Category Archives: The Nation

What’s wrong with our politics? It’s the parties, stupid!

In The State today, there’s a column by Clive Crook of Bloomberg News that takes issue with Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that we are plagued by “too much democracy,” arguing that it’s more accurate to say, “The problem isn’t too much democracy; it’s too much politics.”

He elaborates:

You don’t measure the quality of democracy just by asking whether the politically engaged have voice, or by counting their opportunities to influence outcomes (for good or ill), important as those metrics may be. Democracy is also supposed to work for the disengaged. In that respect, this democracy is plainly failing.

America’s political class — candidates, interest groups, activists and their respective groupies in the media — can’t be faulted for lack of engagement. Boy, are they engaged. That’s fine, of course. (It would be even better if they were as interested in public policy as they are in the political contest as blood sport, but that’s another matter.) Outside that bubble, however, views of politics run the range from boredom to despair. And a main cause, I’d submit, is popular disgust with that very political class. More politics doesn’t necessarily get you more democracy, much less better democracy….

But when people say there’s “too much politics” in our, well, politics, they are confused. There’s nothing wrong with politics, per se. Properly understood, it is the set of mechanisms whereby human beings manage to live with each other, and when it’s working properly, it enables them to work together to get things of mutual benefit done.

Most of the time, when people say “politics” with a disgusted tone, they refer to contentiousness for its own sake. They refer to political actors working not to achieve something of benefit to the society, but trying to gain advantage for themselves and their own narrow ideological group.

The problem is that “politics” has come to refer to public affairs engaged in as a sport, in which there are only two sides, they are sharply separated, and one must win while the other must lose.

The system is rigged against those of us who would like to see change. Not by some class of insiders or by money contributed by a “one percent.” It’s rigged by the parties and their affiliated interest groups, who have set things up so that sensible ideas with broad, consensus appeal don’t have a chance.

Their most obvious mechanism for accomplishing this is the one mentioned in my last post: reapportionment. Every ten years, the algorithms have gotten more sophisticated, and so it’s child’s play for the party in power to draw, for instance, one super-safe Democratic congressional districts, and six others in which a Democrat will never have a prayer.

And so we have elections that are not elections, because our courts have held that incumbent protection (which really amounts to party protection) is an acceptable aim of reapportionment. So the only elections are the primaries, and they are geared to produce the most extreme, the most “pure,” expressions of the brain-dead ideologies that each party professes to embrace.

So is there any wonder that the rest of us are fed up, disillusioned?

What we need isn’t less politics; it’s more politics — the kind in which anyone has a chance to make his or her case in a fair election. We don’t have that now.

Heroes who don’t want to make a fuss about it

hero

E.J. Dionne begins today’s column thusly:

Seth Moulton, an Iraq veteran and Democratic congressional candidate on Massachusetts’s North Shore, has done something with little precedent in political campaigning: He was caught underplaying his war record.

You read that right: An investigation by the Boston Globe found that, unlike politicians who go to great lengths to puff up their military backgrounds, Moulton, as the paper’s Walter Robinson wrote, “chose not to publicly disclose that he was twice decorated for heroism until pressed by the Globe.”

It took Robinson’s reporting to discover that Moulton had won the Bronze Star and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for valor during the battles for control of Najaf and Nasiriyah.

In a telephone interview, Moulton said his reluctance reflected a “healthy disrespect” among his comrades-in-arms for boasting about citations…

And that reminds me of this other hero who prefers to remain unsung, which Dave Crockett called to our attention on an earlier post — the one who rescued a sick old man from a burning house, then melted away and did his best to remain anonymous:

Tom Artiaga groaned as the reporters starting banging on his door.

“I didn’t want the glory,” he says sheepishly, wearing the same blue Dodgers cap he had on as he walked calmly towards Wells’ burning home. “I don’t want it.”

Artiaga can barely look at me as I prod him, so uncomfortable is he talking about himself.

Artiaga says he was driving by when he saw the fire and heard the screaming about the trapped man inside. He parked his white truck and walked slowly towards the fire. The 49-year-old devoted husband, father of three and grandfather of five didn’t think about what he had to lose. A man who spends his free time helping out elderly people in his neighborhood with their gardens naturally thought about what he could do to help….

Artiaga saw his picture in the paper and the video on the local news. He couldn’t escape the video that was flying across Facebook and Twitter. He hoped his wife wouldn’t find out because he didn’t tell her. He hoped the story would fade and he could go back to his job as a delivery man for a liquor company, without anyone connecting the video to him.

“Why,” I ask. “Most of us liked to be thanked.”

