð or perhaps, Kennedy, or even Clinton eras Ð is itself a prescription for a world, and a United States, that no longer exists,” writes UC-Berkeley professor Jerry W. Sanders in a companion piece in The Nation. “True, the Democrats wish to reinvigorate diplomacy and lessen dependence on military force. They also spin out visions of a grand alliance of democracies and offer a nod to multilateralism, promising to consult with those they insist must once again fall dutifully behind America’s rightful lead.”

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