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Strange oversight regarding shooting down passenger jets

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I’ve been reading various accounts of the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian forces. It seems to have been an accident, but what struck me is that not one of the accounts mentions the US Navy — specifically, William C. Rogers III — shot down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, killing all 290 people on board, including 66 children.

Why the omission, I wonder. The (fairly comprehensive) Wikipedia article begins:

Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas, that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board, including 66 children, were killed.[1] The jet was hit while flying over Iran‘s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, along the flight’s usual route, shortly after departing Bandar Abbas International Airport, the flight’s stopover location. Vincennes had entered Iranian territory after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.[2][3]

The reason for the shootdown has been disputed between the governments of the two countries. According to the United States government, the crew of USS Vincennes had incorrectly identified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat, a U.S.-made jet fighter that had been part of the Iranian Air Force inventory since the 1970s. While the F-14s had been supplied to Iran in an air-to-air configuration,[4][5] the crew of the guided missile cruiser had been briefed that the Iranian F-14s were equipped with air-to-ground ordnance.[6] Vincennes had made ten attempts to contact the aircraft on both military and civilian radio frequencies, but had received no response.[7]

According to the Iranian government, the cruiser negligently shot down the aircraft, which was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian aircraft, and not Mode II as used by Iranian military aircraft.[8][9] The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. Some analysts blamed the captain of VincennesWilliam C. Rogers III, for overly-aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment.[7][10] In the days immediately following the incident, US President Ronald Reagan issued a written diplomatic note to the Iranian government, expressing deep regret.[11]

In 1996, the governments of the United States and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement “…the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…”[12] As part of the settlement, even though the U.S. government did not admit legal liability or formally apologize to Iran, it still agreed to pay US$61.8 million on an ex gratia basis, amounting to $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.[13]

The shootdown is the deadliest aviation disaster involving an Airbus A300.[14][15][16]

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprise. The accounts of the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran by students don’t mention that the US (specifically CIA) overthrew the elected president of Iran to install a US puppet — interfering with elections doesn’t hold a candle to that.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2020 at 3:57 pm

How the rise of individualism is upending the Middle East

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Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair and the Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of the study “Ties That Bind: Family, tribe, nation and the rise of Arab individualism” (which can be downloaded at that link) has an interesting column (presumably extracted from the study) in the Washington Post:

The protests that have swept the Middle East in the past two months share a number of underlying causes: Oil prices are soft. Unemployment is high. Citizens have had their fill of corruption and dictatorship. The demonstrators in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Algiers can add complaints that are distinctive to their nations, too. In Iraq, citizens object to the power of Iran and its proxy militias; in Algeria, citizens complain that the ruling gerontocracy has failed to deliver promised reforms.

Yet there’s a deeper sociological phenomenon that underpins all of this unrest: Individualism is accelerating in the Middle East, upending societies that had relied on people to know their place and respect authority. Arab societies have long depended on hierarchical networks of trust that encompass families, villages, tribes and other associations — networks that ultimately reach up to the national leadership. Young people, though, increasingly complain that these networks don’t serve them, and growing urbanization and the spread of technology make it far easier for them to opt out. In some cases, voluntary friendships and connections that people embrace in lieu of tribe and family provide their own sources of strength. But in a region with such a strong tradition of hierarchy and mutual obligation, it is hard to overstate how destabilizing the rise of individualism can be.

These countries are Westernizing socially, even as they maintain distinctive cultural and political identities. They are shifting toward the more atomistic social organization that has long characterized Europe and the United States. People are more mobile, families are more scattered, and economic rewards come as a result of what you do, not who you are. Yet partly because of the rapidity of the change, and partly because it is occurring in much more traditional societies, the decline in “social capital” that the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam identified as a problem in the United States two decades ago, in his book “Bowling Alone,” is arriving even more abruptly in the Arab world. Loneliness and detachment are breeding social volatility.

Last year, colleagues and I at the Center for Strategic and International Studies explored the rise of individualism in the region, including through in-person interviews with more than 100 Arabs in four countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Tunisia. We interviewed rich and poor, young and old. We spoke with people in monarchies and republics, in cities and rural areas — in English, Arabic and French. The stories we heard were remarkably consistent, and they go a long way toward explaining the protests today.

Scholars and policymakers have often suggested that smartphones and social media drive activism; they are certainly useful tools for networking and organization. But the stories we heard had less to do with that and more to do with young people’s belief that occasional group messages and social media connections could fulfill their family obligations without the demands of repeated face-to-face meetings.

Trump keeps talking about ‘keeping’ Middle East oil. That would be illegal.

Besides technology, another force driving the trend is urbanization. When people live in villages, they rely on the people directly around them for basic social needs. Neighbors may have known each other for generations. Yet reciprocal obligations are more tenuous in cities, which are booming in the Arab world. Jordan, for example, was 51 percent urban in 1960; by 2017, the figure had risen to 91 percent. Urbanization in Tunisia likewise climbed over the same period, from 38 percent to 69 percent. Many city-dwellers we spoke to lamented that they didn’t know their neighbors at all — learning about departures from the arrival of moving trucks and about weddings from lines of honking cars in the streets.

One Saudi man in his early 30s captured the change for us — admittedly describing an extreme case. His grandfather, he said, grew up in a compound with 120 family members in Hail, on the northwestern border with Jordan. When an uncle moved across town years ago, the whole compound pulled up stakes and moved with him. The man we spoke with has no compound; instead, he and his wife live alone in Riyadh. Twice a month, they travel to Hail, about 400 miles away, to see their families. In rural Jordan, one middle-aged man lamented to us that his children — and those of his neighbors — worked in Amman, the capital, and did not want to return to the countryside to visit, complaining about the time and expense and suggesting that the parents should make the trip.

For many families, the change has affected the rhythm of the week. Multigenerational marathons of cooking and socializing that once dominated weekend life have been condensed into two- or three-hour visits a few times a month. Young men now often absent themselves from these gatherings, according to our research, spending the day at malls with friends, saying they are available by phone if they are needed.

It’s well known that jobs for young people are scarce across the Arab world, contributing to dissatisfaction. Less noticed is the disorientation caused by a shift in job markets. It used to be that when young people needed jobs, their families (and sometimes their tribes) could help them. That’s much less true today. In part, that’s because — as countries introduce market-oriented reforms — more dispassionate and meritocratic hiring processes are supplanting nepotism. Tighter profit margins make it harder for managers to make spaces for people as “favors.” People with jobs often praise the efficiency and fairness of the newer systems, but young people resent being left to their own devices.

Let’s not pretend Washington ever really tried to stop Israeli settlements

Also, whereas work, family time and leisure once blended, more people now strive to keep these areas of life separate — and to maintain the “proper” balance of each. Young parents said they wanted to spend more time alone with their children, and less time with their adult parents and siblings. When it comes to discretionary time, what we often call primordial ties (based on a person’s situation at birth) are giving way to ties of affection, ties of interest and ties of circumstance.

Is it a good thing that people can make such choices? In many ways, yes. But it comes at a cost. The United States has political and social institutions shaped in part by a long tradition of rugged individualism. Democratic politics, constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and dynamic labor markets (among other features of U.S. society) allow people to change not only their fortunes but often their very identities based on personal preference. As tribal and kinship groups wither and individualism rises, Arab societies will need to develop comparable institutions — and concomitant resilience — against a background that often includes political turmoil, and stagnant or falling incomes.

Looking forward, three things seem likely. First, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 December 2019 at 5:09 pm

The difference between a SNAFU, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck

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Corinne Purtill has an interesting article in Quartz. I would add to the list of words describing fuck-ups the word “mung”:

The term was coined in 1958 in the Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1960 the backronym “Mash Until No Good” was created to describe Mung, and a while after it was revised to “Mung Until No Good”, making it one of the first recursive acronyms.  – Wikipedia

Purtill writes:

Let’s say the situation at work is not good. The project (or product, or re-org, or whatever) has launched, and the best you can say is that things aren’t going as planned. At all. It’s a disaster, though the best word for it is the one you drop over drinks with your team and when venting at home: it’s a clusterfuck.

Clusterfucks hold a special place in public life, one distinct from the complications, crises, and catastrophes that mar our personal and professional existences. The F-Wordformer Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower’s comprehensive history of the term, defines a clusterfuck as “a bungled or confused undertaking or situation.” Stanford business professor Bob Sutton goes further, describing clusterfucks as “those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”

The term dates at least as far back as the Vietnam War, as military slang for doomed decisions resulting from the toxic combination of too many high-ranking officers and too little on-the-ground information. (The “cluster” part of the word allegedly refers to officers’ oak leaf cluster insignia.)

“I have a weird obsession with clusterfucks,” Sutton tells Quartz At Work. He and Stanford Graduate School of Business colleague Huggy Rao took on the topic directly in their 2014 book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, though publishers demanded that the softer substitute “clusterfug” appear in the final text. (This was not Sutton’s choice: His other books include The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide.)

To appreciate what a clusterfuck is—and to understand how to avoid one—it is first helpful to clarify some of the things a clusterfuck is not:

A fuck-up. “A fuck-up is just something all of us do every day,” Sutton says. “I broke the egg I made for breakfast this morning. That was kind of a fuck-up.” Whereas clusterfucks are perfectly preventable, fuck-ups are an unavoidable feature of the human condition.

A SNAFU. While sometimes used as a synonym for minor malfunctions and hiccups, this slang military acronym—“Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”—actually refers to the functionally messy state that describes many otherwise healthy companies (and many of our personal lives). A SNAFU work environment is usually manageable; one that is FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Repair, another military legacy) probably isn’t. “When my students with little experience go to work at a famous company and it isn’t quite as they dreamed, I do ask them if it is FUBAR or SNAFU, and tell them SNAFU will describe most places they work,” Sutton said.