Artiaga’s eyes begin to fill with emotion. “We have to help each other out. We kill each other. We fight. We gotta help each other out. I don’t feel like a hero. If it was someone else, I’d help them, too.”

A small reminder of why I like Lamar Alexander

As if I needed further evidence of the fact that Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is the kind of guy we need a LOT more of in Washington, there’s this from a story today about how President Obama doesn’t delegate much to his Cabinet:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an interview Tuesday that Obama has not followed the lesson Alexander learned as an aide to President Richard M. Nixon in 1969: Presidents do best when they delegate most issues to their Cabinet members and empower their subordinates. By taking on so much itself, Alexander said, the White House has not invested enough in making sure agencies run smoothly and provide critical input for policy decisions.

“You get the impression that everything is run out of the White House, and that’s an understandable urge, to trust only the people 10 to 15 feet away from you. But if you want to be successful, you have to delegate,” Alexander said. “He’s often the smartest guy in the room,” he added, referring to Obama, “but the wisest guy in the room will only reserve the biggest problems for himself, and push out the other problems to members of the Cabinet.”…

It’s a small thing, but a telling one. Just try to imagine, if you can, another Republican uttering the words, “He’s often the smartest guy in the room” about the president, even in the process of criticizing him.

Alexander harks back to a day in which politicians disagreed and criticized their opposition while being able to appreciate each others’ good qualities.

I’m very glad he handily survived his primary challenge from one of those hordes of people in politics now who believe it’s all about demonization.

Hutto hits Graham, again, for not being ‘downhome’ enough

There’s not much new about it. It’s his usual thing about how he thinks the job of a U.S. senator should be about worrying about everyday conditions on the ground here in South Carolina rather than in the rest of the nation and the world.

Which isn’t my concept of a senator’s role at all. When I hear Hutto say these things, I sometimes wonder whether he ought to quit the South Carolina Senate and run for county council. He seems to be all about the local level.

But don’t go by me. He’s running a populist campaign, and I don’t have a populist bone in my body.

Here’s the release that goes with the ad:

Hutto Begins Statewide TV Blitz

 

Orangeburg, SC – Democratic nominee for US Senate Brad Hutto began running TV advertisements across South Carolina today.

The ad can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhQTgegprZk&feature=youtu.be

The ad contrasts Lindsey Graham’s role as a Washington DC insider, self-promoter and potential Presidential candidate to Brad Hutto’s pledge to be a Senator who will work for South Carolina. In the ad Hutto advocates for a hike in the minimum wage, securing equal pay for women, and protecting financial security for seniors.

At the ad’s conclusion, Hutto says “We need a Senator who cares more about making a difference than making headlines.”

Hutto campaign manager Lachlan McIntosh describes the buy as major. “People will see it and they’ll be talking about it.”

 

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As you see when you watch the ad, the one new wrinkle in this one is making fun of Graham talking about the presidency, which is certainly fair game. The incumbent was sort of asking for it with that…

Sen. Tim Scott: Ban travel from Ebola-stricken countries

And now, we have this proposal from U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC:

Charleston, SC – U.S. Senator Tim Scott released the following statement regarding travel restrictions from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa. Senator Scott is a member of both the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.Scott,Tim

“First and foremost, my heart goes out to those infected with Ebola and their families both in the United States and in West Africa. This is a terrible virus, and one the world must come together to stop.

As infections continue to spread here in the United States, the trust of the American people has been shaken by the administration’s response thus far. It is clear that a temporary travel ban for foreign nationals traveling from Ebola-stricken nations in West Africa should be put in place. The President has the authority to do so, and we have seen that airport screenings and self-reporting simply are not enough.

While both the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health state that patients without a fever are not contagious, recent studies from West Africa show that almost 13 percent of confirmed cases did not present with a fever. Screenings have also only been initiated at five airports, and even at airports travelers’ symptoms can be masked by over-the-counter medications.

This is about the safety of the American people, and nothing more. As the fight against Ebola continues, a temporary travel ban for foreign nationals traveling from the epicenter of the outbreak is a necessity.”

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I find myself wondering: Did he decide independently to join the voices advocating this, or did Republicans get together and decide that his was the most sympathetic face they had for advancing such a proposal?

I say that in part because, although a number of Republicans have said it, it has tended to be those in tight races, such as Scott Brown and Thom Tillis. Sen. Scott, of course, is in the opposite of a “tight race.”

Ebola bridesmaids: First the ugly dresses, now THIS…

As if bridesmaids didn’t have it bad enough already:

Health officials say five bridesmaids of a Texas nurse with Ebola are among at least nine people voluntarily quarantined in northeast Ohio.

