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May 05, 2005

$100 Million Gone in Iraq -- Now What?
Posted by Michael Signer

My normal day to post is Friday, but I'm off to my buddy Matt's wedding in Seattle at the butt-crack of dawn tomorrow, so I'm going to have to do this a day early...

So, there are a lot of things I'd like to talk about, from the weirdly Byzantine Florida murder mystery reported in Sunday's Washington Post to which Tom DeLay has tangential, but disturbing, links; to Kenny Baer's stellar reporting on why the British elections matter to us here in the colonies; to the powerful work by Sojourners on Darfur and the intriguing opening I think it represents for an emerging movement of progressives-of-faith.

But I'm going to write instead about Thursday's WaPo revelation that a criminal investigation is afoot into why the Administration has lost almost $100 million in Iraq so far.

I kind of caught it on the chin from some of you last week for my posting on how progressives should stand for probity as a first principle in politics. (This alliteration is actually accidental). 

I think my answers will be a little more effective in light of this incredible story confirming my original point that the other side is corrupt, and we shouldn't be:

Investigators have opened a criminal inquiry into millions of dollars missing in Iraq after auditors uncovered indications of fraud in nearly $100 million in reconstruction spending that could not be properly accounted for.

The money had been intended for rebuilding projects in south-central Iraq. But auditors with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found that of $119.9 million allocated, $7.2 million could not be accounted for at all, and $89.4 million in reported spending could not be backed up with sufficient documentation, according to a report released yesterday.

Last fall, the Kerry campaign only really got traction when the Senator honed in on this message (the only one that, Mr. Shrum, worked):  incompetence in Iraq.  And that's because the American people sensed all the mistakes stemmed from deeper flaws in this Administration's basic theory of governance:  a deferral to the will of large, energy-based corporations; a zeal to effect grudges through contracting policies; a wild-eyed belief that privatization is always more efficient.  All of which were dead wrong -- and demand a reform-based response.

The question I was trying to address earlier is that progressives' response to events like this don't just need to be just political.  James Carville has been saying for years now that progressivism's only true hope lies in becoming reformers again.  As he and Paul Begala wrote in USA Today just a couple of weeks ago:

Political reform. When House Republicans choose as their leader Tom DeLay, who has been cited and sanctioned by the Ethics Committee more often than any other congressman, it's high time for reform.

When lobbyists are writing legislation, when gambling interests are paying for luxury junkets, when the Ethics Committee itself has been put out of business, it's time for reform. Democrats should stand for cracking down on lobbyists and cleaning up our politics.

Lord Acton said absolute power corrupts absolutely. The absolute power Republicans currently enjoy in Washington has corrupted our economy, our foreign policy, our health care system and our very democracy.

If Democrats can't take on that corruption with a bold and broad agenda of change and reform, then (to paraphrase the late senator Pat Moynihan) we'd better find another country to run in.

I agree with this.  My hope is that if we think through why the Administration's cronyism, carelessness, and inefficiency seem so wrong, we can seize some philosophical and moral -- and then rhetorical, and then tactical -- ground. 

I worry that many progressives, steeped in '60's-style relativism, feel that nobility and self-sacrifice and honor in politics are all just latent sources of Puritanism and imperialism.  But this backfires into a reverse embrace of the will to power, as the only logical consequent is a certain sort of anarchy. 

This is all bad, and politically unnecessary.  It's OK to seize the moral ground in politics -- really, it is.

My position last week was that it is in the very nature of liberalism to think about politics more aspirationally, as a place where the best in us can be showcased. 

Some of you called this naive.  Lord Kinbote wrote:

That being said, this "were good and they're evil" is what got progressives into this mess in the first place. How many 60s and 70s blowhards pronounced themselves superior to history and beyond the "fly-over" states,the corrupt and rascist masses of evil white men? (please don't beat my brains in for this- I don't believe it but I am surrounded by people who do).

I agree that superiority and elitism would be the worst consequences of the probity approach.  But I see probity not an avenue to superiority but as something to center our own politics in our own minds.  This is wholly complimentary, in my mind, to an aggressive, entrepreneurial, scrappy politics. 

If we fight corruption in politics from a moral perspective, we become more populist.  This allows us to speak to the center of America, red or blue.  Which allows us to put our shoulders behind good efforts already afoot on things like federal lobbying and military contracting.  And then we win.

Others of you called the idea simply confusing.  Kevin Drum asked me in a friendly and reasonable e-mail why I used the word "probity" instead of "honesty."  I thought this was a smart question, and it made me think more carefully through what I was saying in the first place.  Here's what I wrote back to Kevin:

I guess probity because of the larger idea of integrity, wholesomeness, appeals to a more ambitious, overarching ideal of what public service can and should be... dictionary def'n is: "Complete and confirmed integrity; uprightness:"  Honesty is more discrete, less ambitious, than that... but agreed that the SAT words can be problematic in everyday political rhetoric...

So there you have it.  We should have hopeful, constructive ideas that link into why we're at the left of center to begin with.  If you don't like "probity," let's at least use "reform" -- and start talking about why we're after a more principled politics than they are.


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