 A shitshow. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary describes a shitshow as a “situation or state of affairs characterized by chaos, confusion, or incompetence.” A clusterfuck may come to possess all those characteristics, but is more properly identified by the decisions that produced it than its outcome.

The three main contributors to clusterfucks

Sutton and Rao analyzed countless cases of scaling and expansion, both successful ones and those that ended in disaster. In reviewing the most spectacular failures, they identified three key factors that resulted in the kind of expensive, embarrassing, late-stage collapse that is the hallmark of a clusterfuck. They were:

Illusion. A clusterfuck starts with the decision maker’s belief that a goal is much easier to attain than it actually is. The expectation that two car companies with different languages and different cultures would merge together flawlessly, as the architects of the doomed Daimler-Chrysler merger apparently believed? Clusterfuck. The Bush Administration’s estimate that the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq would take no more than a few months and $60 billion? A clusterfuck prelude of tragic proportions.

Impatience. A misguided idea alone does not produce a clusterfuck. The idea also needs a champion determined to shove it along, usually over the objections of more-knowledgeable underlings. Sergey Brin’s reported insistence (paywall) on introducing Google Glass to the public against its engineers’ wishes turned a potentially groundbreaking piece of technology into a stupid-looking joke.

Incompetence. When errors of information and timing meet blatantly stupid decisions by people who should know better, disaster tends to ensue. Bear Stearns wasn’t the sole cause of the global financial crisis, of course, but former CEO Jimmy Cayne’s decision to spend 10 days of the 2007 subprime mortgage loan meltdown playing at a bridge tournament without phone or email access contributed to the firm’s collapse—and to the worldwide disaster that followed.

All three of these failings share a common root: people in power who don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the realities of their environment, and who don’t push themselves to confront what they don’t know. Nobody likes to spoil the heady euphoria of an exciting new project by discussing the possibility of failure. The problem is, if potentially bad outcomes aren’t addressed pre-launch, they are more likely to surface afterward, when the reckoning is public and expensive.

The antidote to clusterfuckery, Sutton argues, is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 December 2019 at 9:40 am

Why the Media Are Ignoring the Afghanistan Papers

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Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

This week, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, an extensive review of thousands of pages of internal government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Pentagon Papers, which showcased the lies underpinning the Vietnam War, the Post’s investigation shows that U.S. officials, across three presidential administrations, intentionally and systematically misled the American public for 18 years and counting. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974, told CNN earlier this week, the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers revealed the same dynamic: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.”

The documents are an indictment not only of one aspect of American foreign policy, but also of the U.S.’s entire policymaking apparatus. They reveal a bipartisan consensus to lie about what was actually happening in Afghanistan: chronic waste and chronic corruption, one ill-conceived development scheme after another, resulting in a near-unmitigated failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Both parties had reason to engage in the cover-up. For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was a key component in the war on terror. For the Obama administration, Afghanistan was the “good war” that stood in contrast to the nightmare in Iraq.

The Afghanistan Papers are, in other words, a bombshell. Yet the report has received scant attention from the broader press. Neither NBC nor ABC covered the investigation in their nightly broadcasts this week. In other outlets, it has been buried beneath breathless reporting on the latest developments in the impeachment saga, Joe Biden’s purported pledge to serve only one term, and world leaders’ pathological envy of a 16-year-old girl.

The relentless news cycle that characterizes Donald Trump’s America surely deserves some blame: This isn’t the first time that a consequential news story has been buried under an avalanche of other news stories. But one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.

George W. Bush started the Afghanistan War and botched it in plenty of ways, not least by starting another war in Iraq. But Barack Obama, despite his obvious skepticism of the war effort, exacerbated Bush’s mistakes by bowing to the Washington foreign policy blob and authorizing a pointless troop surge. Now, although both Democrats and Donald Trump seem to be on the same page about getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, there has been little progress with peace talks. The pattern across administrations is that any movement toward resolution is usually met with a slow slide back into the status quo, a.k.a. quagmire.

The political press loves the idea of bipartisan cooperation, which plays into a notion of American greatness and its loss. It also thrives on partisan conflict, because conflict drives narrative. It doesn’t really know what to do with bipartisan failure.

During the impeachment hearings, news outlets gleefully covered the conflict between Trump and members of the foreign policy establishment, holding up the latter as selfless bureaucrats working tirelessly and anonymously on behalf of the American interest, in contrast with the feckless and narcissistic head of the executive branch. The Afghanistan Papers don’t provide that kind of easy contrast; they demand a kind of holistic condemnation, in which Trump and those bureaucrats are part of the same problem.

The media also has a long-standing bias toward “new” news. The Afghanistan War has been a catastrophic failure for nearly two decades. Because little changes, there is little to report that will excite audiences. (Though the Afghanistan Papers are startling, they are hardly surprising.) Given that the president is the greatest supplier of “new” news in recent history—his Twitter feed alone powers MSNBC most days—more complex stories, like the situation in Afghanistan, are often buried in favor of the political equivalent of sports sideline reporting.

The result is that this massive controversy receives disproportionately little coverage. Despite wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, everyone in the U.S. government gets off scot-free. . .

Continue reading.

It is increasingly difficult to see how the US can get back on track. Too many different forces have motivation to stay the current course, which leads directly over a cliff.

Democrats still cannot level with voters about the American empire

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Jon Schwartz writes at the Intercept:

IN THE PAST few years, the Democratic Party has started dealing with reality on domestic policy. Largely thanks to leadership from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, actual solutions to actual problems are now on the agenda: Medicare for All, a big minimum wage hike, a Green New Deal, and the most radical, important idea — changes in who runs corporations.

Unfortunately, the presidential debate in Ohio on Tuesday night showed that Democrats are still a million miles away from reality on foreign policy.

Thanks to President Donald Trump’s recent green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria and assault the Kurds there, the debate contained an unusual amount of discussion about foreign policy.

That was the upside. The downside was that almost all of the discussion was totally specious, because no one on stage wanted to tell Americans the awful truth. That truth is, first, that the grim reality in Syria available for viewing via Twitter videos is the climax of decades of bipartisan foreign policy. And second, by this point the only choices available are either wretched or horrible or both.

The worst offenders were South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and former Vice President Joe Biden. But even Sanders and Warren came nowhere near the honesty of their domestic policies.

Buttigieg delivered an ode to an imaginary America, proclaiming that “when I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it and our enemies knew it.” In reality, of course, the U.S. has — like all powerful countries throughout history — continually betrayed allies whenever necessary. We’ve previously betrayed the Kurds alone seven times. This particular betrayal was inevitable, although a more competent president could have kept it smaller and quieter.

Meanwhile, Booker declared that Trump is “turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.” As the Kurds or the Cherokee, Filipinos, Vietnamese, or many others would be happy to tell you, this glorious moral leadership is something that exists mostly on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.

For his part, Biden said that Trump throwing the Kurds to the wolves is “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history.” Of course, as bad as it is, it’s far less shameful than many other U.S. actions — including the Iraq War, for which Biden voted. In terms of the Kurds specifically, it is at least to date less shameful than the Clinton administration’s fervent support in the 1990s for Turkey’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurds. One of the key defenders of that policy was then-State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns, who is now a top adviser to Biden’s campaign.

Sanders said little about Syria, mostly just echoing Buttigieg’s concern about the rest of the world losing trust in America. By contrast, Warren and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard dipped their toes into the complicated truth before scurrying away.

Warren said, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” This sounds great, but what is this right, smart way? When even Noam Chomsky wants U.S. troops to stay in Syria, it’s a little tricky.

Gabbard did aggressively challenge standard U.S. foreign policy blather. She decried “this regime change war” in Syria and mentioned the unfortunate facts about “the U.S. actually providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria, like Al Qaida, HTS, al-Nusra and others.”

What Gabbard didn’t say is that, by this point, any plausible exit by the U.S. will be extraordinarily ugly, with the Assad regime brutally reestablishing control over Syria. The U.S. certainly bears some of the blame for that, as Gabbard said. But she did not mention that Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are also responsible for the past, present, and future carnage. Most importantly, she did not mention the much larger context for what’s happening.

And it’s that context that Democrats must get comfortable talking about, if they ever want to deal with the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Any politician brave enough to do that Tuesday night would have had to say something like this:

Look, the U.S. is the center of the most powerful empire that’s ever existed. We’re not . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2019 at 11:12 am

Nancy Pelosi stands up to Donald Trump — something those in the White House cannot do

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Finally Trump is facing some decent and principled pushback. From the photo above, you can see President Trump looking dazed and confused. He doesn’t understand just how bad his Syria decision was, and because he has difficulty in assimilating information that conflicts with his biases, he is floundering — and he quite clearly doesn’t like that feeling, so naturally (being Trump) he blames others. He simply cannot process the idea that he might have been wrong.

Lawrence O’Donnell has an excellent comment on the meeting and photo and their significance:

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2019 at 10:26 am

Donald Trump Is a One-Man Foreign Policy Catastrophe

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Doyle McManus reviews Donald Trump’s foreign policy:

As president he named himself negotiator-in-chief and tried to cajole North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to abandon nuclear weapons. He reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, betting he could force the ayatollahs to change their ways. He vowed to force China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union to give up what he called unfair trade practices. He backed an uprising in Venezuela aimed at toppling its leftist president, Nicolas Maduro. He declared victory against Islamic State and ordered U.S. troops home from Syria. In his spare time, he asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has achieved none of those outcomes.