The Akron Beacon Journal (http://bit.ly/1oecJic ) reports Summit County Health Commissioner Gene Nixon identified the others as a bridesmaid’s husband and three children of bridesmaids who didn’t have direct contact with 29-year-old Amber Vinson.

Nixon said the bridesmaids and Vinson were at an Akron bridal shop last Saturday….

Fortunately, none are showing symptoms…

The funny thing is, this time things actually ARE that desperate for the Democrats

Among the “end of the world as we know it” emails I’ve received today from the Democratic Party is this plaintive lament:

We’re out of people to email you.

In the last week, you should have received an email from:

— President Obama
— Nancy Pelosi
— And every other Democrat on the planet

But it just wasn’t enough. The Koch Brothers’ last-minute ad blitz just made it too tough to catch up before last night’s deadline.

We’re not making this stuff up. Control of Congress is at stake. We’re dangerously behind. And we just fell short on the final public fundraising deadline of the election.

So here’s our last ditch effort: we’re extending the triple-match TODAY ONLY. We need 9OOO more donations in the next 12 hours if we want any shot at giving President Obama a Democratic victory in this election.

We’re begging, Brad. Can you chip in right now?…

As you know if you’ve ever found yourself on one of these email lists, all of them sound like that. The world’s about to end, you’ve been reached out to by people pretending to be various famous party members, and there’s a demon on the other side. With Democrats, the demon is usually the Koch Brothers or Karl Rove or their imaginary War on Women.

Basically, they’re always freaking out.

But as I read this particular cry for help, something struck me: This time, the Democrats really are in dire straits. Not that that matters, of course — I wouldn’t give two cents for either party to come out on top. But for once, all their moaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth actually has a foundation.

Every indicator out there shows that Republicans are going to win pretty much across the board. They’re going to keep the House, and win the Senate. All the energy and enthusiasm is on the GOP side, all the depression on the Democratic side.

Things are looking so bad for the Dems, such tectonic forces are at work, that it really doesn’t matter whether you give them money or not. (And of course, I would urge you not to.)

The Democrats are in the same situation Mr. Posner was in when Billy Jack told him he was going to take THIS foot and kick him on THAT side of his head:

There’s not a damn’ thing they’re going to be able to do about it.

Ebola in the U.S. has now reached the critical ‘WTF?’ stage

800px-Ebola_virus_virion

So, let’s review the chart here, shall we?

  • Patient presents at Dallas hospital with symptoms consistent with Ebola. He tells ER staff that he’s been in a country affected by the outbreak. They send him home.
  • He comes back to the hospital days later, is finally diagnosed and treated, but dies — which of course is going to happen in far too many cases with this horrific disease.
  • It takes DAYS for anyone to take it upon themselves to put on hazmat suits and go clean out the apartment where this guy was sick before going into the hospital. Human beings are living in that apartment during that time.
  • We learn that a nurse at the hospital that treated the deceased has contracted the disease. This shatters our hubris about how, here in the U.S. we know how to treat infectious diseases safely.
  • Today, we learn that a second nurse who treated this patient is sick with Ebola. Which makes us wonder what in the world kinds of procedures were in place at that hospital. And whether Ebola transmits a LOT more easily than we had been told.
  • Between being infected and showing symptoms, the second nurse flew to Cleveland and back, the return trip on the day before coming down with the disease. Authorities are now trying to reach the 132 people who were on board  Frontier Airlines flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas with her on Monday. She was supposedly being monitored for signs of Ebola during the period in which she took this trip.

OK, so maybe the proper, professional reaction to these developments isn’t “WTF?,” but a more dignified, “Really?”

But a great deal of incredulity is a natural reaction, along with more than a little alarm.

As we speak, all over the country, hospitals and government health officials are (one hopes) reviewing plans and procedures. Which is good, because Ebola is horrible enough, and enough people are going to suffer and die, without committing boneheaded errors that help it along…

Before the last few weeks, everything I knew about Ebola came from Tom Clancy novels — specifically, Executive Orders (in which a fictional Iranian regime launches a deliberate germ-warfare attack on the United States using the virus, infecting thousands) and Rainbow Six (in which a super-radical environmental group, backed by a billionaire businessman, attempts to wipe out the rest of the human race using the disease).

Ever read a Tom Clancy novel? He was a great respecter of expertise, of whatever type — military, medical, what have you, his tales were filled with calm, super-competent professionals who always knew exactly what to do in a dangerous situation, and usually did it flawlessly. He was a great admirer not only of technology, but of procedure. When a patient came in with a high fever, nausea and petechiae, the staff swept into action sealing off the area and instituting ironclad safety procedures, making sure none of the medical professionals contracts the disease, and even if they do, that they don’t take it out into the world with them.

