Simon says….Ronald Reagan!

Is it just me, or has there been an abnormally large contingent of Ronald Reagan-related quotes on the GOP’s campaign trail this cycle? Here’s the latest, from Sarah Palin’s PAC web site:

President Reagan once noted that our national anthem is the only one in the world that ends with a question: “O, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It’s up to each generation of Americans to answer that question. I hope we all make it our duty and responsibility to make sure that, YES, our banner still waves over a free and brave nation!

This leads me to wonder to what other ends Palin could trot out the ol’ Gipper. A few ideas:

1. President Reagan once noted that ice cream cones taste better with pickles. I tried it. He was very wrong.

2. President Reagan once noted that the Berlin Wall must be torn down. But the Separation Wall in the West Bank suits me just fine.

3. President Reagan once noted that we have excess prison capacity and a conveniently large number of black and Latino citizens he’d like to lock up, far from voting booths. That’s worked out pretty well for everyone, right?

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The life and wild times of Thomas Friedman

Almost six months ago, I began this blog with an inaugural post making fun of Thomas Friedman. I am neither the first nor the last person to do this, and my mocking was not the funniest on the topic either. But for what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

Incidentally, it also wasn’t the last time I’d make fun of him on this very same blog. Yup, you got it: Friedman’s gone and done it again. Now I realize the man doesn’t write his own headlines, but one gets the feeling that whoever does that job for him is mailing it in too. His latest column’s title? “Pay Attention.” (I suppose when you reach the level of inanity that Friedman has, blatant pleas for a captive audience are to be expected.) Somewhere in there is an apt metaphor for the last gasp of fast-declining newspapers. But like Friedman, I’m too lazy to elaborate. Why make logical connections when you can make large, specious leaps instead?

Now if I were Sir Thomas, here is where I’d inadvertently run into a [Singaporean bureaucrat/orphaned Cambodian child/Chinese investment banker/taxi driver from any one of those countries]. He’d casually throw out some inauspicious line, like “The traffic here is bad, but an empty road is worse luck than a traffic jam.” Or, “It may not be perfect, but I love my country.” Or, “Dude, stop dictating crappy metaphors into your iPhone while I’m trying to drive here.” As Mr. Friedman, I’d take it from there, weaving in a completely distended argument that manages to mention clean energy, Chinese high-speed rail, and wi-fi, all within a neat 700-word column (written, of course, in under five minutes).

As it happens, I don’t have to do this for him, since Mr. Friedman has taken care of things all by his lonesome. I could tell from the very start that this latest column was a keeper:

I had some time to kill at the Cairo airport the other day so I rummaged through the “Egyptian Treasures” shop. I didn’t care much for the King Tut paper weights and ashtrays but was intrigued by a stuffed camel, which, if you squeezed its hump, emitted a camel honk. When I turned it over to see where it was manufactured, it read: “Made in China.” Now that they have decided to put former President Hosni Mubarak on trial, I hope Egyptians add to his indictment that he presided for 30 years over a country where nearly half the population lives on $2 day and 20 percent are unemployed while it is importing low-wage manufactured goods — a stuffed camel, no less — from China.

Brilliant! The man managed to squeeze in China, tacky gift shops, airports (Thomas Friedman loves him some airports), and an utterly nonsensical plea to imprison Hosni Mubarak for participating in a little thing called globalization. (Later, the essay even closes with this absolute gem: “This is so much more important than Libya.”)

But Friedman isn’t finished, oh no. Just a bit further down, he ruminates: “If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.”

Heavens to Betsy, no! Anything but that! God forbid a democratic revolution actually results in…democracy. Friedman quotes Mohamed ElBaradei, a (non-Muslim Brotherhood) presidential candidate, warning, “You will have an unrepresentative Parliament writing an unrepresentative Constitution.” (To be clear, ElBaradei’s “unrepresentative Parliament” refers to representatives elected freely by the Egyptian population.) Sadly, it never really dawns on Friedman that perhaps a contender for the presidency may in fact have a vested interest in portraying all rivals as less than desirable.