But he might declare war on Iran. And impose tariffs on European cars. And commit the United States to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2019 at 11:09 am

Americans, pessimistic about what life will be like in 2050, fear these things most

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This is a grim column by James Hohmann in the Washington Post, and it puts into words (and illustrates with data) a growing feeling I have that the US will not recover: the decline is now leading into the fall because the US can no longer get the job done. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic—I certainly hope so—but read the column and see whether it matches your own thoughts and feelings:

THE BIG IDEA: Americans, collectively, appear to be in a deeper funk about the future than Beto O’Rourke was after he lost his Senate race.

When adults are asked to think about what the United States will be like in 2050, they see the country declining in stature on the world stage, a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and growing political polarization. They think health care will be less affordable, public education will be lower quality and retiring will be harder.

They fear the growing national debt, the likelihood of an attack that’s as bad or worse than 9/11 and another 1970s-style energy crisis. Many people also think robots will take their jobs.

Few folks in either party believe the political class is up to the task of addressing the most pressing challenges. Part of the problem is that there is less agreement about what the biggest problems even are than there once was, let alone the best ways to tackle them.

A Pew Research Center study published Thursday is full of sobering data points that underscore the level of unease in the body politic and help explain why every two years brings another change election. The comprehensive poll, released with a 58-page report, paints a grim portrait of Americans who feel trepidation about the day-to-day lives that they and their children will be forced to live in 30 years. The numbers bear out what I’ve heard for years now from voters across the country and across the ideological spectrum.

Seven in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country right now, higher than at any time in the past year, but there is a more atmospheric crisis of confidence that transcends the daily news cycle or even the Trump presidency. Overall, 56 percent of people say they are somewhat or even “very” optimistic about the future while 44 percent say they are pessimistic. But asking specific questions reveals a deeper, more systemic anxiety.

— The economy: We’re a decade removed from the Great Recession, yet 62 percent of Americans expect the lower class will increase as a relative share of the U.S. population by 2050. Only 20 percent expect that average families will fare better financially in the future than they do today. Another 44 percent predict that their standard of living to be worse three decades from now.

The poll shows that 73 percent expect the gap between the rich and the poor to grow, including majorities across demographic and political groups. Overall, 54 percent predict that the U.S. economy as a whole will be weaker in 2050 than it is today. And 63 percent worry the national debt will be larger in 2050 than it is now.

These numbers are startling considering the relative strength of the economy. If people are this pessimistic when times are pretty good, what’s going to happen as this economy continues to slow and inevitably dips into a recession?

— People fear the future of work: 37 percent of all currently employed Americans see automation as a direct threat to their current occupation. Exactly half of workers with no more than a high school diploma think robots and computers will take over the work that they currently do. While many of the highly educated and affluent think artificial intelligence and automation are great, a majority of Americans believe that it will worsen inequality. They don’t see the advantages.

— There’s growing anxiety about retirement security: Among those who are currently in the workforce, 42 percent expect to receive no Social Security benefits when they eventually retire. Another 42 percent anticipate that benefits will be reduced from what they are today.

Overall, 3 in 4 Americans expect older adults will be less prepared financially for retirement in 2050 than they are today; 83 percent predict that most people will have to work into their 70s to be able to afford to stop working; and 57 percent think people over 65 will have a worse standard of living in 2050 than they do today.

— More expect the quality of public schools to get worse than better by 2050, and 77 percent of Americans worry about their ability to provide a quality education for the students of tomorrow. This concern is shared across party lines.

— Six in 10 Americans predict that health care will be less affordable in 2050 than it is today.

— The same share of people thinks the condition of the planet will be worse in 2050. Only 16 percent think the environment will be better. Meanwhile, 2 in 3 Americans predict a major worldwide energy crisis that will hamper our economy sometime in the next 30 years.

— About half of Americans believe that a majority nonwhite population will lead to more racial and ethnic conflicts. Many white people especially fear demographic change. By 2050, the Census Bureau predicts the United States will be a majority-minority country. The Pew poll shows that 35 percent believe that’s good, 23 percent say it will be bad and the rest don’t think it’s good or bad. Overall, 40 percent believe race relations will be worse in 2050 than they are now.

— Six in 10 Americans believe that the United States will be less important in the world in 2050 than it is now.And 53 percent expect that China definitely or probably will overtake us as the world’s main superpower within the next three decades.

— There are also deep worries about the future of faith, marriage and family: Overall, 43 percent say they are “very” worried about the nation’s moral values while another 34 percent are “fairly” worried. Half the country sees religion being less important to American life in 2050. A 46 percent plurality expects that fewer people will have children. And a 53 percent majority thinks people in 2050 will be less likely to get married than they are today. Only 7 percent predict that people will be more likely to marry in the future.

— That finding comes amid fresh evidence that America is suffering epidemic levels of aloneness. Another major poll published this week, the General Social Survey, shows that just over half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 do not have a steady romantic partner. That’s up dramatically from 33 percent in 2004, which was the lowest figure since the question was first posed in 1986, and it’s up from 45 percent in 2016.

“The shift has helped drive singledom to a record high among the overall public, among whom 35 percent say they have no steady partner,” Lisa Bonos and Emily Guskin report. “There are several other trends that go along with the increase in young single Americans. Women are having fewer children, and they’re having them later in life. The median age of first marriage is increasing. … According to the General Social Survey data, 41 percent of Democrats are without a steady partner, compared with only 29 percent of Republicans.”

— Tribalism alert: Back to the Pew poll, 2 in 3 Americans predict that the country will be more politically divided in 2050 than it is now, including 68 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats.Only 26 percent of adults think we will be less polarized in 30 years than we are now.

Other surveys have shown similar levels of pessimism about polarization. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in 2017 found that 36 percent of Americans were “not proud” of U.S. democracy, for example, at least twice as many as said this in both 2014 and 1996. That survey also found 71 percent saying they think partisan disagreements have reached a dangerous new normal. Most of this group (39 percent) thought this was the new normal, rather than temporary. Seven in 10 respondents thought divisions in this era are at least as big as during the Vietnam War, including 77 percent of people who were adults in the 1970s.

— Finally, most Americans don’t think solutions to our problems will come from Washington. In fact, 55 percent in the Pew poll said Washington will have a more negative impact than a positive one. The country continues to be divided over the role of government: Six in 10 fear the government will do too little to solve problems, while 39 percent worry that the feds will be too involved in issues that are better left to businesses and individuals. These people are counting on scientists, entrepreneurs and educators to get us out of the malaise. . .

Continue reading. And do read the entire column: there’s a lot more and it’s overwhelming.

In this connection, Andrew Sullivan’s column “Trump Is a Massive Failure — and Getting Exactly What He Wants,” in New York is sobering:

Every day, the evidence piles up that Trump’s presidency is a failure on its own terms, let alone anyone else’s. And every day, it becomes clearer that this really doesn’t matter at all.

A politically successful policy catastrophe? That’s one way of putting it. Let us count the ways. On trade, we have a record deficit in goods — precisely the opposite of what Trump promised. On immigration, we are facing the biggest crisis since the Bush years — a huge jump in migrants from Central America that is now overwhelming the system. Trump, for his part, is now enabling what he calls “catch and release” on a massive scale. On economic growth, the huge tax cut for the rich has failed. It will not boost growth to levels of 4 or 5 percent — even the president’s own advisers think it’s likely to be a shade less than 3 percent this year and will decline thereafter. The Fed thinks we’ll be lucky to get a little more than 2 percent.

Meanwhile, the budget deficit now looks likely to be more than a trillion dollars annually for the indefinite future, and public debt is hitting new, stratospheric levels. Trump pledged he’d balance the budget. On entitlements, Trump is beginning to backtrack on his promises to protect the safety net. On climate, the denial of reality is exposed almost daily. In just the last week, we’ve seen catastrophic flooding in the Midwest and what could become the Southern Hemisphere’s deadliest cyclone on record.

And what consequences do we see for these massive failures? Staggeringly stable polling numbers. A year ago, Trump’s approval-to-disapproval rateswere 40.6 to 53.4; today they’re 41.6 to 53.1 percent. Nothing seems to move them. A new survey of Fox News viewers shows that 78 percent of them think that Trump has accomplished more than any other president in history. More than Lincoln, FDR, or Washington, for Pete’s sake. And the enthusiasm of Trump’s base now exceeds that of the Democrats. The usual reassurance — that he’s still underwater, widely unpopular, and easy to defeat next year — is getting less reassuring. When you actually break out the head-to-head polls, you find Trump remains highly competitive. Bernie bests him by just two points right now — and that’s before the GOP attack machine has even gotten started. Everyone else is also neck and neck, although a new poll shows Biden with a ten-point lead. Maybe Biden will save us. I think he would have in 2016. But he failed at both his previous presidential runs, has a huge message-discipline problem, will have a hard time inspiring the grassroots, and looks to be a little too handsy with women for comfort. I’m not saying he cannot win. I’m just saying it’s obviously going to be tough.

And the cult is deepening. For me, the grimmest reality is Congress’s likely inability to override Trump’s veto on wall spending. Here you have a bedrock principle of constitutional conservatism — separation of powers, Congress’s sole power of the purse — and it has been tossed out the window. This is not some minor development. Handing the president the ability to make up national emergencies in order to appropriate funds for purposes Congress has explicitly ruled out — well, it’s textbook authoritarianism. It makes Obama’s attempt to juggle priorities in who gets deported look positively meek.

There is also a collapse in a functioning, accountable government outside the small royal court that has effectively replaced the cabinet. Foreign policy has become a matter of authoritarian whim, or family connection. Yesterday, Trump tweeted — yes, tweeted — an attack on the basis of international law: He recognized Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights as legitimate and permanent. That piece of land is now, for the U.S., part of “Israel’s Sovereignty.” Reversing decades of policy only took a few seconds.

