A drone flies above Kandahar, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesorth, File.)
Few observers or writers are better qualified to discuss the impact of drone warfare not just on our policies but on our psyche than Robert Jay Lifton. Since the 1950s, the famed psychiatrist—and often, activist—has produced one landmark study after another on vital issues of our day, from nuclear weapons to Nazi doctors, from soldiers at war to policymakers who send them into battle. As it happens, I have written two books with Lifton, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? (on capital punishment).
Lifton recently wrote what I consider the most far-reaching and important essay on the many dangers, and ethical challenges, of drone warfare (in two parts, here and here). Nothing reveals more about this subject than the famous phrase he introduced to our language decades ago: ”psychic numbing.” This week I interviewed him about that and another aspect: the media failure to cover this extremely important issue in any kind of deep, sustained way.
Lifton called his lengthy piece for Huff Post three weeks ago “Ten Reflections on Drones.” He introduced it this way: “Drones have entered our consciousness. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere. The following reflections—they could as easily be called meditations—do not address legal, political, or military issues, though these have great importance. Rather I seek to begin a conversation about our relationship as human beings to these robotic objects as weapons.”
To give you some of the flavor, here are a few of his ten reflections:
The lure of an intelligent, nonhuman killing machine. We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing.
The illusion that we can fight wars without our own people, our soldiers, dying. As a military man (quoted by P. W. Singer) put it: “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”
Another illusion is that of the drones’ capacity for what is called “targeted” or surgical killing, meaning the dispatching of a particular person and no one else.
Another illusory stance, also associated with a static view of history, is that of ignoring highly negative responses or blowback. Yet 97 percent of Pakistanis oppose our drones policy, as do high percentages of people in other Middle Eastern countries.
The illusion of a “rescue technology” that can turn around a failed policy. Drones have become a cure for the disarray and defeat associated with our doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare.
The ultimate issue of human and nonhuman agency. We are in a sense sharing human agency with a robot. There are accounts of varying degrees of loss of human control over the drones. And there are envisioned more and more occurrences in which action would be so rapid as to allow no time for human intervention and the drones would have to make “decisions” on their own.
Our interview follows.
Why did the media, until recently, provide little in-depth coverage of drones, even fail to confront official secrecy?
The media have had difficulty covering this subject and that’s partly because it is a revolutionary technology of killing and the media have trouble confronting what it is. There is now a certain amount of discussion of the political and legal side of drones. That’s important but not itself fully sufficient. One has to look at why drones are so much depended on and so much an expression of executive power in our use of them. And one does have to raise legal questions about using them against American citizens but also others—especially when the purposes are not tied to war but to assassination.
Yes, some of the more thoughtful media have raised these questions but almost no one has raised the fundamental questions about drones—questions of the mind and technology. And I’m struck by the basic illusion of fighting a war without undergoing casualties. That’s at the heart of things. What that means is you don’t have to undergo the pain of losing young men and women or the related requirement of insisting that they “did not die in vain.” That’s the central image of any war fighting. No one asks whether a drone died in vain when it explodes.
This illusory release from that level of meaning is dangerous in a democracy because a major means of preventing military belligerence and war-making is that painful sentiment for the citizens, and the media, of our soldiers being sent to die for an insufficient reason or to die in vain. And that hasn’t been discussed by the media to speak of. And that’s a major illusion.
And we don’t seem worried that drones can be turned on us.
That’s the added danger of enabling war-making to be made easier. It’s an illusion because there are seventy-five countries with drones now. Even non-governmental groups, including terrorists, could readily acquire and use them
We have a sense of American ownership of the technology, like with nuclear weapons after World War II. But no technology, as we’ve found, is limited to any country, no matter how big a part they had in developing it.
The other thing that is so illusory that is not emphasized sufficiently: the extremity of the destruction. The accuracy of drones has been enormously exaggerated. And they terrify and enrage people and bring about a quality of humiliation and fear. This strange object in the sky that can wreak havoc causes a particular amount of humiliation—and that more than any other emotion can be a source of a retaliatory impulse.
