As The Nation reported yesterday, Senator Mitch McConnell was a featured speaker on Sunday at the Koch brothers’ secretive conference for billionaire Republican donors at a swanky California resort. McConnell reportedly held a “strategy discussion” with Koch legal operative Mark Holden on his favorite topic: freeing up unlimited and unchecked campaign contributions and spending from America’s wealthiest donors, which is what the First Amendment intended. According to an attendee, part of that strategy is a goal to raise $500 million for Republicans to take control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, and $500 million more to take the White House in 2016.
This background, as well as McConnell’s voting record, made his statements on the Senate floor this morning all the more remarkable.
In his speech, McConnell said that despite the “political theater” of Senate Democrats, Republicans are actually the ones out there fighting for the little guy—the underpaid middle class, working moms and college students—and fighting against the “well-off” and “well-connected” interests who attempt to rig the political system in their favor.
Yes, political theater is so, so terrible.
McConnell said that Senate Democrats are trying to hide the fact that Republicans are “quietly assembling a lot of good ideas aimed at helping middle-class Americans deal with the stresses of a modern economy” and “working overtime behind the scenes to make their lives easier or paychecks bigger for working moms and recent college graduates.” Those “quiet” and “behind the scenes” ideas “address the concerns and anxieties of working men and women whose wages have remained stubbornly flat during the Obama years, even as the cost of everything from college tuition to healthcare continues to soar.”
McConnell added that these ideas are consistent with the GOP’s longstanding commitment to their principle of ensuring government has “a shared responsibility for the weak”—an amazing claim that he first trotted out last month, days after his Republican primary victory.
McConnell concluded: “While Democrats have been plotting on ways to hold onto their majority, we’ve been listening to the concerns and anxieties of our constituents and figuring out new, creative ways to address them. It’s long past time we had a real debate in this country, instead of false choice Democrats constantly present to the public between their own failed ideas and some political villain that doesn’t exist.”
This nonexistent “villain” that McConnell alludes to may be his own party, or it may be the figures who Democrats have been trying to tie around the neck of Republicans for many months: Charles and David Koch, the gracious resort hosts of McConnell and billionaire donors last weekend who seek to buy Washington, DC, and turn it into their own deregulated wonderland of plutocracy. And with the strict security at the Koch summit, one might even call such plotting “quiet” and “behind the scenes,” in favor of the “well-off” and “well-connected.” But how dare the Democrats plot about winning Senate elections, right?
McConnell’s concern about stagnant wages and his desire to make “paychecks bigger” for working moms and young people doesn’t need a behind-the-scenes approach, but it might require raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which McConnell strenuously opposes and his campaign manager called “class warfare.” Some of those working moms might even be helped by very public legislation to prevent wage discrimination against women, though McConnell has voted against the Lily Ledbetter Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
If McConnell is concerned about rising tuition costs and the bank account of recent college graduates, he also could have chosen not to filibuster and block Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill to allow graduates to refinance their student loans and avoid decades of crushing debt—if the Koch summit attendees don’t mind that legislation closing their tax loopholes, of course.
McConnell is also concerned about the rising costs of healthcare, though I’m not sure how repealing the Affordable Care Act—and taking away the healthcare coverage of over 400,000 Kentuckians who gained insurance through the state’s exchange, Kynect—will ease that concern.
And this “shared responsibility for the weak” that McConnell says he adheres to? I’m not sure who is the “weak” he refers to, but if that includes people who have had their unemployment insurance cut off, SNAP benefits cut, or undocumented immigrants looking for comprehensive immigration reform, McConnell and his Republican colleagues probably shouldn’t have worked so hard to stick it to these individuals.
Yes, political theater is so, so terrible.
While liberals and environmentalists may be nauseated by Alison Lundergan Grimes’s positions and rhetoric on coal and the EPA, she presents an extremely clear contrast on the issues McConnell played loose with this morning. Grimes has touted her support for an increase in the minimum wage since the day she announced her candidacy last July; she supports equal pay legislation; she supports a Constitutional amendment to roll back the Citizens United decision;, and she supports Warren’s student loan bill.
Warren is even coming to Kentucky soon to campaign for Grimes, highlighting McConnell’s vote against student loan reform and his obedience to the whims of billionaires hanging out in private California resorts who plot how to make the wealthy and powerful even more so.
The Warren-Grimes event may even be out in the public, where the little guys can hear it.
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Americans do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
Americans really do not want to send ground troops back to Iraq.
A fresh Public Policy Polling survey finds that 74 percent of voters oppose sending troops to the country where in 2003 former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed US troops would be “greeted as liberators”—but where in fact 4,486 Americans were killed, and where even the most cautious estimates put the Iraqi death toll (military and civilian) in the hundreds of thousands.
Americans recognize the damage that was done, as well, to their country’s international reputation, and to its sense of priorities when it came to policymaking and federal budgeting. That does not mean that they are unaware of, or unconcerned with, the degenerating circumstances in Iraq. That does not mean they have suddenly gone isolationist. That does not mean that they oppose diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives.
What it means is that they have a sense of perspective that is lacking among the neoconservative elite that is always so ready for war.
So it is that, while Cheney is busily repurposing his pro-war rhetoric of 1991 and 2003—while at the same time accusing President Obama of “betraying” US freedom, “abandoning” Iraq, being a “very very weak president” and generally failing to follow the neocon playbook—Americans are remembering what happened the last time the war hawks had their way.
In fact, if there is one thing that unites Americans, it is their skepticism about steering back into Iraq.
