Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ Category

Brief History of Torture in this Country

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Torture has been routinely practiced by both European and Native American people in this country.

In the 1890’s, the Supreme Court ruled that torture as a punishment violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

That did not slow the use of torture by private individuals, law enforcement, and the military.

Lynching black men for being “uppity” began in 1882 and continued through at least 1981 accounting for somewhere around 5000 deaths.

Police forces used “third degree” tactics which met current definitions of torture to elicit confessions for the first half of the 20th century. In the 70’s and 80’s, Chicago police use electroshock, near-suffocation, and excessive beatings on suspects. A Texas sheriff in 1983 used waterboarding. Two San Bernardino officers were convicted of torturing suspects in 1997. Prison abuses have been wide spread for decades including electroshock, sexual slavery, rape, and forcible tooth extraction.

The US military tortured German U-boat crewmen during WWII. The CIA emerged as the primary sponsor of torture during the Viet Nam war with the South Vietnamese Army acting under their supervision. During the 70’s and 80’s the CIA trained members of South American right wing governments in torture techniques to repress populist reform uprisings. Brazil’s National Truth Commission blamed the US government for teaching torture techniques to the Brazilian military that was in power from 1964-1985.

In 1948 the United States signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibiting torture. The US was one of the countries that participated in drafting this document. It was in direct response to the treatment of US POW’s at the hands of the Japanese and Germans. This was followed by the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both signed in 1977 in direct response to the excesses of the Viet Nam War. These conventions are the foundation for International Law which mandates that any person involved in ordering, allowing, or even failing to prevent or prosecute torture is criminally liable.

Ronald Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This was when Reagan was admonishing Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall. China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution, but was still communist in structure and ideology. There were plenty of fingers that Reagan wanted to point regarding oppression and torture.

The difference in all of this was that until 2001, torture (though widely practiced in this country) was illegal. In 2001 all of that changed.

In 2001 in the wake of 9/11 attacks, the President Bush gave VP Dick Cheney responsibility to gather whatever information he needed using whatever methods he required to prevent another attack on US soil. Cheney instructed his lawyers to redefine what the word torture meant, turned the CIA loose, and the rest is history.

Cheney belligerently defends the choices that he made even today, but his protests ring hollow.

He continues to insist, as President Bush did, that the US did not engage in torture – but that method of Big Lie politics no longer works with a majority of the American people.

His second defense is that he did what he had to do to keep the country safe. His definition of keeping the country safe was that there has been no repeat of 9/11. Instead we are left with the legacy of two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

Instead of being welcomed as liberators, the invasion of Iraq dangerously destabilized the region. Cheney’s neocon vision of a democratic transformation morphed into just another puppet government in Iraq. That government pursued the same old sectarian divisions as Saddam. Those continued sanctioned oppressions provided ISIS an opportunity to mount what in effect is a Sunni revolt against the Maliki government in Iraq and the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

The US invasion of Iraq and the promise to establish a US client state that would transform the whole region also raised alarms in neighboring Iran. Iran felt that the only way it could defend itself from a similar US invasion at some point in the future would be to develop a nuclear weapon.

All this in the name of “keeping America safe”.

If you parse Cheney’s responses to questions closely, he defines torture in the context of the 9/11 victims.

“Torture to me,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “is an American citizen on a cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.”

Some attribute that to just setting a high bar for just about any retaliatory action. In other words, unless you kill thousands of innocent people, you haven’t committed an act of torture. He says this with a straight face even though the war in Iraq killed well over 100K civilians.

But that wasn’t his primary purpose. His primary purpose was to advocate a particular world view held by Neocons. That point of view suggested that the US was the sole remaining super power in the world, but the only way that US could remain in that dominant position would be to regularly demonstrate its superiority through the unilateral exercise of force.

Here’s Paul Krugman’s explanation.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated, but let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?

The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.

The willingness to do whatever it takes is where Cheney makes his stand.

This philosophy allows Cheney to posture as a macho-man and criticize those who oppose him as “soft”. But when you look past the rhetoric at the man, you discover that his actions don’t match his rhetoric. He’s all talk and no walk. This is simple solipsism of a self-centered egomaniac.

The results are easy to point out.

When he was in office, Cheney was one of the loudest proponents of expansion of executive power. Torture, domestic spying, black site renditions, outing of a CIA agent to punish her husband, the Patriot Act, private meetings with Oil companies to set the energy agenda, and outsourcing the Iraq war to contractors like Halliburton are just a few examples.

Yet when Obama has exercised the same executive power, Cheney said that the President went, “far beyond what was ever intended.” He has consistently called the President weak on terrorism, but by his own measure, this President has also prevented a repeat of a domestic 9/11 attack. Employing the same logic, shouldn’t Obama’s methods be graded on the same “results are all that matters” scale as Cheney’s?

So it isn’t really the substance of the action that interests Cheney and his supporters, it is the intent of that action. If the goal is something that neocons support, no action is unreasonable to achieve it. In fact, the more extreme the action, the better because it demonstrates the deep commitment to principle of the actor. If those same actions are employed by a progressive President, however, to further his agenda, the means and the ends are both illegitimate.

