2011 - %3, May

Giving Osama bin Laden Too Much Credit

| Tue May. 3, 2011 12:06 PM PDT

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.

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

| Tue May. 3, 2011 10:50 AM PDT

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.

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

| Tue May. 3, 2011 10:30 AM PDT

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 10:15 AM PDT

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 9:46 AM PDT

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 9:39 AM PDT

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.

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Pakistan and bin Laden

| Tue May. 3, 2011 9:13 AM PDT

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.

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

| Tue May. 3, 2011 8:38 AM PDT

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 8:10 AM PDT

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 7:12 AM PDT

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.