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Obama Diplomacy

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We Thought It Was So Reckless.

“Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war. It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

ISIS, oh ISIS – What drives us to you is what drives us insane: In Reuters, Middle East expert Andrew Bacevich has some serious doubts about a military solution to the newest Big Bad (who, let’s remember, are a threat at all precisely because of all the weapons we’ve already dumped in the area — Gee, it’s almost like our always getting involved makes everything worse.) “Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.”

He’s not alone. While they’ve been highly complicit in the collective freak-out over the past few weeks, the media — as welcome returning blogger Dan Froomkin notes — are starting to get skeptical too. “Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly ‘inclusive’; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which ‘opposition’ Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”

Keeping in mind that Obama himself seems to think this is all a terrible idea, let’s recall what we’re really dealing with here, via the very worthwhile “War Nerd,” Gary Brecher: “ISIS, compared to any of the groups on that list, is about as scary as your neighbor’s yappy Shih Tzu: all noise and no teeth. Let’s just sober up, for Christ’s sake, and remember we’re talking about a half-assed Sunni militia that couldn’t face up to Assad’s mediocre Syrian Arab Army and still hasn’t found a way to occupy Sunni Iraqi towns that were outright abandoned by the Army, left totally undefended.”

Along the same lines, see Brecher on ISIS’s initial advance back in June:

“Actually, topography has everything to do with what’s gone well or badly for ISIS. in this latest push. If you know the ethnic makeup of the turf they’ve taken, their ‘shocking gains’ don’t seem so shocking, or impressive. After all, we’re talking about a mobile force — mounted on the beloved Toyota Hilux pickup truck, favorite vehicle of every male in the Middle East — advancing over totally flat, dry ground in pursuit of a totally demoralized opponent. In that situation, any force could take a lot of country very quickly…So this isn’t the second coming of Erwin Rommel by any means. Everything has conspired to push the Sunni advance, from the lousy opponent they’re up against to the terrain, which is a light mechanized commander’s dream.

Flat and dry is how a mechanized force commander wants his ground — and believe me, you haven’t seen flat and dry until you get to Iraq. Once you’re south of the Kurdish mountains, you’re on a dried mudflat…This is, after all, Mesopotamia, a land literally built by the sediment of the Euphrates and Tigris. It’s river mud, but nice and dry because very little rain falls,..On ground like that, any force with good morale and enough fuel could advance as quickly as the Sunni have. It’s the Bonneville Salt Flats of insurgency, the place you go to set new speed records.”

The point being, we have to stop losing our minds and letting a hysterical media and the same gaggle of Neocon pricks who’ve been wrong about everything for two decades get us involved in every opportunity to make war in the Middle East. Are ISIS a bunch of Bad Men? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t make them an existential threat to the republic. So how about we all take a deep breath before, yet again, expending ever more blood and treasure in the region?

The Middle, Sinking.

“Nostalgia is just about the only thing the middle class can still afford. That’s because median wealth is about 20 percent lower today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was in 1984. Yes, that’s three lost decades.”

Wonkblog’s Matt O’Brien briefly surveys the downward pressure on our sinking middle class. “[I]t’s still a heckuva lot better than households in the bottom 25 percent, whose wealth never grew during the good times, and then plunged 60 percent during the bad ones. That’s because, for both the middle and working classes, real wages have been stagnant the past 30 years, and housing equity has taken a nosedive.”

Continued Injuries and Usurpations.

Recent dismal developments on the War on Terror/Civil Liberties Front:

(1) “The court found Poland violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent torture, ensure the right to liberty, and properly investigate allegations a crime had been committed on its territory.”

The European Court of Human Rights finds that Poland harbored one of the CIA’s infamous black sites — perhaps this is one of the old Soviet compounds? “[S]imilar cases have been lodged with the court in Strasbourg against Romania and Lithuania.”

(2) “The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives. All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press.”

Paging J. Edgar: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, with help from Edward Snowden, uncover NSA and FBI surveillance of prominent, upstanding Muslim-Americans. “In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: ‘Mohammed Raghead.'”

(3) “Emblazoned with the crests of 19 agencies, it offers the most complete and revealing look into the secret history of the government’s terror list policies to date. It reveals a confounding and convoluted system filled with exceptions to its own rules, and it relies on the elastic concept of ‘reasonable suspicion’ as a standard for determining whether someone is a possible threat…individuals can be watchlisted if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist, or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity.”

Also in The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux explain the absurdly broad net that is the terrorist watchlist. “There are a number of loopholes for putting people onto the watchlists even if reasonable suspicion cannot be met.”

(4) “Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the ‘direct involvement’ of government agents or informants, a new report says…rais[ing] questions about the US criminal justice system’s ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases.”

And in The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman expounds on the FBI’s apparent excessive leaning on entrapment to conjure up terror cases. “‘In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act,’ the report alleges.”

Torture, rendition, secret prisons, spying on Americans, surveillance policies that are obviously, woefully ripe for abuse…We are six and a half years into the administration of a president who promised us definitively this nonsense would end. And yet, virtually every day, we hear of a new outrage, and the only official response seems to be Lock Up the Messenger. So when are we going to get an accountability moment here?