Apparently, it doesn’t always work that way in the real world. To say the least…

I do well on the serious tests, badly on the silly ones

Pew quiz2

The trend continues.

There was a story in The Washington Post this morning about the fact that “One third of Americans think the government spends more on foreign aid than on social security.”

Stupid one third. Of course, this is a continuation of the stubborn belief that we spend some huge proportion of our budget on foreign aid, when we spend about 2 percent on it. People continue to get this wrong, against all reason, even though their foolishness has been written about over and over and over and over and over. This is related to the increasing irrational hostility toward government in general — most people don’t like the idea of foreign aid, so they overestimate how much is spent on it.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to give up on democracy. On your bad days, anyway. At the least, it underlines the superiority of representative democracy over the direct kind.

Anyway, the story said the findings came from one of those Pew quizzes I like so much, so I immediately went and took this one. I got 11 out of 12 right, putting me ahead of 96 percent of those tested.

But… and here’s the really, really embarrassing thing… I missed the same question as the stupid one-third did. No, I didn’t say “foreign aid.” I gave a different wrong answer. I knew the right answer, and if I had just done it in a hurry, I’d have gotten a 100. But I thought, “I haven’t compared these things in awhile. Maybe this other thing has overtaken the one I think it is. Maybe this is a fargin’ trick question.” So I chose the other thing. But it was, of course, the first thing.

The irony is that if I had done what I have to do taking the weekly Slate News Quiz, I’d have gotten it right. That test is timed, and I hate that about that test. I also hate that it is deliberately about details in the news, rather than about whether you know overall what’s going on, and the relationships between different facts (which is what Pew tests).

Anyway, this being Friday, I went and took that one. And bombed. See the results below.

I would do better on that if it weren’t timed. I can usually see through the red herrings and at least intuit the right answer if I take a little time. But you’re penalized for taking time. So I do badly. Note that I completed the test in one minute, 47 seconds. Which for me is barely enough time to properly consider one question, much less 12.

And yet, I took too much time on the other test. Go figure.

slate quiz

In the Line of Ire: Secret Service chief quits

A guy climbing the fence and running wild in the White House and some aggressive reporting by The Washington Post have led to the following:

Julia Pierson, the director of the Secret Service, resigned Wednesdayfollowing a series of security lapses by her agency, including a recent incident in which a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with President Obama.secret service

Obama “concluded new leadership of the agency was needed based on recent and accumulating accounts” of performance problems within her agency, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a news briefing.

Pierson’s departure from her post came just 24 hours after a congressional oversight hearing about a growing number of security breaches. She appeared evasive, gave conflicting accounts of a recent incident involving a man who jumped over the White House and got deep inside the building, and said she learned some things about her agency by reading accounts in the Washington Post.

That growing list of security failures, many first reported in the Washington Post, had put the president and his daughters in potential danger. Some of the details of the lapses, including the service’s fumbled response to a 2011 shooting at the White House, were unknown to Congress and the president before they were reported ….

It usually takes a little longer than this for someone in Washington to fall this hard. But fall she did.

And yeah, I partly posted this just to use the headline…

I’d also like to say that while I don’t subscribe to the school that holds that the ultimate measure of a journalist is the number of public officials’ scalps on his or her belt, the Post has done some fine work ferreting these stories out, and making a compelling case for quick action.

That said, a resignation solves nothing. The work of addressing these problems needs to begin now.

Why DO Americans freak out so over single-payer?

One recent morning, I watched another episode of “The West Wing” while on the elliptical trainer. It was the one titled “Drought Conditions,” the 16th episode of Season 6. It’s the one you might remember best from the scene when Josh and Toby actually get into a fight, right there in the West Wing, and Toby gets a nasty cut on his cheekbone. (See above.)

At this point in our story, Josh has left the White House to manage Matt Santos’ bid for the Democratic nomination for president. His candidate has done better than expected in New Hampshire, but Josh is worried about another candidate who has come out of nowhere to start grabbing support that should go to Santos. This new candidate, Rafferty, is using language that Toby once wrote for Bartlet in favor of a single-payer health care system. Toby admits he’s been collaborating with Rafferty. This is what precipitates the fight.

Anyway, there are two or three conversations about this, and we pick up on the fact that, way back before they won the White House, everybody else had to talk Toby (and presumably President Bartlet) down from their politically unpalatable position.

