Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sunday Reading

Fred Thompson and the Drug Dealer: GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson has been able to overcome charges that he lobbied for pro-choice advocacy groups and gave legal advice to lawyers who were defending the Pan Am 103 terrorists, but now he’s got an adviser and donor to his campaign who is a convicted drug dealer.

Republican presidential candidate Fred D. Thompson has been crisscrossing the country since early this summer on a private jet lent to him by a businessman and close adviser who has a criminal record for drug dealing.

Thompson selected the businessman, Philip Martin, to raise seed money for his White House bid. Martin is one of four campaign co-chairmen and the head of a group called the “first day founders.” Campaign aides jokingly began to refer to Martin, who has been friends with Thompson since the early 1990s, as the head of “Thompson’s Airforce.”

Thompson’s frequent flights aboard Martin’s twin-engine Cessna 560 Citation have saved him more than $100,000, because until the law changed in September, campaign-finance rules allowed presidential candidates to reimburse private jet owners for just a fraction of the true cost of flights.

Martin entered a plea of guilty to the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana in 1979; the court withheld judgment pending completion of his probation. He was charged in 1983 with violating his probation and with multiple counts of felony bookmaking, cocaine trafficking and conspiracy. He pleaded no contest to the cocaine-trafficking and conspiracy charges, which stemmed from a plan to sell $30,000 worth of the drug, and was continued on probation.

Thompson’s campaign said the candidate was not aware of the multiple criminal cases, for which Martin served no jail time. All are described in public court records.

Karen Hanretty, Thompson’s deputy communications director, said yesterday that “Senator Thompson was unaware of the information until this afternoon. Phil Martin has been a friend of the senator since the mid-1990s and remains so today.” Thompson communications director Todd Harris added that Martin was not subjected to the campaign’s standard vetting process because “he’s a longtime friend.”

“There’s not a campaign in the world that has the ability to research every one of its supporters going back more than 20 years,” Harris said.

If this happened to a Democrat — and I’m not saying it couldn’t — that candidacy would be over. Not because the Democrats have higher standards for big-time donors and they do a perfect job of screening their friends — one Norman Hsu comes to mind — but because if the news got out that one of Hillary Clinton’s or John Edwards’s contributors and advisers had a rap sheet like Mr. Martin, the streets would be littered with the remains of the exploding heads of the Orcosphere. Bill O’Reilly would go absolutely batshit crazy, which would be an event in itself, seeing as how he does that every night anyway. But when it’s one of their own, the righties do a great job of dismissing it as old news, nothing to see here, folks, move on…and for good measure, Bill Clinton killed his drug dealing connections at an airstrip in Arkansas. Didn’t you see “The Clinton Chronicles”? If anything, this may boost Thompson’s flagging campaign, at least among the constituency of voters who identify with the bad guys from a Steven Segal movie…co-starring Fred Dalton Thompson.

Frank Rich: What if all this talk about invading Iran is just a clever ploy by the Bush administration to trap the Democrats into taking a stand on a war he doesn’t intend to start?

WHEN President Bush started making noises about World War III, he only confirmed what has been a Democratic article of faith all year: Between now and Election Day he and Dick Cheney, cheered on by the mob of neocon dead-enders, are going to bomb Iran.

But what happens if President Bush does not bomb Iran? That is good news for the world, but potentially terrible news for the Democrats. If we do go to war in Iran, the election will indeed be a referendum on the results, which the Republican Party will own no matter whom it nominates for president. But if we don’t, the Democratic standard-bearer will have to take a clear stand on the defining issue of the race. As we saw once again at Tuesday night’s debate, the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, does not have one.

The reason so many Democrats believe war with Iran is inevitable, of course, is that the administration is so flagrantly rerunning the sales campaign that gave us Iraq. The same old scare tactic — a Middle East Hitler plotting a nuclear holocaust — has been recycled with a fresh arsenal of hyped, loosey-goosey intelligence and outright falsehoods that are sometimes regurgitated without corroboration by the press.

Mr. Bush has gone so far as to accuse Iran of shipping arms to its Sunni antagonists in the Taliban, a stretch Newsweek finally slapped down last week. Back in the reality-based community, it is Mr. Bush who has most conspicuously enabled the Taliban’s resurgence by dropping the ball as it regrouped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Administration policy also opened the door to Iran’s lethal involvement in Iraq. The Iraqi “unity government” that our troops are dying to prop up has more allies in its Shiite counterpart in Tehran than it does in Washington.

Yet 2002 history may not literally repeat itself. Mr. Cheney doesn’t necessarily rule in the post-Rumsfeld second Bush term. There are saner military minds afoot now: the defense secretary Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen, the Central Command chief William Fallon. They know that a clean, surgical military strike at Iran could precipitate even more blowback than our “cakewalk” in Iraq. The Economist tallied up the risks of a potential Shock and Awe II this summer: “Iran could fire hundreds of missiles at Israel, attack American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, organize terrorist attacks in the West or choke off tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s oil windpipe.”