Putin is the foreign leader Cheney does appear to admire. This is the same Putin whose annexation of Crimea led to the collapse of the Russian economy and a run on the ruble. That collapse was accelerated by the sanctions that a “weak” Obama put in place and the oil exploration boom that Obama supported. Less noticed were the dire predictions of the “Cheney” crowd of an expansionist Russia that failed to materialize.

Instead we have a more compliant Russia supporting US actions in Syria and Iran. Not surprising that we have heard little from Cheney about any of this.

This brings us back to the question of torture.

Torture is wrong whenever it is practiced.

Even if it did result in useful information, it is wrong and can’t be justified. The reason it can’t ever be justified is because we are a nation of laws based on a shared constitution. Neither the law nor the constitution are relativist documents. No end justifies a means that includes unconstitutional or illegal activities. Fortunately it has again become illegal for anyone to use torture in our military or our intelligence services.

Cheney and his crew may claim to be strong, but they were not willing to put themselves at risk for the principles they supported. They also made sure that a law was passed in 2006 to shield them from future prosecution as a result of their actions.

When push came to shove in Cheney’s personal life, his actions consistently failed to reflect his speech. He actively avoided military service. He strongly defended his daughter’s right to marry her same sex partner. He let Scooter Libbey take the fall for his plan to punish Joe Wilson for questioning the facts around Iraq’s claimed nuclear program. He leveraged his insider position as Secretary of Defense into a CEO job with Halliburton by laying the groundwork for a massive outsourcing of military operations to private companies. During his time at Halliburton, the company went from 73rd to 18th in the list of government contractors. It was also ultimately fired by the GAO for over-billing. Cheney retired from Halliburton to join the Bush ticket in 2000. They gave him a $33.7M retirement package. About that same time they were rehired by the defense department. Haliburton went on to make $39B off the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Cheney’s significant holdings in Halliburton where placed in a blind trust during his time in office, but did very well. Cheney did donate a significant amount of the money he made from his association with Haliburton to charity, but donating money obtained illegally or at least immorally does not cleanse the method by which that money was obtained in the first place.

The strong are those who are willing to stand up for our values and willing to take the risk that those values may leave us vulnerable in some way. They believe in the principles on which this country was founded. Those who claim that they only way that we can defend our values is to abandon them are the real cowards. God and history will hold them accountable much more effectively that I ever could.

Crazy Train – 2014

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

We are witnessing the inevitable consequences of making science optional.

Exhibit 1 – Ebola

Ebola is a virus that was originally identified in 1976. Fruit bats may be the carrier. They aren’t affected.

Humans are.

There have been approximately 10 outbreaks of the disease, all in Africa, over the last 40 years.

The most recent outbreak has been by far the most serious.

Like many other diseases caused by a virus, there is no cure.

This virus, however, is relatively difficult to transmit. You have to actually consume some body fluid from an infected person during the period of time that they are exhibiting symptoms in order to contract the virus. Because the symptoms are so debilitating, those most likely to contract the disease are those providing care to those who already have the disease.

The common flu, which infects and kills WAY more people every year than Ebola, mutates regularly and is airborne. You only have to breathe the same air that was recently sneezed into by a flu victim in order to catch their flu.

Ebola, while exhibiting dreadful symptoms, is relatively easy to contain. Just wash your hands.

The reason that it spreads in Africa is because living conditions are primitive, cities are crowded, hygiene is difficult to maintain, there is little health care infrastructure, a shortage of clean water, and burial customs involve families touching the corpse.

The reason it won’t spread in any more advanced country is because people DO wash their hands, there is clean water, there are fully staffed hospitals, governments are able to isolate the infected, quarantine those that have been exposed, and people generally refrain from touching a corpse if they suspect it may be diseased.

Unfortunately conservative Republicans cannot refrain from dragging this “corpse” through the public square with a big sign that says “be afraid of foreigners”.

Exhibit 2 – Beheadings

The Islamic State has figured out how to manipulate the west again.

They kill a handful of people in a gruesome barbaric way and the US fires up the engine of war again and sends it chugging back into the Middle East to the tune of $22M a day.

Over 33K people die on our roads every year. Many of these deaths are just as gruesome. The only difference is that they are not broadcast on YouTube and they are mostly accidents, not homicides.

There are almost as many gun deaths in this country every year too. Many of these deaths are just as gruesome as the ISIL videos. Few of the gun deaths are posted to YouTube, but most of them are intentional homicides.

The bottom line is that you are 33K times more likely to get killed by a car or a gun than you are to be beheaded by a terrorist. Yet we aren’t spending $22M a day to make our roads safer. We certainly aren’t spending $22M a day to reduce gun violence.

The reason we are terrified of ISIL is the same reason we are terrified of Ebola.

Fox News tells us we should be afraid of them because there is a Democrat in the White House and an election in two months.

It is boogyman politics at its worst.

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or bitten by a shark than you have contracting Ebola or being beheaded by a jihadist.

