TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week Overseas
1) The Middle East
The uproar over ISIS that began last week after President Obama said he doesn't yet have a strategy for defeating ISIS in Syria continued into the weekend, during which the usual gang of idiots, as Mad Magazine's staff used to describe themselves--foremost among them Sens. John McCain (R/AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R/SC) piled on the president. The Bobbsey Twins argued in an op-ed that we need to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and we need to do it now! (Peter Beinart dissects that op-ed and exposes its empty rhetoric and ignorant conclusions here.)
Are the Bobbseys right? Not so much. Yes, at some point ISIS will have to be engaged in both Iraq and Syria, since they essentially control border crossings between those countries and can move across at will. But saying we need to attack! Now! disregards the fact that, as yet, we really don't have a strategy to deal with them in Syria. Attacking isn't a strategy. Bombing isn't a strategy. Those are individual tactics, but if they're not employed in support of a well-considered plan, they become expensive, wasteful, dangerous, and often more destructive than constructive.
Look at it from the president's point of view. He's been tasked with winding down two of America's longest wars. The one in Afghanistan just about everyone thought we should fight, because Al Qaeda was there and it was the base of operations from which they attacked us on 9/11. (Of course, drawing us into a war in Afghanistan was what Osama bin Laden wanted, why he attacked us, because he had seen what that cost the Soviet Union.) The one in Iraq was a war of choice, fought to control Iraqi oil fields or because George W. Bush wanted to show that he was tougher than his father, or for other reasons we may never know. But the war in Iraq pulled vital attention and resources away from the one in Afghanistan, enabling Osama bin Laden's escape and extending the Afghanistan war for years more than might have been necessary had we maintained our focus on defeating Al Qaeda. And, of course, us deposing the most powerful secular leader in the region was another bonus for bin Laden.
Meanwhile, the war in Iraq completely destabilized the region. Iraq and Iran, old enemies, had been keeping each other in check. Without Iraq to worry about, Iran grew more dominant in the region, able to support terror activities in Libya, Palestine, and elsewhere, while also ramping up their nuclear weapons program. Libya fell apart. Egypt fell apart. Syria descended into civil war. The clatter of falling dominoes could be heard throughout the Middle East.
And into the power vacuum that existed in Iraq--after we deposed Saddam Hussein and his government, disbanded his army, and threw the nation into chaos--foreign fighters came. Under secular rule, Iraq had been blessedly free of fundamentalist Islamic jihadis. Not any more. Al Qaeda in Iraq formed where there had been no Al Qaeda before. ISIS grew out of that movement.
President Obama is, reasonably enough, reluctant to take sides in Syria's civil war. Assad is a tyrant, but so was Saddam, and getting rid of that tyrant demonstrably did not improve conditions in Iraq or the rest of the neighborhood. But the opposition to Assad is splintered into multiple factions, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. Those two groups are fighting each other, in addition to fighting Assad's forces. The situation is chaos, and not something the US could control. Fighting ISIS there would mean fighting on behalf of Assad, the same tyrant that a year ago, McCain and Graham were insisting we should go to war against.
Given recent history, we should be glad to have a president who's not going to allow himself to be rushed into a Middle Eastern war by the press of events, but who instead wants to take some time to weigh the options and consider the consequences. The previous adminstration did neither, and therefore invaded Iraq with too few troops and no plan for the aftermath. As George E. Condon Jr. writes: "The White House calculation is that, in the end, both Congress and the people will appreciate a process that ponders the full consequences before the bombs fall—in contrast to a comment on Tuesday by one of the neo-con backers of the Bush administration’s military plunge into Iraq. Bill Kristol, speaking to conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, was mocking the suggestion that 'we can’t just bomb' the ISIS radicals. 'Why don’t we just [bomb]? We know where ISIS is,' said Kristol. 'What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?' However you define the word, that is not Obama’s idea of a strategy."
Kristol also seemed unaware that when he said that, we'd already launched a hundred air strikes against ISIS--bombing with specific tactical intent, not just willy-nilly.
Kristol and the neo-cons were tragically, disatrously wrong about Iraq. Their adventure created ISIS and might well, in the long run, serve to have increased the terrorist threat against the US rather than lessening it.