These are the things that the media on the whole have not probed. But then, they are generally lazy and collapse before power. There has been great secrecy and barriers to coverage, true. Now the issue is surfacing, and suddenly the drones are in our consciousness and all over the place. Given today’s information structure, given the Internet and other sources, you can’t keep these things as secret for long.
Why such weak coverage of the attacks themselves? Hard to get to the scene?
You can’t say the media can’t go investigate on the ground—the Stanford group [that produced a valuable recent study] did. What better way to cover them than to see what they’re causing? That’s negligent behavior on the part of the media. Some investigative journalism groups have sent people on the ground. So that’s not an excuse.
You’ve made connections to capital punishment in the US.
This death-by-drone, carried out by killing professionals, is the idea of a speedy, “humane” killing, like with our death penalty. Every new means of putting people to death is always described as more humane than the last, from hanging to the electric chair to the gas chamber to lethal injections. By engaging in what is considered more humane killing the claim can lead to more willingness to kill, as it does with the drone.
Apart from news coverage, what about media commentary pieces?
Much of the analysis concerns a president’s right to conduct drone killing and raises the question of executive power. There have been some good pieces. One a few months ago captured some of the drone subculture around the White House. It conveyed the sense of the president involving himself so actively in the use of drones so he could be a kind of restraining force. That may be accurate, but the problem is that the claim of restraint legitimates the use of drones, and seems to eliminate the legal considerations that should be invoked.
Other commentaries find professionals endorsing drones or expressing legal opinions to say they are okay—like the legal briefs sought by the Bush administration to endorse torture.
It seems the focus of complaints, even by many liberals, is often limited to concerns about targeting Americans.
Using them on our own citizens can be held out as an egregious action, turning a technology of killing against our own people. But I agree that using them anywhere in the world against anyone deserves careful legal and ethical consideration. It’s easier for media to look critically at use of drones against Americans and thereby avoid the use of drones to kill anyone. The seemingly more egregious violation is easier to criticize but the larger significance of drone warfare is overlooked or suppressed.
I’ll go along with the Stanford report—it makes you almost proud to be an academic. It found drone warfare is causing more harm for our national security than whatever it is accomplishing. It’s a dubious technology and the pinpoint targeting is illusory.
So should all use of drones be banned?
It’s the responsibility of the press to look very critically at the use of drones in any case. We need sanctions against their use. We also need international law standards.
One has to quickly now look at drones as an international, human issue. It is a revolutionary technology and it has to be controlled. It will effect humankind, not just Americans and terrorists, and one has to examine critically the psychological aspects, such as getting the machines to do the killing for us and exonerating us ethically.
Greg Mitchell’s latest book, published last week, is Hollywood Bomb: The Unmaking of ‘The Most Important Movie’ Ever Made.
More than three months into President Obama’s second term in office, 166 men are still imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, the majority of them held for more than eleven years without any charge or fair trial. While President Obama has rightly argued that Congress is standing in the way of his fulfilling his promise to close the prison, human rights groups have pointed out the many meaningful actions he can take.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is calling on the President to end his “self-imposed moratorium” on releasing Yemeni detainees, to resume prisoner transfers and to appoint a senior official to “shepherd the process of closure.” Sign The Nation’s open letter and implore President Obama to take these steps and to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo Bay. To amplify your voice, call the White House at 202-456-1111.
In the new issue of The Nation, editors explain why 100 Guantánamo prisoners are so desperate that they’re risking death by refusing food.
In this Democracy Now! interview Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, explains what President Obama can unilaterally do to redress human rights abuses at Guantánamo.
In recent years, straight athletes have been more outspoken in their support of LGBT equality. But never, until NBA center Jason Collins's announcement this week, has a current player come out as gay. "Homophobia has been a part of organized men's sports as long as there has been organized men's sports," says Dave Zirin, Nation sports editor and author, most recently, of Game Over. "There are no words for how historic this is." Appearing on CNN, Zirin puts the moment in context.
Where does LGBT equality fit into immigration reform? Read more at StudentNation.
An activist in New York City. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
When the Maine State House voted 111-33 this week to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the support for this bold gesture was notably bipartisan. Twenty-five Republicans joined four independents and all eighty-two Democrats to back the call.