This was so familiar to me. This episode aired two years before I wrote my column asking why no presidential candidate, even in the Democratic field, dared to say “single-payer,” other than fringe extremists such as Dennis Kucinich. Barack Obama certainly didn’t dare say it. My attitude was much the same as Toby’s: What’s the point in even having Democrats, if they can’t stand up for something so obvious, so commonsense, so entirely accepted in the rest of the advanced world — and so in their wheelhouse ideologically?

Anyway, I finished watching the episode just as I finished with the elliptical trainer. (I do 40 minutes, which is almost perfect for watching American “hour-long” commercial TV shows.)

While doing my crunches and stretches after, I put on a few minutes of a “30 Rock” that I’d started watching previously. It’s the one when Jack and Avery have their baby, reluctantly, in Canada after failing to get back across the border before she gave birth.

Which leads to this exchange, which interrupts a phone call Jack is having with Liz Lemon:

Avery: This woman is trying to tell me that we don’t have to pay for any of this.

Woman: Right. The Canadian health care system…

Jack: Oh, no you don’t. We will not be party to this socialist perversion. You will take our money.

Woman: I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that.

Liz (on the other end of the phone): Oh, this is gonna be good.

Jack: Avery, can you walk yet?

Avery (rising from her bed, holding the baby): I am right behind you, Jack.

Jack: Let’s go find a Canadian who will take our money.

That is played for laughs, and it is hilarious, particularly Jack’s hyperbolic crack about “socialist perversion.”

But what it’s making fun of isn’t funny. Why DO Americans freak out so over something that Canadians and Brits take for granted?

Y’all know me. I’m a center-right kind of guy (if you must place me on that stupid left-right spectrum), and on some things a neocon. I want the federal government out of things it has no business in, such as education (which means, by the way, that I would never vote for the fictional Matt Santos — he comes across like he’s running for school board rather than POTUS).

But putting everybody into the same risk pool and eliminating profit from the payment system just seems like common sense, not radical at all. Paying my premiums (or if you prefer, taxes) for coverage that I can never lose, no matter where I go to work in the future, also just makes sense to me. Having something simpler than either the patchwork of private coverage or the complex maze of Obamacare just makes sense to me.

I don’t get why it doesn’t make sense to other people — and in fact, freaks them out so. I mean, intellectually I understand that some people have a sort of religious horror of the government being involved with anything. I accept that they are that way. But I have trouble understanding why they’re that way. Why do Americans get so worked up about something that other people who are so like us culturally — such as the Brits, and the Canadians — take for granted, as a matter of course?

Some of y’all have tried to explain it to me in the past. Maybe you should try again. Maybe I’ll get it this time. Then again, maybe not.

The thing is, I can probably recite all of the objections. The words I know. What I don’t get is the passion, the horror at the idea. It’s the emotion that eludes my understanding…

They have an odd sense of ‘longtime’ in Kansas

roberts

Or at least, at The Washington Post.

I was struck by the above headline on the Post’s iPad app this morning. I immediately thought, “Longtime? Well, Pat Roberts wasn’t a U.S. senator when I was in Kansas, working as the news editor of the Wichita paper. The senators then were Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. Or am I remembering it wrong.”

No, I was right. And while I admit my stint in Kansas was a  “long time” ago, he wasn’t elected to the office until many years after I left there, in 1996.

Which means he has served three terms. LIndsey Graham is running for a third term, and by South Carolina standards, he just got there. He replaced a man who served in the office from 1954 to 2003 (with a brief respite in 1956 when he resigned and was immediately re-elected to the office). Fritz Hollings was still our “junior senator” when he had been in office for 37 years!

Kansas just seems terribly fickle by comparison. People come and go so quickly there

Khorasan a worse threat than ISIL? What’s next? Terrorists with superpowers, led by General Zod?

When it comes to foreign affairs and matters of national and collective security, Americans are notorious about not paying attention, or not paying attention for long — and then being totally shocked and surprised by subsequent developments.

If network news starts showing starving people in Somalia, we’re all, “Let’s send in the troops and feed those people!” Then, after the Battle of Mogadishu, we’re like, “What! We still have people over there and they’re getting killed? Let’s get out of there!”

The fact that the NSA was collecting and sifting metadata to counter terrorism was known by people who paid attention for years, and uncontroversial. Then Edward Snowden makes a fuss and we’re all like, “What!?!? I didn’t know we were doing that! Let’s stop it!”

And so forth.

Although I used the pronoun “we” above, I like to think of myself as not really one of those Americans. I like to think I follow things less fitfully, and am less surprised at developments.

But today, I feel like one of those people.