Eighty-two percent of Democrats oppose sending US troops to Iraq, as do 86 percent of independents. Notably, 57 percent of Republicans are also opposed.
Just 28 percent of Republicans favor the ground-troops option.
Overall, just 16 percent of Americans are inclined toward the sort of approach that might satisfy Cheney.
Given a choice between President Obama’s relatively cautious response—with its emphasis, so far at least, on regional diplomacy—and the more aggressive approach of the man Obama beat for the presidency in a 2008 campaign that offered a stark choice with regard to foreign policy, 54 percent of those surveyed favored Obama’s way of handling things. Just 28 percent were inclined toward McCain’s hawkish rhetoric.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that. Obama has already sent a contingent of 275 troops to provide embassy security in Baghdad, and there is talk of sending Special Forces units. Additionally, the prospect of a bombing campaign to support Iraqi forces has been raised.
Even more limited strategies inspire skepticism, however.
For instance, there is not majority support for military airstrikes.
According to the survey conducted by PPP for Americans United for Change, 46 percent of likely voters say they could support airstrikes. But 32 percent oppose them, and another 22 percent say they are unsure.
Respecting that skepticism, Congressman John Garamendi, D-California, and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, on Wednesday introduced an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would require the administration to seek the advice and consent of Congress before engaging in any sustained military action in Iraq.
“Before we ever consider sending our brave men and women in uniform back into the Iraq powder keg, we owe it to our servicemembers and to the American people to at least have a frank and public debate in the Halls of Congress,” said Garamendi, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The amendment would not block moves to increase security at the US Embassy in Baghdad. But it would limit the use of defense funds in Iraq for actions deemed to violate requirements outlined in the War Powers Resolution.
“In 2003, Congress should have resisted the rush to a war of choice with Iraq. I will do everything in my power to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of my predecessors,” announced Garamendi. “I am deeply skeptical of reigniting America’s involvement in Iraq’s civil war, and if my amendment is adopted, we’ll at least ensure a serious debate on the merits of returning to Iraq.”
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Earthquakes do happen in Virginia—we were there, in Virginia, during the real Virginia earthquake in 2011—but what happened in a rural, remote central Virginia congressional district last week, when Eric Cantor was toppled, shouldn’t register very high on the political Richter Scale, despite CNN’s headline: “Cantor ‘earthquake’ rattles Capitol Hill.” Widely cited as a sign of the Tea Party’s renaissance, after the Tea Party suffered a series of bloody defeats in primary after primary in 2014, the Cantor defeat—and perhaps the upcoming defeat of Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi next week—isn’t an earthquake at all but rather the dying tremor of a movement that is being put back in its cage by the GOP establishment.
And for 2016, that means that the Republican party and its main pillars, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, Wall Street’s banks and hedge funds and Karl Rove’s national political machinery, will make sure that the party nominates a mainstream conservative such as one of the GOP’s stable of current and former governors (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Pence, Susana Martinez, etc.).
Even many rank-and-file Republicans are sick of the Tea Party’s shenanigans. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 41 percent of non–Tea Party Republicans believe that the Tea Party has “too much influence.” (The poll found that the GOP is pretty much evenly split between Republicans who identify with the Tea Party and those who don’t.) A Washington Times article, analyzing what it calls the “decades-long brawl” between ultraconservative purists and GOP traditionalists—which, it says, dates to the fight over President George H.W. Bush’s decision to break his no-new-taxes pledge—says that now it takes the form of a struggle between no-compromise types and those, such as Christie, who say outright that the priority has to be placed on winning elections. Democrats, who’ve had their own struggles between idealism and pragmatism when it comes to lesser-evil candidates, may want the GOP to pick likely-loser extremists who’ll lose big, but it’d be wrong to count on that either in 2014 or, especially, in 2016.
The rise and probably fall of the Tea Party is an interesting phenomenon when viewed from the “decades-long” perspective that the Washington Times notes. In the Washington Post’s The Fix, Aaron Blake tracks the Republican party’s up-and-down from moderate-conservative to Tea Party–like over the years, and he shows that the presence of ultraconservatives—that is, Republicans who described themselves as “consistently conservative”—actually fell from 13 percent in 1994 to 10 percent in 1999 and to just 6 percent in 2004. But tracking the growth of the Tea Party, the number of “consistent conservatives” rose to 17 percent by 2011 and 20 percent in 2014. In looking at those numbers, it seems clear that the huge jump between 2004 and 2011 is a reflection of the effort to demonize Barack Obama, with a heavy dollop of racism and race-baiting built in.
In fact, “consistent conservative” is a broad notion, and it’s fair to question the poll conclusion in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll cited above that 43 percent of Republicans “identify” with the Tea Party while 43 percent do not. The actual strength of the Tea Party within the GOP is a lot smaller than 43 percent, and the “very conservative” GOP voters are themselves divided into evangelical voters, or the Christian right (about 20 percent of the GOP) and the ultraconservative secular voters (perhaps 5-10 percent). In the past, however, some middle-of-the-road, traditional Republicans may have admired the Tea Party for its feistiness, even if they didn’t agree with its kookiness and extreme positions. Now those centrists are coming home.
So, what does that say about someone like Jeb Bush in 2016? Over at National Journal, Tom DeFrank seems to think that Bush would make a good running mate in the vice presidential slot for a strong conservative or Tea Party type at the top of the ticket, though in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Kyle Wingfield writes that the notion of VP Jeb “seems totally, completely, impossibly weird.” More than that, in fact: it seems impossible altogether.