This is exactly the reaction ISIL was hoping for because their lifeblood is new recruits. The best way to get recruits is to pick a fight with the west. And we are happy to accommodate because Republicans have a chance to take over the Senate.

David Brooks calls it contagious hysteria.

He blames it on our polarized segmented society. People are choosing to live near those who share their political beliefs. They only talk with those who share their beliefs. They only listen to news sources that echo their beliefs.

People who feel alienated from the leadership class distrust the institutions of those leaders, whether it is political, cultural, or scientific. As a result we see a dramatic increase in parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids because they fear autism. We see junk science and conspiracy theories carry as much weight as sound peer-reviewed academic research. We see a general erosion in the confidence in government regardless of who is in charge, and the ability for the democratic process to effect any substantive change.

Add to this already toxic mix, a partisan broadcast media pursuing a business model that feeds on crisis, dissension, and demonization. Fox and MSNBC are the modern day Savonarola leading the mob in pursuit of those responsible for the plague.

The true weakness is not in our institutions. It is in us.

Combating Fundamentalism

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Islamic Fundamentalism has reared its ugly head again in the Middle East.

This latest version is so radical and violent that the established radical and violent fundamentalist movements have disavowed it. So that checks the first box of the well-worn conservative criticism of Islam. Other Muslims ARE speaking out against this latest perversion of their religion.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) was born in the ugly proxy war going on in Syria. It has its roots in the AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) group that the US defeated in the Iraq war in what has been called the Awakening Movement. It has gained some traction in Iraq lately because of the failure of the al-Maliki government to share power with Sunni’s. Their military leaders come from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party that was ousted in the overthrow the Iraq government.

ISIS forces have been bolstered by up to 3000 foreign fighters. Somewhere around 1000 came from Chechnya. Another 500 have come from Europe (primarily France and Britain). Sunni prisoners freed from areas in Iraq and Syria that ISIS controls also have added to their forces.

ISIS is primarily internally funded. None of the claims for connections to Qatar or Saudi Arabia have been proven. They fund themselves through extortion, kidnapping, and looting the resources of the areas that they occupy. Since that includes oil and electric power that they control in northern Syria, they have sufficient financing to fund their operations.

Between Saddam’s weapons stockpiles that were left unguarded during the US invasion, weaponry captured in Syria, and US weaponry left behind as US forces left; ISIS does not appear to need an outside arms supplier to accomplish its military goals either.

Conservatives like McCain and Graham are advocating a military solution. They haven’t said how they will finance it. The current air strikes in Iraq cost approximately $7.5M a day. They also acknowledge that:

It is a truism to say there is no military solution to ISIS. Any strategy must, of course, be comprehensive. It must squeeze ISIS’ finances. It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis, rather than pushing them toward ISIS. It requires an end to the conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. A strategy to counter ISIS also requires a regional approach to mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.

Let’s parse this a little more.

As listed above, it is going to be difficult to “squeeze ISIS’ finances” because they are not dependent on outside sources of income. They also have a healthy kidnapping industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year in worldwide ransom payments. The US and Britain are the only governments refusing to pay ISIS ransom demands.

It is hard to imagine what additional pressure the US can exert on Baghdad to form a more equitable government. We accelerated our troop withdrawal in part because Baghdad refused to reform itself.

It is unclear what else the international community could do to “end the conflict in Syria”. Syria is a client state of Russia. The international community has been unable to keep Russia from dismantling Ukraine using its own soldiers. What could the US or the international community do that they haven’t already done, short of military action, which would cause the Russians to act differently in Syria?

As far as military action is concerned, the US is able to carry out air strikes in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government. How would that happen in Syria?

It is unlikely that we are going to get a request from Assad for help. If we did, accepting that request would legitimize the same government that we said no longer has a right to rule.

If we go in unilaterally, we are almost certainly going to cause a strong response from Russia. The nature of that response could lead to a much larger conflict that no one wants.

The ONLY way that we can justify any military action in Syria is with the overt support of the international community and the covert support of Russia. Last time I looked, there weren’t many in the international community supporting our much more modest efforts in Afghanistan. There isn’t much appetite among our friends to go another round in Iraq and Syria. The only way Russia is going to agree is if ISIS threatens the overthrow of the Syria government. While that may be ISIS’ long term plan, in the short term, ISIS is not expanding their territory in Syria. They are much more interested in Sunni sections of Iraq.

The larger truth is that, just as there was no military solution to Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and Afghanistan – there is no military solution in Syria.

You don’t defeat an idea with a gun, particularly in revenge cultures like the Middle East. ISIS would like nothing more than a shooting war with the US. That helps validate their claim that the US is at war with Islam.

You can only defeat a bad idea with a better idea. That better idea is all of the western corruption and consumerism that fundamentalist Islam abhors. That better idea is equality between the sexes and economic opportunity. Those ideas have peacefully transformed China into a capitalist powerhouse. Those ideas are slowly dismantling the Islamic state that took power in Iran in 1979. Within a generation, those ideas will coopt and transform ISIS too. That’s because the children of these fighters, will be less willing to live the fundamentalist lifestyle than their zealous parents. They won’t fear or despise the west as a long as the west hasn’t spent the last 20 years killing their relatives.

