Kevin Drum

House Dems Fight Back on Benghazi

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 2:14 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton aide Cheryl Mills testified before the Benghazi committee. Apparently several Republican members of the committee talked to reporters about this. Here is Politico on September 3:

Raising alarms on the right, Mills, Clinton’s former chief of staff at the State Department, also told the House Select Committee on Benghazi that she reviewed and made suggestions for changes to the government's official, final report on what happened in Benghazi, according to a separate, GOP source familiar with what she said.

The source said it “call[s] into question the ‘independence’” of the report's conclusions....The report was supposed to be independent from state officials that may be involved, and the GOP argues top officials should not have had input, long questioning how independent the findings were.

Today, in the wake of Rep. Kevin McCarthy's boasting about how the Benghazi committee had been a great tool to bring down Hillary, Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, lobbed a shot across the bow of the Republican chairman:

Republicans began leaking inaccurate information about Ms. Mills’ interview within minutes after your public declaration that it should be treated as classified....During her interview, Ms. Mills corroborated both Ambassador Pickering’s testimony and the Inspector General’s findings:

Q: Did you ever, in that process, attempt to exert influence over the direction of the ARB’s investigation?

A: No.

Q: Did you ever try to—did Secretary Clinton ever try to exert influence over the direction of their investigation?

A: No.

Ms. Mills also explained that the Secretary’s objective in selecting members of the ARB was, “could they be people who could give hard medicine if that was what was needed. And I felt like, in the end, that team was a team that would speak whatever were their truths or observations to the Department so that we could learn whatever lessons we needed to learn.”

....We believe it is time to begin releasing the transcripts of interviews conducted by the Select Committee in order to correct the public record after numerous inaccurate Republican leaks....Please notify us within five days if you believe any information in the full transcript should be withheld from the American people.

No response yet from committee chairman Trey Gowdy, who has insisted all along that the Benghazi investigation is purely an enlightened search for the truth with no trace of partisan overtones. But I'm all in favor of holding all of the committee's hearings in public with occasional exceptions for genuinely classified testimony. Stay tuned.

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Can Donald Trump Sink the TPP?

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

A last-minute deal has finally been reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and concerns abound. Paul Ryan is concerned about dairy products. Sander Levin is concerned about cars. In Louisiana they're concerned about sugar. The whole deal is oozing with parochial local concerns.

So will it pass? A couple of months ago, I would have said yes, and I guess I still do. But I'm a little less sure thanks to the Donald Trump effect. He's opposed to the deal—there's no telling why, really—and he's shown a genius in the past for picking out specific details about various issues and then flogging them to death. So I wonder: what's he going to pick out about the TPP? It might be something ordinary, like currency manipulation provisions, or a general attack on President Obama's lousy negotiating skills. Equally likely, though, he'll somehow find something in the treaty that no one else is really paying attention to, and then twist it into a populist attack that really resonates with the public. If he does that successfully, it's just possible that he could derail the deal.

I'm not sure what odds I'd put on that. But not zero. So far, Trump has mostly been a loudmouth who hasn't fundamentally changed the political landscape. But there's a chance he could do it here. He's worth watching.

Arming the Opposition: A Compendium of Failure

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:20 AM EDT

A couple of days ago I linked to a Phil Carter piece about why arm-and-train missions in underdeveloped countries tended to fail. Today the New York Times has a longish roundup of our failures, and even I was a little surprised by the sheer number of countries we've bungled:

The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries....Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar Province....several thousand American-backed government forces and militiamen in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers.

In northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million....Morocco to Chad. American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner. But in 2012, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya to rout the military, including units trained by United States Special Forces....In Yemen, American-trained troops and counterterrorism forces largely disbanded when Houthi rebels overran the capital last year.

Bright spot....oust the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia....The American government has invested nearly $1 billion....But even with the gains, the Shabab have been able to carry out bombings in Mogadishu, the capital, and in neighboring countries, including massacres at a university and a shopping mall in Kenya in the past two years.

Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and then US ambassador in Afghanistan, sums it up pretty well: "Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable." Maybe it's time we faced up to this.

Ask Dr. Science: Campaign Trail Edition

| Sun Oct. 4, 2015 12:55 PM EDT

Presidential candidates have been asking a lot of questions lately. Science can help answer them, but this year scientists are in notably short supply on the campaign trail. Asked about the age of the earth, Marco Rubio famously told GQ, "I'm not a scientist, man." Likewise, Mitch McConnell is not a scientist, Rick Scott is not a scientist, John Boehner is not a scientist, Joni Ernst is not a scientist, Bobby Jindal is not a scientist, and Hillary Clinton is not a scientist—just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain. Luckily, I can help. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions asked by major party candidates recently.