But that doesn’t mean that Tea Party types and others on the far right won’t eventually acquiesce to the notion that in order to win in 2016 the Republicans will have to choose someone closer to the mainstream. While many Tea Partiers are hard-core ideologues, many others are pragmatists. The Tea Party can read the tea leaves. And the tea leaves say it’s going to take a centrist to beat Hillary Clinton. So, will the Tea Party welcome Jeb Bush?
Larry Klayman, the quirky activist and “serial insurrectionist” (who has praised Cliven Bundy as a “hero,” called for a military uprising to overthrow President Obama, and says that a “revolution” is needed to stop Hillary Clinton) is perhaps the quintessential expression of the Tea Party’s paranoid, tinfoil-hat-wearing overall kookiness. But a recent Klayman piece suggests that the Tea Party might eventually welcome even so obvious a non–Tea Party GOPer if that’s what it takes to win the presidency in 2016:
Let us put Jeb to the test and invite him to become a fellow tea partier. If he genuinely accepts the invitation, he should get serious consideration as an opponent to what is likely to be Hillary Clinton as the Democrat nominee. … So don’t write off Jeb. If he comes to us, be prepared to consider him. Any opponent of Hillary Clinton needs “mucho” Latin votes to rid the nation of the stench of the Obama administration and prevent the return of the Clintons. Even if Jeb is branded as a “Bush” and not perfect (no politician today is), … he is at heart a conservative and can possibly win if he sincerely moves further right, joins “our party” and learns to drink our brand of tea. Mambo!
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Former Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from his lair this morning to eulogize “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with his daughter Liz.
“Iraq is at risk of falling to a radical Islamic terror group,” the Cheneys observe, “and Mr. Obama is talking climate change. Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history, and he goes golfing. He seems blithely unaware, or indifferent to the fact, that a resurgent al Qaeda presents a clear and present danger to the United States of America.”
“Rarely,” they conclude, “has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”
There is an obvious historical precedent for such inflamed, partisan invective delivered by a former president or vice president about a later occupant of one of those offices.
As with Dick Cheney, there was never a war Theodore Roosevelt heard about that he didn’t immediately want to join. Shortly after the First World War began in Europe in August 1914, Roosevelt began assailing President Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to alter the United States’s firm policy of neutrality. After Germany sunk the British Lusitania, killing all 128 Americans on board, Wilson delivered a speech declaring, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” To which Roosevelt responded by “slamming,” as today’s twitterers would put it, the president as “Professor Wilson, that Byzantine logothete, supported by all the flubdubs, mollycoddles, and flapdoodle pacifists.”
The Nation, a longtime exponent of pacifism and an opponent of Roosevelt’s jingoistic foreign policy, reported on the ex-president’s war-mongering tirades only in order to ridicule and dismiss them.
In a September 2, 1915, editorial titled “A National Defender for Politics Only,” the editors argued that “the great majority of Americans see in Mr. Roosevelt’s present activities only an attempt by him to make use of a troubled situation in order to get a party and personal advantage out of it. He is flinging himself upon the idea of a possible war, and of preparing for it, only as the most promising political issue which he can at present see.”
Americans, the editorial continued,
There is a model, then, for Dick Cheney’s apparent belief that when it comes to being greeted as liberators, second time’s a charm.
* * *
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The GOP scandal machine kicked into a new gear this week when the Internal Revenue Service disclosed late Friday that two years of e-mails belonging to IRS official Lois Lerner are missing and apparently permanently lost.
Lerner has, for some time, been the focal point of the Republican Party’s grand theory of Tea Party persecution as the IRS official supposedly leading politically motivated probes of tax-exempt conservative groups. Coupled with Lerner’s repeated invocation of her Fifth Amendment rights in congressional hearings, the missing e-mails are treated as prima facie evidence of a nefarious plot. “If you think, by the way, that the Lois Lerner e-mails are lost, you need to wake up. There is no way those e-mails are gone,” Rush Limbaugh thundered on Monday. “[The administration is] thinking nobody’s gonna try to stop them, nobody’s gonna push back, nobody’s gonna call them on it. It’s just the way that they’re gonna deal with it.”
While Republicans’ grand theory about the IRS “scandal” has a few holes, to put it lightly, they are correct to be mad here. It’s unacceptable that a high-ranking government official’s e-mails are missing.
Moreover, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Federal record-keeping borders on abysmal. Time and again crucial documents from many different agencies have gone missing. This episode reveals a much more banal form of federal noncompliance and malfeasance than what’s alleged by Limbaugh and company—but a much more real scandal.
In 2010, only 5 percent of federal agencies had a “low risk” of losing records, according to a review by the National Archives. Meanwhile, 46 percent were classified as having “high risk” and 49 percent were at a “moderate risk.” The 2012 review, the most recent one conducted by the National Archives, showed some improvement—20 percent of federal agencies were in the “low risk category” and 36 percent were “high risk.” That’s encouraging, but still far from an acceptable standard.
The basic problem is the federal government has been very slow to adapt its technology to the demands of permanently archiving millions of electronic records, mainly in the form of e-mails. The Federal Records Act theoretically requires agencies to do so, but enforcement is rare, penalties are relatively low, and only the federal government can force compliance.
The government, incidentally, appears to be in no particular rush to fix the system. In August 2012 the National Archives and the Office of Management and Budget said agencies don’t need to have a system to manage their permanent and temporary records in an easily accessible electronic format until December 31, 2016.