Similarly, when the Maine State Senate voted 25-9 for the resolution, five Republicans joined with nineteen Democrats and independent Senator Richard Woodbury to “call upon each Member of the Maine Congressional Delegation to actively support and promote in Congress an amendment to the United States Constitution on campaign finance.”
What happened in Maine this week was a big deal for several reasons:
1. Maine became the thirteenth state to urge Congress to develop an amendment to address the money-in-politics crisis that is unfolding as a result of Supreme Court rulings that that have effectively struck down campaign-finance regulations and ushered in a new era of unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Maine joins West Virginia, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii in calling for an amendment. Washington, DC, has also backed the drive.
2. The swift action by both houses of the Maine legislature, coming less than a month after West Virginia urged Congress to act, confirms the momentum that is building for the movement, which has been backed by almost 500 communities nationwide. Though media coverage has been scant, it is rare in recent history for a grassroots movement to amend the constitution to have attracted so much official support at the municipal, county and state levels nationwide.
3. As in a number of other states, the significant level of bipartisan support in Maine provides a reminder that this movement is attracting support from across the partisan and ideological spectrum.
That final point merits particular attention.
Because of the often narrow and simplistic way in which political debates are covered in the United States—if they are covered at all—there is a tendency to think that all Democrats are reformers, while all Republicans are backers of big money in politics. That’s not the case. Polling has consistently shown that Republicans support for restrictions on corporate spending in elections very nearly parallels that of Democrats. And, while there are too many national Democrats who buy into big-money equations, there are Republicans who have begun to raise the right objections—and point to the right answers. Notably, Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a very conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina, is a cosponsor—along with Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth—of a constitutional amendment proposal that would overturn key provisions of the Citizens United decision and establish that campaign contributions can be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.
Bipartisan support for reform is more evident in the states. State legislators are active at the grassroots, knocking on doors and meeting constituents face to face. They recognize the deep frustration with a political process that seems to have spun out of control, and they reject the premise that corporations and wealthy individuals have a constitutional right to buy elections.
“There has to be a way to secure First Amendment rights to speech and still control the amount of dollars spent on campaigns,” says Maine state Senator Edward Youngblood, a Republican who went so far as to appear at rallies calling for a constitutional amendment. “It should be plain to everyone after the election we’ve just had, which broke records for spending, that the system isn’t getting better.”
Youngblood is right, and the group that organized support for reform in his state, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, wisely reached out to Democrats, Republicans, independents and third-party backers in pursuit of a “multi-partisan” coalition.
The approach has excited national groups such as Public Citizen’s Democracy Is for People Campaign, Move to Amend and Free Speech for People. Indeed, Free Speech for People’s Peter Schurman declared, “This terrific bi-partisan vote is a huge win, not only for Maine, but for all Americans. Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike are clamoring for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and bring back real democracy. We’re thrilled that Maine is now helping lead the way forward.”
He’s right, especially when it comes to the emphasis on drawing support from all parties for a reform that seeks to restore genuine competition based on ideas—as opposed to a shouting match between billionaires.
How did Wall Street knock the wind out of Dodd-Frank? Read Gary Rivlin’s analysis.
Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) addresses the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
This afternoon President Obama will introduce his choice to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency—Representative Mel Watt from North Carolina, a twenty-year veteran of Congress and member of the powerful House Financial Services Committee.
FHFA Director may not seem like a sexy appointment, but the agency has a monumental impact. It controls Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that own 60 percent of US mortgages. With thousands of foreclosures taking place every week, FHFA is in a position to send a lifeline to many of these distressed homeowners.
For months, the White House, state attorneys general and liberal activists groups have been demanding that the FHFA write down the principal of underwater mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie—in other words, reduce the amount people owe on mortgages that are worth more than their homes. Analysts estimate as many as 500,000 homeowners could benefit from FHFA principal reduction, which could provide an additional boost to the flagging economy.
Acting FHFA Director Edward DeMarco briefly flirted with the idea, but then refused to do it. So activists launched a “Dump DeMarco” campaign, urging Obama to replace the acting director with someone who supports principal reduction.
