2011 - %3, May

The US Intervention in Cairo (No, Not That One)

| Tue May 3, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

Because the rest of the world seems to be slowly going to hell (quickly, in the case of Osama Bin Laden), we've been a little slow to jump on the latest reports out of the Mississippi Valley. But the news, per Good, is pretty bad: The Mississippi River is expected to exceed its highest water level in nearly a century, and has already forced thousands of residents to head for higher ground. At the epicenter of this disaster is the embattled city of Cairo, Illinois (as in Care-o or Kay-ro), which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and is ringed on all sides by protective levees. The river's height outside Cairo is at 61 feet, which is totally nuts, and the town has been evacuated.

To alleviate some of the pressure and save Cairo from being washed out, the Army Corps of Engineers decided the best course of action was to blast a hole in a levee further downstream in Missouri, which would leave 130,000 acres of farmland underwater. After a failed legal challenge by Missouri, the Corps blasted the levee last night, reducing the water level at Cairo by a foot. But that plan of action has, unsurprisingly, stirred some strong feelings. Here's what Missouri State Rep. Steve Tilley, the Republican Speaker of the House, had to say last week:

When Tilley was asked Tuesday whether he would rather see Cairo or the farmland underwater, he told reporters, "Cairo. I've been there, trust me. Cairo."

"Have you been to Cairo?" he added. "OK, then you know what I'm saying then."

Unless you've been to Cairo, you probably don't really know what Tilley is saying, but basically it's this: The place is a mess. Since the 1920s, Cairo's population has shrunk from nearly 20,000 to under 3,000. Just inside the Ohio-side floodwall, its historic commerical drag is entirely empty and most of the buildings are burnt-out. Tilley would be a pretty lousy representative if he didn't stand up for his constituents' property, but there's a lot more to it than that: The debate over what to do about Cairo is colored by the way Cairo's neighbors view the place—and those views are colored by the city's traumatic history.

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Graham: "Independent" Authority Should Have Confirmed Osama's Death

| Tue May 3, 2011 12:30 PM EDT

Having already called on the White House to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) now says that independent experts should have been brought into verify bin Laden's identity before the body was buried at sea. 

"I think it would have been smart to have an independent group, forensic scientists, maybe from Scotland Yard or some other organization," said Graham. The South Carolina Republican softened his earlier criticism of the White House being overly sensitive to Islamic traditions in expediting bin Laden's burial—but said Obama shouldn't have rushed the proceedings. "Religious sensitivity is smart... but [we could have held] onto body for period of time to allow for indispensable analysis to help us make the case," he told reporters.

Graham's statement echoes calls by other Republicans for the release of bin Laden photos. Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV.) told ABC News that releasing images was necessary "to make sure we get rid of any conspiracy theorists that think that we didn't take care of bin Laden," referring to the so-called "deathers" who've emerged on the fringes of the debate.

Graham, to be sure, also praised Obama effusively for authorizing the bin Laden raid, adding "I have no doubt we have the right guy." But in criticizing the White House for failing to provide sufficient proof of bin Laden's death, Graham and his GOP colleagues may—intentionally or not—be feeding the notion that the public can't trust Obama, and enabling the very conspiracy theorists they claim they’re trying to quell.

Big Oil's Big Pay Day

| Tue May 3, 2011 12:15 PM EDT

The oil giants—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell—recently released their first quarter reports. Together, the big five's profits were 38 percent higher in the first quarter of 2011 than the same period last year. A new report from the Center for American Progress finds that several of these companies used quite a bit of that extra money to buy back shares of their own stock, increasing the value of their shares and enriching their shareholders, boards of directors, and senior managers at a time when most Americans are dealing with extremely high gas prices.

ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron spent the most on share buybacks in the first quarter. Here's what that looks like:

This spending spree comes not only as the gas price debate has resurged in Congress, but also as companies lobby to keep the $40 billion in tax breaks and loopholes that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats want slashed from the 2012 budget.