Bernie Sanders: "Why are we the only major country that doesn’t guarantee health care for all?"

In 1986 James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in public choice theory, which can shed some light on this. In layman's terms, public choice theory says you should follow the money. So let's follow it. Universal health care is expensive. This means higher taxes, which rich people don't like. Conservative parties cater to the rich, so they generally oppose expansions in health care coverage. In the US, the rich are the richest of all, and the Republican Party therefore caters to them more enthusiastically than anywhere else in the world. As a result, they're more rabidly opposed to national health care than any other conservative party in a major country.

In other words, it's because no other country has the Republican Party.

Ben Carson: "Gravity, where did it come from?"

Well, Ben, when a four-dimensional pseudo-Riemannian manifold and a Landau–Lifshitz stress-energy tensor love each other very much, they produce a geodesic in curved spacetime. And that's the story of gravity.

Kevin McCarthy: "Everyone thought Hillary was unbeatable, right?"

Let's look at this statistically. According to a CNN poll from last year, 44 percent of respondents thought it "very likely" and 34 percent thought it "somewhat likely" that Hillary would win the Democratic nomination. Let's assign p=.9 to "very" and p=.65 to "somewhat." Then P(Nomination) = .62. The same poll assigned Hillary a conditional probability P(Presidency|Nomination) of .51. Thus, since P(A ∩ B) = P(A) * P(B|A), her perceived chance of winning the presidency was p=.32 and her chance of being beaten was a whopping p=.68. She was light years away from being considered unbeatable.

Or, in simpler terms you're more likely to understand, there was never any need to brag about the awesome Hillary-smashing power of the Benghazi committee. You're an idiot.

Donald Trump: "Let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?"

In the neorealist school of international relations, hegemonic stability theory tells us that the world is a better place when a single nation-state, or hegemon, is the dominant player on the global stage. Vladimir Putin is challenging us for this role. If he succeeds, the outcome is either a disastrous multipolar world or an equally disastrous world in which Russia is dominant. Ditto for China. In other words, Russia is killing us! China is killing us! We need to beat them!

Marco Rubio: "How can it be that we sent a Republican majority to Congress and yet they’re still not able to stop our country from sliding in the wrong direction?”

The study of political science can provide some insight into this phenomenon. In "Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism," George Tsebelis explains the crippling effect of having too many agents who can obstruct legislative agendas. "The potential for policy change," he says, "decreases with (a) the number of veto players, (b) the lack of congruence (dissimilarity of policy positions among veto players) and (c) the cohesion (similarity of policy positions among the constituent units of each veto player) of these players."

Taking those one by one, (a) Democrats can filibuster your endless Obamacare temper tantrums, President Obama can veto them, and the Supreme Court can send you packing; (b) the Republican Party has gone nuts; and (c) Democrats are united in stopping you. Did you really not know this?

Carly Fiorina: "Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Do you think this is not happening?"

Of course it's happening. In Hugh Everett's relative state formulation of quantum mechanics, the multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of an infinite number of increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. Thus, every possible thing is happening at every possible instant. And stop calling me Chuck.

Hillary Clinton: "Another conspiracy theory?"


Here's Why "Arming the Opposition" Usually Doesn't Work

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 9:54 PM EDT

I routinely mock the tiresomely predictable calls from conservative hawks to "arm the opposition." It never seems to matter who the opposition is. Nor does it matter if we're already arming them. If we are, then we need to send them even better arms. Does this do any good? Can allied forces always benefit from more American arms and training? That gets tactfully left unsaid.

Today, Phil Carter, who has firsthand experience with this, writes a longer piece explaining just why the theory of indirect military assistance is so wobbly in practice:

The theory briefs well as a way to achieve U.S. goals without great expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. Unfortunately, decades of experience (including the current messes in Iraq and Syria) suggest that the theory works only in incredibly narrow situations in which states need just a little assistance. In the most unstable places and in the largest conflagrations, where we tend to feel the greatest urge to do something, the strategy crumbles.

It fails first and most basically because it hinges upon an alignment of interests that rarely exists between Washington and its proxies.

....Second, the security-assistance strategy gives too much weight to the efficacy of U.S. war-fighting systems and capabilities....For security assistance to have any chance, it must build on existing institutions, adding something that fits within or atop a partner’s forces....But giving night-vision goggles and F-16 aircraft to a third-rate military like the Iraqi army won’t produce a first-rate force, let alone instill the will to fight.