This has lead to a patchwork system of record-keeping and frequent data losses. “The truth is the disappearance of agency records is not unusual. Government-wide, records are routinely lost or simply not preserved,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. “Unless and until Congress gets serious about fixing this widespread problem by amending the Federal Records Act to include increased penalties and to allow outside groups to sue agencies not complying with the law, we’ll inevitably have other missing e-mail scandals.”
The Lerner e-mail imbroglio is pretty clearly a result of a poorly designed record-keeping system. The agency said in a letter to Congress that until 2012, it used digital tape to back up its e-mail servers—but every six months, those tapes were erased and reused. (The IRS has since extended the life of those tapes.) Complicating this arrangement was that employees could only use 500 megabytes of space on the e-mail server, and then had to start deleting e-mails or moving them to their hard drives.
So while the IRS possesses, and has turned over, 67,000 of Lerner’s e-mails, there is a two-year gap from 2009 to 2011. What happened, according to the agency, was that she hit her storage limit and began moving e-mails to her hard drive—which crashed in 2011, and the data on it was deemed unrecoverable. The e-mails were no longer on the agency server, the IRS was not backing up individual employees’ computers, and the digital tapes from when they were on the server had already been recycled.
There’s no evidence that Lerner was acting maliciously, though Congress should—and certainly will—investigate whether Lerner was deliberately deleting those e-mails, knowing that the digital records of them were ephemeral.
It wouldn’t be the first time that federal e-mail records of high importance—that almost surely revealed wrongdoing—were deleted under suspicious circumstances.
In 2009, the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility finished a high-profile probe into how the memos that allowed the United States to engage in torture were crafted. One problem: OPR was looking for e-mails between Deputy Attorney Generals John Yoo and Patrick Philbin, but found that most of Yoo’s e-mails were “deleted and…reportedly not recoverable.” OPR said its investigation was “hampered by the loss of Yoo’s and Philbin’s email records.” Yoo has maintained the e-mail losses were accidental, perhaps even a technical glitch—but it’s probably too late to ever know. Once again, overwriting backup tapes was a central problem—and even there, DoJ didn’t adhere to its own guidelines on overwriting.
The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a controversial directive that SEC enforcement staff should destroy any records created as a result of a preliminary investigation. Accordingly, more than 9,000 case files were destroyed—among them investigations into the activities of Bernie Madoff, into Goldman Sachs trading in credit default swaps in 2009, and into financial fraud at Wells Fargo and Bank of America leading up to the financial crisis. When the SEC later went back to conduct investigations into how it missed so much fraud, crucial pieces of the record were gone forever. CREW sued to stop the deletion, but a federal court ruled the Federal Records Act was written narrowly enough to allow it.
Then there’s the big one: the loss of millions of e-mails from the Bush White House. Former Bush officials screaming about the IRS lost e-mails should perhaps stop and reflect upon this incident. The Bush White House revealed in 2007 that as many as 5 million e-mails from March 2003 to March 2005 had gone missing. They were no longer on the White House servers and digital backups were not maintained. Consequently, investigations into wrongdoing at the White House—like Patrick Fitzgerald’s inquiry into the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name to reporters—were significantly hampered by missing e-mails. The Obama administration launched an effort to recover some of those e-mails, but millions more are gone forever.
Lerner wasn’t the first official to have an embarrassing e-mail gap, and she likely won’t be the last. CREW wrote this week to Representative Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Government and Oversight, and his Senate counterpart Tom Carper, asking for a thorough review of government record-keeping problems and the need to amend the Federal Records Act.
Given Issa’s stated, deep concern for the IRS scandal, perhaps he will act quickly.
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Last Friday, five black men who organized a sign-on letter drawing attention to the shortcomings of President Obama’s initiative for black men and boys, My Brother’s Keeper, held a conference call to make their motivations plain and field questions about their effort. The call drew 300 people, according to organizers. Their letter—which has attracted more than 200 signatures from other black men—draws attention to the folly of excluding girls and women of color from the most visible national racial justice initiative going. It also faults the project for privileging personal responsibility and “up-by-your-bootstraps” rhetoric over holding accountable the institutions that fail black and brown communities, from schools to the criminal justice system to the job market.
On the call, author and Vassar College Professor Kiese Laymon began by acknowledging the black women who raised him—including his mother, grandmother, aunt and godmother—and the various economic and social barriers that they faced and he witnessed. He then spoke to the broader cultural conditions that would allow for a program with a singular focus on boys and men of color to develop in the first place, despite clear evidence that girls and women struggle alongside their male counterparts, citing “this erroneous perception that black girls and black women will persist no matter what.”
“We have been conditioned from music, from literature, from the pulpit of the White House [to believe] that black girls are going to be OK,” Laymon said. “Black women, like black men, scar.”
Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler pointed to the impact the funding behind the White House initiative—$200 million from the philanthropic community—will have on community-based and nonprofit organizations that depend on private funding to operate.
“In order to get money, we’ve got to talk about boys and we cannot talk about girls,” Butler said, anticipating the response from such organizations. “If the money is going to boys, that’s where the programs will go as well.”
One highlight of the call—which took place just a few days before Father’s Day—came in the form of a question from one of its participants, who asked whether this group wasn’t really just a front for a black feminist. Which black feminist in particular was left to the imagination, but the caller raised a legitimate question about the letter, which was signed by the likes of academics and activists, sure, but also men with less lofty titles and more diverse backgrounds. (Critics have suggested that the letter is out of touch with reality because of some signers’ ties to the ivory tower.)