On that score, Watt is a good choice. He has repeatedly supported the idea of principal reduction and would presumably undertake it at FHFA.
Key reformers in Congress are thus applauding his selection this morning. Senator Elizabeth Warren called Watt an “excellent choice” with a “long record as a champion for working families.” Representative Keith Ellison, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted he was “thrilled that homeowners will finally have an advocate leading FHFA.” The CPC has relentlessly called for DeMarco to be fired and replaced with someone who favors principal reduction.
Watt’s record has some serious blotches, however. His North Carolina district includes the headquarters of Bank of America, and commercial banks are the number-one contributor to Watt’s political coffers over his career. Bank of America is second among individual career contributors.
FHFA has quite a bit of business that overlaps with big banks—in fact, late last year the agency sued several large financial institutions, including Bank of America, for concealing the low value of mortgage-backed securities and contaminating the books of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Watt’s transition from a member of Congress that benefits from Bank of America’s largesse to one of the bank’s chief executive branch antagonists naturally troubles some advocates. (Watt’s office would not comment to The Nation about his appointment.)
Most progressive activists, however, are still backing his nomination. “I don’t think we’ll be counted as his loudest cheerleader, but you can’t fall off the floor with where are now. DeMarco is a problem. I think Mel Watt is a solution,” said Bart Naylor, financial policy advocate for Public Citizen.
“Obviously Public Citizen wishes there wasn’t any money involved at all from vested interests. That’s not where we are now, that’s not what we have with Mel Watt,” Naylor said. “Fortunately as FHFA director, he’s not going to take campaign contributions. While he no doubt will be meeting with JP Morgan and Bank of America, those meetings will neither be preceded nor succeeded by campaign contributions.”
Progressive angst about Watt’s ties with the commercial banking industry, and Bank of America in particular, probably won’t appear on congressional roll calls—with Elizabeth Warren backing his nomination, it’s unlikely there’s a senator willing to tack left of her on the nomination. Warren has been a visible proponent of FHFA write-downs for a long time.
Republican opposition is another story, however. The GOP has already blocked one of Obama’s nominees for FHFA Director: Joseph Smith, the North Carolina banking commissioner. Smith had relatively unknown views compared to Watt, who has a long history of backing principal reduction. Senator Bob Corker, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wasted no time this morning blasting Watt’s nomination.
This is a real problem for homeowners that might be helped by FHFA principal reduction. Even in the best-case scenario, Watt probably wouldn’t be confirmed for several months, if he is confirmed at all.
Consequently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pushing for Obama to take immediate action. Schneiderman’s theory, per a memo his office prepared last month, is that Obama has the legal power to dump DeMarco right away, since he is only an acting director.
Obama couldn’t pick Watt to serve as acting director in this scenario. Federal law says it would have to be one of DeMarco’s three deputies, one of whom might be more inclined to enact principal reduction.
There’s no guarantee the courts would uphold this move, as there are ongoing legal questions about similar White House maneuvers to staff the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. Schneiderman’s memo cites some legal precedence for the switch, like a 1996 DC Circuit case involving a holdover on the Board of the National Credit Union Association.
But the idea for now is to get a new director in place and get the principal reductions moving as soon as possible.
“This nomination is a good first step, but struggling homeowners cannot afford to wait for the Senate to complete the confirmation process,” Schneiderman said in a statement this morning. “The President should use his legal authority to replace Edward DeMarco with a new acting director who will start the effort to put FHFA on the side of working families immediately.”
Federal regulators failed on several fronts with the fertilizer plant that exploded in Texas, and now the Senate has taken a good first step by beginning a formal investigation, George Zornick writes.
Contraceptives at a pharmacy in Toronto. (Flickr/Cory Doctorow)
Yesterday, the FDA announced that it will make Plan B—also known as emergency contraception (EC) or the morning after pill—available over the counter to women older than 15 years old who can prove their age. This decision comes less than a week before the end of a thirty-day deadline imposed by a federal judge mandating EC be available without a prescription to women of all ages. So despite the FDA’s announcement, the Obama administration still needs to appeal the judge’s decision or request a stay by Monday.