Trump’s rationale is the idea that the Heights are of “critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” So if a state decides to annex the territory of a neighboring state, because such an occupation helps the strategy and security of the aggressor nation, the U.S. has no problem with that. What principle is left to oppose Putin’s annexation of Crimea? Why did Trump do this? No one really knows, as is usually the case with monarchs of old. Probably he was trying to please evangelicals, support Bibi’s reelection, and nudge along the son-in-law’s harebrained Mideast scheme. (Yes, the mute dauphin who uses his WhatsApp for official business, and hangs out with the Saudi torturer, MBS.)

Trump’s dominance routine has also become more effective the longer it has gone on. Look at the miserable examples of Lindsey Graham or Ben Sasse, eunuchs at the Royal Court. Or think of Trump’s Twitter assaults on George Conway, a man pointing out the bleeding obvious — that Trump is so mentally and psychologically sick that he is unfit to run a lemonade stand. And, for her part, Conway defends Trump rather than her husband! This is Stalinesque. Or think of the insane indecency of Trump’s continued flaying of the ghost of John McCain. Yes, some Republicans have demurred. But primarily those whose own careers are over, time-limited, or beyond accountability because their seats are so safe. Mitt Romney is reduced to saying he cannot “understand” why Trump would do this. Again: the former nominee, safe Senate seat, Mormon rectitude, long Republican loyalist. And he pretends merely to be baffled?

Talk about “ripe for tyranny”! And that, it seems to me, is the real salience of the tweets. Trump is showing his foes and friends that he can say anything, abuse anyone, lie about anything, break every norm of decency, propriety and prudence — and suffer no consequences at all. It’s all a dominance ritual. And just think about what he has actually claimed: that the heads of the FBI and DOJ engaged in treasonous and illegal activity; that Russia, despite the unanimous judgment of U.S. and Western intelligence, did not attempt to intervene in the 2016 election; and that the opposition party cannot “legitimately” win an election. The latter — repeated over the years — is a direct assault on liberal democracy, and on the integrity and legitimacy of the entire system. It opens up the very real possibility that Trump will not concede an election he loses. In any functioning democracy, such statements would end any politician’s career. They merely burnish Trump’s hold.

In this post-truth world, where Trump has allied with social media to create an alternate reality, lies work. This week, he approached the press corps simply repeating, “No Collusion! No Collusion!” And he will continue to say this regardless of what the Mueller report may reveal, because it doesn’t matter what actually happened. Whatever Trump says will become the truth for 40 percent of the country, while the expectations of the opposition, troubled by pesky empiricism, may well be deflated. Fox, a de facto state propaganda channel, will do the rest.

This remains a surreal state of affairs, does it not? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2019 at 4:28 pm

How Should We Talk About the Israel Lobby’s Power?

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In New York Andrew Sullivan notes the difficulty of discussing an unusual relationship:

Let’s get this out of the way first: Using the phrases “all about the Benjamins” and “allegiance to a foreign country” when referring to the Israel lobby in D.C., as freshman Democratic representative Ilhan Omar recently did, is anti-Semitic. It should be possible to criticize Washington’s relationship with Israel without deploying crude and freighted language like this. But it got me wondering: Is it possible to write honestly about the Israel lobby’s power in D.C. without using any anti-Semitic “tropes” at all?

The basic facts are not really in dispute. A very powerful lobby deploys the money and passions of its members to ensure that a foreign country gets very, very special treatment from the U.S. Many of its supporters are Evangelical Protestants who want to accelerate the Second Coming. Others spring from an older and very American form of Christian Zionism. Many others are also American Jews with a commitment to Israel that has its roots both in the Torah and in a vow never to allow a second Holocaust.

I find basing foreign policy on apocalyptic predictions from dubious parts of the Bible dangerous, but, hey, Christianists are going to Christianist. And the zeal of many Jewish Americans for Israel is completely understandable. After the Holocaust, no Jew need apologize for a millisecond for having Israel’s back. When you see the rising, rancid tide of open anti-Semitism in Europe, the capture of the British opposition party by this poisonous hatred, and the sharp rise in hate crimes against Jews, even in New York City, defending Israel is a core interest of not only Jews but all of us in what’s left of the West.

The question, it seems to me, is one of proportion.

Take foreign aid. The U.S. provides the Jewish state with $3.8 billion a year in aid, and has committed to doing so for each of the next ten years. Compare that with what the U.S. gives other allies who are as wealthy as Israel: The U.K. got $150,000 in 2017; South Korea got $775,000. The average aid for high-income countries like Israel, according to USAID, is $79 million a year. Israel gets 48 times more.

Per capita, the disparity is close to absurd. Israel gets $436 in U.S. aid a year; dirt-poor Afghanistan $154; post-war Iraq $91; Egypt $14. By any measure, this is extreme exceptionalism. Yes, Israel faces military threats. But so does South Korea. And, unlike South Korea, Israel has nuclear weapons (illegally acquired) and its enemies don’t. The IDF and the Mossad stride the region with unparalleled military capacity and a vast technological edge. Israel is not David any more. It’s Goliath. And even if you believe the U.S. should somehow be aiding a country as wealthy as Israel, you’ve got to admit the scale of it is off the charts.

You might expect that in return for all that money and military protection, the Israeli government would be eager to please the U.S., help buttress American foreign policy diplomatically, or respond swiftly when the U.S. asks the Jewish state not to violate international law, launch wars that kill a lot of civilians, or construct a brutal and corrosive apartheid state on the West Bank. But after you’ve spent a while in Washington, you begin to realize that’s not exactly how this works. In return for giving Israel $3.8 billion a year … the U.S. is expected to consent to anything and everything Israel wants. When you look at this from a distance, it is really quite amazing.

It has, for example, been long-standing U.S. policy that the settlements in the West Bank are terribly counterproductive to any future peace. For decades, American presidents of both parties have asked the Israelis to stop, pause, or reverse this — and Israel has essentially told each of them to go fuck himself. Yes, they bob and weave a bit, but every year, the project of repopulating the West Bank with more and more fundamentalist Jews continues apace, in open violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in a manner that effectively removes any chance for the conquered and perpetually humiliated Palestinians to build their own state. In fact, under Trump, the pace of population and settlement growth is surging.

Then we had the spectacle of how Israel undermined the last American president. The Jewish state and its powerful lobby went to war with Obama over his attempt to get Iran to curtail its nuclear program. You might imagine that Israel would be relieved that its major sponsor and ally was prepared to remove or at least restrain the greatest threat to Israel’s security. But no. Israel would prefer that the U.S. go to war with Iran, or militarily cripple its nuclear facilities. From the very get-go, Israel and AIPAC did everything they could to kill one of the core goals and achievements of Obama’s presidency. It was not enough to constrain Iran; the U.S. had to wage war on it.

The lowest moment was when the Evangelical-dominated GOP invited Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress to rant against the president’s policy in a final, bitter act of spite. The president wasn’t even notified of the invitation. I ask you: Can you imagine any other leader of any other ally who would treat the president of the United States this way? And it’s hard to forget that Oval Office press chat when Netanyahu simply lectured Obama and treated him with what can only be called contempt. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And, of course, Israel won in the end. Under Trump, Israel has achieved almost every goal it aimed for: the scrapping of the Iran deal, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a surge in settlements, and an intensification of the abuse of the Palestinians. Every form of U.S. aid to Palestinians in the West Bank has ended. We’re now the only country to have no diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, and just defunded the U.N. agencies that serve Palestinian refugees. Again you might ask: What did the U.S. get in return for all this from Israel? And again the answer is: Nothing.

Actually, worse than nothing. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 March 2019 at 1:01 pm

Why is the Trump administration so eager to give nuclear technology to the reckless Saudi regime?

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The Editorial Board of the Washington Post asks a good question:

SAUDI ARABIA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has built a record of reckless aggression against opponents both at home and abroad. He has also declared on at least one occasion that his regime could seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It would seem common-sensical for the United States to avoid transferring any nuclear technology to his regime without ironclad guarantees that it could not be used to build bombs. Yet the Trump administration appears to have persisted in considering proposals to do just that — in part at the urging of senior officials and lobbyists with troubling conflicts of interest.

A report by the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week provided new details of how former national security adviser Michael Flynn and other National Security Council officials attempted to rush through a plan for U.S. companies to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia in the early weeks of the Trump administration. Ignoring warnings by career officials that they could violate laws on technology transfers, as well as conflict-of-interest rules, they pushed a scheme drawn up by a firm represented by several well-connected retired generals.

According to the committee report, Mr. Flynn had identified himself as an adviser to the company, and the plan called for President Trump to appoint his close friend Tom Barrack to oversee a deal with the Saudis even though his private business has raised considerable funds from Saudi investors.

Though the NSC initiative appears to have been squelched by H.R. McMaster, who replaced Mr. Flynn, negotiations with the Saudis have quietly continued under Energy Secretary Rick Perry. As recently as last week, Mr. Trump held a meeting with nuclear company executives in the Oval Office to discuss power-plant sales to Saudi Arabia. The session was organized by the firm that previously collaborated with Mr. Flynn, and the shadows of possible conflicts of interest persist. One of the nuclear companies, Westinghouse Electric, is owned by a firm that also bought a stake in a troubled Manhattan skyscraper owned by Jared Kushner’s family company. Mr. Kushner, a key interlocutor with Mohammed bin Salman, is due to visit the kingdom again next week.