That question is: Where are the women’s voices on this issue? Surely women can and should raise these questions for themselves if they feel that My Brother’s Keeper is missing something critical. The answer came Monday in the form of a second letter, this one signed more than 1,000 women of color and facilitated, as was the first, by the African American Policy Forum. Signers include Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights; Angela Davis, Anita Hill; Rosario Dawson; and Rosie Perez. It makes many of the points that are often cited in the growing conversation on this topic, and it offers a new angle on how the My Brother’s Keeper falls short. In failing to collect data on girls of color, the initiative perpetuates the problem of not knowing the extent of the challenges facing girls and therefore being able to claim ignorance and turn a blind eye. According to this most recent letter:
Our daughters are ignored and under-researched. Although the exclusion of girls has been justified as data-driven, the fact is that little data is gathered on them. This situation creates a vicious cycle in which the assumptions that girls are not in crisis leads to research and policy interventions that overlook them, thus reinforcing their exclusion from efforts like MBK to bring successful programs to scale. MBK is not only built on this foundation, but extends it further by failing to require the inter-agency task force to report data that address the wellbeing of girls of color as well as boys. This erasure simply adds to the crisis that girls of color face, forcing them to suffer in relative silence.
What remains to be seen is what impact the letters are having. Laymon told me via e-mail that the group that coordinated the men’s letter has been in communication with the White House about a possible meeting, though that conversation has stalled pending the White House’s ability to connect the organizers with officials central to the initiative. For now, the president and the philanthropic community appear to be staying the course with My Brother’s Keeper—while the list of people pushing for it to broaden its mandate keeps growing.
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Before returning to the favela Vila Autódromo for the first time since 2012, I had already been told that the community would not look the same. As a friend said to me, “It will resemble a perfect smile with several teeth knocked out.” Vila Autódromo is situated just yards away from the site of the 2016 Rio Olympic village, and Olympic planners as well as construction interests have long targeted this close-knit community for demolition. Located on an achingly beautiful lake, where glittering new high-rise condominiums have sprouted “seemingly overnight”, the city’s business and political leaders see prime real estate, with pesky favelados in the way of their development dreams.
Despite a fierce resistance to their removal that has stymied the efforts of Olympic planners, I had heard before arriving that 150 of the 500 families living in Vila Autódromo had left. I expected many of their homes, places I had visited, to now be piles of rubble. What I did not expect was the absence of trees.
Majestic trees punctuated the Vila Autódromo I remember. They were the shade and the breeze for residents. It was where you listened to music, argued, laughed and watched your children safely run the streets. Yet in an effort to coax residents to accept a cash payout and leave, the city has uprooted and torn out many of the trees. The city has also, according to residents, slowed garbage pickup and kept streetlights sporadically turned off at night. They cannot legally just evict people from their homes if they want to remain. But they can make life uninhabitable for those who stay.
“It’s a psychological attack…a perverse strategy to weaken community and weaken our resolve,” said Jane Nascimiento from the Vila Autódromo Neighborhood Association, the group that has led the favela’s resistance.
The situation in Vila, once imbued by a great deal of hope that the city would back down from its constant pressure to remove residents, has become grim. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes—and the real estate interests that back him—has engaged in a remorseless battle of attrition. “It was a beautiful community,” Jane says, “but it’s becoming uglier as they remove the trees.” She continues, “We leaders—directors of Neighborhood Association—have fought our own depression, but we can’t show it for fear of spreading depression to those who remain.”
Unable by law to move the people out by force, the city has turned neighbors of this tight-knit community against one another, as they have been doing in neighborhoods across Rio where people resist the city’s development efforts. First they offered larger payouts for those who would willingly leave—but only if they could convince two other families to pack up and go as well. This pyramid scheme of people’s lives embittered those leaving against the holdouts. As a resident named Francisco said, “I’ve lost friends because I wouldn’t leave. Many of them left the community, but I lost their friendship before they left because I was keeping them from getting the extra money. [These tactics make us feel] either angry or ashamed.”
The city also said—falsely—that an injunction against demolitions won by the Neighborhood Association prevented them from providing payouts to those who wanted to depart. All of a sudden, the Neighborhood Association, which has provided leadership and strength through several difficult years, became an enemy for a minority of residents. A rock was even thrown through their window.
I spoke to another resident, Osimar, who was offered public housing and a great deal of money to vacate. One small problem: he doesn’t want to leave. “The government has money earmarked for favela communities but instead of using them to pave roads, or to provide schools and medical clinics, it goes to the demolition and construction crews. On the other side of the lagoon, in Santa Monica, a condo sells for BRL 6 million ($3 million US). This is why they want us gone…. The flag says ‘order and progress.’ But we are not given ‘order and progress’. We are being given ‘speculation and real estate.’”
There is something very precious in the favelas that is becoming endangered by the worship of “speculation and real estate”, not to mention the mega-events that fuel speculation and real estate beyond Odebrecht’s most fevered dreams. One should never minimize the very real poverty, lack of services and other challenges faced by the favelas. But those concerns should not blind us to the community, care, and vibrant culture that emerge from the narrow streets, and makeshift cafés. Hundreds in Vila Autódromo want to stay. They are fighting not only for their community but also for favela culture, and against the gleaming, charmless high-rise gentrification springing up all around them. They are fighting against those who aim to bury the favelas—one World Cup, one Olympics and one demolition at a time.
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Today is all Reed...
The Beltway Media Gets the Iraq War Band Back Together
By Reed Richardson
One measure of the health of a nation’s discourse is how well it holds accountable its political and thought leaders. Do the men and women with a track record of getting things stupendously wrong ever have to face the music for their words and deeds? Do their arguments and opinions correspondingly suffer in the marketplace of ideas? Or do these same people keep getting free passes despite the sorrow they’ve sown? And do they continue to enjoy broad acceptance as serious, legitimate thinkers despite plenty of evidence to the contrary?
