Political MoJo

Vogue's Puff Piece on the Assads Is Back Online—for Now

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Vogue has run a large number of profiles on famous and successful women. For their most recent September issue, the fashion magazine profiled Texas state senator Wendy Davis, photographed in her "Carolina Herrera dress and Reed Krakoff pumps." Vogue profiled Yahoo's Marissa Mayer—the "CEO of the moment." And there was, of course, the Katy Perry cover story.

And for their March 2011 issue, Vogue (published by Condé Nast) printed a glowing, 3,200-word profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a dictator well-known for his love of Western dance-pop, and also for the mass-murder, torture, and imprisonment of at least tens of thousands. The piece, written by Joan Juliet Buck, was published online right before the Arab-Spring civil uprising kicked into high-gear in Syria, and Vogue soon removed the article from its website. You can still see the URL here, but when you click on it, you get this:

Vogue Asma al-Assad profile
Screenshot: Vogue.com

But last Friday, the news and gossip website Gawker reprinted the article in full, remounted with Gawker's pull quotes and graphics. For example:

Vogue profile Assads Gawker
Screenshot: Gawker.com

The website has apparently done so without the blessing of the author or Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue's US edition and chief inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada. "We did not ask permission beforehand," John Cook, editor of Gawker, tells Mother Jones. "I think it's important that people are aware of how Vogue and Wintour...felt about the Assads, and characterized the Assads. It came out almost exactly as the regime embarked on its campaign of murdering women and children...And now in the context of the United States possibly going to war with Syria, it's important for people to see how the magazine portrayed them...[Wintour] was pushing her people to give cover to a tyrant and murderer." (Wintour, along with being a Vogue editor since the late '80s, was also one of the Obama 2012 campaign's biggest bundlers. Wintour hosted overseas fundraisers for the president, starred in a video for him, and was reportedly on Barack Obama's short list for an ambassadorship to the UK or France.)

As of Monday, Cook said that he has yet to receive pushback from Buck or anyone at Vogue about Gawker's unauthorized reprinting. (When reached by Mother Jones on Monday, Vogue did not have an immediate comment.) However, if Vogue or Condé Nast ever pursued legal action against Gawker Media, Cook says he and his team are ready. "I mean, there's a very important public interest behind publishing [the profile] in a vastly different context than the one it was originally presented. And we are certainly prepared to make that argument anywhere."

The profile was a product of a coordinated public-relations effort in large part managed by Brown Lloyd James, an international firm that also conducted business with the similarly mass-murdering Qaddafi regime in Libya. The firm was paid $5,000 per month to help sanitize the image of the Assad dictatorship. The Vogue feature describes Asma as "glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" and presents both Asma and Bashar in a positive, Western-friendly light; the Syrian first couple are shown doing things like making Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt laugh. (Keep in mind that even before the Syrian civil war and recent chemical weapons atrocity, it didn't take more than a two-second Google search to find out that Bashar al-Assad had a lousy, torture-rife human rights record.)

The profile quickly became a frequent topic of discussion among journalists, commentators, and activists. Over a year after the profile's original appearance, Wintour issued her mea culpa; Brown Lloyd James issued their rationalization; and Buck wrote her regret-imbued explanation. Following Vogue's efforts to wipe every humiliating trace of this it could, the article in its entirety could be found only on relatively obscure corners of the internet, until now.

"Our goal," Cook says, "was to make sure that the actual artifact is readily available."

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Obama's Mixed Message on Syria

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 10:13 AM EDT

President Barack Obama has a tough task this week, as he seeks to win congressional support—particularly among his skeptical Democratic comrades—for a limited military strike on Syria in retaliation for the regime's presumed use of chemical weapons. But as the White House tries to whip up support on Capitol Hill and within the public at large, it is conveying something of a mixed message.

On Monday morning, UN ambassador Samantha Power was on NPR, as part of the administration's full-court press. A onetime journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for a gripping book on modern genocides, Power is a particularly effective spokesperson for Obama on an issue concerning mass murder and humanitarian imperatives. She was asked about GOP Rep. Tom Cole's opposition to the resolution authorizing the president to strike Syria. Cole has argued that the Syria conflict is "particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels. A civil war, a religious war, a proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis." He contends that there is "no direct security threat to the United States" or its allies and that limited strikes "are not likely to work." Power replied:

President Obama does not want to get involved in this conflict. He wants to degrade Assad's capability of using his [chemical] weapon[s] and affect his cost-benefit calculus because he will use again and again and again. And it's only a matter time before these weapons will fall into the hands of nonstate actors, again imperiling some of our closest allies in the region, but also in the long term hurting the United States.