There is an argument to be made for U.S. firms selling nuclear plants to Saudi Arabia: If the kingdom is determined to acquire them, then it would be better it do so from U.S. companies than from their Russian or Chinese competitors. But that logic holds only if the administration negotiates a deal with Riyadh imposing strict controls on the technology. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the only responsible accord would be one that prohibited the regime from any enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of spent fuel — techniques that can be used to build nuclear weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the arrogant crown prince is refusing to accept those terms — probably because he wishes to preserve a nuclear-arms option. Though federal law requires the United States to negotiate a protocol on the conditions for supplying nuclear technology and submit that to Congress, it does not mandate those conditions. So Congress must insist that any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia embrace this gold standard. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2019 at 8:15 am

Trump Is Doing the Same Thing on Iran That George W. Bush Did on Iraq

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Understandable in that Trump is devoid of originality and thus naturally must copy. Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Last week, intelligence officials testified publicly that Iran has not resumed its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. The next day, President Trump called these officials “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” and advised, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

The first-blush response to this presidential outburst was to dump it in the same category as Trump’s other public eruption against members of his government who undercut his preferred narratives with inconvenient facts. That response is probably correct: this Trump tantrum is probably like all the other Trump tantrums. But there is another possible meaning to this episode: Trump’s rejection of intelligence assessments of Iran’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities eerily echoes the Bush administration’s rejection of Iraq’s WMD capabilities a decade and a half earlier.

Shortly after their testimony, the intelligence officials were summoned to the Oval office for a photographed session in which they publicly smoothed over their breach with the president, and (according to Trump) assured him that their remarks had been misconstrued, despite having been delivered in public and broadcast in their entirety. Yet Trump’s interview broadcast Sunday with Margaret Brennan on CBS made clear how little little headway they made in regaining his trust.

Trump told Brennan he plans to maintain troops in Iraq because, “I want to be able to watch Iran … We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.” But would he accept the assessments that he received? No, Trump replied, he wouldn’t.

His reason for rejecting this intelligence was consistent. Trump is unable to separate the question, Do I like Iran’s government and its foreign policy? from the question Is Iran building a nuclear weapon? Tell Trump that Iran is abiding by its nuclear commitment, and what he hears you saying is, “Iran is a lovely state run by wonderful people.”

If that account of Trump’s thinking sounds too simplistic, just look at his answers:

I’m not going to stop [intelligence officials] from testifying. They said they were mischaracterized — maybe they were maybe they weren’t, I don’t really know — but I can tell you this, I want them to have their own opinion and I want them to give me their opinion. But, when I look at Iran, I look at Iran as a nation that has caused tremendous problems …

My intelligence people, if they said in fact that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100 percent. It is a vicious country that kills many people …

So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is — if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel.

In fact, intelligence officials did not deny Iran has caused problems. They simply asserted facts about its nuclear weapons. Trump cannot hear those facts without translating it into Iran being comprehensively “wonderful.”

Even more remarkably, Trump explained that intelligence assessments could not be trusted because they had failed in the run-up to the Iraq war:

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to move on here but I should say your intel chiefs do say Iran’s abiding by that nuclear deal. I know you think it’s a bad deal, but—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I disagree with them. I’m — I’m — by the way—

MARGARET BRENNAN: You disagree with that assessment?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: —I have intel people, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Sure.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: —in Iraq had nuclear weapons — had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in.

Trump’s understanding of this history is almost perfectly backwards. U.S. intelligence officials never said Iraq “had nuclear weapons,” or even anything close to that. They did overstate Iraqi weapons capabilities. But — crucially — the Bush administration also pressured intelligence agencies to inflate their findings, as John Judis and Spencer Ackerman reported in 2003, and administration officials overstated the intelligence that was produced, as the Senate Intelligence Committee found in 2008.

The backdrop to this episode does have some important differences with the current moment. The Bush administration had been plunged into an adrenal panic by the 9/11 attacks. Its rush toward war was largely choreographed by Dick Cheney, a skilled bureaucratic operator, and enjoyed broad public legitimacy created by the national unity bestowed upon Bush by the surprise attack. None of these conditions apply to the easily distracted, childlike, and deeply unpopular sitting president.

And while Cheney has departed the scene, National Security Council director John Bolton has assumed a somewhat parallel role. An ultrahawk with a long record of punishing subordinates who undermine the factual basis for his preferred policies, Bolton has emerged as Trump’s most influential foreign policy adviser. Bolton in 2015 insisted that Iran was racing toward a nuclear weapon. (“Even absent palpable proof, like a nuclear test, Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear weapons has long been evident.”) He likewise concluded that diplomacy could never work (“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program”) and that “only military action” could stop it.

As Trump has grown alienated from his national security apparatus, Bolton appears to be the one remaining official who has retained a measure of his trust. And while he may not have a Cheney-like ability to manipulate the president, Bolton does benefit from a near vacuum in rival power sources. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 February 2019 at 4:46 pm

The Priest of Abu Ghraib

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The Smiethsonian has a long and thoughtful article that is very much worth reading. It’s by Jennifer Percy and it begins:

Joshua Casteel was 24 years old when he learned he would be sent to Iraq as an interrogator with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. This was his first deployment. It was June 2004, and the war in Iraq had been going on for a little more than a year. Casteel packed a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and didn’t stop reading until he saw the lights of Baghdad in the desert below. From Ali Al Salem Air Base, outside Kuwait City, he took a military bus overnight to Baghdad International Airport. Out his window he saw oil fires, roadside weddings, sand that went on forever.

The next day, he suited up in body armor, strapped on his M-16, and took a heavily armored three-vehicle convoy 20 miles outside Baghdad to Abu Ghraib prison. On the way, he was thinking about Pope John Paul II, who wrote about suffering, human dignity and the nature of personhood and its relationship to the divine. Then the commander asked about newcomers: “Who has never done this before?” Casteel raised his hand. The commander explained that they didn’t fire warning shots. “If you move your selector level from ‘safe’ to ‘semi’ automatic, you shoot to kill,” he said.

Casteel stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds. He was a blond, blue-eyed evangelical Christian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The deployment came six weeks after the revelation of prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. An Army intelligence officer and a patriot who’d long dreamed of serving his country in uniform, Casteel also had doubts about the morality of the so-called war on terror. Two weeks before he got his assignment letter from the Army, he was accepted to seminary school. He chose Iraq.

His mother, Kristi Casteel, could never picture her son as an interrogator. “He just wasn’t cruel to anyone,” she told me. She worried the job would change him. Casteel tried to rationalize. “Better that they have someone like me in the interrogation room,” he told her, “than someone who doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions, or just wants to drop bombs.”

Abu Ghraib was already a prison before the Americans arrived, where Saddam Hussein incarcerated, tortured and executed Iraqi dissidents. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, the Americans took the place over and replaced Saddam’s portrait with a banner that read “America is the friend of all Iraqi people.” There was hardly any vegetation, just expanses of dirt and mud between buildings. “At the prison’s edge is a teetering skyline—minaret, palm trees, the mosaic dome of a mosque, rooftops,” Casteel wrote home to his parents. “At sunset I can hear the calls to prayer from the south and from the east. At times it may even appear as if in a round, like choirs of a cathedral, one folded atop the other. But always a few hours after the sun has fallen there is the intermittent echo of small-arms fire, the howling of dogs.” The complex, which now also housed a U.S. military base, had a chapel, a couple of cafeterias, an entertainment shed. When Casteel got to his sleeping quarters, everything was covered in ash. Outside, he saw a plume of smoke from a giant trash pile. The pit burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes the smoke blew right through Casteel’s sleeping quarters.

Casteel was told that the military’s top priority, above even the search for Osama bin Laden, was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and nicknamed the “Sheik of the Slaughterers.” Casteel’s job would be to interrogate prisoners to learn more about Zarqawi’s chief lieutenant, a man named Omar Hussein Hadid, whose army of insurgents had killed 95 Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and crude bombs during the Battle of Fallujah.

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

* * *

I met Casteel in 2009, when we were both graduate students in the writing program at the University of Iowa. We took a class together on the art of memoir, and on the side, Casteel told me, he took courses in philosophy and theology. I was surprised when I learned he had been an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. He wasn’t like any soldier I had ever met. He loved to sing solos from Les Misérables and gave frequent sermons at local churches. I often saw him in a corduroy blazer, books piled under one arm.

A few years later, I contacted Casteel’s mother, Kristi, because I wished I had gotten to know him better. She invited me to her home in Cedar Rapids and gave me access to a Dropbox account containing Joshua’s many writings and files. The folders had titles like “Heidegger and the Mystery of Pain,” “Flesh and Finitude,” “Heidegger and Sartre on God and Bodies,” “Technologies of Humanness” and “The Rhetoric of Pain.”

Kristi said, “Joshua had a complexity about his life.”

There were folders for academic papers, diary entries, plays—Casteel got a dual master’s degree in playwriting and nonfiction writing—and many jotted-off musings. A small publisher, Essay Press, had put out a short book by Casteel in 2008 titled Letters from Abu Ghraib, composed of selected emails he wrote to friends and family during his six-month deployment. And there were a lot of unfinished projects, including a memoir called No Graven Images.

Peeking into Casteel’s files felt a little like having a conversation with him, even if it was one-sided. But there was so much I still wished to know. Casteel often made difficult and even contradictory choices, which to many people who knew him seemed incomprehensible. He was constantly trying to make sense of how his Christianity fit with the war and his time in Iraq. For him, questioning this paradox at the heart of his life was analogous to figuring out the mystery of Christ. “If Jesus is anything,” Casteel wrote in the introduction to his unfinished memoir, “he is incomprehensible. This is my story of wrestling with that incomprehensibility.”

* * *

Casteel was born into a family of evangelists and raised in Cedar Rapids. His father was an ordained minister with River of Life Ministries, and both of his parents worked as Christian marriage therapists. Joshua was the youngest child of three, and the only boy. For years Casteel soaked up the ecstasy of Pentecostalism, spoke in tongues, attended miracles. On Sundays, he listened to sermons, Scriptures, hymns, and learned about the fight between good and evil.

