“Strength, Toughness & Resolve Is All It Takes”: On Display At CPAC; How The Presidential Primary Makes GOP Candidates Simple-Minded
The Conservative Political Action Conference is always guaranteed to produce head-shaking moments, as one future presidential candidate after another tells the crowd of activists what they want to hear, and then some. It’s a concentrated version of the long Republican primary process, with everything that characterizes contemporary American conservatism cooked down to its viscous essence over the course of a few days.
You may have already heard about Scott Walker’s comments yesterday at the conference, in which he made an analogy between his fight to crush unions in Wisconsin and the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I want to look at something Marco Rubio said this morning, because they go together in a way that tells us a lot about what we’re going to be hearing from these candidates for the next year and a half.
Speaking from the CPAC stage, Rubio said that “if we wanted to defeat [ISIS] militarily, we could do it.” But we haven’t done that, because President Obama “doesn’t want to upset Iran.” I’m sure many in the crowd nodded their heads. First you have the implication that despite the thousands of air strikes we’ve launched against ISIS, we’re not really trying to defeat them, and that doing so would be simple if only Obama had the backbone. But he won’t, because he’s so solicitous of another of our enemies, Iran. If you know that this president is a Muslim-coddling, terrorist-sympathizing weakling, it makes perfect sense.
But in reality, Iran, a Shiite country, despises the Sunni extremists of ISIS. ISIS threatens the government of Iraq, which is Iran’s ally (or lapdog, depending on how you look at it), which is why Iran has sent troops there to fight the terrorist group. Eliminating ISIS is exactly what Iran wants us to do.
Perhaps Marco Rubio understands that, and if given the chance he’d revise his comments. But doing so wouldn’t play too well with the people whose votes he needs, because it would be an acknowledgement that — guess what — things can get pretty complicated in the Middle East. We can be trying to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons yet still have shared goals with them when it comes to another issue.
That simplifying impulse is what got Walker in trouble, too. When he said yesterday in answer to a question about ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” the problem wasn’t, as many people said, that he was comparing Wisconsinites exercising their free speech rights in opposing his efforts to crush unions to brutal terrorists (he clarified later that that isn’t what he meant to say). The problem was that he was arguing that serious problems, whether it’s your own constituents who disagree with you or a terrorist organization, have essentially the same solution: strength, toughness, resolve. That’s all it takes, and he’s got it. He may not know a lot about foreign affairs, but he doesn’t need to know a lot about foreign affairs.
This is hardly new in the GOP. In 1964, Ronald Reagan said in a speech supporting Barry Goldwater, “They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” Republicans have seldom veered from the conviction that in foreign affairs in particular, there are nothing but simple answers.
The trouble is, we’ve seen where that gets you. George W. Bush knew in his gut that every problem had a simple answer. Just as Rubio sees Iran and ISIS in a fictional alliance, Bush thought that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda must have been working together, because they’re all Bad Guys, right? And once we show our strength and resolve, the problems will melt before us. We all know how well that worked out.
Try to imagine a Republican presidential candidate who saw the world as a complicated place where sometimes we have to choose between bad options, being strong only gets you so far, and you have to consider the possibility that your actions could have unintended consequences. Would he be willing to say that to his party’s primary voters? Or would he tell them that actually, the answers are all simple, if only we have the courage to see them clearly and act?
I think we all know the answer to that. Campaigns in both parties are seldom going to be full of nuanced exploration of policy issues. But the GOP primary campaign forces its contenders to be particularly simple-minded, whether that’s who they really are or they’re just pretending.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, February 27, 2015
All the hullaballoo over the United States government’s’ use of torture as an officially-sanctioned intelligence gathering process was bad enough. It brought back memories of a shameful period in American history. But when Dick Cheney reappeared to defend the practice of torture, it was the worst specter of Christmas past. He managed to rekindle one of my few regrets in nine years working on the Hill. Damn Ebenezer Cheney!
My great remorse from that period is that a Democratic House majority passed on an opportunity for a little justice. In late 2008, after the election of Barack Obama but before his inauguration, a group of Democratic staffers quietly drafted a policy memo trying to convince our bosses to introduce a Motion of Censure against President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and assorted others in the Bush Administration for their decision to invade Iraq. That decision cost the lives of 4,500 Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than $1.5 trillion dollars. It threw the Middle East into what may be perpetual chaos. And, all of it was predicated on lies.