The key part of that answer was her assertion that the president seeks to stay out of the conflict in Syria. But that's not what the resolution passed last week by the Senate foreign relations committee says. Section 5 of the resolution presents a "statement of policy":

(a) CHANGING OF MOMENTUM ON BATTLEFIELD.—It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.

(b) DEGRADATION OF ABILITY OF REGIME TO USE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.—A comprehensive United States strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.

And Section 6 of the resolution calls for the United States to work for a negotiated political settlement in Syria by providing "all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."

Though these parts of the resolution are closer to recommendations than authorizations of specific actions, they do put the Obama administration on record as being involved in the conflict, if only by assisting one or more of the warring factions. And, of course, Obama in June authorized the CIA to covertly train and arm supposedly moderate rebel forces in Syria—though the CIA has reportedly not yet begun handing out weapons to opposition forces. (The program may soon be turned over to US special forces.)

So the United States is already involved in the conflict. When Power insists that the president does not want to get involved, what she really means is deeply involved (as in, with combat troops). This parsing shows how complicated the situation is, and how difficult it is for the White House to present a clear message. Obama wants to launch a military assault to deter Assad from the use of chemical weapons, but he doesn't want to defeat Assad; he wants to steer clear of participation in the wider conflict, though he is providing support to players in that ongoing civil war. The White House can certainly defend such a policy, given the complexities of the situation, but it does contain a fair bit of yin and yang. No wonder many of his own Democrats have yet to rally to Obama's call.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 9, 2013

Mon Sep. 9, 2013 9:43 AM EDT

US Soldiers with Echo Company 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB), rush off the flight line after a successful Sling Load Training exercise, Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, July 30, 2013. GSAB conducts Sling Load Training biannually. US Army Photo by Spc. Ryan Green.

5 Toxic Syria Conspiracy Theories

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

As with all American military efforts, proposed or executed, the Obama administration's push for intervention in the Syrian conflict has inspired a rash of conspiracy theorizing. And it's not just crazies on the internet or bloviators on talk radio—it's coming from our elected representatives, too.

Here are some of the worst examples:

1. Assad got his chemical weapons from Saddam!

Rep. Lee Terry
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) Official website

Right before the Obama administration released its assessment of the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, Rep. Lee Terry went on the radio on August 29 to promote the bogus theory that the Assad regime got its chemical weapons from Saddam Hussein—as in, the chemical weapons the Bush administration couldn't find in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. Here are Terry's comments, as flagged by the Huffington Post:

"The theory then and the evidence was that Iraq was an enemy of the United States and had direct plans in either support of Al Qaeda and/or with other weapons that we found out weren't there—which I still think they were moved to Syria," said Terry. "And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the chemical weapons that have been used by Syria actually came from Iraq."


When Becka asked whether Terry's claim about the transfer of weapons was based on information he had received as a member of Congress, Terry replied, "Gut feeling…"

This theory isn't new. Senior Bush administration officials publicly flirted with the idea that Iraq transferred their weapons to other nations before the war, and conservative media has kept the theory on life support over the years. The thing is that there is zero credible evidence that this was ever the case. Rep. Terry's office did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not his "gut feeling" has shifted.

2. Obama is playing Wag the Dog with the Syria stuff.

Rep. Joe Wilson
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) Facebook

At last Wednesday's House hearing, Joe Wilson (the Republican congressman famous for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama) asked if the president's timing was influenced by a desire to cover up bad press for his administration. Wilson asked Secretary of State John Kerry:

With the president's red line, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration or the upcoming debt limit vote? Again, why was there no call for a military response four months ago when the president's red line was crossed?

(The Benghazi and IRS accusations have amounted to nothing more than categorical nonscandals, but whatever. Rep. Wilson's office did not respond to Mother Jones' request for comment.)

Watch the video, which includes Kerry's response:

3. "False flag," cries the "intellectual godfather" of the tea party movement.

Ron Paul
Ron Paul. Pete Marovich/ZUMA Press

Former Texas Republican congressman and libertarian hero Ron Paul has jumped on the Bashar-al-Assad-was-set-up bandwagaon.

"I don't think [Assad] is an idiot; I don't think he would do this on purpose in order for the whole world to come down on him," Paul told Fox Business Network's Neil Cavuto on August 28, referring to reports of the Syrian government deploying chemical weapons. "Look how many lies were told to us about Saddam Hussein prior to that build-up. War propaganda: It's endless; it happens all the time."