He was a kid driven by questions of meaning and significance. He lived with what people now like to call “intentionality.” He told his mother he wanted to give himself up to a higher cause—either his country, or God, or both. He even told his mother that his calling might include the ultimate sacrifice. He covered his bedroom walls with cutouts from Army brochures and Marine recruiters, the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, and a large wooden cross.

He attended his first presidential caucus events at age 7, and in high school became president of the local chapter of the Young Republicans. In his parents’ garage he would hold press conferences in a White House built from cardboard, wearing a suit and clip-on tie, his hair parted like Ronald Reagan’s. He got his first gun at 11, during the Gulf War—a 22-caliber rifle with a long-range scope. Rush Limbaugh was a constant presence. So was Billy Graham and Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition. “On the one hand,” Casteel wrote in his memoir, “the political banter of our ‘fundamentalist’ Christian household hovered around familiar conservative themes: family values, small government, private enterprise (Dad was an entrepreneur). But also always present was what Thomas Friedman refers to as the invisible fist behind the invisible hand in the economy: strong national defense.”

Casteel was consumed by feelings of loyalty to America and believed in America as a “Shining City on a Hill.” His father had been a captain in the Army, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At his grandfather’s funeral, Joshua placed an old West Point badge in his casket.

One summer, at Bible camp, when Casteel was 14 years old, a man named Steve, a self-declared prophet, had a revelation that Casteel was destined to be a powerful and historically significant man. When Steve was kicked out of the ministry for false prophecy, Casteel asked the camp pastor whether the prophecy was still worth anything. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” the pastor said. “God can speak through a false prophet.”

* * *

Kristi Casteel describes her son as a happy and affectionate child, obedient as they come. The two forged a close and trusting relationship right from the beginning. One day when Casteel was 3 years old she found him sobbing uncontrollably. He brought her outside. “It’s really bad,” he said. “A little worm is dead.” The worm had dried out in the sun. Casteel dug a tiny grave and buried it. “Jesus loves the little wormies,” he told his mother. “All the little wormies of the world.” As a teenager he made small but symbolic acts in the name of God. He torched his collection of unholy CDs. He anointed the high school doorways and baseball dugouts with oil from the Christian bookstore. He blew a shofar from centerfield.

His mother said he could sometimes get lonely, staying home on weekends rather than partying or socializing with other teenagers. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Some of his friends took to calling him “Mama’s Boy.” Other classmates thought he was gay because many of his friends were girls, because he acted in school plays and musicals, because he had a hormone imbalance called gynecomastia that gave him breasts. For years, until he had surgery, he was teased in the locker room, and refused to take off his shirt to swim or change backstage during school plays.

He and his mother talked about everything—faith, friendships, girls, dreams, disappointments, fears, philosophy, theology, art, literature, music. “We were very much alike in many ways, and just naturally connected on a deep level,” Kristi told me. Joshua was never as close to his father, Everett, who didn’t share his son’s temperament or interests. (In 2010, Everett Casteel died from complications related to a brain tumor.) With his mother, Joshua was always sweet. He gave her a tiny crystal swan, a ragged cotton bunny (she collected bunnies), a pink chiffon blouse, a large print of an angel that he thought looked like her, and a framed poem he wrote about her and the meaning of her name. Casteel was always praying to Mary, the mother of God. For Kristi, it made sense. “We identified with Mary and Jesus—it just seemed to naturally evolve,” she says. “People mentioned his likeness to Christ again and again.”

Kristi had always worried that God would take her son. She had gone into his bedroom at night when he was a few weeks old and heard God talking: Give him back to me. You need to let him go. She tried to make sense of it. She later thought of the story of Isaac, when Abraham raised a knife above his son’s head to prove his faith in God.

“Whenever that fear entered my mind,” she told me, “I reminded myself that all of our children are on loan to us, and I shouldn’t live in fear of something I couldn’t know would happen.”

* * *

Casteel never forgot Steve’s prophecy, and a month after he turned 17 he enlisted as an Army reservist in Iowa City under the delayed entry program, in part to help his chances of getting accepted to West Point. That summer, between junior and senior year of high school, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2019 at 3:13 pm

Lest we forget: “Vice” vs. the Real Dick Cheney

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Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker:

Adam McKay, the director of “Vice,” has an exuberant and fantastic filmmaking style that inoculates him against the kind of indignant fact-checking to which Hollywood depictions of history are often subjected. Who wants to be an old grump and point out that, for example, there is no evidence that Dick Cheney, the movie’s antihero, suggested to the President that they head out to the White House lawn for a round of circle jerk, or that Dick and Lynne Cheney spoke to each other in bed in mock-Shakespearean pentameter? But “Vice” isn’t asking to be judged purely as a work of fiction, either; its implicit claim is that it plays around with the facts about Cheney in order to get closer to the truth.

By that standard, there’s no problem about the regular flights into speculation and satire, but there is one major false note in “Vice.” That’s when a young Cheney rather plaintively asks his mentor, the congressman turned White House aide Donald Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld bursts into uncontrollable laughter, turns away, and disappears into his office. Through the closed door we can still hear him cackling. Actually, it’s clear that Cheney, even that early, was a deeply committed and ideological conservative—one whose phlegmatic demeanor and eagerness to master the details of government masked who he really was for a very long time.

In the early nineteen-sixties, Cheney dropped out of Yale twice, but one professor there made a deep impression on him. That was H. Bradford Westerfield, a diplomatic historian who believed that it was possible that the United States would fall victim to a Communist takeover. “Ominously, the infectious defeatism drifts across the Atlantic and begins to insinuate itself into the mind of America,” he warned in his book “The Instruments of America’s Foreign Policy.” Another crucial experience for the Cheneys—both of whom were children of career federal civil servants—was their brief tour of duty in Madison, Wisconsin, at the height of the sixties, when they were enrolled in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin.

Many years later, Lynne Cheney told me, “I distinctly remember going to class, and having to walk through people in whiteface, conducting guerrilla theatre, often swinging animal entrails over their heads, as part of a protest against Dow Chemical. And then the shocking thing was that you would enter the classroom and here would be all these nice young people who honestly wanted to learn to write an essay.” Dick Cheney, during an internship in Washington, D.C., took a delegation from Capitol Hill to a Students for a Democratic Society meeting in Madison, so that they could see the unvarnished face of student radicalism, and also to a faculty meeting, where he was struck by the professors’ lack of alarm over the left’s activities. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s first jobs in a Presidential Administration were at the Office of Economic Opportunity, during Richard Nixon’s first term—Rumsfeld was the director and Cheney was his deputy. This is presented in “Vice” as an anodyne bureaucratic assignment, but, because the O.E.O. had been created to carry out Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, their jobs entailed dismantling the most sixties-infused agency of the federal government. From Cheney’s point of view, the work had the quality of removing the serpent from the breast of state.

The episode that best foreshadowed the Cheney we came to know in the years after the 9/11 attacks occurred at the end of his service as Secretary of Defense, under George H. W. Bush—another job that “Vice” understands in terms of power, not ideas. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Cheney, with the help of aides such as Lewis (Scooter) Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, who later joined him in the George W. Bush Administration, commissioned a study with the bland title “Defense Planning Guidance.” It envisioned a post-Cold War world in which there would only ever be one superpower, the United States: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” the document said. It was skeptical of power exercised by the United Nations and other multinational alliances, as opposed to that exercised by the United States unilaterally. Cheney’s circle did not support the first President Bush’s decision to conclude the Gulf War without toppling Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in Iraq. The 9/11 attacks provided Cheney and his allies with an unexpected opportunity to enact their long-standing views.

“Vice” treats conservatism as a combination of resistance to the civil-rights movement, the Koch brothers’ eagerness to reduce taxes and regulations, and pure opportunism. Cheney’s conservatism, at heart, is none of these. It is what might be called threatism. Powerful, determined, immensely destructive forces—the Soviet Union, radical Islam, the domestic left—want to destroy American freedom and democracy. Complacent politicians, especially liberal ones, are incapable either of understanding this or of summoning the will to combat it. For the small cadre who do understand, it is imperative to use power unusually quietly, expertly, and aggressively. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 January 2019 at 2:34 pm

American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Myth

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

Donald Trump has done more to elevate the left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy than any politician in modern memory.

As a presidential candidate, the mogul told Republican primary audiences that George W. Bush had lied the United States into Iraq; that said war had done a “tremendous disservice to humanity”; and that America could have saved countless lives by investing $5 trillion in domestic infrastructure instead. As commander-in-chief, Trump has suggested that there is no moral distinction between the U.S. and other great powers; that American foreign policy in the Middle East is largely dictated by the interests of arms manufacturers; and that the U.S. judges foreign regimes by their utility to American economic interests, not their commitment to human rights.

But if Trump’s descriptions of geopolitics echo Noam Chomsky, his prescriptions owe more to Attila the Hun. The president does see the invasion of Iraq as a criminal waste — but only because the U.S. failed to expropriate the region’s oil fields. He does imply that, in the eyes of the American state, Raytheon’s profits count more than journalists’ lives —but he sees that as a good thing. And when Trump suggests our country isn’t “so innocent,” he isn’t imploring neoconservatives to hold America to higher moral standards, but rather, to hold foreign autocrats to lower ones.

In other words, the Trump presidency can be read as an object lesson in the virtues of hypocrisy. Having a global hegemon that preaches human rights — while propping up dictators and incinerating schoolchildren — is bad. But having one that does those things while preaching nihilism is worse; not least because even a nominal commitment to liberal values can function as a constraint against their violation. Trump’s distaste for the whole “shining city on a hill” shtick has, among other things, enabled the Pentagon to tolerate higher levels of civilian casualties in the Middle East, the Israeli government to accelerate settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the Saudi crown prince to take a bonesaw to international law.