A brief survey of the US establishment press over the past few weeks is all it takes to get a clear answer on just how sclerotic, insular, and narrow-minded our country’s foreign policy discussions are. Ever since the ISIS-fueled insurgency started an unraveling of northern Iraq, mainstream news organizations have dredged up almost every neoconservative pundit and old Bush foreign policy hand still alive to pontificate on how Obama should fix, or has caused, this crisis. A crisis that, ironically, they helped to foment through an unnecessary, decade-long war based on false intelligence. Indeed, it has been mystifying, if not somewhat unsurprising, to watch how quickly the Beltway media has blithely rehabilitated the reputations of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis.
The past week, in particular, has felt like 2002 déjà vu. So many of the same old neocon faces marching to the same saber-rattling beat on the same news shows. The experience is almost reminiscent of those ;old, late-night K-Tel commercials selling compilation albums of songs by bands long since forgotten, and for good reason. I say almost because those commercials offered more historical context than most of the mainstream press does for these Iraq War neocons. After all, when was the last time you heard a talk show host or op-ed columnist even mention that Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz brought us such classic lines as “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” “This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war,” and, my personal favorite: “I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.”
Last month, it was Robert Kagan who kicked off the No Accountability 2014 Iraq War reunion tour with an epic, 12,700-word essay: “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” ;Covering almost the complete back catalog of neoconservative historical thought, Kagan’s overlong riff ran in The New Republic, a somewhat fitting evocation of the magazine’s infamous role providing intellectual cover to the pro-invasion left 12 years ago. Notably, though, discussion of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq—which were supposed to be seminal triumphs of neoconservative foreign policy, remember—only amounts to a few grace notes in Kagan’s bloated opus. Even in those few lines where he does address the war, his treatment of it is laughably benign, criminally disinterested. War, what is it good for? Kagan’s answer: Eh, who knows?
“At the end of the day, George W. Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest.” [emphasis mine]
While Kagan may be too much of a coward to admit the obvious, the American public isn’t—a majority now feel removing Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. But has this strong public sentiment, which also includes opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria, translated into an uptick in anti-war viewpoints being presented in the news? One might think those few souls who defied the DC conventional wisdom and warned of the dire consequences wrought by invading Iraq would be hot media commodities today, with recent events having proven them right yet again. Think again. Instead, it’s neocons like Kagan who get almost unlimited space to repackage their militaristic policies for a new generation.
But that’s just where it starts. Last week, thanks to the sudden successes of the ISIS insurgency—which already seem to be fading—Kagan’s “much-discussed” essay begat a long, flattering profile in the New York Times. Though the Times does at least lump Kagan in with a group of “largely discredited neoconservatives,” the paper nonetheless expends the next thousand-plus words largely bestowing credit back upon him, his life, and his work. Indeed, the only critics quoted by the Times of Kagan’s neoconservative—or as he now prefers to call it, “liberal interventionist”—policies are, I kid you not, his father, who thinks his son is too easy on Obama, and his wife, who is portrayed as a demanding editor of his writing. Talk about the kid glove treatment. To be fair, one can’t accuse the Times of engaging in false balance in this article.
Kagan, you may recall, was a co-author, along with Bill Kristol, of a seminal bit of war propaganda put out by the Weekly Standard back in the fall of 2002. Tellingly, its headline—as noted by the punctuation—was not a question: “What to Do About Iraq.” Similarly, Kagan and Kristol’s plan—“American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq”—was not a solution. As for skeptics of their plan, the pair had little interest in hearing all their overly dire predictions:
“It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax. As for the other arguments, the effort to remove Saddam from power would no more be a "diversion" from the war on al Qaeda than the fight against Hitler was a "diversion" from the fight against Japan."
This damning paragraph—all of which has come to pass except, most notably, the existence of any WMDs—should have been enough to banish Kagan and Kristol and countless others from the op-ed pages and green rooms of Washington, D.C. for the rest of their lives. But never let it be said neoconservatives lack for hubris. For, this week Kristol and Fred Kagan, Robert’s brother, penned a Weekly Standard column that eerily echoed the one from 12 years ago, right down to its unquestioning, self-assured headline: “What to Do in Iraq.”
Once again, the neocon answer to instability in Iraq is “regular US military units, on the ground.” But the most outlandish part of this column comes in its conclusion. There, Kristol and Kagan try to skip past years of failed strategy in order to re-ignite the same old fear-driven military response:
“Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011. The crisis is urgent, and it would be useful to focus on a path ahead rather than indulge in recriminations. All paths are now fraught with difficulties, including the path we recommend. But the alternatives of permitting a victory for al Qaeda and/or strengthening Iran would be disastrous.” [emphasis mine]
Who would fall for such a transparent attempt by Kristol and Kagan at avoiding accountability for their mistakes while simultaneously advocating we repeat them? Turns out, most of the Sunday morning news shows, which played host to a plethora of Iraq War architects and cheerleaders, this past weekend. Back on the same old media stages folks like Kristol and Wolfowitz, John Negroponte and Ryan Crocker comprised a neocon chorus blaming the Obama administration for the Iraqi unrest and calling for a “muscular” response. As for contrition on their part? Not happening.
