2011 - %3, May

Osama Death Merch: 6 Disturbing Gift Ideas

| Wed May 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but America's entrepreneurial spirit lives on. Want a creepy relic to commemorate NOsama Day? Bid on bin Laden's (alleged) beard! Got $12,000? The domain name BinLadenConspiracy.com could be yours! Below, 6 OBL commemorative options, starting with two Mother's Day gift ideas:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 4, 2011

Wed May 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Two U.S. Army soldiers watch President Obama talk about the details of the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden on the television inside the USO at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, May 2. Photo via US Army.

Corn on MSNBC: Bush Declines Ground Zero Invite

Wed May 4, 2011 3:25 AM EDT

David Corn joined Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's The Last Word to discuss former President George W. Bush's decision to decline President Obama's invitation to attend a ceremony at Ground Zero following the death of Osama bin Laden. They also discuss the political gamble Obama took in authorizing the attack and how the success of the operation might influence his popularity.

Elsewhere in Mother Jones, Dave Gilson breaks down the numbers behind the most expensive manhunt in history, Adam Weinstein reports on the reactions of bin Laden's supporters as well as active-duty soldiers, and Josh Harkinson rounds up ten ways the right is spinning bin Laden's death. Stephanie Mencimer checks in on the tea party, and Mike Mechanic pulls together a slideshow of major daily front pages.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn's RSS feed.

BREAKING: Local News Finds Local Nonstory That's Sorta Bin Laden-Related

| Wed May 4, 2011 2:58 AM EDT

You know a world event's really important—and really overreported—when actual headlines start looking like they're ripped from the pages of the Onion. Case in point: "Branson Man on Aircraft Carrier That Buried Osama bin Laden at Sea." KSPR, the ABC affiliate in Branson, Missouri (yes, that Branson, Missouri), would like to introduce you to the city's very own Joseph Sullivan. He's a twentysomething sailor who this very minute is serving on the USS Carl Vinson, the Nimitz-class carrier from which bin Laden's corpse was dumped into the deep Monday morning.

Mind you, Sullivan may not know anything valuable about the world's most famous sea burial. We don't know, since he hasn't Facebooked his mom since last Saturday. Also, he's one of 5,000 or so sailors on the ship, most of whom probably didn't even hear about the funeral until it was over. "He is (several) stories under the flight deck and his job pretty much keeps him contained below deck, " Sullivan's mother told the station.

So, we don't really know anything. Except, apparently, that the multibillion-dollar ship of war, with its fighter air wing, close-in machine guns, and entourage of frigates, destroyers, cruisers, and submarines could suffer an Al Qaeda revenge attack:

"I am hopeful they are 'now' on their way home," Sullivan's mom said. "It does elevate my concern slightly that they may become a target."

As a former sailor myself, I surely sympathize with the hazards of those young folks who go down to the sea in ships. As long as the terrorists stay away from Branson and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, though, my mind's at ease.

Osama bin Laden and National Bankruptcy, Part 2

| Tue May 3, 2011 8:58 PM EDT

When he planned the 9/11 attacks, was Osama bin Laden's goal to drag the United States into a series of endless wars that would bankrupt us? I said earlier that I was "a little skeptical of attempts to take this argument too far" because bin Laden's statements to this effect all came well after 9/11. But Daveed Gartenstein-Ross tweets:

Re OBL not having economics in mind on 9/11, see his contemporary comments to Allouni, which I quote here: http://bit.ly/kf1vdx 

So I clicked:

Bin Laden's strategy's initial phase linked terrorist attacks directly to economic harm....In a wide-ranging interview conducted by Al Jazeera's Taysir Allouni in the month following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden spoke at length about the extent of the economic damage the attacks had inflicted. "According to [the Americans'] own admissions," he said, "the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16%. They said that this number is a record."....Factoring in building and construction losses, along with lost productivity, he concluded that the cost to the United States was "no less than $1 trillion."