It’s understandable, then, that many liberal intellectuals are eager to revive the national myths that Trump has busted. Such thinkers concede that Trump has highlighted flaws in the triumphalist, Cold War narrative about American global leadership. And they acknowledge the necessity of rethinking what “leading the free world” truly requires of the United States. But they nevertheless insist that America’s self-conception as an exceptional power — which is to say, as a hegemon whose foreign policy is shaped by universal ideals (as opposed to mercenary interests) — isn’t just a beneficent fiction, but an actual fact. And that compulsion is unfortunate; because it will be difficult for liberals to realize their vision for America’s exceptional future, if they refuse to grapple with its unexceptional past.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, former Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan presents one of the more compelling cases for making America exceptional again. Against Dick Cheney’s arrogant, unilateralist approach to world leadership — and Trump’s nihilistic disavowal of America’s international obligations — Sullivan offers a call for restoring the U.S. to its former role as a benevolent hegemon, one whose global supremacy is legitimated by its demonstrable commitment to spreading peace, democracy, and shared prosperity.

Crucially, Sullivan recognizes that this restoration is contingent on sweeping reform. He acknowledges that,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 January 2019 at 2:30 pm

‘But Mr. Trump had not read the letter’: Television is running the country

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Eric Wemple writes in the Washington Post:

The resignation letter of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis runs just shy of 600 words. For the average reader, digesting such a missive is an undertaking of about three minutes, maybe a bit less. Way too much, in other words, for the president of the United States.

If President Trump had wanted just the CliffsNotes version of the letter, he could have read merely these three sentences: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

That’s about 100 words, or about a half-minute of investment for the average reader. Again, that’s asking a lot for this particular fellow. The New York Times reports:

But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.

Indeed: On Sunday, Trump declared that Mattis would be leaving his post on Jan. 1, not in February, as Mattis had intended.

The snap decision resulted from a policymaking “process” governed by television. Here was a letter addressed to the president himself. Instead of reading it and sorting out its tone and message, he outsourced that job to the people on whom he relies the most. Commentators on cable news and other media, that is.

The list of precedents highlighting this depraved dependency is getting unruly. Just think back to the shutdown drama, as Trump knuckled under to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and people on Fox News who knocked him for caving on wall funding. Or all the times that he derived governmental policies based on the programming of “Fox & Friends.” Or the time he vowed to get to the bottom of the land-reform situation in South Africa based on an error-laden presentation by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Or the fact that his communications director — Bill Shine — is a former Fox News guy and a buddy of host Sean Hannity. Or the fact that he adjudges former Fox News presenter Heather Nauert sufficiently qualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

On one level, Trump’s approach to the resignation of his defense secretary makes sense. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump was asked where he got his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals,” he said. For such a dedicated liar, that was a moment of honesty, not to mention a campaign promise fulfilled: Instead of reading Mattis’s letter, he turned to television to figure out what this general had to say.

And then he became enraged. That makes a lot of sense, too: Cable news is designed to tweak you, to bait you, to titillate you and, sometimes, to anger you. It’s a dangerous formula even for folks who read a lot and who are not president of the United States. It’s a lethal formula for a guy who doesn’t read and who is president of the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2018 at 3:24 pm

Are 2,000 US Trainers All That’s Holding Back Armageddon in the Middle East?

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Kevin Drum makes a good point. Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 December 2018 at 11:38 am

Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein

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The US has a bad habit of aligning itself with dictators and authoritarian rulers, quite a few of whom it has helped to power. Ryan Costello and Sina Toossi write in Foreign Policy:

In the 1980s, the United States embraced a brutal Middle Eastern tyrant simply because he opposed Iran. Washington should not repeat the same mistake today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.

Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Years before Saddam became Washington’s chief foe, he enjoyed significant support from the United States and other Western countries. This ended after he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. However, the lead-up to that conflict and Washington’s earlier patronage of Saddam provide instructive lessons for U.S. regional policy today and the major risks of not responding forcefully to the assassination of Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual and brutal consolidation of power, marked by the detention and torture of his domestic rivals, evokes the “nation-changing assault on dissent within Iraq’s ruling party in 1979 by a young President Saddam Hussein,” Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Bloomberg last year. “The concentration of power in one youthful, ambitious and unpredictable pair of hands is worrying now as it was then.” Washington’s steadfast support of Saddam during the 1980s not only enabled his rampage against his own people and neighboring countries, but also eventually threatened U.S. security interests.

The U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein began in 1963, when, according to the former National Security Council official Roger Morris, the CIA under President John F. Kennedy “carried out in collaboration with Saddam Hussein” a coup to overthrow the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, who had five years earlier toppled Iraq’s pro-American monarchy.

However, U.S. ties with Saddam truly began to solidify in February 1982, when the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department’s terrorism list, paving the way for providing military assistance to Iraq. This occurred roughly 17 months after Saddam’s invasion of Iran, while Iraqi forces were occupying the oil-rich southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that Iraq sought to annex. In December 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as a presidential envoy to meet Saddam and set the stage for normalizing U.S.-Iraqi relations. U.S. support for Saddam during the war would grow to include, according to the Washington Post, “large-scale intelligence sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and facilitating Iraq’s acquisition of chemical and biological precursors.”

Saddam’s devastating use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, both against Iranian military and civilian targets and on his own people, did not deter U.S. support. Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam took place despite Washington possessing firm evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons use beginning in 1983. Prior to Rumsfeld’s trip, on Nov. 1, 1983, senior State Department official Jonathan Howe had toldSecretary of State George Shultz of intelligence reports showing that Iraq was resorting to “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” against the Iranians.

While Iran received some weaponry from the United States through the Iran-Contra affair, Washington tipped the scales much further in favor of Saddam. When intelligence showed Iran mounting a major offensive in early 1988 that threatened to break through Iraqi lines, Reagan wrote to his secretary of defense: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Toward the end of the war, “U.S. intelligence was flowing freely to Hussein’s military,” according to a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, despite U.S. officials being “fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons.”

According to declassified CIA documents, two-thirds of all Iraqi chemical weapons deployed during the war were used in the last 18 months of the conflict, when U.S.-Iraqi cooperation peaked. This included the March 1988 genocidal chemical weapons attackon the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which led to the deaths of as many as 5,000 civilians. Ironically, this attack would later be used by the George W. Bush administration in 2003 as part of its pretext for invading Iraq to eliminate the country’s by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

A few months after the Halabja attack, in September 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy wrotein a memo on the chemical weapons question that “the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives.” Today, the Trump administration is echoing this language when discussing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi and its devastating assault on Yemen, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently proclaiming that Saudi Arabia is “an important strategic alliance of the United States” and that “the Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us.”

It was no surprise, then, that on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saddam felt he had unconditional backing from the United States. This impression was reinforced by Saddam’s meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie on July 25, 1990, a week before his invasion of Kuwait. During their fateful encounter, according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting, Glaspie stressed “President [George H.W.] Bush’s desire for friendship” and that “the president had instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” When Saddam raised the issue of Kuwait, which he had been relentlessly threatening, Glaspie stated that the United States took “no position on these Arab affairs.”

To this day, academic experts such as the Harvard University professor and FPcolumnist Stephen M. Walt contend that “the United States did unwittinglygive a green light to Saddam” to invade Kuwait—much as he invaded Iran—without a strong response from the United States. Walt adds that, contrary to some perceptions, Glaspie was “following the instructions she had been given” and that “she was doing what the Bush administration wanted at this crucial meeting.” U.S. diplomatic cables from Glaspie’s era also reveal, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, that “Glaspie and her predecessor painted the regime in an extremely favorable light from the very outset, overlooked Saddam’s widely-known crimes, and were so influenced by mutual enmity for Iran as to be negligently uncritical.”

The United States was wrong to back Saddam simply because he opposed Iran, a mistake that has haunted it for decades. Not only were more than 500,000 U.S. troops required to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait, resultingin 382 U.S. military casualties, but it also placed the U.S. government on a warpath that resulted in the 2003 toppling of Saddam, an event that beyond its humanitarian and financial costs for the Iraqi and American people led to the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and inextricably altered the regional balance of power in favor of Iran—whose largely Shiite allies have assumed power in Baghdad by way of democratic elections.

Today, the Trump administration’s reflexive support of Mohammed bin Salman is heading in the same direction as Washington’s ill-fated support of Saddam Hussein. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s important.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2018 at 7:23 am

The myth of the modernizing dictator

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Robert Kagan writes in the Washington Post:

Many Americans have an odd fascination with the idea of the reforming autocrat, the strongman who can “modernize” and lead his nation out of its backward and benighted past. This was the hope for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a hope now somewhat diminished by the hit he appears to have ordered against Post contributing columnistJamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

Sympathetic Americans saw Mohammed, or MBS, as he is known, as a transformational figure seeking to reform Saudi Arabia’s one-commodity economy and to reconcile Islam and modernity. If doing so required more not less dictatorial control, if it entailed locking up not only fellow members of the royal family but also women’s rights activists, moderate religious figures and even young economists raising questions about the dubious figures contained in his “Vision 2030” program, then so be it. Only a “revolution from above” held any promise of reforming that traditionalist, hidebound society. You know — omelets, eggs.

The trope isn’t new. During the 1920s and 1930s, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and even Adolf Hitler looked to many Americans like just what their countries needed to get them into shape. During the Cold War, leaders including the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, South Korea’s Park Chung-hee and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet took turns as the United States’ favorite “modernizing” dictators. In the post-Cold War era, the Chinese dictatorship has gained many Americans’ admiration for its smooth handling of the country’s economy.

Justifying all this sympathy for the dictator have been variations on what used to be called “modernization theory.” Developing societies, the argument ran, had to move through an authoritarian stage before they could become democracies, for both economic and political reasons. Only authoritarian governments could be trusted to make the right economic decisions, unhampered by popular pressures for inflationary and deficit-raising spending.