Then there’s the really bad news. Much as Iraq distracted America from the war against Al Qaeda, so a strike on Iran could ignite Pakistan, Al Qaeda’s thriving base and the actual central front of the war on terror. As Joe Biden said Tuesday night, if we attack Iran to stop it from obtaining a few kilograms of highly enriched uranium, we risk facilitating the fall of the teetering Musharraf government and the unleashing of Pakistan’s already good-to-go nuclear arsenal on Israel and India.

A full-scale regional war, chaos in the oil market, an overstretched American military pushed past the brink — all to take down a little thug like Ahmadinejad (who isn’t even Iran’s primary leader) and a state, however truculent, whose defense budget is less than 1 percent of America’s? Call me a Pollyanna, but I don’t think even the Bush administration can be this crazy.

Yet there is nonetheless a method to all the mad threats of war coming out of the White House. While the saber-rattling is reckless as foreign policy, it’s a proven winner as election-year Republican campaign strategy. The real point may be less to intimidate Iranians than to frighten Americans. Fear, the only remaining card this administration still knows how to play, may once more give a seemingly spent G.O.P. a crack at the White House in 2008.

Whatever happens in or to Iran, the American public will be carpet-bombed by apocalyptic propaganda for the 12 months to come. Mr. Bush has nothing to lose by once again using the specter of war to pillory the Democrats as soft on national security. The question for the Democrats is whether they’ll walk once more into this trap.

Given the events in Pakistan in the last 24 hours, that question becomes all the more interesting.

Neptune’s Navy: One man’s vigilante effort to save the oceans.

One afternoon last winter, two ships lined up side by side in a field of pack ice at the mouth of the Ross Sea, off the coast of Antarctica. They belonged to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a vigilante organization founded by Paul Watson, thirty years ago, to protect the world’s marine life from the destructive habits and the voracious appetites of humankind. Watson and a crew of fifty-two volunteers had sailed the ships—the Farley Mowat, from Australia, and the Robert Hunter, from Scotland—to the Ross Sea with the intention of saving whales in one of their principal habitats. A century ago, when Ernest Shackleton and his crew sailed into the Ross Sea, they discovered so many whales “spouting all around” that they named part of it the Bay of Whales. (“A veritable playground for these monsters,” Shackleton wrote.) During much of the twentieth century, though, whales were intensively hunted in the area, and a Japanese fleet still sails into Antarctic waters every winter to catch minke whales and endangered fin whales. Watson believes in coercive conservation, and for several decades he has been using his private navy to ram whaling and fishing vessels on the high seas. Ramming is his signature tactic, and it is what he and his crew intended to do to the Japanese fleet, if they could find it.

Watson is fifty-six years old, pudgy and muscular. His hair, which is white, often hangs over his eyes in unkempt bangs. During trips to Antarctica, he usually grows a beard or a goatee. On January 19th, the day he moored his ships together in the Ross Sea, he wore a black, military-style sweater adorned with Sea Shepherd patches, and a rainbow-colored belt that held a sheathed knife. Watson was captaining the Farley, a rusty North Sea trawler built in Norway in 1958. The ship, black with yellow trim, featured a skull and crossbones painted across its superstructure and, on the forward deck, a customized device called “the can opener”: a sharpened steel I-beam that is propelled outward from the ship’s starboard side and is used to scrape the hulls of adversaries. Watson’s plan was to transfer as much furniture, equipment, and crew as he could from the Farley to the Hunter, in part because the Farley was old and barely seaworthy, in part because it was operating illegally and could be confiscated upon entry into port, and in part to ready it for a procedure that he called Operation Asshole—so named because it involved ramming one vessel into another’s stern.

When Watson is separated from land, he tends to behave like Captain Nemo, which is to say that he does what he thinks is right, even if it involves a violation of custom or the destruction of property. There are a number of rules belonging to civilization that outrage his sense of morality, among them the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which asserts that sovereign states alone are the ocean’s enforcers. If such rules interfere with his agenda, then, as far as he is concerned, rules be damned. This is particularly true when whales are at issue. Watson believes that whales are more intelligent than people, and that their slaughter is tantamount to murder. (He once compared their extermination to the Holocaust.) The Japanese take a different view. They have been hunting whales with a modern industrial fleet since the nineteen-thirties, and the more resolutely the rest of the world condemns their hunt the more adamantly their government seems to support it. Watson maintains that if his opponents are forced to defend their actions in public they will demonstrate the untenable nature of their position. A key part of his strategy is to force the issue.

Doonesbury: Hog wild.

Opus: A brief history of dogs ruling the world. (If that’s true, then why am I leaving the house at 6:40 a.m. on a Sunday to drive ten miles to feed a cat?)