We tried to sell the idea of a Resolution of Censure — far short of impeachment and requiring only a majority vote in the House, but it never picked up any steam. Everyone, we were told, had pretty much turned the corner. Congress was occupied with getting ready for a new president and a new session. America was just plain “Bushed” by the events of the last Administration and simply wanted them all gone. Nothing happened.
So, as our memo predicted, “People who campaigned on accountability and said, ‘judge us by our performance,’ walked away from the most corrupt, inept, secretive and ideologically-driven White House in American history without ever once being held accountable.”
And only much later did it occur to me that we should have left President Bush out of it and pushed for the censure of the Cardinal Richelieu of the administration, Richard B. Cheney. No-one on earth could have had a problem with that. Cheney was so mean, even his friends didn’t like him.
The disappointment had faded a bit over time, but then the Dark Eminence of Iraq re-emerged, completely unrepentant, to defend the use of torture — even deny that waterboarding, starvation and anal feeding were torture, although the rest of the world is pretty clear about such practices. And, even though the United States prosecuted Japanese army officers for using identical tactics on U.S. military prisoners in the Philippines during World War II.
Cheney continues to insist that the U.S. gained valuable information from the use of torture, even though genuine intelligence professionals have revealed that any usable intel came before the waterboarding began. He continues to claim that waterboarding isn’t actually torture because the White House had a memo from its Attorney General’s Office attesting that whatever they wanted to do was pretty much okay. That memo, of course, was totally repudiated long ago.
But a stubborn refusal to admit any mistakes in judgment isn’t exactly new for Dick Cheney. He still insists that Saddam Hussein’s was in the process of developing WMD, including nuclear weapons, though the accusation has been thoroughly and authoritatively debunked. He still claims some sort of alliance existed between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda without the slightest indication or evidence, and despite the fact that a pact between a Sunni Muslim dictator and a stateless Wahhabi jihadist organization would have defied all logic.
The saving grace is history. When the history of the Bush Administration is finally written, Cheney won’t be allowed to just sit and growl at anyone who questions anything he did or said. History will not be intimidated. History may tell us whether George W. Bush was complicit in some of the most tragic, ill-advised and downright shameful decisions of his administration, or simply oblivious. But it will be very clear about the role of Dick Cheney.
Merry Christmas, Dick.
By: David Helfert, Professor of Political Communication, Johns Hopkins University; The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 22, 2014
On Friday morning, the Obama administration announced that it was appointing Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, to become the Ebola “Czar” to oversee all efforts to combat the disease. This isn’t much of a surprise. After all, the president told reporters Thursday night that he would consider making such a move. But there is another, much more subtle message, hidden in this move: Get a flu shot.
When he spoke to reporters Thursday, Obama expressed complete satisfaction with his current team overseeing the Ebola response: Thomas Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of the Health and Human Services, Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. But each of those four have other duties as well. Monaco and Rice are both heavily involved in coordinating the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
For Frieden and Burwell, their attention will soon be partially diverted to flu season. “We’re going into flu season, which means, by the way, that people should be looking to get their flu shots,” Obama said. “We know that every year tens of thousands of people potentially die of the flu, and a hundred-thousand or more may be actually going to the emergency room and hospitalized because of the flu. So that’s something that Tom [Frieden] also is responsible for.”
As I noted Friday morning, there is no reason to fear Ebola. You don’t need to wear a hazmat suit when you travel. But if you are feeling helpless and want to do something to help combat the disease, get a flu shot. The symptoms for the flu—fever, nausea, vomiting—are very similar to those of Ebola. That means the more people who get the flu this year, the more people are going to panic about potential cases of Ebola, cases that the vast, vast majority of the time will prove false. Reducing the number of people who get the flu will help quell that panic.
And, by the way, the flu killed 50,643 Americans in 2012. That’s another very good reason to get a flu shot.
By: Danny Vinik, The New Republic, October 17, 2014
One time, my wife and I went walking near a pasture where nine mares grazed. I knew them all by name. Suddenly and for no obvious reason the herd stampeded, galloping by as if their lives depended upon it. It was a thrilling sight, like being right down on the rail at the race track.
But what were they running from? There are no predators around here capable of harming a horse. As the leaders thundered by, I noticed two fillies at the back getting skeptical. They kept looking behind and catching each other’s eye as if to say “What’s this about? I don’t see anything, do you?”
As the fillies pulled up, the leaders thundered headlong into a run-in shed about 100 yards ahead and stopped. The proximate cause of the stampede had been a fat black horse fly on the boss mare’s rump. As soon as she went under the roof, the insect flew off.
It was quite comical, actually.