Chart of the Day: Energy and Recessions

| Tue May 3, 2011 11:46 AM EDT

What's the effect of rising energy prices on the economy? Stuart Staniford looks at historical data and says that before 1970 the answer is: nothing. There's no effect at all. But since 1970, the effect is profound: every single recession since then has been preceded by a runup in energy prices.

And what does that runup look like? Well, it looks an awful lot like the runup we've exprienced over the past 24 months. That's the heavy black line in the chart on the right. Does that mean we're inevitably headed for another recession? Nope. But since I was being economically optimistic yesterday, I'm going to revert to my true nature today and be economically pessimistic. "I doubt energy prices can go a whole lot higher without triggering another recession," says Stuart, "so it depends on whether the world can scrape up a few more mbd of oil to keep growth going without prices rising too much more." Or, alternatively, perhaps a mild slowdown will cool off energy prices without triggering anything more serious.

Still, this is worth watching carefully. There are half a dozen economic shocks that could tip a fragile recovery back into recession, and for my money, an oil shock is the most likely of them.

GOP Message: Bin Laden's Death Vindicates Bush and Torture

| Tue May 3, 2011 11:39 AM EDT

In the wake of President Obama's biggest foreign policy victory to date, Republicans have gone out of their way not to give the commander-in-chief too much credit for taking out Osama bin Laden. They are even using the opportunity to burnish George W. Bush's tarnished reputation and validate discredited "enhanced interrogation" techniques used to torture detainees overseas.

"We obtained that information through waterboarding," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told Fox News on Monday night. "So for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information, which directly led us to Bin Laden." Likewise, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said on Twitter, "Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?"

The early evidence, however, cast doubt on the notion that torture was integral to finding and killing bin Laden. According to the Associated Press, the courier who tipped off the CIA about Bin Laden’s location had been questioned using standard interrogation techniques, not "enhanced" ones. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that "it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding" that yielded critical information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Attorney General Eric Holder was a bit more circumspect during a Tuesday morning hearing, saying he didn't know whether the action against bin Laden was based on information derived from torture. And Wired's Spencer Ackerman has concluded that torture played, at most, a minor role in the hunt based on what we know so far.

By propping up torture, Republicans have also continued their larger project to vindicate Bush, whom they've repeatedly credited for helping to bring down Bin Laden. On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) paid effusive tribute to Bush, praising his leadership, with only brief mention of Obama's role in bringing Bin Laden to justice. "Nearly ten years ago, President Bush stood before the nation after 9/11 and pledged to the American people that we will not tire and we will not falter, and we will not fail in our quest to defeat those who intend to do us harm through acts of terror," he said. "Last night we heard President Obama tell a very changed nation that we did not fail." The remarks built on a press statement that Cantor initially released, in which he commended Obama for having "followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing Bin Laden to justice."

Other Republicans have since followed suit: On Monday, Sarah Palin told a crowd of university students, "We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory." According to an early analysis by FrumForum, House Republicans were almost equally inclined to credit Bush for Bin Laden’s death as they were to credit Obama. Republicans have also grasped on the discovery that Bush's "secret prisons" overseas may have yielded the earliest information about Bin Laden.

There are a few detractors within the Republican Party when it comes to the notion that Bush's enhanced interrogation helped the US. "This idea we caught Bin Laden because of waterboarding is a misstatement," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC.) told reporters on Tuesday. "I do not think this is a time for celebrating waterboarding." He added, "The problems at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib caused us great misery, and it was a recruiting tool."

Still the meme that "waterboarding works" entered the political bloodstream less than 24 hours after the news of Bin Laden's death, supported by Graham's GOP colleagues and echoed by the right-wing blogosphere. One Bush-era official famously said, "we create our own reality." So it appears do the GOP's torture apologists.

Pakistan and bin Laden

| Tue May 3, 2011 11:13 AM EDT

Time's Massimo Calabresi interviews CIA chief Leon Panetta on the bin Laden raid:

Months prior, the U.S. had considered expanding the assault to include coordination with other countries, notably Pakistan. But the CIA ruled out participating with its nominal South Asian ally early on because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets,” Panetta says.