Here I had just gotten used to the idea that ISIS, which the organization itself calls Islamic State, and the in-the-know people inside the Beltway call ISIL, was this shocking new animal, a self-financing terrorist army, with capabilities that made those old Mustache Petes in al Qaeda look pathetic, with the power to capture and hold territory and carve out new countries at will. So I felt like I was hip and up-to-date and had a good grasp on things.

But then we started bombing targets in Syria last night — no surprise there, of course, to those of us paying attention — and all of a sudden there’s a shocking new wrinkle. Not only were we hitting ISIL targets, but… well, read this from The Washington Post:

In addition to a broader campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets across Syria on Monday night, the United States also pounded a little-known but well-resourced al-Qaeda cell that some American officials fear could pose a direct threat to the United States.

The Pentagon said in a statement early Tuesday that the United States conducted eight strikes west of Aleppo against the cell, called the Khorasan Group, targeting its “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”

Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later told reporters that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.” He added, “We believe the Khorasan Group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe” or the United States, having attempted to recruit Westerners who can more easily enter the target countries….

The Independent termed Khorasan “a terror group more feared by US officials than Isis.”

And I’m all like, “WHAT!?! We’re just beginning to deal with ISIL, which I’ve come to understand is way worse than al Qaeda, and now you tell me there’s something out there even worse — which I don’t think I had ever even heard of before now? WTF?”

“What am I going to learn about tomorrow? A terrorist army with superpowers, led by General Zod?”

But then I calmed down, and realized that Khorasan is only worse than al Qaeda in that it was planning attacks here at home. Which is certainly one sense of “worse,” from an American perspective. But they don’t seem to be a rampaging terrorist army like ISIL. They’re more old-school. In fact, Muhsin al-Fadhli learned the terror trade at Osama bin Laden’s knee.

Khorasan is a serious new threat, apparently pursuing an unusually sophisticated strategy:

Khorasan hasn’t arrived to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It’s not interested laying claim to great swaths of land and resources, as is the Islamic State. Rather, American officials told the Associated Press, its members have come from Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan to exploit the flood of Western jihadists who now have skin in the fight — and possess very valuable passports. According to the AP, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dispatched this deputy to recruit those Western fighters, who have a better chance of escaping scrutiny at airports and could place bombs onto planes.

But so far, they don’t seem to have superpowers. Which is reassuring…

Regarding Scotland, I add my cheers to Friedman’s

Friday night, I ran into our own Phillip Bush at the Greek Festival. He had a pint of beer in hand, which he had obtained at the craft beer stand next to the main tent, where Greek-flavored music was being performed. I asked if he would recommend one of the beers. He said that, Anglophile that I am, I should get a Skunk Cabbage ESB, to celebrate the Scots’ rejection of separatism.

Which I did. And I congratulate the local brewers — I liked it better than the legendary Fuller’s ESB.

But I congratulate the Scots even more heartily. And I share this Tom Friedman column, which Samuel Tenenbaum brings to my attention:

Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism

MADRID — THIS was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.

As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day….

Graham, McCain blame Obama for not stopping ISIL earlier

This is from an op-ed piece by the two senators in National Review:

President Obama cannot avoid his share of responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As dangerous as ISIS is now, its rise was neither inevitable nor unpredictable. Time after time, President Obama had the opportunity to act when U.S. engagement could have made a decisive difference, and in pulling back from America’s traditional leadership role, he left a vacuum for other, more dangerous actors to fill. As a result, the situation in Iraq and Syria has descended into a crisis that poses a direct threat to the United States. Worse yet, our options for countering this threat are fewer and far worse than they were just a few years ago.

At least four of President Obama’s key decisions stand out…

Boiled down, the four are:

  1. The “failure to leave a residual force in Iraq in 2011.”
  2. In 2012, “when President Obama’s entire senior national-security team — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey — identified the threat posed by radicalization in Syria and recommended a proposal to arm and train elements of the moderate Syrian opposition.”
  3. “President Obama’s decision not to strike the Assad regime in September 2013 after Assad crossed the president’s own red line…”
  4. “Finally, in the fall of 2013, President Obama refused to launch targeted strikes against ISIS in Iraq when some U.S officials and Iraqi leaders were urging him to do so…”

Hindsight is indeed 20/20, but in this case, a lot of people were seeing trouble back then, and trying to tell the president. Of the four, I continue to find No. 2 the most startling. That wasn’t about the president’s political opponents second-guessing him. It was about him ignoring his whole team.