And it kept spreading. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this past Monday, there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for “boots on the ground.” Not to be outdone, POLITICO had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Left out of the article—that Feith was the man most responsible for both manipulating the pre-Iraq war intelligence and botching the post-war planning. And lest we forget, Feith’s office in the Pentagon was also in charge of running Abu Ghraib prison. But yeah, let’s get their brilliant advice on what Obama isn’t doing right.
Senator John McCain, perennial seeker of foreign bomb targets and favorite DC media gadfly, also got plenty of press—OK, that’s not that unusual—when he called for the resignation of Obama’s entire national security team. (Just check out the photo accompanying this National Journal article to get a sense of McCain ensconced in his natural Capitol Hill environment.) It’s just the kind of click-ready headline that the Twittersphere eats up. What the press never bothers to mention is McCain’s hypocrisy here, since he not once called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation during three-and-a-half years of gross negligence running the war. Oh well, it’s not like people were dying back then, right?
Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq War. On Monday, he too weighed in with an op-ed in the Washington Post unironically entitled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.” However, Thiessen didn’t have to call in any special favors in the media to get his column published. That’s because, like many others in the Bush administration diaspora, he failed upward after leaving the White House, landing a high-profile gig in the media as a ;Post columnist. And like almost every other member from the Bush neocon glory days, Thiessen made a point of blasting Obama this week for “squandering” a supposed victory in Iraq. This he did while conveniently disappearing the years of quagmire that preceded Obama’s tenure as well as George Bush’s role in signing the Status of Forces Agreement that was actually responsible for removing all US forces from Iraq. It’s rank, right-wing revisionism: Iraq was so much older then, it’s younger than that now.
Last, but certainly not least, we heard once more from the neocon capo di tutti capi, Dick Cheney. Thanks to the reliably-conspiratorial Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Vice President Cheney, along with his war hawk protégé daughter, Liz, got to fire off a mendacious hit piece on Obama’s foreign policy so intellectually dishonest as to border on parody. The column’s subhead alone—“Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many”—radiates unintentional irony with enough force to power a small city. Of course, Cheney’s goal here isn’t to engage in a real debate, as evidenced by the dog’s breakfast of right-wing memes he desperately heaves at the president:
“American freedom will not be secured by empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation—all hallmarks to date of the Obama doctrine. Our security, and the security of our friends around the world, can only be guaranteed with a fundamental reversal of the policies of the past six years.”
All this matters to our foreign policy debate because it demonstrates that conservatives like Cheney, Kristol, Kagan, et al. aren’t really grappling with past mistakes or the current facts on the ground, they’re just recycling the same policies for the future. They’re angry, bitter old men (and women) upset about having been so publicly proved wrong. But rather than trying to learn from the painful lessons of Iraq, they remain stuck on the idea of deploying the hammer of military force to the nail of whatever brown people they don’t happen to like at the moment.No doubt, this kind of policy ossification on the right is bad for our discourse, but sadly it comes in handy for opinion page editors and cable show bookers who want to consistently offer up the pro-war side of the debate (with or without pushback from ideological opponents). This interplay between neocon foreign policy and media exposure produces a self-reinforcing effect, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. As someone who also supported the Iraq War in its early stages, Gelb readily acknowledges an ugly truth: the only way to maintain credibility in the foreign policy establishment is to push for using military force (5:40 mark in this video). Pro-war pundits and politicians get more press, in other words, which further shifts the Beltway debate more toward war, which, in turn, creates a greater incentive for pundits and politicians to be more pro-war, so they can get more press…
In the end, the song remains the same. And it leaves our democracy at risk of revisiting the same foreign policy disasters. But as Andrew Bacevich argues in his eloquent rebuttal to Robert Kagan in Commonweal, the deafening silence of the neocons on their legacy in Iraq should be a disqualifying trait: “without accountability there can be no credibility.” It’s a standard that the media should hold itself and its sources to as well. The architects of the last Iraq War who are trying to ignite the next one need no platform and deserve no encore.
Correction: In my post two weeks agoon the Roberts Court’s stealth campaign against a free press, I mistakenly misspelled Prof. Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky’s name as Larissa. My apologies to Prof. Lidsky.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Read Next: George Bush's legacy is alive and well in Iraq.
It’s appropriate that two of the leading liberal interventionists, both of whom have served in prominent positions in Barack Obama’s administration—are named Power and Slaughter.
Samantha Power, of course, is Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and a leading advocate of using American force overseas, especially when in her opinion civilian casualties can be exaggerated as “genocide.” And Anne-Marie Slaughter, long a foreign policy insider and currently head of the New America Foundation, served under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning at the State Department (2009–11). Back in 2011, Power and Slaughter joined Clinton and a handful of White House aides in supporting the US military action to topple Muammar Qaddafi, an action that turned that country into a warring mosaic of militias, terrorists and freelance warlords.
So it’s not surprising that in today’s New York Times, the influential Slaughter issues a clarion call for US military action in both Iraq and Syria. In the piece, “Don’t Fight in Iraq and Ignore Syria,” Slaughter asks what the United States can do about the twin crises, concluding that the answer “may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries.” And she says that the United States should ignore and go outside the United Nations if the UN Security Council won’t authorize action. Arrogantly, she says:
If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power. This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.
So, like the hawks and neoconservatives of the Republican party, Slaughter is blaming Obama for the crisis, since if he acted with force “two years ago” everything in Iraq and Syria would be dandy.