The isolation strategy that eventually gave consumerism time to work its magic in Iran can also work in the new defacto Islamic State. They will find that governing is way less interesting to foreign jihadists than fighting. The west will find that isolating the Islamic State is going to be a far more effective strategy, even if we have to endure a small number of terrorist attacks, than attempting to defeat them militarily.

John Birch, Big Tobacco, Young Republicans and the Birth of the Tea Party

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The John Birch Society

The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 in Indianapolis, IN. One of the founding members was Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries and father of David and Charles Koch. The Birch Society was viewed as a radical right wing organization because it espoused fundamental changes in government, eliminating institutions that they felt threatened their values or economic interests, and prosecution of those people who disagreed with them.

They opposed civil rights movement and subsequent legislation calling it communist. They opposed the United Nations calling it “one world government”. They opposed immigration reform and all free trade agreements. They accused both Eisenhower and Kennedy of being communist agents. They espoused a particular form of “frontier mentality” which incubated a virulent strain of reactionary thought.

Now, fifty years later, the Koch brothers are still the major funders of conservative and libertarian political movements including the Tea Party. The difference is that these organizations, who continue to advocate for smaller government, elimination of civil rights legislation, opposition to the UN, opposition to immigration reform, elimination of free trade agreements, and support of an unregulated free market; are now regarded as part of the mainstream political fabric. When they call a democratically elected President a socialist, a fascist (not sure how you can be both), or an illegal alien; it’s now accepted as part of normal political discourse.

What happened?

Big Tobacco

One of the lobbying strategies of the Big Tobacco in the 70’s was to assert that big corporations should have more political power. This strategy is reflected in the “market fundamentalism” that is one of the major pillars of Tea Party philosophy – unfettered capitalism is the best economic philosophy. This libertarian philosophy was embraced by Big Tobacco in an effort to prevent the sort of regulations that eventually limited their right to promote an addictive drug that kills people. One of the groups supporting this position and the Tobacco industry was Citizens for a Sound Economy founded by the Koch brothers in 1984. The primary funders of the Tea Party include FreedomWorks which is a spin-off of Citizens for a Sound Economy and Americans for Prosperity founded by David Koch.

Young Republicans

Karl Rove rose to fame in the Republican Party because of his reputation as a master of dirty tricks. Among other things his campaign for chairman of the College Republicans is legendary. It was during this period of time that he because friends with both the Bush family and Lee Atwater. Lee Atwater was an expert in the Southern Strategy that was the bulwark of successful national Republican campaigns starting with Nixon. That strategy was in stark display in the 1988 Bush election when Atwater said he would defeat Dukakis by making “Willie Horton his running mate”. Late is life, Atwater apologized and asked forgiveness.

In 1991 Rove began to work for Big Tobacco. In that role, he spearheaded a tort reform movement to weaken the ability for states attorney generals to litigate against the Tobacco industry. It was these legal cases that eventually brought down Big Tobacco. Rove’s activities included setting up state chapters of a tobacco industry funded astroturfing organization called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. The Texas chapter of this group under the direction of Tom Delay was particularly effective in getting conservative judges elected and ultimately pushing through the gerrymandering that supported the 2010 Republican Congressional landslide.

The CALA blueprint honed in Texas included running TV and radio ads warning that the legal system was out of control, affecting the economy and the pocketbooks of average people. This blue print included generous funding from the Texas Chamber of Commerce and corporations seeking protection from consumer law suits. The Chamber of Commerce was running ads supporting Big Tobacco as late as 2002. This followed classic Tobacco Industry public relations rules – When your side is unpopular, as the tobacco industry is, seek to redirect public ire toward other villains – in this case, trial lawyers, taxes and big government. When the words “trial lawyers” are spoken in a spot aired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the screen shows a black stretch limousine passing by the Capitol.

Finally Rove was also credited as the architect of the wedge politics that propelled George W. Bush into the White House. Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, summarized those politics.

Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

It was this policy of “deceive, divide, and conquer” that also sowed the seeds which later grew into the Tea Party.

Summary

The Tea Party and to a large degree the dysfunctional politics that the Tea Party represents were a long time coming.

It started with Big Tobacco’s desperate attempt to save themselves from the inevitable outcome of selling an addictive drug that kills people. They developed many of the political techniques now in common use particularly by movement conservatism. Those include Partners in Crime, Astroturfing, Junk Science, and Lobbying.

Radical conservatism in the form of the John Birch Society eventually joined forces with the Tobacco Industry. The common interest here was a particularly twisted form of libertarianism called free market capitalism. This appealed to the Tobacco Industry because they wanted to be able to continue to sell their products even though they were addictive and deadly. The libertarian capitalists liked the money that the Big Tobacco brought with them. They and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce were happy to make a deal with Big Tobacco if it meant advancing their own cause of smaller government and fewer regulations.