Yes, says the general: Ground troops may be necessary

Here’s today’s lede story for The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal:

Dempsey opens door to combat troops in Iraq

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the possibility Tuesday that U.S. troops could become involved in ground attacks against the Islamic State, despite repeated pledges to the contrary from President Obama.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. military advisers are helping Iraqi government forces prepare for a major offensive to reclaim territory seized by the Islamic State in recent months. Although the advisers have been assigned primarily to assist with planning and coordination, Dempsey for the first time suggested that they eventually could go into the field on combat missions.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Islamic State] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” he testified….

Maybe we can degrade and destroy ISIL with only air power. But as I’ve said before, we don’t know that we can — which is why it is ill-advised, sinking to the level of “doing stupid (stuff),” to rule out using ground troops on the front end. (Saying you don’t want to do it is one thing. Saying on the front end that you won’t is another matter.)

Ground combat troops could become necessary. Which is why a senior general officer, who must have plans for all contingencies, would say what Gen. Dempsey said. And why the president shouldn’t have said what he said.

Going into a fluid military situation, you can’t know that it won’t become necessary to resort to ground combat. You just can’t.

Lindsey Graham’s reaction to Obama’s ISIL speech

Above is a video of Lindsey Graham speaking on the House floor about the plan for combating ISIL that President Obama spoke about last night.

Here are some excerpts from Graham’s speech:

  • “About the speech last night, what bothered me the most was the way it started. The President tried to tell us that as a nation we’re safer today than we have ever been. Do you believe that? I don’t. There are more terrorists, more organizations with more money, more capability, and more weapons to attack our homeland than existed before 9/11. We’re not safer than we were before 9/11 and that’s just an unfortunate fact.”
  • “Every president, every senator makes mistakes. History judges you not by the mistakes you make but by what you learn from them.”
  • “Here’s what I ask of the President – stop caveating everything. Look the enemy in the eye and say ‘We will destroy you’ and stop. Look the American people in the eye and say ‘We have to win, we will win and I will do what is necessary to win.’”
  • “The American military…..they’re tired, but they’re not too tired to defend this country.”
  • “The President also said this operation against ISIL will be like other CT (Counter-terrorism) operations over the last five or six year. No, it will not! This is not some small group of people running around with AK-47s. This is a full blown army. They were going to defeat the Kurdish Peshmerga, a pretty tough fighting group, if we hadn’t intervened. To underestimate how hard this will be will bite us.”
  • “Mr. President, please be honest with the American people about what we face. Somebody’s got to beat this army. This is not a small group of terrorists. They have howitzers. They have tanks. They are flush with money. They are getting fighters from all over the world. But they can and will be defeated. They must be defeated.”
  • “There is not a force in the Mideast that can take these guys on and win without substantial American help.”
  • “Mr. President, if you need my blessing to destroy ISIL, you have it. If you need to follow them to the gates of hell, I will send you a note – ‘go for it.’ If you need Congress to authorize your actions, let me know. You say you don’t and I agree with you, but if it makes us stronger for this body to vote in support of your plan to destroy ISIL, I will give you my vote. But here’s what I expect in return — your full commitment to win.”
  • “One thing I can promise the American people – if we take on ISIL and lose – we will unlock the gates of hell. And hell will come our way.”

Graham speak

The best part of President Obama’s speech tonight

Here it is:

When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain, here’s what one of them said. “We owe our American friends our lives. Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”

That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth….

Yes, that is what sets this nation apart. We are the nation that will go halfway ’round the world to save endangered and oppressed people. And we are the one nation that can do that, time and again. We have the power; we have the resources. And therefore we have the moral obligation.

That’s not the only reason we must “degrade and destroy” ISIL. It also involves doing “what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for.”

The monsters of ISIL must be stopped. And we’re the ones to do it. It’s great that the president is enlisting others to help. But it’s going to depend on us, and our resolve to end this evil.

Some impressions from last night’s Ferguson forum at Eau Claire

Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the assembly.

Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the assembly.

First, a disclaimer: The community meeting to talk about issues related to events in Ferguson, MO, held last night at Eau Claire High School, was organized by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, with heavy involvement by the office of Mayor Steve Benjamin. I am a member of the Council, and co-chair of the Community Affairs Committee. Despite that, I was not involved in organizing this event. I will, however, likely be involved in any followup activities undertaken by the Council.

Whew, I’m out of breath after typing all of that.

Anyway, you probably saw coverage of the event in The State today. I have little to add to that coverage, beyond a few subjective impressions.

In general, the event was what you might expect it to be — a venue for people in positions authority to carefully state their concern and show their willingness to listen, and for folks whose passions are stirred by events in Ferguson to vent. On those bases, I judge it a success. I particularly commend CRC Executive Director Henri Baskins, who acted as MC with poise, fairness and calm confidence.