We Americans didn’t used to be like that. We prided ourselves on being a pragmatic, self-confident people — more like the skeptical fillies than the thundering herd. But if you believe a lot of what you read in the news media and see on TV, much of the public currently lives on the edge of panic.
The role of cable TV news channels in stoking hysteria has reached new depths of shamelessness. They do it purely for the ratings, you know.
And if you don’t, the barbaric propagandists of ISIS certainly do.
Typical headlines: “ISIS Threat: Fear of Terror Attack Soars to 9/11 High, NBC News/WSJ Poll Finds.” By the ghastly tactic of beheading American and British citizens on TV, Islamic extremists fighting to establish a Sunni fundamentalist “caliphate” have stampeded the nation.
Millions of Americans who wanted out of Middle Eastern sectarian wars now think the U.S needs to get back in.
If ISIS’s goals are insane, so are their tactics. Politically speaking, no U.S. president could have failed to react to the organization’s mad provocations. Exactly how President Obama’s bombing campaign will end, nobody can say — although that hasn’t stopped a thousand propagandists from trying.
Invading Iraq at all was the big mistake, and it says here that getting sucked back in to yet another Middle Eastern ground war would be to repeat it. A big part of the problem is the unreasoning fear, far out of proportion to any actual threat the nation faces.
Although my saying so infuriated certain readers, I once wrote that Osama bin Laden’s “deluded followers posed no military threat to the integrity of the United States or any Western nation. At worst they were capable of theatrical acts of mass murder like the 9/11 attacks. And that was sufficient evil indeed.”
But fear made us reckless. I’d say the same about ISIS. For all its ruthlessness, ISIS has no Air Force, no Navy, and a ragtag Army incapable of projecting power anywhere but the desert wastes of Iraq and Syria. Helping the Kurds defend themselves against a genocidal massacre is one thing; trying to impose a pax Americana on the entire region quite another.
Quivering in our beds for fear of a terrorist strike should be beneath the American people. It’s impossible to respect shameless politicians like Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton, who actually warned viewers on a TV town hall that ISIS terrorists might collaborate with Mexican drug cartels to “infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”
Armies of Mexican Islamic terrorists descending upon El Dorado and Texarkana! For somebody who comes advertised as brainy, Cotton appears incapable of concealing how dumb he thinks voters are.
Then there’s Ebola, which cable TV also shamelessly hypes for ratings. “I’ve followed cable news for many, many years now,” writes The Daily Banter’s Bob Cesca “and not since the lead-up to the Iraq War has the American news media behaved with such recklessness.”
Among a hundred possible examples, Cesca was aghast at CNN’s interviewing novelist Robin Cook, who once wrote a thriller about a conspiracy to spread Ebola foiled by a hero-doctor.
“The real issue here is how quickly it can mutate, and how that’s gonna affect the transmission…” Cook said. “Perhaps this virus cannot live very long in the air. I don’t know. But I don’t think anybody knows.”
Actually, people do know. Every professional health agency in the world agrees that Ebola cannot be transmitted through the air. As for mutating, Scientific American reports that there’s “almost no historical precedent for any virus to change its basic mode of transmission so radically.”
The real thing is bad enough without spreading lurid disinformation.
By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, October 15, 2014
When Harry Truman apocryphally said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog” he might have had someone like Leon Panetta in mind. Not content with letting Republicans pummel his old boss, President Obama’s former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense released a new memoir this week that attacks Obama for “losing his way” on foreign policy, for sending “mixed messages” to allies and enemies alike and for failing to use military force more promiscuously in protecting US interests in the Middle East.
There is more here, however, than just DC-style situational loyalty. In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.
None of this should come as a surprise. When Panetta became CIA director in 2009, he was demonstrably unqualified for the job. He had no background in foreign policy, intelligence or national security. His most apparent and highly-touted skill was that he understood his way around bureaucratic Washington.
At both Langley and the Pentagon he became a forceful advocate for—or, some might say, bureaucratic captive of—the agencies he ran. As CIA Director he pushed back on efforts to expose the agency’s illegal activities during the Bush Administration —in particular, the use of torture (which he had once decried).
At DoD he ran around with his hair practically on fire denouncing cuts to the defense budget in out-sized, apocalyptic terms. The “catastrophic,” “draconian” cuts would initiate a “doomsday mechanism” and “invite aggression,” he claimed and always without specific examples. Ironically, when Panetta was chairman of the House Budget Committee in the early 1990s, he took the exact opposite position and pushed for huge cuts to the defense budget.