The Koch family has been underwriting libertarian and conservative causes for two generations. They are really the invisible hand manipulating this whole political movement. Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society. David and Charles Koch have become the bankers of the Tea Party movement, major funders of the movement to oppose climate science, and promoters of libertarian free market philosophy. Their fortune is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry.

Karl Rove became the chief apparatchik of this new philosophy of politics. He refined the political use of the tools that Big Tobacco created. He added Lee Atwater’s racial politics and expanded it with social issues which appealed to the evangelical right. He wrapped it all up in the flag and the Bible (even though he himself is an admitted agnostic) and used it to win two national elections for George W. Bush. In response to Obama’s election in 2008, Rove went to work for Fox News and helped start the astroturfing opposition movement that later grew into the Tea Party.

Next up, we’ll try to connect the dots to show how these historical forces have twisted an otherwise completely predictable populist uprising into what has become radical conservatism and the Tea Party.

Madman Theory

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

This is actually the name for a foreign policy that Nixon tried to use to bring the Viet Nam war to an end.

In his case, the setup was that Nixon was obsessed about communism and also under great pressure to end the war. As a result, the threat was that he might simply lose patience and nuke North Vietnam back to the Stone Age if the North Vietnamese didn’t come to the negotiating table.

The same strategy is in play right now in the showdown over defunding Obamacare.

Republicans have admitted that this is a political strategy.

Even though they failed to gain the White House or a majority in the Senate in the last election, the fact that they did retain a majority in the House (they feel) entitles them to use whatever means are available to them to advance the agenda of the people who elected them.

That’s where the Madman enters the room. Republicans are willing to shut down the government in order to get some portion of their agenda passed by the Democratic Senate majority and signed by the Democrat in the White House.

“People have to recognize there’s never any compromise until the stakes are high,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. “In our society, that’s the nature of democratic government.”

The compromise in this case is that the Republicans agree to allow the government to continue to operate in return for significant legislative concessions by the Democrats.

AND they don’t seem to care whether or not it harms the economy.

“Economists, what have they been doing? They make all sorts of predictions,” said Representative John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana. “Many times they’re wrong, so I don’t think we should run government based on economists’ predictions.”

Nixon faced this same problem in Viet Nam. If your opponent is afraid of dying, and they believe that you are crazy, they will likely negotiate. If your opponent doesn’t care about dying, or at least is willing to call your bluff, you are forced to do something crazy or lose future bargaining power. That crazy act, in Nixon’s case, was invading Cambodia. The Republican crazy act is damaging the US economy in order to bring about legislative change that they couldn’t achieve through the ballot box.

The problem with this Republican strategy is that they are INDEED crazy, but not for the reasons that you might think.

They are crazy because they allowed the Democrats to BAIT them into picking a fight over the continuing operation of the government rather than the government default.

Government default is the BIG DEAL. It is one that Obama might have been willing to give up a year of Obamacare to prevent.

The Democrats, however, don’t care if the Republicans shut down the government. In fact, they prefer it to the other alternatives on the table.

The reason is that the country will survive a government shutdown, but the Republicans won’t.

By the time the REAL battle comes up, which is the debt ceiling, the country will have dealt with several weeks of the government being shut down, will be convinced the Republicans are indeed Madmen, and will demand an end to the lunacy. That end will be passing the CR to get the government running again AND passing a resolution to raise the debt ceiling. The voting public will NOT be willing to listen to Republicans talking about debt, or future generations, or irresponsible Democrats. They will have lost their patience with Republican tactics and it will all be over but the shouting. That’s because the voting public will vote in sufficient numbers in 2014 to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

So in essence, the Republican Madman Strategy was to put a gun to their own head and threaten to pull the trigger. Democrats jumped up and yelled, “Stop. Please don’t do that. Give the gun to me.” Once they were sure the gun was loaded, they handed it back to the Republicans and said, “I believe this is yours.” Last night the Republicans pulled the trigger.

Clown Politics

Monday, August 12th, 2013

This past weekend, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair wore a mask to mock President Obama.  Apparently the performance went well over the line between the sort of slapstick humor typical of rodeo clowns and mean spirited racism.

 

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Here’s a description from one of the members of the audience.

“It was the usual until the very end at bull riding,” he said. “As they were bringing the bulls into the chute and prepping them … they bring out what looks like a dummy. The announcer says ‘Here’s our Obama dummy, or our dummy of Obama.

“They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening,” Beam said. “It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV.”

Unfortunately, this Missouri rodeo clown is part of a vocal minority who feel that the man who has won two national elections fair and square somehow doesn’t deserve the office that he occupies.

This is driven by an unprecedented assault on both the man and the office by the Republican Party.

Paul Ryan recently responded to Obama’s latest proposal for a corporate tax cut.  Obama was offering to work with Congress to overhaul business taxes in exchange for a guarantee that the revenue gains be used create new jobs through spending on roads and infrastructure.

“The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it’s actually for the well-connected…There’s no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it’s not working at all.”

