Did Osama Fail?

Tony Karon writes today that al-Qaeda has failed:

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans; they formed part of bin Laden's strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington, and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the rule of the Islamic Caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan's tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever-present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security assessments long-since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

All true.  At the same time, 9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it's meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that's still growing without end.  Osama didn't get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I'd hate to see what counts as a success.

Since Barack Obama took office in January, his administration has been plagued by a number of contentious controversies. From the economic stimulus to health care reform, Obama has had trouble maintaining support among liberals and conservatives alike. But the president's most consistent critics have been Jewish moderates and conservatives worried that Obama is more likely to challenge Israel than past presidents have been.

But surging to power with the most impressive following since Ronald Reagan, Obama is well positioned to challenge the Israel Lobby's hard-line stalwart, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In his latest Mother Jones contribution, "Is AIPAC Still the Chosen One?" Robert Dreyfuss attributes the dwindling power of one of DC's most powerful lobbies to the popular new president and the recent rise of dovish advocacy groups such as J Street and Israel Policy Forum.

Take a few minutes to listen to the last phone call of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 before it hit the World Trade Center, eight years ago today on September 11, 2001. Ong is calm and matter-of-fact as she describes what was occuring within minutes of the hijacking to skeptical airline personnel on the ground. She was forced to repeat the same basic details again and again: "Ok. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now cause nobody can breathe…" She remained on the phone for 23 minutes, calmly relaying information up to seconds before the impact. Just over four minutes of the phone call were replayed at the 9-11 commission hearings. Her last words were "Pray for us. Pray for us."

Without talking about it explicitly, President Barack Obama seems to be trying to guide the nation beyond its state of post-9/11 trauma. In the first days of his presidency, I noted that he had cut back—by design—the use of the phrase "war on terror." Now the White House has acknowledged that the Obama administration has purposefully made fewer references to the United States being a "nation at war."

On Thursday, this interesting exchange occurred at the daily White House briefing between a reporter and press secretary Robert Gibbs:

Q: President Bush used to say repeatedly, "America is a nation at war." He did so on 9/11, but other occasions during the year. My impression is that since taking office, President Obama has purposely tried to turn down the heat on the rhetoric.

A: Well, look, I think we've certainly cut down on the use of the phrase, but, again, our focus is on getting the policy right. I don't—I think the President spends part of each of his day in meetings about and thinking about the men and women that we have in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are through— stationed throughout the world to protect our freedom and to address Islamic extremism. And that takes up part of his day and is something that—the sacrifice which he's thankful for and I think all of us are thankful for each and every day. Regardless of how it's phrased, he's mindful of the effort of so many on our behalf.

It was surprising for Gibbs to actually admit that the White House had turned away from using this dramatic rhetoric—it's accurate. The United States is a nation at war twice over. But saying so repeatedly is an exercise in defining the country, and eight years after 9/11, Obama clearly wants to step back from turning "at war" into an essential part of the nation's self-image.

I thought that conservatives who delight in beating war drums would pounce on Gibbs for this remark. And one can easily hear their thunderous argument: Of course, we are a nation at war; why won't Obama and his socialist pals in the White House say so? Yet so far, they don't appear to have zeroed in on this comment.

When Gibbs said this, I thought it demonstrated a certain maturity on the part of the Obama White House. While no citizen should forget that US troops are dying and killing in two countries--and that these wars need to be resolved—is no need to make war a defining characteristic of the United States, not even when the threat from al Qaeda remains, not even on the anniversary of 9/11.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

People forget what a beautiful morning it was.

Photo by flickr user *Hiro used under a Creative Commons license.

Some 23 federal agencies already have Facebook pages, according to the blog FederalComputerWeek, but we can expect still more to sign up now that the social media site has launched a new Facebook and Government page (nearly 500 friends already!) to help timid bureaucrats reach out to the public. Among its inaugural Wall postings were an unveiling of NATO's own new Facebook pages, a primer on the administration's "White House Live" app, which allows video streaming of events, and a military media link heralding 20,000 fans for US Forces Afghanistan's Facebook page—an item that was already a bit stale, since USFA boasted more than 28,500 fans as of yesterday. There was also a link to a blog post by the Army's Director of Online and Social Media, entitled "Connecting and Sharing the Army Way," and another to the Army policy for Wall comments: No graphic, obscene, explicit, abusive, hateful, or racial comments, or "comments intended to defame anyone or any organization."

Apparently some federal agencies already know precisely how to reach America's young people—well, at least until they enroll.

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Happy Friday. At the end of this short week, here's what's new and Blue Marbleish at Mother Jones and elsewhere:

Forget Joe Wilson: The real news? The US Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured Americans increased by a million between 2007 and 2008.

To Big Pharma with love: Every time you buy a Pfizer drug, the company puts a fraction of the proceeds toward defending its reputation against things like penis-shaped missiles on wheels.

Ted Kennedy's letter to Obama: It's worth reading the whole thing.