But this is an entirely different thing. This is merely bin Laden bragging about the amount of damage caused by the 9/11 attacks themselves. It says nothing about whether his longer term goal was to draw the United States into ruinously expensive military adventures overseas and massive internal security overreactions at home.

Just to be clear: I agree that economic warfare was implicit in bin Laden's thinking. (Likewise, Gartenstein-Ross agrees that America's potential future insolvency is mostly the result of domestic politics, not the war against al-Qaeda.) I'd just be careful about inferring more than the evidence will bear here. The first time that bin Laden explicitly said that his strategy was to bleed the United States into bankruptcy was in 2004, after the United States had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe that really was his intent all along. But it seems more likely that it was something he invented after the fact to make it look as if everything was going according to plan. It may have been one thread in his thinking, but I'm not sure you can say too much more than that about it.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH: My take on al-Qaeda's actions and motivations comes largely from Steve Coll's Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. And Wright does say that bin Laden "wanted to lure the United State into Afghanistan, which was already being called the graveyard of empires" (though he doesn't source this contention). But bin Laden himself seemed to have more prosaic views, namely that the United States was inherently decadent and weak and would retreat from the Middle East if faced by a sufficiently determined jihadist guerrilla movement, and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to believe that striking the United States (and thus drawing the U.S. into battle) would serve primarily as a way of inspiring young jihadists to join the cause.

But I'm unquestionably no expert on this. Maybe there's more evidence than I think that bin Laden's strategy from the start was to bait the United States into spending itself into bankruptcy. I'd just like to hear a little more pre-9/11 evidence for this.

Bin Laden Raid Debrief: Shoot First, Bury Questions at Sea Later

| Tue May 3, 2011 8:49 PM EDT
A typical Navy sea-burial ceremony.

Now that Osama Bin Laden rests in the briny deep, reporters and citizens alike are asking good questions about the operation that dumped him there. Was it a kill mission? What happened to everyone else in the compound? And what was up with that sea burial, anyway?

Each of these questions fundamentally involves how Americans ought to act in combat, and as such, they deserve good answers—which haven't been fully articulated by the White House or the military. Here's some helpful background and some back-of-the-napkin reasoning on the mysteries of the Al Qaeda leader's death:

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Bin Laden Reading Guide: How to Cut Through the Coverage

| Tue May 3, 2011 5:49 PM EDT

Elsewhere in Mother Jones, David Corn analyzes the political gamble Obama took in authorizing the attack, Dave Gilson breaks down the numbers behind the most expensive manhunt in history, and Josh Harkinson rounds up ten ways the right is spinning bin Laden's death. Adam Weinstein reports on the reactions of bin Laden's supporters as well as active-duty soldiers, Stephanie Mencimer checks in on the tea party, and Mike Mechanic pulls together a slideshow of major daily front pages.

Pete Marovich/ZumaPete Marovich/ZumaThis post first appeared on the ProPublica website.

The death of Osama bin Laden has sent news organizations scrambling for details on how it happened, where it happened, and what it all means. We've rounded up some of the best coverage, being careful to note what's been said, what's already being disputed, and what still remains to be seen.
 

How they found the most wanted man in the world:

The New York Times has a vivid account of the hunt for bin Laden in the weeks leading up to the strike, with dialogue straight from the situation room as the operation unfolded. As for the specific trail of intelligence, the Associated Press traces how detainees in both the CIA's secret network of prisons and in Guantanamo provided clues about the trusted courier who ultimately led the United States to bin Laden's hideaway. The AP cites former officials asserting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, was not being waterboarded while discussing the courier, though that still leaves unanswered what interrogation methods were used on the other, tip-giving detainees—many of whom haven't been identified.

But here's the interrogation file of one detainee who may have proved useful: The file of Abu al-Libi contained an early clue as to the whereabouts of a bin Laden courier in Abbottabad.
 