"I think it's a false flag—I think, really, indeed," Paul emphasized. "And nobody knows; if indeed he was slaughtering people by the thousands, you know, with poison gas…that's a different story. But that isn't the case. Matter of fact, 100,000 deaths are the case…The implication is that Assad committed 100,000 killings. There are a lot of factions out there. Why don't we ask, you know, about the Al Qaeda? Why are we on the side of the Al Qaeda right now?"

Here's the interview:

4. Rush Limbaugh thinks Obama could be behind the whole damn thing.

Rush Limbaugh

Prominent right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh (the man who thought Batman was an anti-Mitt Romney cinematic endeavor) unsurprisingly thinks that Obama might have planned the Syrian gas attacks.

"[T]here is evidence, mounting evidence, that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack," Limbaugh said on his September 3 show. "But not only that, that Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan this Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition."

Limbaugh was basing this mainly on an article by Yossef Bodansky titled "Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?" Bodansky is an Assad sympathizer who has suggested that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was orchestrated by Iran.


The above clip is from May, when evidence of earlier chemical weapons use in Syria was emerging. Current TV host Cenk Uygur chats with retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, ex-chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson floats the idea that Israel might have done it, without any actual or even flimsy evidence whatsoever:

We don't know what the chain of custody is. This could've been an Israeli false flag operation, it could've been an opposition in Syria…or it could've been an actual use by Bashar al-Assad, but we certainly don't know with the evidence we've been given. And what I'm hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey…I think we've got basically a geostrategically…inept regime in Tel Aviv right now.

To be clear, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that Israeli officials had anything to do with these chemical weapons attacks in Syria—unless you take the word of state-funded Iranian propaganda, that is.

For a few more crazy theories about Syria and chemical weapons, check out this post by Foreign Policy's Elias Groll.

In Colorado Recall, It's Michael Bloomberg vs. the NRA

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

On Tuesday, voters in two Colorado counties will determine the fates of a pair Democratic state senators who helped push through a slate of gun control legislation last spring. Senate Majority Leader John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were targeted for recall votes by gun rights activists after supporting legislation that capped magazine capacity at 15 rounds and mandated background checks for all private gun sales. But what started as a genuine grassroots effort born out of anger over the gun vote has grown into something much bigger—a national proxy war on not just gun control but also reproductive rights. (The two Republican challengers who would take office if the recall succeeds have both taken heat for their support of the so-called "personhood" movement, which classifies zygotes as people.)

Not just gun control but reproductive rights are at issue in the Colorado Senate recall.

The results: a flood of outside money. Opponents of the recall have poured more than $2 million into the race so far, almost all of it from out of state. Leading the way is Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, a pop-up organization that brought in almost all of its money from three sources—California philanthropist Eli Broad ($250,000); the environmental outfit Conservation Colorado ($75,000); and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chairs a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns and gave $350,000. (In the wake of last year's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Bloomberg pledged to spend $12 million in support of pro-gun control candidates.) Another outfit, We Can Do Better, Colorado, serves as a local front for the DC-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has poured $300,000 into the race.

Mitch McConnell: Want My Syria Position? Wait Till Next Week

| Fri Sep. 6, 2013 3:58 PM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

At an appearance Friday at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke about the Syrian civil war and the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people.

McConnell did not take a position on whether the US military should bomb Syria in response to the chemical weapons attacks. "This is a tough call. I think there are good arguments on both sides," he said. The Kentucky senator told the audience he would announce his position on whether to bomb Syria next week.

McConnell did, however, delve a bit deeper into his views on the chemical weapons attack. "Use of chemical weapons against anybody, particularly against your own people, has been viewed for decades as simply unacceptable," he said. That view is awfully close to President Obama's position that the use of chemical weapons crosses a "red line" widely acknowledged by the international community.

In 2012, Obama said that "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." Earlier this week, Obama hedged that by saying, "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war."

What McConnell said at the Northern Kentucky Chamber is a boiled-down version of that statement. It remains a mystery whether McConnell will back strikes in Syria—and risk further inflaming his already hostile conservative base—or cast his lot with fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul and oppose the strikes. We'll have to wait until next week to find out.

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Why the Positive August Jobs Report Is Not Actually Positive

| Fri Sep. 6, 2013 12:23 PM EDT

The US economy added 169,000 jobs last month, according to new numbers released Friday by the Labor Department, and the unemployment rate fell a tenth of a percent to 7.3 percent. But don't be fooled. As has been the case in recent months, the unemployment rate fell mostly because more Americans stopped looking for work, and so were not officially counted as unemployed by the government. The jobs situation may actually be even worse than it was earlier this year.

In August, there were 312,000 fewer people in the labor force—defined as people who are either looking for a job or have a job; the size of the labor force is at its lowest level since 1978. And as of last month, 7.9 million Americans who wanted full-time work could find only part-time gigs. When you include these workers and those who have stopped looking for work, you get an underemployment rate of 13.7 percent.