It’s certainly true, as I’ve argued in this space, that the wars in Syria and Iraq have become a single conflict. But the conflict is a regional one, pitting Saudi proxies and allies against Iranian ones, in a war that is both sectarian (Sunni vs. Shiite) and a geopolitical, state-vs.-state struggle for regional hegemony. But the solution is political and diplomatic, not military. (Indeed, in Syria the government of President Bashar al-Assad has turned the tide, and he’s winning that war, while in Iraq—after huge setbacks and shock in Baghdad, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to rally his sectarian Shiite base and recapture cities seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.)
To ease the crisis, as I wrote yesterday, President Obama ought to wind down US support for Syria’s rebels, who are dominated by Islamists, ISIS and Al Qaeda, thus freeing up Assad’s forces to concentrate on ISIS-held territory in Syria’s north and west. And as The New York Times says in an editorial today, Turkey “should shut its border to militants and to materiel flowing into Syria and Iraq.” That would go far to deprive the Syrian rebels, of all stripes, of the oxygen that they need to fight Assad.
And then the president should order a round-robin of diplomacy with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get them to use their vast influence inside Iraq to end the war there. Most likely, that would involve working with Iraq’s kaleidoscope of political players to settle on a replacement for Maliki, someone who could credibly brings Sunni political leaders into government and strike a workable accord with the Kurds, who’ve carved out a fiefdom in northeast Iraq.
It does appear that Obama, egged on no doubt by liberal-interventionist advisers such as Slaughter and Power, will use limited airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS. It’s possible, still, that the White House will decide against such action, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that Maliki has no intention of heeding the Obama’s demand that he become more inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Indeed, Maliki is rallying Shiites to his side, even those who might have joined Sunnis and Kurds to push him aside as factions jockey in the wake of the recent elections in Iraq. Even the Times, in its editorial (“A Balancing Act on Iraq”), acknowledges that Obama may well carry out military action against ISIS.
Need we add that countless hawks of the conservative and right-wing variety agree with Slaughter? Says The Wall Street Journal today, in its own editorial:
[Obama’s] abdication on Syria created a mecca for jihadists and his total withdrawal from Iraq created a vacuum for regional sectarians and Iran to fill. Mr. Obama could still save Mr. Maliki and reclaim US influence with a diplomatic and military intervention of the kind that Danielle Pletka and Jack Keane laid out in these pages on Tuesday. But if would have to be a large enough intervention to convince Mr. Maliki that it was worth making political compromises with his Kurdish and Sunni opponents.
Pletka and Keane, by the way, call for interdiction bombing against ISIS, providing air cover for an Iraqi offensive, US coordination with Iraqi ground forces, and the use of US Special Forces to guide the Iraqi action.
According to The New York Times, Obama is “considering a targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants …most likely using drones.” But, the Times adds, such strikes would be difficult to carry out, in part because the United States has poor intelligence about ISIS, and so the White House is primarily focused on a “political solution” and “diplomatic options.”
Given the pressure from the GOP hawks and the echoes from Slaughter and Co., it’s a good sign that a fair number of liberals and Democrats in Congress and the establishment are urging Obama to stay out. Today, Obama meets with the four leaders of the Senate and the House, to brief them on the Iraq crisis. The McClatchy story on that meeting, which takes place mid-afternoon on Wednesday, includes the following intelligent comment from Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat:
The president should be wary of calls to intervene militarily through an air campaign that will not affect the strategic balance on the battlefield, and is as likely to alienate the local population as it is to accomplish any tactical objective.… Our limited intelligence and the civilian nature of the battle space make the use of our air power even more problematic.… We do not want to be perceived as siding with Shia over Sunnis in another increasingly sectarian conflict, which would inevitably be the case if we should unintentionally cause Sunni civilian casualties.
And as The Hill reports, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to another US adventure in Iraq, by a margin of 74-16. (The poll addressed only the question of sending US troops, not airstrikes.)
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to fix the Iraq crisis.
The incident drew wide coverage earlier this week: an audience member at a large right-wing forum in Washington, DC, on, what else, Benghazi, was taunted by a crowd after simply asking why panelists were acting like most Muslims are terror-connected. The woman was clearly identifiable as a Muslim herself. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post was there to offer the bad news.
But then Dylan Byers, media reporter at Politico, after getting the organizers’ spin, charged that Milbank’s account was misleading. He claimed that the event was merely held at the Heritage Foundation, they were not behind it. And he asserted that the taunting was over-hyped and the woman didn’t seem to really mind all that much. So Milbank’s account was a “disaster.”
Well, Milbank has responded this morning by throwing the same charge back at Byers. He claimsthat the Politico columnist was basing his retort on a nine-minute video of the entire proceedings—while Milbank was actually there and saw the whole thing. Heritage, in fact, was a co-sponsor of the event. The woman, in fact, was very upset. The taunting and cheering actually was considerable. And so on.
We’ll chart how Byers responds. But Milbank, while qualifying a couple of his own statements (now that a full video is out), hits him hard, especially for allegedly lazy “armchair” reporting.
It’s possible, of course, that Byers could have sat at my side for the entire event and still thought I misjudged it; such interpretations are subjective. But had he witnessed all these remarks, and heard the hisses in the audience and observed the moderator’s sneers, he might have understood better the exchange with Ahmed that followed. That’s why there is no substitute for shoe-leather reporting.
UPDATE Byers so far has only responded on Twitter, with: "Two quick thoughts -- 1. Funny that
@Milbank's talking shoe-leather journalism after failing to adequately report on an event he attended...… and 2, you'd be surprised, @Milbank, how much news you can break from an armchair." Meanwhile, latest Milbank piece has drawn 613 comments, and counting.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on how Fox News created a monster—and made two others disappear