What we actually know about the operation and what's still fuzzy:

Most accounts of the bin Laden operation at this point cite background briefings from the White House. Those transcripts are interesting for both the details they provide and the details that officials skirt around. Here's yesterday's and today's.

Many of the blow-by-blows of the bin Laden operation are still fairly sketchy, and Obama administration officials already appear to be backing away from a few of the earlier descriptions of the circumstances surrounding bin Laden's death. For instance, early claims that bin Laden was armed at the time of his death and had used his wife as a human shield have since been contradicted by officials, Politico reported.

Given this, Slate's Jack Shafer has a must-read, pointing out several instances of vague sourcing and inconsistencies in some of the coverage of the bin Laden story.

Of course, some have taken that skepticism a step further and veered into conspiracy theories, seizing on the sea burial and the timing of the President's announcement as suspicious. (Slate has more on why the sea burial is unusual.) The administration has said it's considering releasing the photo of bin Laden's body or videos of the raid and the burial to put these suspicions to rest.

The Joint Special Operations Command, whose elite team of Navy Seals executed the operation, costs the country more than $1 billion annually, according to National Journal. Despite some of its personnel having been involved in abuse of prisoners and rendition, JSOC has operated without much scrutiny since 9/11—read the piece for more helpful context.

 

Eating the Poor

| Tue May 3, 2011 4:38 PM EDT

Jon Chait takes note of the remarkably large contingent of conservatives who seem genuinely outraged that Democrats accuse Paul Ryan and other Republicans of not wanting to fund healthcare for the poor and the vulnerable:

Who do they think is on Medicaid? Prosperous, healthy people?

No, Medicaid is a bare-bones program throwing a lifeline to people who are in bad shape. Cutting Medicaid may be the politically easiest way for Ryan to clear budget room to preserve Bush-era revenue levels, as Medicaid patients have little political clout. But it is, well, deeply immoral. I'm actually surprised that conservatives not only can't seem to imagine (or care about) the consequences of such policies, but they can't even imagine that people like Obama would actually feel moral outrage at their plan. They can't imagine a liberal objection as representing anything other than an attempt to score political points. It's bizarre. I mean, of course Obama finds it morally objectionable to take away medical care to people in nursing homes and children with special needs. That's why he's a Democrat.

It's not just conservatives, either. Media talking heads routinely stroke their chins and then, more in sorrow than in anger, accuse Democrats of "scare tactics" when they warn people about what Republican budget cuts will mean. Is that a scare tactic? I suppose it is. But it's also the truth. The truth is that Paul Ryan's budget, like so many Republican proposals before it, would decimate Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and dozens of other programs that benefit the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. Democrats think that's a bad idea because we think those programs are good things. What's more, we think it's an immoral idea because that decimation would primarily serve the purpose of keeping tax rates low on corporations and the rich. You may or may not agree about this, but either way it's not really that hard to grasp what's motivating liberals to feel the way they do.

A Heck of a Lot of Birthday Parties

| Tue May 3, 2011 4:38 PM EDT

The world population will hit seven billion by October 31, 2011*, the United Nations said Tuesday. If current fertility rates continue, there will be 9 billion of us Earth-dwellers by 2050, and 10 billion of us by 2100—mind-boggling when you consider that we just passed 6 billion in 1999.

This issue was on my mind at several points in the past week. On Friday I was discussing (yes, I'll admit it) the royal wedding with someone a generation older than me. When I mentioned reports that 2 billion people watched the event (which seems a little far-fetched, to say the least), my older counterpart said that was impossible—half of the world couldn't have been watching. I had to point out that, while the estimate was still silly, 2 billion is actually only a third of the world these days. The exchange highlighted just how fast the human community is growing. The pace of change is hard to keep up with, and must seem almost inconceivable for older folks who grew up with much more gradual increases in human population.