The number of new jobs added to the economy per month has been on a downward trend over the past year. We averaged 148,000 new jobs a month for the last three months, but 160,000 jobs a month for the last six months, and 184,000 a month over the last year, Neil Irwin points out at the Washington Post. In order to make up for the jobs gap created by the recession within the next four years, about 300,000 jobs would need to be created per month, according to the Brookings Institution.

The jobs we are adding to the economy are of pretty poor quality; they are largely low-wage, service sector jobs in the health care, retail and food industries.

The unemployment rate for minorities remains disproportionately high: 13 percent for blacks, and 9.3 percent for Hispanics.

And yet the administration has been pointing to the falling unemployment rate as evidence of a recovery, and the Federal Reserve is expected to soon pull back on its stimulus measures in response to the superficially sunny jobs numbers. As Irwin writes, the administration seems to be ignoring the big picture: "[This job report] has enough signs of weakness embedded in enough places that it has to make economy-watchers—including those at the Federal Reserve who meet in less than two weeks—reassess their confidence that a solid, steady jobs recovery is underway… You don’t have to squint hard to see evidence that the 'nice, steady improvement' theme that has been the conventional wisdom is missing part of the story."

It doesn't look like jobs will come rushing back any time soon. The across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration that went into effect in March are one reason. As my colleague Kevin Drum pointed out in July, "a rough horseback guess suggests that the total effect of our austerity binge has been a GDP reduction of 2 percent and an employment reduction of nearly 3 million."

And the coming fiscal battle in Congress could make matters worse. Republicans are threatening to refuse to raise the nation's debt ceiling when we reach our borrowing limit in mid-October unless President Barack Obama agrees to more spending reductions. Last month, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warned against this tactic. "What we need in our economy is some certainty," he said. "We don't need another self-inflicted wound."

Especially because there isn't much justification to continue shrinking spending—the deficit has shrunk by hundreds of billions of dollars in recent years. Via Drum:


We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 6, 2013

Fri Sep. 6, 2013 10:27 AM EDT

Sgt. Michael Cole, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter flight engineer assigned to B Company, 2nd Battalion (General Support), 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Falcon, scans his airspace during an equipment movement mission Aug. 24, 2013 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. US Army photo.

As Recess Winds Down, Most Congressmen Miss Closed-Door Syria Briefing

| Thu Sep. 5, 2013 6:07 PM EDT
Briefers arrive at the Captiol for a classified meeting on Syria on Thursday.

Even as many members of Congress insist they're holding out on a final decision on war in Syria until they have more time to study the issue, only a fraction actually attended Thursday's classified intelligence briefing on Syria in the basement of the Capitol. The briefing was open to all senators and representatives of both parties. But only a few dozen members—mostly Democrats—ultimately emerged several hours after it started.

The spotty attendance of Thursday's briefing (members will have another chance to review intelligence on Friday) underscores one of the larger problems facing the administration as it attempts to build support for next week's expected vote on an authorization to use military force. Instead of getting the hard sell in Washington, many members of Congress are still finishing up the summer recess in their districts, where they're encountering overwhelming backlash to any intervention from constituents. Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said calls of opposition outnumber calls for intervention in his district 100 to 1—"like everyone else." Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson put the ratio slightly lower—99 to 1.

If the information discussed in the briefing was meant to be a game-changer for the (at last count) 106 congressmen and 53 senators who remain undecided, it fell short of its target. None of the members who entered on-the-fence seemed to emerge much closer to a final decision—with the exception of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who released a statement shortly afterward saying he'd vote against the resolution. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said "there are many considerations." Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said he's "still collecting [his] thoughts." Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) said "this is an opportunity for Americans to stand together," but offered no indication of how those Americans should stand. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) just walked really fast.

Perhaps that's because there was nothing much new to offer. Grayson, one of the most outspoken opponents of intervention—he dressed for the occasion in a black tie plastered with multi-colored peace signs and reminded reporters, once more, that he owns the website DontAttackSyria.com—lamented that the presentation he saw on Thursday was almost identical to the one he'd heard earlier in the week. "They are recycling the same old stuff," he said. "I heard nothing new."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 5, 2013

Thu Sep. 5, 2013 10:39 AM EDT

US Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Morin (left) and 2nd Lt. Doug Palmer, both with Engineer Troop, Regimental Support Squadron, Combined Task Force Dragoon, inspect a culvert for IEDs Aug. 7, 2013 at Kandahar, Afghanistan. US Army Photo by Spc. Joshua Edwards.