Some heralded the FDA’s decision as a victory—Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards called it “an important step forward.” But Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights—whose lawsuit against the FDA sparked the federal ruling—called the restriction “arbitrary.”
“Lowering the age restriction to 15 for over-the-counter access to Plan B One-Step may reduce delays for some young women—but it does nothing to address the significant barriers that far too many women of all ages will still find if they arrive at the drugstore without identification or after the pharmacy gates have been closed for the night or weekend.”
Indeed, it’s hard to see how most 15-year-olds would be able to access the drug, given that they need to prove their age in the form of a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate. As Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post points out, most states won’t allow teens to apply for a driver’s license until they are 16 years old, and in 2010, only 28 percent of 16-year-olds even had licenses.
Teens who don’t have access to a government ID would not have any easier a time procuring a passport or birth certificate. If a girl had either of those documents, it’s most likely that her parents would have them filed away. And if a teenage girl wanted to obtain a passport or birth certificate herself, there is no way she could do so in the seventy-two hours needed to ensure that Plan B is effective. There’s also a socioeconomic factor to who has licenses and who doesn’t, making the proof-of-age restriction even more burdensome to marginalized communities, especially young women who are undocumented.
Even 15-year-olds with an acceptable form of identification are not out of the woods. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics showed that many pharmacists don’t understand the law as it pertains to Plan B. The study found that because of pervasive misinformation, nearly 20 percent of 17-year-olds would be denied the drug. And now we’re not even talking about pharmacists—but cashiers, who are more likely to be younger and untrained in protocol surrounding Plan B.
The larger question, however, is why should there be an age restriction at all. The reason a judge ruled Plan B should be available to women and girls of all ages is because it’s safe for all ages. And seriously, if we believe a 14-year-old is too immature to know how to take a pill, do we really think she’s adult enough to handle an unwanted pregnancy?
The truth is that the age restriction is completely arbitrary, tied only to our puritanical comfort levels. And listen, I get it; I think it’s fair to say that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of a 14-year-old having sex. But here’s the thing—access to Plan B isn’t about keeping a 14-year-old from having sex—by the time she gets to the pharmacy, that ship has sailed—it’s about keeping a 14-year-old who has already had sex from getting pregnant. And despite what urban legend (or past embarrassing FDA memos) may tell you, making emergency contraception more available is not more likely to make young teens have sex—it will just make them less likely to end up pregnant.
We can’t let our discomfort with teen sex trump young people’s right to sexual and reproductive health and we can’t continue to let politics trump science. If we care about young women’s health and bodily autonomy and integrity, we’ll drop all age restrictions from emergency contraception. Anything less isn’t just illogical—it’s immoral.
Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.)
“Every time a group would come to my office,” says Frank, ‘and say, ‘We need more money for housing for the elderly, we need more money for transportation, we need more money for Superfund,’ at the end I would say, ‘You forgot one thing…. You forgot to say raise taxes and cut the military. Because if we don’t do some of each of those, then you’re never going to get anything you want.’”
And third, the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans’ well-grounded war-weariness, create an opportunity to reorient our spending to better reflect our needs and values. “In the immediate post-2001 period,” says Frank, “you could spook them with terrorists. The public now understands. Iraq [War] is now thoroughly discredited…. people are ready to pull back substantially.”
As Frank notes, a confluence of factors now offers us a real opportunity to tame the out-of-control military spending that’s eating away at national priorities and possibilities. First, there’s the attention—some prudent, some unhinged—to our federal deficit. “Now everybody understands it’s a zero-sum game…” Frank said on a call with Campaign for America last month. “The way it’s set up, either you make these kinds of cuts to the military, or they devastate Medicare and Medicaid.” On that question, he adds, like on legalizing marijuana, “some of the politicians, including the president, suffer from cultural lag, and the public, for its part, is way ahead of them.”