Moreover, non-Western societies allegedly lacked many of the basic elements necessary to sustain democracy — the rule of law, stable political institutions, a middle class, a vibrant civil society. Pressing democracy on them prematurely would produce “illiberal democracy” and radicalism. The role of the reforming autocrat was to prepare these societies for the eventual transition to democracy by establishing the foundations for liberalism.

During the 1960s, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued that what modernizing societies need is order, not liberty. During the late 1970s, Jeanne Kirkpatrick used this argument to defend supporting “friendly” right-wing dictatorships — on the theory they would eventually blossom into democracies if the United States supported them against their opponents, but would give way to radical, communist governments if the United States withdrew support.

It is remarkable how much power these kinds of arguments retain, despite their having turned out to be mostly nonsense. Kirkpatrick had it exactly backward. Communist governments were the ones that undertook reforms that led to their unraveling and a turn to democracy, however feeble. Meanwhile, authoritarianism persisted in the Middle East and elsewhere, except where the United States did withdraw support, as in the Philippines, South Korea and Chile; only at that point did they become democracies.

As a purely factual matter, it turned out that dictatorships do not do a better job of producing economic growth. And economic growth has not proved the secret to democracy. We are now a quarter-century into expectations that Chinese economic growth, which has created a substantial middle class, would inevitably lead to greater political openness. Yet the trend has been in the opposite direction, as Chinese ruler Xi Jinping centralizes all power to himself and the government experiments with ever more thorough methods of political and social control.

As for the “liberalizing autocrat,” he turns out to be a rare creature indeed. Autocrats, as it happens, are disinclined to lay the foundations for their own demise. They do not create independent political institutions, foster the rule of law or permit a vibrant civil society precisely because these would threaten their hold on power. Instead, they seek to destroy institutions and opposition forces that might someday pose a challenge to their dictatorial rule. Why should we expect otherwise?

Yet we do, and for a variety of reasons. Some are simply racist. Much like the racial imperialists during the 19th century, we just assume that some people aren’t ready for democracy, or that their religious or historical traditions did not prepare them for democracy. Another reason springs from dissatisfaction with the messiness of our own democracy. There is a certain palpable yearning for the strongman who can cut through all the political nonsense and just get things done — a yearning that our current president plays to very effectively.

Then there is our fear of what democracy elsewhere might produce. During the Cold War, it was demands for greater economic and social justice, and possibly at the expense of U.S. investments; today, it is demands for a society and a polity more in consonance with Islamic teaching. We fear what people allowed to make their own choices might choose, so we prefer “revolution from above.”

And, of course, there are our strategic interests. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

You can find lists and maps here.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2018 at 8:21 am

This set of headlines reads like the elevator pitch for the fall of the US

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This is an email I just got from The Hill. Just read the headlines from the point of view of a producer—a big-budget producer—of action/adventure, political thriller, edgy and (of course) dystopian (going for Oscar) blockbuster movies. With that mindset, read the headlines below, in that sequence, and picture the scenes, movie-wise.

The Memo: Bomb attacks expose festering divisions
Partisan enmity, incendiary rhetoric and polarization were under a more intense spotlight than ever this week after crude explosive devices were sent to several leading Democrats and to CNN, Niall Stanage writes.

Hollywood donors flood Dems with midterm cash
Hollywood Democrats are pouring money into the midterm elections, infusing races with cash in a last-ditch push to flip control of Congress, Judy Kurtz reports.

Racial animus moves to the forefront in midterm battle
Race has moved to the forefront of this year’s midterm elections to an extent unprecedented in recent decades, Reid Wilson writes.

Dems lower expectations for ‘blue wave’
Democrats are tamping down expectations for a “blue wave” just days before the midterm elections as key races in the House tighten and winning back the Senate majority looks increasingly out of reach, Lisa Hagen and Max Greenwood report.

Experts say latest Russia case exposes US election vulnerabilities
The indictment of a Russian national accused of trying to interfere in U.S. elections shows that not enough has been done to stop the country from launching a multimillion-dollar effort to influence American voters, Jacqueline Thomsen reports.

YouTube winning race to clamp down on misinformation
YouTube is outpacing its social media rivals when it comes to curbing the spread of misinformation during breaking news events, Ali Breland writes.

Trump faces litmus test in Florida
President Trump faces a crucial test of his political influence in the Sunshine State, where several key races could serve as early referenda on his political brand in a major swing state, Max Greenwood reports.

Dems hold active discussions on 2020 debates
The Democratic National Committee is undergoing a series of internal and external discussions on how to handle primary debates during the 2020 presidential election, Amie Parnes reports

Sessions seeks to expand power on immigration cases
Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be exploring a rule that would expand his judicial power, and that some say would allow him to drastically reshape federal immigration policy, Lydia Wheeler reports.

Corker’s imminent departure puts Saudi sanctions in doubt
Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) departure as Foreign Relations Committee chairman could make it more difficult for him to press the Trump administration on its Saudi Arabia policy, which is under increased scrutiny following the death of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Alexander Bolton writes.

Update within minutes:

And, this just in: “11 killed and six wounded by gunman at Pittsburgh synagogue, city official confirms” – Washington Post email

You can see the direction this movie is going. “Dystopia” ain’t in it.

Update: I wonder what a novel John Dos Passos could have made from those headlines if he wrote a new USA Trilogy.

Saudi Media Casts Khashoggi Disappearance As A Conspiracy, Claims Qatar Owns Washington Post

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Lee Fang reports in the Intercept:

IN SAUDI ARABIA, major media outlets have cast the disappearance and apparent murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a foreign conspiracy to denigrate the image of the kingdom. The media accounts, which come from outlets run with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, are spinning the coverage of Khashoggi’s disappearance as a plot by rival governments and political groups to hurt the kingdom — going so far as to make false claims about the Washington Post’s owners.

The English-language arm of the news channel Al Arabiya, for instance, claimed that reports of Khashoggi’s detention inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were pushed by “media outlets affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar” — the pan-Arab Islamist political movement and rival Persian Gulf monarchy, respectively. A subsequent story on Al Arabiya casts doubt that Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, is truly who she says she is, claiming that her Twitter profile shows that she follows “critics of Saudi Arabia.”

Al Arabiya is owned by the Saudi royal family and based in Dubai, one of the Gulf monarchies that has sided closely with Saudi Arabia amid the regional row with Qatar and others. It’s among a handful of other Saudi- and Gulf-controlled outlets — such as Al Riyadh Daily, Al-Hayat, and the Saudi Gazette — that toe their governments’ line, including frequently casting a conspiratorial light on critics of the governments’ human rights records.

In recent months, as tensions have boiled over with Qatar, Saudi Arabia is increasingly scapegoating its Persian Gulf adversary. Recent news articles in Al Arabiya blamed Qatar for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen against Houthi militia forces, a conflict that has killed over 15,000 people and brought at least 7 million to the brink of starvation.

With a public relations crisis erupting over Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s disappearance, these Gulf-linked outlets are kicking into overdrive to both deny any Saudi involvement and disparage Khashoggi.

In a Thursday column for the Saudi daily newspaper Okaz, Mohamed El Saad argued that Khashoggi has advanced the interests of Qatar. He then falsely claimed that Qatar has a “50 percent ownership of the Post and has influence over its editorial direction.” Qatar, notably, has no ownership stake in the Washington Post, a paper that is privately owned by American billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Another Okaz columnist, Ahmed Ajab Al-Jahrani, claimed in a column titled, “Who Liberated Khashoggi?” that the government critic was a terrorist sympathizer whose sectarian goals were designed to destabilize the Saudi government. Al-Jahrani suggests that Khashoggi’s disappearance from Turkey represented liberation, since he had been “kidnapped” by “extremist groups” while living abroad in self-imposed exile.

Other columnists echoed these frequent refrains. Jameel Altheyabi, who write for the Saudi Gazette, an English-language affiliate of Okaz, wrote that any fears about Khashoggi’s disappearance should be blamed on Qatar, not Saudi Arabia. Altheyabi also suggested that Khashoggi’s fiancée may serve the interests of foreign spies and that much of the media coverage of Khashoggi appeared orchestrated by foreign enemies. “Those involved in the drama of Jamal’s disappearance after leaving the Saudi Consulate will face severe penalties,” he warned.

MEANWHILE, EVIDENCE OF Saudi involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance has been steadily mounting. On Wednesday, the New York Times and other outlets published photographs of 15 men who arrived in Istanbul aboard two private planes on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The men included several Saudi military officials, among them Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, the chief of forensic evidence and an autopsy expert with the Saudi Interior Ministry. The group arrived in Turkey the day of Khashoggi’s scheduled meeting at the Saudi consulate and also visited the same consular building. All 15 of the men boarded private planes to quickly leave the country and return to Saudi Arabia later that day.

Saudi-affiliated outlets reacted by defending the rights of the accused hit squad. Al Yaum, a pro-government newspaper published in Saudi Arabia, reported the disclosure of the 15 men as a violation the “rights of tourists.” The photographs, the paper claimed, were defamatory. In the news section of the paper, the men were urged to seek an attorney to file a lawsuit against those who had published their photographs. Al-Riyadh Daily, in an editorial on Friday, sharply criticized foreign media for attempting “to incite international public opinion against the kingdom,” claiming that the New York Times has an “an anti-Saudi policy.”

News outlets affiliated with Saudi Arabia also toe the government’s line abroad, to an international news audience. Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic-language newspaper headquartered in London and owned by Faisal bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family, has published several columns this week claiming that foreign agents tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar were behind reports claiming that the Saudi government had a role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

This isn’t the first time the Saudi-backed outlets have sprang to the defense of the government amid a public relations fiasco over the regime’s human rights record. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2018 at 10:52 am

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