Population came up again yesterday as I was discussing climate and energy issues on a live radio show. A caller inquired about population issues and why environmentalists never talk about them anymore. No matter what forum I'm in, I always get asked this question, and it's one that most environmental reporters dread. It's not that I don't have a good response. For me, the question isn't necessarily about population, it's about use of resources. And on that measure Americans consume far, far more than our more plentiful planet-mates in the developing world. But it's also about family planning and women's empowerment—when women have access to information and contraceptives and are able to use them, the number of children they have declines. (My colleague Julia Whitty did an excellent in-depth piece on what is often treated as a third-rail last year.)

For me, one of the most interesting elements of the UN's latest projection is the indication that these numbers could vary pretty widely if fertility rates change. The Population Division at the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs states that "a small increase in fertility" could mean that the global population is as high as 15.8 billion by 2100. At the same time, a small decrease could cause an overall decline, to 6.2 billion by the end of the century.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have revived the attack on funding for international family planning. But if we end up on the high-end of the UN's projections, we will have a whole lot of birthday parties to plan for come 2100.

*Corrected from 2010. Thanks, SecularAnimist.

Giving Osama bin Laden Too Much Credit

| Tue May 3, 2011 3:06 PM EDT

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in Foreign Policy that American policymakers never really understood Osama bin Laden's strategy for defeating the West:

One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy. The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991....He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions — and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were now predicting the American empire's collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."

I confess that I've always been a little skeptical of attempts to take this argument too far. This might well have been a thread in bin Laden's thinking, but these "explicitly economic" comparisons all seem to have come after 9/11 and seem suspiciously opportunistic to me. Still, there's obviously something to this, and after totting up the multi-trillion dollar cost of our various responses to al-Qaeda over the past decade, Ezra Klein muses on how successful bin Laden ended up being:

It isn’t quite right to say bin Laden cost us all that money. We decided to spend more than a trillion dollars on homeland security measures to prevent another attack. We decided to invade Iraq as part of a grand, post-9/11 strategy of Middle Eastern transformation. We decided to pass hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts and add an unpaid-for prescription drug benefit in Medicare while we were involved in two wars. And now, partially though not entirely because of these actions, we are deep in debt. Bin Laden didn’t — couldn’t — bankrupt us. He could only provoke us into bankrupting ourselves. And he came pretty close.

It’s a smart play against a superpower. We didn’t need to respond to 9/11 by trying to reshape the entire Middle East, but we’re a superpower, and we think on that scale. We didn’t need to respond to failed attempts to smuggle bombs onto airplanes through shoes and shampoo bottles by screening all footwear and banning large shampoo bottles, but we’re a superpower, and our tolerance for risk is extremely low. His greatest achievement was getting our psychology at least somewhat right.

Italics mine. I'm just not willing to go that far. Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq and homeland security cost us a lot and have contributed to our parlous fiscal state. But bin Laden had nothing to do with the Bush tax cuts, nothing to do with the housing bubble, and nothing to do with an unfunded prescription drug benefit. And most importantly of all, bin Laden had nothing to do with the upcoming growth of Medicare, something that we've known was coming for decades. There's simply no question that our short-term deficit was caused mostly by tax cuts and the Great Collapse of 2008, just as there's no question that our long-term deficit is caused mostly by spiraling Medicare expenses. By comparison, the cost of our response to al-Qaeda has been fairly modest.

Looking backward from, say, 2030, our response to 9/11 will seem like a pretty small contributor to our fiscal (in)solvency. I'll peg it at less than 10%. For a handful of terrorists living in a compound in Afghanistan, that's pretty impressive. But in the grand scheme of things, it's still a nit. If America really does end up bankrupting itself, bin Laden will have had nothing to do with it. The cause will be a delusional conservative political culture that throws temper tantrums at the thought of properly funding our nation's most popular social programs. They'd rather bring down the government than raise taxes by a few percent of GDP, and that, not a handful of delusional religious fanatics on the other side of the globe, is the real cause of our problems.