Ryan further protested that Obama is “interested in tax reform for corporations — but not for families or small business.” He also accused Obama of implementing health care and regulatory policies that favor big businesses and big banks.

Paul Ryan struck a different tone during the 2012 Presidential campaign.  He accused Obama of “sowing social unrest and class resentment,” of supporting “a government-run economy” and of “denigrating people who are successful.” He has charged the president with leading the nation toward “a cradle-to-grave, European-style social welfare state.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a class-baiting socialist or a corporate sellout?

Boehner, asked at a news conference about Obama’s series of speeches on the economy, replied: “If I had poll numbers as low as his, I’d probably be out doing the same thing if I were him.” Obama’s job-approval rating is 46 percent. Boehner’s is half that.

Mitt Romney called Obama a “weak president,” and Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 campaign, called Obama “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”

Yet in January Boehner said that Obama planned to annihilate the Republican party, ““[G]iven what we heard yesterday about the president’s vision for his second term, it’s pretty clear to me and should be clear to all of you that he knows he can’t do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans,” Boehner said. “So we’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party. And let me tell you, I do believe that is their goal. To just shove us in the dustbin of history.”

Rep. Issa said Obama is guilty of “imperial behavior” and “abuse of power.” Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, asserts Obama is “someone who wants to act like a king or a monarch.” And Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas, says Obama is “a tyrannical despot.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a weakling or a tyrant?

During the intervention in Libya, Gingrich demanded in early March 2011 that the United States should “exercise a no-fly zone this evening.” Two weeks later, after Obama took the action that would bring down Moammar Gaddafi, Gingrich said, “I would not have intervened.”

After the Benghazi attacks, Republicans lined up to criticize the President for not having enough security at the embassy in Benghazi and ignoring the mounting tensions Ambassador Stevens was documenting.

Fast forward to this month when the administration closed embassies across the Middle East in response to an intercepted al Qaeda communication.  “Terrorism works — because we’re closing all of our embassies and consulates on one day,” said Rep. Ted Poe, the chairman of the House’s terrorism and nonproliferation panel.  “Our embassies cannot operate with a bunker mentality in foreign countries,” he said. “Our embassies are there to interact with the people of that country. I hope we don’t get into this bunker mentality mode.”

So which is it? Is Obama a tone deaf risk taker or a terrified bunker dweller?

I could continue for quite a while, but the picture is clear.

The only consistent message coming from Republicans is that Obama is always wrong.  He is wrong if he acts.  He is wrong if he doesn’t act.  His ideas are always wrong even when he borrows them from Republicans (Obamacare, corporate tax cuts, and no fly zones).

Republicans may feel that tearing down the President is an effective strategy to get them back into the White House.  The problem is that if they demonstrate that this is an effective strategy, it will be used on them too.  And if they do ever return to the White House, they may not recognize the smoldering ruin they had to create to get there.

Putting Bombs and Guns in Perspective

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombing raised a couple of questions in my mind.

The first is a the level of resources we devote to anti-terrorism efforts.

Since 2001, we’ve spent $1.2T domestically on anti-terrorism. That doesn’t count the $2T that we spent on two wars and the $4B/yr we continue to spend on drone attacks.

During that same period of time there have been 30 or so terrorist attacks in this country resulting in 45 deaths. Most of those including the Boston attacks were carried out by US citizens. The Beltway Sniper and Fort Hood shooting are others. There have also been 32 plots to carry out domestic attacks that were thwarted.

While it is difficult to place an economic value on preventing terrorist attacks, it is also clear that we are spending a lot of money on some things that aren’t working. The TSA, for example, spends $8B a year checking the shoes of every airline passenger. That effort and the associated personal and luggage searches failed to catch one terrorist. One of the Boston bombers was on a watch list. He had been interviewed by the FBI at the request of the Soviet Union. He was still able to fly to Russia and back because of a clerical error. If the whole TSA and FBI infrastructure can be overwhelmed by a clerical error, you have to questions what we are buying with our tax dollars.

As part of this effort, we also willingly give up our Fourth amendment rights regarding physical search. We also allow the government to listen in on our electronic conversations, have access to our banking records, and review any wire transfer in excess of $5,000.  I don’t recall seeing a single Tea Party sign suggesting the government keep their hands off their shoes, or email, or bank records.  Why is that?

The second question is how our anti-terrorism efforts compare to our efforts to reduce gun violence.

Since 2001, approximately 300,000 people were killed by a gun. The CDC estimated that those deaths cost our healthcare system $37B/year.  Over this same 11 year period that we’ve been using for comparison purposes, that adds up to $407B in insurance rate increases borne by the american people.  That doesn’t count the economic and personal costs from this epidemic loss of life.  We spend 3X that to prevent the much smaller economic and personal losses that we’ve suffered from terrorist attacks.

Our investment to prevent gun violence? The entire budget of the Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms is $1B/year.