Frank notes that after a bipartisan drawdown helped achieve the Clinton budget surplus, the trend reversed under George W. Bush. He says that after 9/11, neocons “managed to inflate terrorism to the level of an existential threat, of the level we had seen with the terrorists and the Nazis. And obviously the terrorists are terrible people, and we need to fight them, but that is not remotely the order of magnitude of threat that we’ve had previously, nor do you fight them in the same way.” Frank also notes that, in contrast to the “isolationist” notes Ron Paul sometimes struck while criticizing the Pentagon budget, “I’m in favor of increasing money that we give to fight AIDS, I’m in favor of increasing money to feed hungry children.” Frank says he just rejects “the notion that you can bring about social change elsewhere in the world, and enhance America’s influence, by military force.”
Frank notes that military jobs could be scaled down by attrition, rather than through layoffs. Still, any proposal for military cuts comes up against the claim that our economy can’t afford the loss of military jobs. Last month, Washington Post reporters Ylan Q. Mui and Marjorie Censer wrote that a new government GDP report revealed recent military spending cuts as the cause of slow GDP growth. Two days later, the Post’s Zachary Goldfarb wrote that liberals face “a conundrum,” because “the significant reductions in military spending that they have long sought are also taking a huge bite out of economic growth.”
How far can we pull back? Over the next three or four years, argues Frank, “it is easily achievable, consistent with any legitimate national security, and some sense of responsibility to help others in need, to spend less than 80 percent” of current non-Afghanistan expenditures. As one example of a common sense cut, Frank offers the F35. “One of the things that you must demand of a weapon is that it have an enemy,” says Frank. “And the F35 has no enemy…It’s already the case that the second-largest air force in the world is the US Navy.”
Second, Frank sees greater grounds for bipartisan bridge-building than we’ve had in years: liberals increasingly recognize that tackling defense spending is a necessary condition for preserving social progress, and some principled conservatives are applying their cost-cutting philosophy to the military-industrial complex. While Rand Paul may be the most prominent Republican breaking with the defense industry, Frank urges that we keep an eye on South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney, “a leading Tea Party activist” whom he also calls “a very good guy, very well respected.” Frank notes Mulvaney “was my co-author on the first amendment that passed in my thirty-two years” in which the House reduced the level of military spending that had reached the floor from the Appropriations Committee.
Those arguments pack a punch in part because in recent decades, military Keynesianism has been nearly the only Keynesianism we’ve had. But as the Political Economy Research Institute’s Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier explained in our pages last May, military spending is one of the least effective ways for the government to create jobs: “1 billion in spending on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs within the US economy. That same $1 billion would create 16,800 jobs through clean energy investments, 17,200 jobs within the healthcare sector or 26,700 jobs through support of education.”
To avert draconian cuts, and bring sanity to the Pentagon budget, says Frank, “people really need to press the president.” Among the reasons for urgency is one that Frank notes too often gets overlooked: “It is the key to getting back to an effective government.” As Frank, the first member of Congress to marry a same-sex partner, notes, “my marriage now polls better than my congressional service.” He sees cutting the military budget as a necessary step to restoring faith in government. “The less the government can deliver,” says Frank, “the more unpopular it gets.”
When it comes to confronting military bloat, are we finally reaching a turning point? “We are on the verge, I think, of some major progress,” says Barney Frank. And if anyone would know, it’s Frank, the trailblazing former congressman and candor addict.
Read Katrina vanden Heuvel on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to get rid of the Working Families Party confronting big business.
Barack Obama meets with then–Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Russia will likely play a key role in any diplomatic solution in Syria. (Reuters/Jim Young.)
Having backed himself into a tight corner by proclaiming a “red line” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama may have really trapped himself. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, he’s slip-sliding toward war in Syria. The only bright spot is that he hasn’t given up on diplomacy, and he seems to realize that involving Russia is critical to finding a political resolution to the crisis. On Monday, Obama spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and he’s sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow.
Obama should take a long look at a New York Times/CBS poll that reveals that despite right-wing warmongering on Syria, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to American involvement there. According to the poll, Americans oppose involvement by a margin of 62 to 24 percent.
The Washington Post broke the story yesterday that Obama is tilting toward arming the Syrian rebels—but not yet. The Post reported that he is “preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition,” but that a final decision is weeks away, with diplomacy yet to come:
But Obama, who spoke by telephone with Putin on Monday and is sending Secretary of State John F. Kerry to Moscow in the coming days, is likely to make a final decision on the supply of arms to the opposition within weeks, before a scheduled meeting with Putin in June, the officials said.