A Wasted Opportunity. | So Now What?

“The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over — when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse….It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in — and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.”

In Salon, Thomas Frank laments the wasted opportunity of the Obama years. “Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?”

Frank’s piece is definitely a bit overwritten, with its “mausoleum of hope” and all. That being said, I’m on board with his central thesis, as I’ve said several times before. (In fact, I was glad to see when fixing the old archives lately, that however hopey-changey I felt in 2008, I was more measured in my writing than I remembered, bringing up the ominous example of Herbert Hoover in my post-election post and wondering what the heck was going on within two weeks of Obama’s inauguration.)

Also, to get a sense of what a bad place our party is at these days, just look at Kevin Drum’s ridiculous response to this Tom Frank piece. Drum, mind you, is the official blogger of Mother Jones, named after the famous labor leader. And he writes: “It’s easy to recognize this as delusional…Because — duh — the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn’t have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed…As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it’s a close call.”

A close call? C’mon. As I responded on Twitter: “And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This neoliberal horseshit would’ve made Mother Jones blanch. This piece sidesteps O’s GWOT record. 2. It ignores O’s penchant for starting negotiations where they should finish. 3. It presumes filibuster reform impossible. 4. It ignores that financial crisis response grew inequality. And so on.”

And, remember: This fatalistic “Americans are all centrists anyway, Obama did all he could” shrug is coming from the house blogger of one of our foremost progressive journals. It’s pathetic. This is yet another example of we progressive Democrats no longer having the courage of our convictions.

See also this very worthwhile Salon piece on Zephyr Teachout’s challenge to notorious douchebag Andrew Cuomo, by my friend and colleague Matt Stoller, which talks about this exact same phenomenon.

“The basic theory of the ‘New Democrat’ model of governance is that Wall Street and multinational corporate elites produce wealth through the creation of innovative financial practices and technology, and that Democrats should then help middle class and poor citizens by taxing this wealth, and then using some of it to support progressive social programs…This method of running the economy has become so accepted among Democratic leaders that writers like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias now argue that there simply is no alternative…

“There is a hunger in the Democratic Party for making the party serve the interest of regular voters, not the rich. In 2008, liberal Democrats decisively broke from the Clinton legacy and voted for Barack Obama, with his mantra of hope and change. Obama, however, stocked his administration with Clinton administration officials like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Janet Yellen. A joke going around Democratic circles after the election was that ‘Those supporting Obama got a president, those supporting Clinton got a job.’ Obama broke with the Clinton name, but brought the Clinton intellectual legacy, and Clinton’s Wall Street-backed machine, into governance…”

“The potentially transformative message of the Teachout-Wu campaign is that the problem is not solely one of personalities or tactical political approaches. Rather it is that the New Democrat model itself, and the Democratic party establishment, is fundamentally at odds with the party’s traditional liberalism…Teachout and Wu are trying to place the citizen at the center of policy. They do that through their proposals for public financing, for antitrust, for social insurance, infrastructure and labor.”

Without vision, the people perish. If we ever want to see the real and positive change that Americans were promised back in 2008, we progressives have to stop acting like we have no other option than to fall into line behind the leftiest of the centrists and clap harder for every occasional, diluted-to-all-hell scrap they throw our way. There’s more to life than Rockefeller Republicanism, and it’s not like we don’t have excellent historical templates to borrow from. We need to dream bigger, stop thinking the status quo is all there is, and push back.

Are Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu going to knock out Andrew Cuomo, a guy who’s quite obviously the poster child for everything that’s wrong with our party? Alas, probably not. But one does not always fight because there is hope of winning. And New York in 2014 is as a good a place as any to start the long uphill slog of taking back our party.

Update: Right on cue, the NYT delves into Andrew Cuomo’s hobbling of the state ethics commission. “[A] three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”More here.

Meanwhile, Blake Zeff thinks Cuomo may have met his match in US Attorney Preet Bharara. “[Bharara] has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.”

Same Old Hillary.

While working this week on my semi-regular project of fixing the archives around here (something I’d like to complete before GitM’s 15th anniversary in November, but it’s slow, tedious going), I came across this line, from a post on the very first Election 2008 debate back in May 2007:

“As for Clinton, well, it’s not entirely her fault, I guess — unlike Obama, she’s been with us for a decade and a half now, and is nothing if not a known quantity. But she came across to me as the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist she’s shown herself to be over the past fifteen years in public life, and it’s getting harder to imagine myself being anything but underwhelmed by her as a candidate in the general election.”

Of course, the 2008 primaries thereafter grew quite heated, and, suffice to say, I didn’t think HRC accorded herself very well. So instead of the cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist we knew, I and millions of others took a gamble on Hope and Change…and ended up with a cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist regardless.

So here we are six years later, with an American electorate that has moved demonstrably to the left, and the former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee just held her first almost-a-candidate townhall on CNN. And what have we learned so far about the all-new, tanned, rested, and ready, 2016 iteration of Hillary Clinton?