Beinart describes Obama's approach this way:
"When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States. Hillary Clinton and John McCain may not use the 'War on Terror' framework anymore, but they’re still more willing to sell arms, dispatch troops, and drop bombs to achieve goals that aren’t directly connected to preventing another 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians."
Caution and deliberation are not bad words, despite what the neo-cons claim. When American lives and billions of dollars are at stake, when a wrong move can make the world more dangerous rather than less, they're crucial. If the previous adminstration had exercised them, we might not be where we are today. But they didn't, and we are. Let's hope that by consulting with the military, Congress, and the American people, the current administration makes better choices.
Side Note: The press has almost universally painted the same picture of ISIS as a large band of psychopaths more intent on brutality than anything else. Videos of themselves beheading Americans and slaughtering innocents don't help. But after the way the press was manipulated in the build-up to Iraq, both without their knowledge and with the shameful participation of people like Judith Miller, who were happy to publish outright lies in the US's newspaper of record, it's a little hard to know what's truth and what's propaganda meant to hype us into accepting another round of endless war. We'd like to believe this administration is more committed to the truth than the last, but only the passage of time will tell us for sure.
President Obama is in Europe this week, meeting with NATO leaders and holding substantive discussions about the ISIS situation and the Russia/Ukraine situation. He gave a speech about the latter, which, in the words of former George W. Bush staffer David Frum, "used the most forceful language against Russia since Ronald Reagan."
Frum writes: "The direct message came on Wednesday, in Tallinn, Estonia, in the sharpest language any U.S. president has used toward Russia since Ronald Reagan upbraided the Evil Empire. One by one, President Obama repudiated the lies Vladimir Putin has told about Ukraine: that the Ukrainians somehow provoked the invasion, that they are Nazis, that their freely elected government is somehow illegal. He rejected Russia’s claim that it has some sphere of influence in Ukraine, some right of veto over Ukrainian constitutional arrangements. And he forcefully assured Estonians—and all NATO’s new allies—that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. '[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,' Obama said. 'Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.' This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested—and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that."
Jesse T. Smith, a Democratic candidate for Congress running against incumbent Mike Rogers (R/AL) tweeted this week that: "The greatest country on earth is being bullied from within. Actions of Republicans in congress are worse than #ISIL."
He tried to justify his Tweet in a Facebook post, but there's no justification for such an absurd statement. Smith, an Iraq War veteran, should know better. That kind of nonsense should disqualify him from holding public office, in Congress or anywhere else.
This Week in Death Panels
Turns out, end-of-life conversations are desired by patients and doctors and covered by more and more insurance policies. All that right-wing talk about "death panels" was just as nonsensical as we said it was at the time.
This Week in Gun Safety
After the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, AZ (home state of TWiA World Headquarters, where Gabby was our representative and friend), Arizona's legislature considered more than 100 gun-related pieces of legislation. Those that passed were all dedicated to making more guns easier to get and carry. After the shooting of 26 children in a school in Newtown, CT, Connecticut's legislature went the other way, passing bills that banned many semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. This Washington Post piece compares the two states. Although it's too soon to know what the end results of these approaches will be, we know which one we're more comfortable with.
We also feel obliged to remind those in a position to make these choices that if they're concerned about the increasing militarization of law enforcement, they should remember that there are forces in society determined to make and keep private ownership of military-style weapons legal and easy. As long as those weapons are around in large numbers, cops are in more danger, so it's not remotely surprising that they want to be well armed and armored.
This Week on the Border
Speaking of the clash between law enforcement and armed civilians, our southern border is once again filling up with untrained, armed militia members, whose help to border enforcment is nil but whose hindrance is substantial. In Arizona, a militia group made a daring nighttime raid on a group of researchers studying bats. In Texas, Border Patrol agents chasing smugglers shot at an armed man who later identified himself as a militia member. These people are not improving the situation--they're like wayward children playing cowboy, only their guns are real and sooner or later, someone's likely to get hurt.
This Week in Arizona
And speaking of Arizona, the National Republican Congressional Committee has started running attack ads against Rep. Ron Barber (D), who's facing the same Republican candidate he beat in 2012, Martha McSally. Judging by the ad, the NRCC thinks that senior citizens are idiots, or perhaps that they're all suffering from dementia and can't remember that the story they're pushing was thoroughly debunked in 2012. It's telling that the right can't attack the Affordable Care Act on its actual merits, since it's working and people like it, so they have to use rely on deceit to scrounge for votes.