In his news conference yesterday, Obama didn’t say anything about the decision to arm the rebels, many of whom have close ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, but with the shameful failure of intelligence about Iraq’s WMD in mind he did express caution about rushing to a conclusion about Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board has been calling on Obama to go to war and complaining about Obama’s supposedly “vanishing” red line, reported (in its news columns, which are far more objective) that Obama’s comments make war less likely:
Mr. Obama’s comments at a news conference Tuesday made clear that he wasn’t poised to act unilaterally and suggested he would look for an international consensus in deciding whether President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons before committing military forces. In doing so, Mr. Obama made the prospects of a military response more remote.
And, although White House officials insist that Obama is seriously thinking about arming the anti-Assad fighters, the Journal adds:
Meanwhile, top White House and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials say there is little appetite in the alliance for military intervention in Syria.
Perhaps to cool the fire of war, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—who last year advocated direct US arming of the rebels—told a press breakfast that he’s not optimistic that American intervention would solve the crisis:
“Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire—which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria—that’s the reason I’ve been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power,” Dempsey said Tuesday at a lunch with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome.”
The general added that he is not recommending the use of military force, although arming the rebels wouldn’t necessarily involve military force. A no-fly zone, or strikes against Syrian government positions, would. He questioned the utility of a no-fly zone, in particular:
He also noted that only ten percent of the Syrian opposition casualties have occurred through the Assad regime’s use of air power, raising the question of how much a no-fly zone would accomplish.
Perhaps—and let’s be Pollyannaish here—Obama is letting it be known that he’s considering arming the rebels and taking other aggressive actions in order to convince Putin, and Russia, that the United States is serious about Syria. If so, that can’t be the right strategy. Real, serious diplomacy, with the UN’s Lakhdar Brahimi at its center, is the right focus.
For more on Syria, read Robert Dreyfuss on Congressional Republicans’ siren song for intervention.
Roger Bannister, after running the first sub–4:00 mile. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed. —Roger Bannister
It was once believed that a human being couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. Physicians wrote academic articles that the human anatomy wouldn’t allow for such exertions. Four minutes, we were told, was the Maginot Line of our physical capacity. Then in 1954, a medical student named Roger Bannister ran the race in 3:59 and it was like the running community awoke from a collective hypnosis. Mass psychology had shifted in decisive fashion. Within a week, Australian runner John Landy ran it in 3:57 and sub-four minute miles became the world-class average instead of the unapproachable standard. People’s minds had to dramatically adjust to a new reality as the inconceivable became the new normal.
There are many calling Jason Collins’s decision to be the first active male athlete to come out of the closet a “Jackie Robinson Moment,” after the man who smashed baseball’s color line in 1947. But I consider this to be more of a Roger Bannister Moment. For years, people have been waiting to see whether an active male athlete would come out of the closet. For years, people of all political stripes said it would be a long time coming. For decades, media and management has policed the sexuality of players to make sure the closet door was welded shut. Even those most supportive, until recently, were pessimistic. Just in 2011, Will Leitch of New York magazine wrote, “You probably don’t know the most likely first openly gay pro athlete, because he’s not a pro yet. He might be 12.” Leitch then quoted Jim Buzinski who co-founded the LGBT-focused website Outsports who said, “It’ll be someone who has identified as gay through high school and just doesn’t think anything about it. They’ll just be so talented that no one would even think to deny them.” But we didn’t have to wait ten years and we didn’t have to wait for that irresistibly talented superstar. Instead we have Jason Collins, 34-year-old journeyman center: right here, right now, in 2013.
As Collins explained why he did it to The New York Times, “There are so many people who have come before me both as a black male and then as a gay male, who have sort of paved the road for me…. Now it’s time for me to pave the road for somebody else, to be a great teammate, society being the team. It’s my responsibility to acknowledge those who came before me, give credit to them, and then there are those who are going to come after me, and it’s my responsibility to lift them up.”
Now that he’s come out, more players will feel liberated and lifted, unburdened by the pressure to be first. More people will explore the parameters of the possible because Jason Collins chose to be a pioneer.