1) She thinks Edward Snowden pals around with terrorists. “I think turning over a lot of that material—intentionally or unintentionally—drained, gave all kinds of information, not only to big countries, but to networks and terrorist groups and the like. So I have a hard time thinking that somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia, under Putin’s authority.”

2) Her favorite book is…the Bible. “[T]he Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.” Edgy!

3) She won’t take a position on Keystone. “‘I can’t respond,’ she said…’This particular decision is a very difficult one because there are so many factors at play.'”

4) She was actually against the Iraq War last time around, but just couldn’t come out and say it because she supports the troops. “[I]n fact, in the Democratic Party at that time, the smart political decision, as so many of my colleagues did, was to come out and say ‘Terrible mistake, shouldn’t have done it,’ and you know blame the Bush administration. I had this sense that I had voted for it, and we had all these young men and women over there, and it was a terrible battle environment…So I felt like I couldn’t break faith with them.”

5) By the way, those troops should still be in Iraq right now. “When — President Bush decided, before President Obama became president, that we would leave Iraq in 2011, the United States would end its combat mission, unless the Iraqi government agreed to ask us to stay, under the same conditions that we have all around the world. It’s called a status of forces ingredient. I was involved in a lot of the efforts to come up with what our offer would be. And we made such an offer to then Prime Minister Maliki. And he would not accept the status of forces agreement…[W]e knew Iraq would be quite dangerous for a long time, unpredictable, at the very least — you have to have the host government, in this case Iraq, say, OK, here’s what we want…We didn’t get that done. And I think, in retrospect, that was a mistake by the Iraqi government.”

6) She won’t come right out and endorse paid maternity leave in America. “I think, eventually, it should be, but, right now, we’re seeing some — some very good proposals being implemented in other parts of the country, so that we have answers…I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” By the way, you know who else doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. That’s it.

7) She won’t come right out and say racism may be a factor in anti-Obama sentiment. “Well, I know that — I don’t want to — I don’t want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion — even if it’s an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting on a visceral stereotypical basis. And that’s unfortunate.” YES, Madam Secretary. The answer here is “YES.”

8) Her family is apparently shielding wealth from the estate tax, a tax both she and the former President support. A common move among 1%’ers, but nonetheless one that doesn’t inspire confidence.

And so on. Secretary Clinton has moved left on immigration (though she wouldn’t badmouth Obama’s draconian deportation policy), on marijuana (though she said medicinal marijuana “needs more research” and gave the “let the states lead the way” hedge on decriminalization), and on gay marriage (she came out in support…last year.) In all of these, she’s lagging behind the country as a whole, much less the Democratic Party.

TL;DR: Secretary Clinton is still, indisputably, the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist as ever. And yet, for some reason — even though it’s hard to think of a single solitary stance she’s taken that would move our party in a new and progressive direction — she’s not only the party of the left’s presumptive standard-bearer — For all intent and purposes, she’s running unchallenged!

Politics these days is depressing, and no mistake.

“Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi.”

“Around dawn on October 23, 1983, I was in Beirut, Lebanon, when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with the equivalent of twenty-one thousand pounds of TNT into the heart of a U.S. Marine compound, killing two hundred and forty-one servicemen…Six months earlier, militants had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, too, killing sixty-three more people, including seventeen Americans…In September of 1984, for the third time in eighteen months, jihadists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut yet again. President Reagan acknowledged that the new security precautions that had been advocated by Congress hadn’t yet been implemented at the U.S. embassy annex that had been hit.”

As Republicans continue to lose their minds over Benghazi, to the detriment of all, The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer puts things in perspective by going back to Beirut ’83. “If you compare the costs of the Reagan Administration’s serial security lapses in Beirut to the costs of Benghazi, it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.”

See also: the Dubya record on diplomatic attacks — there were over a dozen of ’em. I know complaining about GOP hypocrisy these days is like complaining about the weather. But honestly, what an egregious waste of time this is.

Feingold Follows Fossey.

“Feingold has undertaken a dizzying round of talks in at least eight different African capitals, cajoling leaders face to face, negotiating with skittish rebels late into the night and strategizing with fellow diplomats, all in a very uphill effort to stop a long-running conflict in a region littered with failed peace deals. ‘Without a doubt,’ he said over coffee a few hours after the gorilla trek, ‘this is one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.’

Stuart Reid checks in with former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold at his current job as John Kerry’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “‘I really wanted him here at the State Department because I saw him operate on the Foreign Relations Committee,’ Kerry told me. ‘He was the Senate’s expert, bar none, on Africa. He knows the region and the players.'”

But We Didn’t.

“Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: ‘What the hell’s his presidency for?’ His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: ‘There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.'”

In The Guardian, Gary Younge laments anew the missed opportunities of Barack Obama’s presidency. “If there was a plot, he’s lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there’s a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.”

Sigh. If anything, this was all true of the first term too. As John Maynard Keynes said of another ostensibly progressive president a century ago, “[t]he disillusion was so complete that some of those who had trusted most hardly dared speak of it.”

Not Too Distant Mirror.

“The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and…give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances — the state of the union is invariably described as ‘strong’ — and laying out the regime’s priorities.”

A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)

But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.

“This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event — and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”

ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”

Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarismcongrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.

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