We all grieve whenever a child is killed. A recent Colorado study found that 50% of the gun injuries suffered by children require intensive care compared to 20% for all other injuries. 14% of those gun injuries are self inflicted. 13% of those injured children die compared with 2% for all other injuries. We spend more money every year keeping fireworks out of the hands of children than we do guns. Even that is woefully ineffective, since the Boston bombs were made from fireworks purchased legally in New Hampshire.  I guess that gives new meaning to the state motto of  “Live Free or Die”.

On par, we spend a huge amount of money preventing terrorist attacks by foreigners. Our efforts have stopped about half of the attacks. Most the attacks that we’ve had are committed by US citizens.

Ten thousand times more people die every year in this country from gun violence than are killed in terrorist attacks. We spend an absurdly small amount of money and attention preventing it.

The Boston bombing was horrific. Law enforcement responded quickly. Perhaps giving up some fourth amendment rights is a small price to pay for preventing these attacks. But what would our response have been if those bombs killed 30,000 people? Why are we willing to pay this terrible price every year to preserve our current system of gun ownership and the sanctity of the second amendment?

The politics are obvious. The NRA, funded by gun manufacturers, directs 90% of the $50M or so that it spends every year in political contributions supporting Republican candidates. They have successfully prevented government agencies from collecting even statistics on gun violence since 1979. They have successfully made this a cultural issue rather than a rational one in order to take advantage of the Tea Party movement.  The NRA has successfully played “rope-a-dope” politics with gun control since the Clinton administration.

That may ultimately backfire (pun intended) because a recent study suggests that there is a link between conservative politics and higher rates of suicide.  That link is easy access to guns.

Though what is more likely is that the 80% of the public that support stronger background checks will likely hold their representatives accountable in 2014 for their votes this year.

In the meantime another 30,000 people will die from guns. Four or five of those will be at the hands of those who can be classified as terrorists. The rest will be at the hands of those who fiercely defend this system.

 

Tortured Truth

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

“We do not torture,” Bush declared in response to reports of secret CIA prisons overseas.

“I have been told that all interrogation techniques previously authorized by the Executive Order are still on the table but that certain techniques can only be used if very high-level authority is granted…We have also instructed our personnel not to participate in interrogations by military personnel which might include techniques authorized by Executive Order but beyond the bounds of FBI practices.” FBI memo May, 2004

“There has been no presidential determination that circumstances warrant the use of torture to protect the mass security of the United States.” Alberto Gonzales, White House Counsel June 22, 2004

“The United States doesn’t and can’t condone torture.” Secretary of State Rice, January, 2005

“The notion that somehow the United States was torturing anybody is not true,” Cheney told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute at an event to promote his new book. “Three people were waterboarded and the one who was subjected most often to that was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and it produced phenomenal results for us.”

“It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” Constitution Project Task Force, April 2013

The Constitution Project Task Force is a bi-partisan commission of former political and military officials. Their report is the first attempt to thoroughly examine this subject of treatment of detainees under both the Bush and Obama administrations. That’s because the Obama administration made the decision not to pursue civil or criminal penalties for anyone in the previous administration involved in torture or renditions.

I don’t think that anyone, except perhaps extreme partisans like Dick Cheney, is surprised at the conclusion of the task force regarding the definition and use of torture.

If there are any that still dispute the definition of torture, here’s a quote from Asa Hutchinson who was co-chair of this reporting committee. Mr. Hutchinson is a former GOP congressman from Arkansas, NRA consultant and undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

There are those that defend the techniques of—like waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation, because there was the Office of Legal Counsel, which issued a decision approving of their use because they define them as not being torture. Those opinions have since been repudiated by legal experts and the OLC itself. And even in its opinion, it relied not only on a very narrow legal definition of torture, but also on factual representations about how the techniques would be implemented, that later proved inaccurate. This is important context as to how the opinion came about, but also as to how policy makers relied upon it.

It was also a harsh and direct repudiation of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Based upon a thorough review of the available public record, we determined that, in application, torture was used against detainees in many instances and across a wide range of theaters.

The task force also found that there was “no firm or persuasive evidence” that the use of such techniques yielded “significant information of value.”

This second conclusion supports ALL of the predictions of professionals when the use of torture was originally proposed. Those who are subjected to these techniques will say whatever they think will cause the pain to stop. Since there is no way to tell the difference between what is fabricated and what is true, pretty much everything that is gained under duress is has to be validated through other independent reports. If the majority of intelligence information is being gathered through torture, none of it can be independently confirmed. As a result, the only actionable data is that obtained through methods where torture was not involved.

The last conclusion of the task force is that the US should also close Guantanamo because this culture of abuse continues there. The Obama administration has been unable to close Guantanamo because of political opposition from conservative Republicans. This opposition has its roots in the same lies and Zombie Politics which caused Guantanamo to be built in the first place.

Guantanamo remains stark evidence of the arrogance and cynicism of the whole neocon philosophy of ends justifying means represented by Dick Cheney. It will go down in history as one of the darker episodes of our democracy.

All this, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the renditions, the torture, Guantanamo, the Department of Homeland Security, domestic wiretapping, and death by drone are in the name of protecting this country from terrorist attacks.

Let’s compare these investments and the politics behind them with the politics of gun control. That’s next.