It’s certainly tempting to think of this as a Jackie Robinson Moment as well. In this case there are also very strong, if inexact, parallels. Like Robinson, Collins, through his very existence, forces teammates, fans and the dominant culture to confront their own prejudice. Like Robinson, Collins has to face ignorance cloaked in religion that claims his very existence in the locker room is an abomination. Like Robinson, Collins has sparked discussions among the panicked about how his teammates could possibly shower in peace. The differences between Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins also matter. Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947 eight years before the formal start of the civil rights movement. He was, as Dr. King put it, “A sit-inner before sit-ins.” Jason Collins, as he readily says, felt confidence to come out because of the social movements that have been taking place off the field and because more straight players across the Sports World have started to speak out for LGBT equality. This doesn’t in any way diminish what Collins did. It just should remind us that the dynamic interaction between sports and social movements flows in both directions. It’s also worth noting that Jackie Robinson didn’t have to deal with a twenty-f0ur-hour sports media machine willing to give a platform to people telling him he was going to hell. The two stories lined up side-by-side remind one of Mark Twain’s famous dictum that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
That’s why I see this as more of a Roger Bannister Moment. Thanks to Jason Collins, our parameters of the possible have shifted and now our collective thinking will have to change. That’s the power of just being brave enough to dare see what isn’t there. When Roger Bannister was asked how it was possible he achieved his record-breaking feat, he replied, “It’s the ability to take more out of yourself than you’ve got.” That’s what Jason Collins did as well, and we are all the better for it.
What’s it like to cross the border without papers? Read Aura Bogado’s review of the interactive La Ruta.
George W. Bush declares the end of major combat operations in Iraq aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Mission Accomplished Day, or as it might better be known, Mission (Not) Accomplished Day. Sadly, it comes amid another upheaval in sectarian violence in Iraq—two days ago The New York Times warned of a new “civil war” there—and a week after the attempts at Bush revisionism upon the opening of his library. We’re also seeing aspects of the run-up to the Iraq invasion playing out in the fresh, perhaps overheated, claims of chemical weapons in Syria.
In my favorite antiwar song of this war, “Shock and Awe,” Neil Young moaned: “Back in the days of Mission Accomplished/ our chief was landing on the deck/ The sun was setting/ behind a golden photo op.” But as Neil added elsewhere in the tune: “History is a cruel judge of overconfidence.”
Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the media coverage of the event.
On May 1, 2003, Richard Perle advised, in a USA Today op-ed, “Relax, Celebrate Victory.” The same day, President Bush, dressed in a flight suit, landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major military operations in Iraq—with the now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner arrayed behind him.
Chris Matthews on MSNBC called Bush a “hero” and boomed, “He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.” He added: “Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple.”
PBS’ Gwen Ifill said Bush was “part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.” On NBC, Brian Williams gushed, “The pictures were beautiful. It was quite something to see the first-ever American president on a—on a carrier landing.”
Bob Schieffer on CBS said: “As far as I’m concerned, that was one of the great pictures of all time.” His guest, Joe Klein, responded: “Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me.”
Everyone agreed the Democrats and antiwar critics were now on the run. The New York Times observed, “The Bush administration is planning to withdraw most United States combat forces from Iraq over the next several months and wants to shrink the American military presence to less than two divisions by the fall, senior allied officials said today.”
Maureen Dowd in her column did offer a bit of over-the-top mockery, declaring: “Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone, out along the edges where he was born to be, the further on the edge, the hotter the intensity.
“He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around. Maverick was back, cooler and hotter than ever, throttling to the max with joystick politics. Compared to Karl Rove’s ”revvin’ up your engine” myth-making cinematic style, Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies look like Lizzie McGuire.
“This time Maverick didn’t just nail a few bogeys and do a 4G inverted dive with a MiG-28 at a range of two meters. This time the Top Gun wasted a couple of nasty regimes, and promised this was just the beginning.”
When Bush’s jet landed on the aircraft carrier, American casualties stood at 139 killed and 542 wounded. That was over 4,300 American, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, fatalities ago.
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq has just published in a new e-book edition.