I'm surprised to hear this. Not surprised that everyone thought this, but surprised that Panetta is saying it publicly. Our official posture toward Pakistan has been getting steadily tougher for a while now, and apparently it's now OK to flatly to assert on the record that they're in bed with al-Qaeda. Interesting.

In the end, I think it's quite possible that the effect of the bin Laden raid on our relationship with Pakistan will end up being its most important long-term consequence. Stay tuned.

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Pollster: Bin Laden Death No Game-Changer for Obama in 2012

| Tue May 3, 2011 10:38 AM EDT

It didn't take long for Washington's pundits to begin prophesying how the assassination of Osama bin Laden would impact President Obama's popularity among American voters.

Prior to the Bin Laden announcement, Obama's approval ratings were languishing in the mid-40s, near the lowest of his presidency. But then came Sunday's big news. Soon after, pollster John Zogby said Obama's approval ratings could spike by 10 points, and Obama's 2012 election chances leaped by more than 10 points on online prediction market Intrade.

But in today's National Journal, Charlie Cook, one of the most respected pollsters in Washington, lays out what's probably the smartest assessment of how Bin Laden's death will affect Obama's standing. Cook's conclusion: Not much.

Cook calls Bin Laden's death "a B-12 shot in the arm" for Obama and the Democratic Party, but adds that "it's not a cure." The issues ailing Obama's presidency—chronic unemployment, high gas prices, political instability in the Middle East—remain problematic, and even the death of the world's most wanted terrorist won't make voters forget about the nation's economic woes, Cook argues. He writes:

There is little question that this long-awaited event will hit a reset button in terms of day-to-day or even week-to-week politics, changing for a time the zeitgeist.

Democrats will fervently hope that the public will see this as a seminal moment in which people begin to see and appreciate President Obama in a new light, much as President Bill Clinton’s speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in retrospect, was a turning point for his presidency.

But it might be a mistake to assume that it is a more enduring game-changer in terms of the politics of 2012 or that it will recast Obama as much as it did for Clinton.

Spinning the Raid

| Tue May 3, 2011 10:10 AM EDT

Politically speaking, the question of whether finally killing Osama bin Laden is a plus for President Obama depends less on the act itself than it does on the mythologizing that follows. If we get more tick-tocks like this one in the New York Times today, it's safe to say that Obama is going to get a pretty nice bump in the polls:

As more than a dozen White House, intelligence and Pentagon officials described the operation on Monday, the past few weeks were a nerve-racking amalgamation of what-ifs and negative scenarios. “There wasn’t a meeting when someone didn’t mention ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ” a senior administration official said, referring to the disastrous 1993 battle in Somalia in which two American helicopters were shot down and some of their crew killed in action. The failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 also loomed large.

Administration officials split over whether to launch the operation, whether to wait and continue monitoring until they were more sure that Bin Laden was really there....[Defense Secretary Robert] Gates was skeptical about a helicopter assault, calling it risky, and instructed military officials to look into aerial bombardment using smart bombs....Last Thursday [] Mr. Obama met again with his top national security officials....Around the table, the group went over and over the negative scenarios. There were long periods of silence, one aide said. And then, finally, Mr. Obama spoke: “I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now — I’m going to go back and think about it some more.” But he added, “I’m going to make a decision soon.”

Sixteen hours later, he had made up his mind. Early the next morning, four top aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room. Before they could brief the president, he cut them off. “It’s a go,” he said. The earliest the operation could take place was Saturday, but officials cautioned that cloud cover in the area meant that Sunday was much more likely.

John Brennan, Obama's assistant for counterterrorism, called the decision to go after bin Laden's compound "one of the ... gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory." Brennan works for Obama, so maybe that's not unexpected. Then again, maybe it really was a gutsy call. The downside was pretty spectacular, after all, ranging from operational failure to bin Laden not being in the compound in the first place. Regardless, if this becomes the conventional wisdom over the next few days, then Obama may come out of this a bigger winner than skeptics like me think.