 

 

Empty Suit

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Romney’s latest foreign policy pronouncements continue his pattern of criticism without substance and position without difference.

Romney’s positions mirror Obama’s.  He did offer to “lead from the front”.  What that appears to mean is more military spending.  He promises to “roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense”.  The only cuts that fit that description are part of the sequestration “poison pill”.  That was the ransom Republicans got in return for raising the debt ceiling.  The President is using this “poison pill” exactly in the way that it was designed, to force both sides to come up with something better.  He is holding the defense department hostage in EXACTLY the same way that Tea Party House Republicans held the financial standing of the whole country hostage – but Republicans don’t like it when  the weapon they created is used on them.  So we have this fiction that the President wants to cut defense and weaken the country.  If Romney wants to sell that fiction, doesn’t he at least owe the country some explanation for where the money is going to come to make up the difference in the debt deal?

Romney’s attempt to connect the recent anti-American violence to some fundamental weakness in American policy is naive and dangerous.  The Obama administration has quietly been getting the job done.  Somali piracy contained.  Yemen training bases destroyed.  Gaddafi was overthrown.  Iran isolated and sanctions causing domestic unrest.  Al Qaeda decimated.  New democracies and reforms are emerging.

Romney feels that rhetorical swagger and simple affirmations of American Exceptionalism will dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, frighten terrorists into submission, and create loyal peaceful Arab democracies.

Bush’s simple answer to a complex world was democracy.  He equated spreading democracy with spreading peace.  He then invaded Iraq to prove his point.  The result was an Iranian nuclear program and the worldwide spread of al Qaeda.

Simple answers don’t work because they almost always ignore unintended consequences.

Now democracy is finally blossoming in the Middle East and Romney says it’s dangerous.  Punish Egypt because they elected the Muslim Brotherhood.  Arm the Syrian rebels even though al Qaeda has deeply infiltrated them.   He did say that we should only give arms to those Syrian rebels that “share our values”.  I’m curious how he is going to sort them out, or prevent a “values” rebel from handing his US rocket launcher to his al Qaeda cousin.  We went down this road once already in Afghanistan where we ended up both training and arming bin Laden and the first generation of al Qaeda.  We should try not to repeat that mistake.

Romney didn’t even mention the two biggest problems in the Middle East- an unstable nuclear Pakistan and a post-withdrawl Afghanistan.

Foreign policy is complex and young democracies need our help to peacefully grow.  Democracy is messy and it doesn’t always go the way that you want it to.  Venezuela is a perfect example.  But if we believe what we say we believe, we have to hang in there and help when we have an opportunity.

Romney has not demonstrated that he has the patience or the depth of understanding to encourage the growth of democracy.

He is looking no further than the next month.  He desperately wants to win this election and will do anything and say anything that he thinks will help him do it.

Citizen Terrorist

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

The problem is the 5th amendment of our constitution.  It says,

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation

In basic terms, this means that the government can’t kill a citizen of this country without due process of law.

But the government just did this in the case of the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that this cleric encouraged several people who attacked or attempted to attack US citizens.  Those included some of the 9/11 hijackers; Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused in the 2009 killings in Fort Hood, Tex.; Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib, accused of trying to set off a bomb hidden in his underwear on a 2009 flight to Detroit; and Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up a car in Times Square last year.

There is also no question that his message was dangerous.  He said that American Muslims had to choose between being a good Muslim and being a good American.  In his mind, you couldn’t be both.  He claimed that the United States was at war with Islam and Muslims had to choose a side.  His support of indiscriminate killing of Americans was completely at odds with those of mainstream Muslim clerics around the world.  As a result his views were widely condemned by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The problem is that there was no Grand Jury.  There was no trial.  There was no judge.  There was no opportunity for al-Awlaki to confront his accusers, refute the evidence that they may have presented, or tell his side of the story.

That is a basic right guaranteed every US citizen.  It is what protects us from the immense power that we give to our government.  There are clear limits to that power, and if we don’t insist that those limits are respected, and punish those who overstep their authority, we risk losing those protections.

It doesn’t matter how strong the government’s evidence was regarding al-Awlaki’s involvement in previous attacks.

It doesn’t matter how good government intelligence was regarding his plans for future activities.

It doesn’t matter how many US lives the government feels it may have saved by this action.

What DOES matter is that our constitution says that NO ONE in our government has the power to unilaterally target an American citizen for assassination.

The end does not justify the means.

This serious erosion in civil liberties began in the Bush administration with warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act.  It has escalated in this administration with the murder of a US citizen.

I never accepted the premise that we have to trade liberty for security during the Bush administration and I reject it during the Obama administration too.

The curious thing is that Obama’s harshest critics on the right, those who seem to see constitutional violations in the color socks that our president chooses to wear, have said nothing about this.  This President should be held accountable for this significant abuse of executive power.  Ron Paul has publically called for an investigation.  We’ll see where that goes.

In my mind this is a dangerous step down a slippery slope taken by a President who knows EXACTLY what it means.   It is a very sad day.