How to cut health care costs? Fix global warming: US taxpayers could save $450 billion in environment-related health-care expenses if we enact strong climate legislation. [Grist]

Sea you later: Cool (well, ok, depressing) photo of Central Asia's shrinking Aral Sea (Signs From Earth)

 

 

Obama's big health care speech dominated the news yesterday. Check out these stories you may have missed:

How the Federal Reserve bought the economics profession (HuffPo)

Sarah Palin: Neocon Pawn? (MoJo)

Top DOD lawyer hedges on shutting down Gitmo by January (Associated Press)

A decade with no income gains (Economix)

A reporter's four days with the Taliban (NYT)

Whistleblowers unveil more AmorGroup allegations (Washington Independent)

Man with gun arrested near Capitol during Obama's address (Washington Times)

Coal group's forged letter on cap and trade impersonated US veterans (ThinkProgress)

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Nick Baumann and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Pulling the Trigger

A few days ago I noted that legislative "triggers" have a long history of sounding good but not really working.  Either nobody likes the idea in the first place or else they turn out to be toothless in the crunch. Over at Slate, Tim Noah takes a closer look and agrees: triggers are mostly just a bunch of flimflam:

Legislative triggers have an especially dismal history in health care policy, argues Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee. In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act required states to impose health-insurance reforms similar to those proposed in the current health reform bill; if the states failed to act, the federal department of Health and Human Services would impose them. States failed to implement reforms—and so did HHS.

In 2003, when Congress added a drug benefit to Medicare, it worried that its new program to provide coverage through private plans subsidized heavily by the government would prove ineffective. But a trigger to end the program focused only on whether these private plans would serve all regions of the country, which they did. The trigger failed to address the real problems that emerged: fraud, abrupt changes in formularies and drug charges after beneficiaries signed up, and high costs.

Meanwhile, a separate trigger in the bill required the president to address projected shortfalls within 15 days of receiving notice that 45 percent or more of Medicare funding was drawing down general revenues. Congress would then appropriate the necessary additional funds under an expedited procedure. But when President Bush notified Congress in 2006 that the 45 percent threshold had been exceeded, Congress did nothing. The threshold has been exceeded every year since then. Congress continues to do nothing.

So do triggers ever work?  According to Noah, the only clear success story has been with base closings: the 1990 base closing bill created a commission to recommend closures, with the closings to be automatically triggered unless Congress objected within 45 days.  It didn't, and the bases were closed.

That's better than nothing, I guess, but Noah seems on pretty firm ground when he says that a public option trigger in the healthcare bill would probably be little more than window dressing.  When the time comes, Congress will still have to define what the public option should look like, and that will require congressional action.  There's nothing automatic about it, trigger or no trigger.

Still, a trigger is probably better than nothing, especially if its requirements are spelled out in sharp detail.  Even if, practically speaking, nothing happens unless Congress acts, the existence of a clear formula would at least provide supporters with a hook for demanding action down the road.  In all likelihood, though, that's all it would be: a way to guarantee that the public option gets renewed attention someday.  But whether it's now or later, it's still going to have to get enough votes to land on the president's desk.  If that's where we end up, let's just make sure the trigger has a short enough fuse that it lands on this president's desk.

The morning of 9/11, when the alarm went off with National Public Radio’s Carl Kasell talking about planes flying into the World Trade Center, I was convinced I’d stumbled into a modern-day War of the Worlds. And that unreal feeling didn’t lift for the rest of that day—not when I got to the virtually empty Mother Jones office (there were still all those reports of more planes in the sky), not when I saw ex-CIA head James Woolsey on TV, already talking about how Saddam Hussein had to be behind this.

Nor, really, did it lift for another seven years. These were the years when we were served up lie after lie, when doubt became treason and reality itself grew increasingly preposterous. (We had a 21-year-old private from West Virginia do what?) Even the accounting, when it finally began, came not over the substance of what had happened, but focused on oddly procedural sideshows (did Scooter Libby out Valerie Plame Wilson? Did we really care, when the point was that Dick Cheney stovepiped intelligence to con the nation into war?) They were the years of truthiness—of claims just plausible enough to be believed, of accurate details gathered into deceitful conclusions, and of course of reporters who truthfully reported the lies they were told.

This is the first 9/11 anniversary when the country is no longer being run by those who so cynically exploited horror and legitimate anger. We have repudiated torture (though we’ll still send detainees to be tortured elsewhere on our behalf). We are withdrawing from Iraq, and will withdraw from Afghanistan sooner or later; most importantly, perhaps, we have elected a president who reminds the world that America is more than Gitmo and Predator drones.

But the end of the Bush era is not the end of the 9/11 era. There were deeper historical currents that made both the attack and its exploitation possible, and they still run strong.

Remember the poll that appeared around the fifth anniversary—revealing that one-third of Americans believed the government engineered the attacks or deliberately let them happen? Really, it wasn’t that surprising. At a time when both government and media were giving Americans ample reason for distrust, it wasn’t such a leap to conclude that the official story was not to be believed. The corollary to truthiness, its opposite and logical partner, was trutherism.

Trutherism is an expression of one of those deeper trends—the growing belief that no deed is too heinous, no deception too extreme, for the evil overlords in our government. It’s the legacy, at least in part, of the 60s and 70s, of Vietnam, J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate. It is also the belief that animates the birther and death-panel conspiracists of 2009: Of course the government would lie, cheat, and kill your grandmother. Why do you ask?

This is the world we live in post-9/11, and post Iraq War; a world where for many people, “the other side” has become so repugnant that nothing seems beneath it. We are no longer interested in understanding the people we disagree with; we just want to defeat them, for the good of the nation.

Which is where we come back to the events of 9/11. What made the horror of that day possible, in part, was the belief of 19 men that their adversaries were so dark and monstrous as to justify the mass murder of innocent people. And no, I’m not comparing anyone to Mohammed Atta. I’m saying that the seeds of evil are alive—however dormant—in most humans. (Germany, where I was born, found that out most catastrophically.) And we feed these seeds each time we act as if our adversaries weren’t worthy of basic respect, compassion, engagement. That is the truth of 9/11. Or at least one of them.