For more, see the LA Times' laudatory account, as well as David Corn's rundown of what it all means: "The episode demonstrates that this president, who is often accused (on the left) of wimping out of political fights and (on the right) of too often wringing his hands, is willing to act decisively and take political chances." If that's how official Washington ends up reading this, it's a very big win for Obama.

AG Holder Was Right About Bin Laden

| Tue May 3, 2011 9:12 AM EDT

The killing of Osama bin Laden couldn't have come at a better time for one beleaguered member of the Obama administration: Eric Holder. The attorney general is on the Hill this week for back-to-back oversight hearings of the Justice Department by the House and Senate judiciary committees. Holder's recent appearances before congressional committees have not been well received by Republicans in large part because of his statements about how the department was likely to handle Bin Laden.

In March 2010, Holder's planned testimony before the Senate judiciary committee was unexpectedly postponed several weeks. When the news broke, Byron York at the Washington Examiner speculated that the administration was trying to avoid "another embarrassing performance by the attorney general." York quoted an unnamed Republican saying that Holder's previous appearance before the House appropriations committee was a "disaster," thanks to his insistence that Bin Laden would never be taken alive. "Those and other statements amounted to a blooper reel from just one Holder appearance," York wrote.

Republicans had been grilling Holder about the possibility that the Justice Department might insist on reading Bin Laden his Miranda rights if he were captured, to which Holder replied, "Let’s deal with reality. You're talking about a hypothetical that will never occur. The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s the reality... He will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so he's not captured by us. We know that.”

Republicans on the committee weren’t buying it, and suggested that Holder really wanted to treat Bin Laden like Charles Manson or any other mass murder. "The disconnect between this administration and your mindset is so completely opposite that of where the vast majority of the American people are," Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) told him.

A year later, and Holder is suddenly looking like a visionary. Whether the Republicans on the Hill this week will give him any credit for accurately predicting the future remains to be seen. But at least this time around, Holder will be coming to the Hill armed with proof that he knew what he was talking about when it came to Bin Laden. Republicans will have a lot of trouble taking a chink out of that armor. 

Palin: "We Thank President Bush" for Setting Up Bin Laden Kill

| Tue May 3, 2011 7:30 AM EDT

Before a friendly crowd at Colorado Christian University on Monday night, Sarah Palin lauded President George W. Bush for the killing of Osama bin Laden without mentioning President Obama's name a single time. Describing bin Laden as "the public face of Islamic terrorism," Palin said American troops' "courage and their determination brought us justice." She went on to say, "We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory."

As the Denver Post reported, Palin did get her jabs in at Obama and his administration. She criticized the president's handling of the conflict in Libya for a "lack of clarity" and for overreaching. "We can't fight every war," she said. "We can't undo every injustice in the world. We don't go looking for dragons to slay."

Indeed, Palin's speech came off as a platform for her to lay out foreign policy vision. Here's more from Politico:

Still, Palin clearly stated a foreign policy philosophy that she says dates back to the Reagan administration—but in many ways came off as a five-point folksy version of the Powell Doctrine.

First, Palin said, "we should only commit our forces when clear and vital American interests are at stake. Period." That point led to her second, dismissing nation-building as a "nice idea in theory," but not the "main purpose" guiding American foreign policy.

Palin continued down that track by insisting that a president must be able to articulate “clearly defined objectives” before foreign interventions—a standard she has recently Obama failed to live up to in Libya. As her fourth point, Palin declared that “American soldiers must never be put under foreign command."

Palin's concluding statement deviated somewhat from ideology she had been espousing, as she stated that while “sending our armed forces should be our last resort...we will encourage the forces of freedom in the world." That last point is somewhat consistent with the non-interventionist ideology Palin has been growing fond of in recent weeks—but also provides her a clever escape clause from her stated theory that has allowed her to criticize Obama for, as she has said, acting too slowly in Libya.