This ad features an elderly woman who complains that Barber voted "to protect Obamacare," and that Obamacare cuts $716 billion from Medicare; therefore, it puts Arizona seniors at risk. Unfortunately for that woman, she comes across as ignorant of the basic facts.
As was widely reported in 2012, that $716 billion doesn't cut Medicare services. It's not really a cut at all, but a drawdown in future Medicare spending. It comes from reducing Medicare Advantage spending (a program that turned out to be far more expensive for seniors than was originally intended); changing the way hospitals are paid, to reduce readmissions and to make payment contingent on quality of care and patient satisfaction; and cutting back on waste and abuse.
So the "cuts" the woman complains about are not cuts she'll ever feel, except that cutting the $716 billion helps ensure Medicare's financial stability going forward. In the meantime, she's already enjoying the ACA's cuts to the "donut hole," and benefiting from the fact that health care expenses are coming down across the board. In addition to that, every Republican currently in Congress (which doesn't include McSally, who has never held office) voted in favor of those exact same cuts, because they're also contained in Rep. Paul Ryan's (R/WI) budget plan (which also seeks to end Medicare as we know it, by privatizing it)..
Many Republican voters--everybody in the middle class or below--vote against their own economic interests when they cast those votes. Republican economic policy benefits only the wealthiest among us, and the rest of us pay for the largesse they enjoy. But this is even worse, because not only would their policies damage this poor woman financially, but they've made her look like a fool or a liar, and they're plastering her face all over the airwaves. She's being helped by the ACA, yet she's warning her fellow seniors against it.
The NRCC should be ashamed.
This Week in Kansas
We here at TWiA World Headquarters admit that sometimes we're puzzled by the antics of political candidates. We were taken by surprise this week when the Democratic candidate for Senate in Kansas suddenly ended his campaign, right at the deadline to do so. The House will stay safely Republican after November's vote, but the Senate is a toss-up right now; it could go either way, and different polling shows different outcomes. Every seat counts, in other words. So why would the Democrat just give up?
Because, it turns out, he's unlikely to beat incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R).
Roberts is pretty unpopular in his state (or we should say "his" state, since he doesn't even own a home there). He squeaked by in his primary against a doctor who posted unauthorized photographs of violence committed against his patients on his Facebook page, which most would agree is a questionable campaign tactic. Roberts is vulnerable, in other words, even in a state as red as Kansas.
But until this week, Roberts faced two opponents in the general election: the disappearing Dem, and Greg Orman, an independent. Chad Taylor, the Dem (and can we just say that since the 2000 Florida fiasco, "Chad" is a bad name for a politician?), wasn't having much luck with raising money or support, and polls showed that in a head-to-head race with Roberts, he lost. Up against Orman and Taylor, Roberts wins easily, because the other two split the anti-Roberts vote.
But polling also shows that with Taylor out of the way, Orman beats Roberts handily. So, at the last minute, Taylor got out of the way.
How that will play out for Democrats is anybody's guess. Orman is a true independent. He voted for Obama in 2008 but Romney in 2012. In the past he has registered to vote as a Democrat and as a Republican, and he contributes financially to both parties. The day Taylor dropped out, Orman was endorsed by more than 70 Republican former legislators from the Kansas statehouse.
But that all indicates that in the Senate, hs would not be as relentlessly partisan as Roberts. If the Republicans take the Senate and Orman caucuses with them, he might bring some otherwise-lacking centrism to the party. And if he caucuses with the Democrats, he might help keep the body out of Republican hands altogether. Either way, Democrats would rather have a reasonable person in that seat, rather than the far-right Roberts.
Winning by quitting? It's an interesting campaign move (albeit not exclusive to Kansas), and it just might work. Even TWiA can be taught a new trick once in a while.
This Week in Tinfoil
This Week in Bears
This Pennsylvania bear had an airbag stuck on its head for a couple of weeks--long enough for a "Save the Bucket Bear" Facebook page to be created--before some brave souls rodeoed it to the ground and sawed the thing off. Free again, the bear dashed off into the woods, no doubt relieved. Congratulations to those who worked--and wrestled a muddy bear--to help it out.