Towards the end, Friedman lays out his case more succinctly:

Free elections are rare in the Arab world, so when they happen, everybody tries to vote — not only the residents of that country. You can be sure money will flow in here from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

America, though, cannot publicly intervene in the Egyptian election debate. It would only undermine the reformers, who have come so far, so fast, on their own and alienate the Egyptian generals. That said, though, it is important that senior U.S. officials engage quietly with the generals and encourage them to take heed of the many Egyptian voices that are raising legitimate concerns about a premature runoff.

For those of you keeping track at home, things Monsieur Thomas is afraid of include: 1) democracy, 2) “everybody [trying] to vote”, and 3) outside campaign contributions — the last of which would never happen in the United States, obviously. In Friedman’s intricate mind (which, not unlike the Internet, also appears to consist of a series of tubes), America cannot intervene in Egyptian democracy. It can only pressure the undemocratic Egyptian military to delay voting so the preferred candidates win. Because if we can’t even pull off a little vote-rigging here and there, what was the point of displacing Mubarak in the first place?

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The Good: Egypt permanently opens the border crossing with Gaza.

The Bad: The Saudis are aggressively promoting their vision of stable monarchical rule in order to counteract the protest movements spreading throughout the Middle East.

The Ugly: Freed journalists recount their despair over a colleague’s execution while in captivity in Libya.

The Economist gives me hope

In this week’s Economist, the “newspaper” tackles the Israel lobby, arguing that “AIPAC remains highly effective” for now, but in the long run it represents a movement that is “losing its resonance with younger Jews.”

This is good news. Even better is the fact that J Street gets a mention in the article as well. J Street is another Israel-oriented lobbying group, but operating from the other side (to the extent that another side exists in American discourse on the subject). The group supports President Obama’s entirely un-novel proposal for basing Israeli-Palestinian border on the 1967 lines and in general exhibits traces of critical thinking, both elements that are sorely missing from the knee-jerk reactions of the Israeli and American evangelical blocs.

And while we’re on the subject, Peter Beinart’s exposé on how the lobby’s toe-the-party-line propaganda initiatives are alienating younger American Jews is quite illuminating.

These thoughts don’t fit together

The following two snippets aren’t necessarily related, but they’ve been percolating in my mind for a few days now, so I thought I’d include a little of each.

1) Buy Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Bacevich is currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and was formerly a colonel in the U.S. Army. Washington Rules is a deeply insightful critique of what Dwight Eisenhower so presciently labeled the “military-industrial complex.”

“The Washington rules” of the title, Bacevich explains in his introduction, “were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed.” What follows is a brilliant historical overview of the American drift from moderate isolationism to strident interventionism. Bacevich, like many on the disaffected left, fears perpetual war. Entrenched interests in both the public and private sectors never cease to make use of fear-mongering tactics to frighten a restive population into acquiescence. This is how the CIA and Strategic Air Command, two institutions whose central role in establishing American militarism is thoroughly dissected in Washington Rules, managed to upend decades upon decades of American reluctance to flex its muscles in the global arena.

It is also how the United States finds itself enmeshed in three simultaneous wars right now. The legacy of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (and yes, their legacies are forever linked) is not simply the overreaction, the blind rage that led the United States into endless wars against unseen enemies with unclear objectives, all accompanied by the impossibility of victory. More enduring still is the zombie-like, unquestioning deference with which American citizens approach their warrior-leaders. Bush accomplished in eight years what the decades-long Cold War never could: permanent war, it seems, has become the new norm. Civil liberties are but a noble casualty along the way.

All one needs to do to confirm this sudden, collective disavowal of the pursuit of peace is to witness the nearly inaudible protest to President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in the Libyan revolution. Where the war in Iraq invited some (albeit relatively muted, especially in light of the still-heightened emotions following September 11) immediate condemnation, our Libyan incursion barely raised eyebrows. Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the terror attacks he masterminded laid bare an uncomfortable truth: it takes very little to galvanize the American public in support of a perceived cause, however dubious the rationale and however vague the endgame.

Washington Rules was published in 2010, before the Jasmine Revolution and before today, when the key provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize controversial surveillance techniques were renewed for four years by Congress, despite the warnings of two U.S. senators that the bill is being interpreted in very dangerous ways. One can only imagine the blistering new foreword Bacevich could pen now.

2) Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this week was chock-full of half-truths, prevarications, and outright lies. In fact, his entire visit to the States was an exercise in exaggeration and hyperbole, as the reaction he provoked following Obama’s speech on the Middle East was completely unwarranted. Obama stated that Israeli-Palestinian borders must be based on the 1967 lines, something every American and Israeli leader has known for years. (This includes Netanyahu himself as recently as six months ago.)

Ultimately, Netanyahu is a coward, and his intransigence will only harm Israel in the long run. What I found far more disturbing was the appalling sycophancy displayed by the United States Congress, which was roused to twenty-nine standing ovations, including once — inexplicably — that immediately followed Netanyahu’s statement that Israel was not occupying Palestinian land.

As Glenn Greenwald of Salon has demonstrated on many occasions, American politicians’ obsequiousness to the Israeli right-wing knows no bounds. This absurd rubber-stamping (not to mention heavy financing) of what is in many ways a racist regime owes in large part to the enormous influence of the Israel lobby (yes, the one so strongly debated following the eponymous book by Walt and Mearsheimer).

But a word of caution may be in order. As any sane person who follows Middle Eastern politics with even a passing interest knows, yes, the Israel lobby is indeed a powerful force, perhaps the most influential outside group (especially in proportion to its immediate constituency, American Jews) affecting American politics today. One of the hallmarks of this lobby is to stifle any critique of Israel, no matter how thoughtful or well-reasoned, by using the threat of being branded an anti-Semite as a deterrent.

Of course, anti-Semitism does exist, and whether it’s John Galliano or Lars von Trier spouting racist ideas in public, it’s wrong, always. But wielding the “anti-Semite” label as a baton in order to smother dissent is not just wrong, it’s undemocratic. The dilemma, then, lies in criticizing the lobby itself. Care must be taken to avoid being perceived as an adherent of the age-old, harebrained conspiracy theories that “Jews control the media,” “Jews control the government,” and so on. They do not. But they do, unlike many underrepresented minority groups in the U.S., exert enormous influence on American policy. To acknowledge this fact is not to exhibit anti-Semitism; it simply proves one has eyes and ears.

A crucial distinction is in order, then. The Israel lobby exists, and it is powerful. But it is not synonymous with Judaism, nor even American Judaism. AIPAC, while purporting to act on behalf of both American Jews and the state of Israel, in reality is little more than a well-connected conduit between the most radically right-wing voices in both camps and the United States government. So while many are understandably reluctant to give voice to their misgivings about the Israel lobby for fear of conflation with actual anti-Semites, it is vital to differentiate between criticism of Israeli policies and hatred of a race. It is also important to remember that AIPAC, in portraying itself as the public mouthpiece of Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, is actually doing both nations a huge disservice in its unquestioning support of continually failing policies. It is only when reasoned criticism becomes the norm that the United States and Israel will both be able to enact sensible policies with regard to the Holy Land.

Bruins win! And Tim Thomas is simply divine.

The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. Tampa Bay cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Tim Thomas, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the hockey elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.

Death by execution? The questions just keep on coming

Early on, it seemed as if the daring raid to “capture or kill” Osama bin Laden took place amidst a veritable explosion of gunfire, blood pouring everywhere. But the story keeps on a-changin’. Now The New York Times tells us this:

The new details suggested that the raid, though chaotic and bloody, was extremely one-sided, with a force of more than 20 Navy Seal members quickly dispatching the handful of men protecting Bin Laden.

Administration officials said that the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the beginning of the operation, when Bin Laden’s trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire from behind the door of the guesthouse adjacent to the house where Bin Laden was hiding.

After the Seal members shot and killed Mr. Kuwaiti and a woman in the guesthouse, the Americans were never fired upon again.

(Bolded words mine.) MSNBC, likewise, casts doubt on the early official story:

As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff — which never materialized.

The SEALs then made their way up a staircase, where they ran into one of bin Laden’s  sons on the way down. The Americans immediately shot and killed the son, who was also unarmed.

Once on the third floor, the commandos threw open the door to bin Laden’s bedroom. One of bin Laden’s wives rushed toward the NAVY SEAL in the door, who shot her in the leg.