On the first part of that equation, I was impressed by the panelists, but most of all by new police Chief Skip Holbrook. It was the first chance I’ve had to observe him in such an environment, and he did well. Better than that — I think he may well be the steady hand that the city has needed in that job.

Chief Holbrook addresses the meeting.

Chief Holbrook addresses the meeting.

As the one white man on the stage, and the only panelist in a police uniform, he was a natural object of scrutiny, given the topic. He did an excellent job of explaining the ways that his department works to prevent situations such as those in Ferguson, and I think it went over well. His demeanor was perfect — he stood up for his department, but did so in a disarming manner. His high point: When he told the assembly, near the end, that he was a better police chief for having been there. That sort of thing could come across as corny or manipulative, but it didn’t from him.

There was some tension in the room, which I’ll encapsulate with this anecdote: At one point former U.S. Attorney and SLED director Reggie Lloyd made the observation that after the fatal shooting in Ferguson, the local officials did exactly “the right thing.” Immediately, a woman’s voice pierced the calm with a high-piping “What?!?!” He went on to explain that the right thing Ferguson officials did was turn the investigation over to outside authorities. He noted that there is an FBI investigation under way, and said approvingly that no one should expect to hear a word about that investigation until it is completed. His implication was that ours is a society with processes for dealing with such situations, even though they may not be satisfying to everyone’s emotions. In fact, he expressly urged people to separate their emotions from their own processing of the event.

Similarly, Municipal Judge Carl Solomon spoke of the importance of young people knowing their rights… but used that as a segue to say they needed to understand their responsibilities as well (I was hearing a lot of good communitarian stuff like that). Among one’s responsibilities, in interactions with police, is to remain “calm and be polite.” He suggested that a respectful demeanor gets you a lot farther than an aggressive assertion of “I know my rights!” in an interaction with the law.

Against those evocations of reason, the event included some venting of emotions. One could expect nothing else from the woman whose son was shot multiple times by police last year. And there were the usual would-be revolutionaries, such as the red-shirted young man who kept going on about how slavery still existed in these United States (because the 13th Amendment, as we all know, allows for involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”), and asserted how proud he was of the protesters in Ferguson, because he believed otherwise this discussion would not have taken place. 

Then there was the young lady who protested that there were only two “young people” on the panel, suggesting that it was somehow illegitimate for the panel to consist mostly of accomplished people with positions of responsibility in the community. This drew a few cheers from like-minded folks in the crowd.

But everyone involved deserves credit for exhibiting their emotions, as well as their reasoning, in a calm, civilized and constructive manner.

And on that basis, as I said before, I regard the event as a success. Because the ultimate goal is to learn to deal with each other and resolve our differences with civility rather than violence — is it not?

Even as the crowd thinned, folks were still lined up for a turn at the microphones.

Even as the crowd thinned, folks were still lined up for a turn at the microphone.

Good news: It’s not the economy. Bad news: It’s not foreign affairs, either…

Last week, the WSJ’s Daniel Henninger wrote a column that, from my perspective, was expressive of wishful thinking.

At one point, he wrote, “The world has reframed the politics of the 2016 election.”

A bit later, he said, “In a foreign-policy election, as it looks like we are going to have in 2016…”

Oh, if only it were so, Daniel.

Reason would dictate that we would have such an election. To begin with, all presidential elections should be foreign-policy elections, since that’s the most critical part of the job of POTUS.

But with what’s happening now in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and so on, there should be no question at all — a rational electorate would want first and foremost to know how a prospective president would lead us in dealing with the rest of the world.

But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

Still, my heart beat a bit faster when I saw this headline on my NPR app this morning: “It Might Sound Stupid, But Maybe It Isn’t The Economy This Time.”

But then I read on. Turns out that the world out there still doesn’t make the cut:

The economy is not the No. 1 issue?

That’s right. Gallup pollsters asked voters what was important, and the No. 1 topic turned out to be dissatisfaction with politicians. No. 2 was immigration. The economy had slipped to No. 3….

“Foreign policy/Foreign aid/Focus overseas” came in sixth.

And even the economy’s third-place status was rather artificial. Yes, “Economy in general” came in third, but “Jobs/unemployment” came in fourth. And if you combine the two, which would make more sense, they’re easily in first place.

And don’t get all overexcited and think that because “immigration” came in second, the public is all worried about the horrific conditions in Central America. No such luck.

If I had responded to that poll, and the question had been open-ended, I might have said, “dissatisfaction with voters…”