For Panetta, principles appear to be determined by wherever he happens to be sitting at any given moment.
However, his irresponsible threat-mongering and his constant stream of gaffes and misstatements (like the claim that the US was in Iraq because of 9/11 and that the war was worth it) masked a stunningly narrow and parochial foreign policy vision. It wasn’t just that Panetta was saying crazy things. As his new memoir shows, he apparently believed them.
Take, for example, Panetta’s now oft-repeated position on troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2011, a move that as Secretary of Defense he praised but now three years later labels a failure. While Panetta acknowledges that the adamant refusal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to maintain a troop presence in Iraq was a key impediment, he has a brilliant after-the-fact solution: the US should have just turned up the heat on Maliki.
According to Panetta, the US could have simply said that we would withdraw both reconstruction and military aid to Iraq until Maliki bent to America’s will. That Panetta thinks that threatening and demeaning the Iraqi leader was a worthy step to make in order to maintain a US force that the Iraqis clearly didn’t want is remarkably short-sighted. Panetta seems utterly uninterested in the question of what happens if Maliki called the US bluff or, if he said yes, how would that affect the long-term relationship between the US and Iraq. For Panetta, the only thing that mattered in 2011 was maintaining a residual US military force in the country, which he says—without much in the way of evidence—would have helped prevent the rise of ISIS.
Panetta is fond of such retrospective certainty. He asserts that if the US had backed Syrian rebels militarily it would have built up a moderate counter-weight to ISIS. He also labels the president’s failure to use force against Syria when it crossed Obama’s “redline” and used chemical weapons against his own people a damaging “blow to American credibility.” According to Panetta, “the power of the United States rests on its word, and clear signals are important both to deter adventurism and to reassure allies that we can be counted on.” The implication is that if the US had merely bombed Assad, those clear signals would have been sent and received by enemies and allies alike.
Of less concern to Panetta are not only the potential negative consequences from using force but also the actual diplomatic agreement negotiated by the US to completely destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons. While he gives a perfunctory nod to this “important accomplishment” in his memoir, he complains that “hesitation and half-steps have consequences.”
As for what those specific consequences are, other than vague platitudes about credibility and signals: your guess is as good as mine. For Panetta, the act of using force is seemingly more important than the actual tangible result achieved by using force.
Nowhere is this mindset of war as a presentational tool more evident than Panetta’s discussion of the 2009 surge in Afghanistan. While Panetta says the focus on the Taliban, rather than al Qaeda, was misplaced and he complains that the military actively tried to box in Obama on troop levels … he says that there was no reason for the decision on the surge to have taken so long.
“For him to defy his military advisers on a matter so central to the success of his foreign policy and so early in his presidency would have represented an almost impossible risk,” says Panetta. Translation: the surge was a bad idea, but the politics of national security demanded that Obama send American troops to fight a war that Panetta in his memoir calls “not a ringing success.”
Ironically, in his public appearances Panetta has been forcefully stating that a commander-in-chief must keep all options on the table—an implicit criticism of Obama’s refusal to put troops on the ground to fight ISIS. But in Afghanistan, the one option that Panetta appears to believe we should not have had on the table was defying the military and not surging, which is nothing if not an interesting twist on the principle of civilian control of the military. For Panetta, “all options” means only one thing—use of force.
Here, Panetta could not be more explicit. He says President Obama was a “strong leader on security issues” in his first term and cites as evidence Obama’s support for CIA military operations and the fact that he was “tough on terrorism.”
Now, however, Panetta believes that the president has “lost his way” because since then because he’s shown greater “ambivalence” about using military force. If Obama is willing to “roll up his sleeves” on ISIS he can restore that strong legacy. For Panetta, might always equals right.
Panetta likes to present himself an “honest,” “straight-talking,” aw-shucks kind of guy—the son of Italian immigrants who has lived the American Dream. But in reality he is the quintessential example of how Washington corrupts. Principles are conditional and where you sit is where you stand; politics trumps policy, even bad policy that puts American lives at risk; military force is a magic elixir not only in solving international problems but in burnishing one’s public image (though it appears for Panetta that this mainly applies to Democrats); it’s also the most important criteria in how you judge a president’s national security decision-making and his or her requisite strength.
During a recent interview on CNN, Panetta took a break from bashing the president who appointed him to two Cabinet offices to offer one of those platitudes that long-time DC denizens love to state without a moment of introspection. “Logic doesn’t work in Washington,” he said.
You can say that again.
By: Michael Cohen, The Daily Beast, October 8, 2014