Then, without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fire two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head. Although there were weapons in that bedroom, Bin Laden was also unarmed at the time he was shot.

Instead of a chaotic firefight, the U.S. officials said, the American commando assault was a precision operation, with SEALs moving carefully through the compound, room to room, floor to floor.

In fact, most of the operation was spent in what the military calls “exploiting the site,” gathering up the computers, hard drives, cellphones and files that could provide valuable intelligence on al Qaeda operatives and potential operations worldwide.

(Bolded words mine again.) Two days ago, by the way, Ben Smith of Politico pointed out the nuance in President Obama’s speech announcing bin Laden’s death:

Obama said Sunday night:

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

The key word there is “after,” not “during,” and it matches the revised White House account. You had to be listening extremely carefully the first night to catch that nuance.

In less formal remarks last night, Obama offered a similar sequence, describing “an operation that resulted in the capture and death of Osama bin Laden.”

“Capture and death.”

Dave Weigel at Slate is similarly skeptical as to the government’s consistently inconsistent narrative (and provides a useful timeline of the administration’s shifting statements as well):

What changed in three days? It depends how you define the “firefight.” There was a firefight at the start, but the confrontation between the commandos and OBL was one-sided — they were shooting, OBL and the woman weren’t. The “weapon” part of the story has changed slightly, and if you graphed it it would be a sine wave. We went from no details about OBL, to a detail about OBL at least trying to get a gun, to a detail about OBL not having a gun, to a detail about OBL being within reach of a gun.

Alright, then. Everybody clear?

Finally, Michael Crowley at Time asks:

A major question lingers unanswered at the center of this story: Why was bin Laden killed? Michael Scherer has reported that the Navy Seals who landed at Osama bin Laden’s safehouse were not given orders specifically to kill, but were on a “kill or capture” mission. That implies they were prepared to accept bin Laden’s surrender. It didn’t work out that way. But despite earlier reports to the contrary, including from White House counter-terror adviser John Brennan, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that bin Laden was in fact unarmed. (“Resistance does not require a firearm,” he said.) So, what happened?

Indeed, what exactly did take place here? It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the Obama administration took pains to cast the operation in a favorable light, and that this interpretation has steadily unraveled in the face of newly available evidence. What just days ago resulted in near-universal celebration (Osama bin Laden’s death) is now causing serious head-scratching. Did the United States execute bin Laden in cold blood? And if so, do we care?

I would argue that yes, we do. To execute someone (as opposed to shooting him in a firefight), regardless of the heinous nature of his crimes, is to run directly counter to well-established rules of engagement. In World War II, in the Persian Gulf War, and in countless other examples, when someone surrendered, he was taken prisoner and accorded humane treatment. Of course, we have no evidence that Osama bin Laden actually surrendered (even if he was unarmed, there are other ways his behavior could have been justifiably deemed threatening), but the initial stories as to his “resistance” have been almost entirely discredited now, leading one to wonder exactly what the Obama administration is trying to conceal.

Let’s have the real story, shall we?

P.S. As usual, MacLeod Cartoons gets it just right.

Osama bin Laden’s death: a Pyrrhic victory?

I am very weirded out by all the sudden bursts of patriotism following Osama bin Laden’s death. Even President Obama said something to the effect of, “This goes to show that when Americans set out to do something, we can accomplish anything.” Really? An assassination (and one that took 10 years, no less) is a symbol of our can-do spirit? (There were also impromptu rallies outside the White House, Ground Zero, Times Square, etc.)

Nothing is more ironic to me than the fact that, in Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, we have achieved the ultimate Pyrrhic victory: we have finally eliminated the physical presence of the principal challenger of American values over the last decade, and yet our collective reaction to this killing demonstrates how clearly and decisively bin Laden won the war on our values. We lost sight of absolutely everything and went crazy for ten years (torture, followed by a national refusal to call it torture, not to mention the bloodlust that led us to attack an unrelated country, Iraq, and even now continues to agitate for military action against Iran, etc. etc.). Then, to cap it all off, it took less than a day following bin Laden’s killing for people to come out of the woodwork and claim torture was the reason we were able to find him.

Somehow, I think Osama bin Laden would be OK with all of this.