....The third problem with security assistance is that it risks further destabilizing already unstable situations and actually countering U.S. interests. As in Syria, we may train soldiers who end up fighting for the other side or provide equipment that eventually falls into enemy hands.

There are some things we should have learned over the past couple of decades, and one of them is this: "train-and-equip" missions usually don't work. Sometimes they do, as in Afghanistan in the 80s. But that's the rare success. In Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan in the aughts, they failed.

So why do we hear cries to arm our allies during practically every conflict? Because it turns out there aren't very many good choices in between doing nothing and launching a full-scale ground war. One option is aerial support and bombing. Another option is arming someone else's troops. So if you know the public won't support an invasion with US troops, but you still want to show that you're more hawkish than whoever's in charge now, your only real alternative is to call for one or the other of these things—or both—regardless of whether they'll work.

And of course, the louder the better. It might not help the war effort any, but it sure will help your next reelection campaign.

Gun Control's Biggest Problem: Most People Just Don't Care Very Much

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

David Atkins writes about the problem of getting gun control legislation passed:

There is a broadening schism in the activist community between those who focus on nuts-and-bolts electoral and legislative politics, and those who spend their energy on issue-area visibility and engagement....Election work and party involvement is increasingly seen as the unhip, uncool, morally compromised province of social climbers and "brogressives" not truly committed to the supposedly "real work" of social justice engagement by non-electoral means.

....There is certainly great value in persuasion, engagement and visibility model....But gun politics in the United States shows above all the weaknesses and limits of the engagement model. The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws....Numerous organizations have engaged in countless petitions and demonstrations to shame legislators into action from a variety of perspectives, but it essentially never works.

....The reason that the United States cannot seem to do anything about guns is simply that the NRA and the vocal minority of the nation's gun owners mobilize to vote on the issue, while the large majority that favors gun safety laws does not....Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in field work—that much maligned, unsexy work of precinct walking and phonebanking—to mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people.

I'm not sure Atkins has this right. The problem is in the second bolded sentence: "The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws." There's some truth to this, but there's also a big pitfall here, and it's one that liberals are especially vulnerable to. I routinely read lefties who quote polls to show that the country agrees with us on pretty much everything. Voters support teachers, they support the environment, they support financial reform, they support gun control.

But this is a bad misreading of what polls can tell us. There are (at least) two related problems here:

  • Most polls don't tell us how deeply people feel. Sure, lots of American think that universal background checks are a good idea, but they don't really care that much. In a recent Gallup poll of most important problems, gun control ranked 22nd, with only 2 percent rating it their most important issue. Needless to say, though, gun owners are opposed to background checks, and they care a lot.
  • Most polls don't tell us about the tradeoffs people are willing to make. In the abstract, sure, maybe a majority of Americans think we should make it harder to buy guns. But if there's a real-world price to pay how willing are they to pay it? A few months ago, a Pew poll that pitted gun control against gun rights found that gun rights won by 52-46 percent.

There are lots of polls, and some of them probably show a greater intensity among those who support gun control. A lot depends on question wording. But that's sort of my point: If you get substantially different responses because of small changes in question wording or depending on which precise issues you ask about (background checks vs. assault weapons, gun locks vs. large-capacity magazines) that's a sign of low intensity.

Atkins is certainly right that Democratic legislators won't act on gun control until voters are mobilized, but that puts the cart before the horse. You can't mobilize voters on an issue they don't really care much about in the first place. In this case, I think the folks who prioritize issue-area visibility and engagement probably have the better of the argument. Until voters who favor gun control feel as strongly as those who oppose it, all the field work in the world won't do any good.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 2 October 2015

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 3:01 PM EDT

Here's Hopper playing hide-and-seek with the camera. In the background, Hilbert lounges about obliviously, probably waiting for dinner to be served.

Two Questions About Hillary Clinton's Email Server

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

Lots of people have asked lots of questions about Hillary Clinton and her email server. That's fair enough. But I've got a couple of questions for the people with all the questions. There might be simple answers to these, but they've been bugging me for a while and I still don't really understand them. Here they are:

  • One of the most persistent suspicions is that Hillary set up a private server in order to evade FOIA requests. But this has never made any sense to me. What could possibly have led either Hillary or her staff to believe this? There's simply nothing in either the statute or in the way it's been applied in practice to suggest that official communications are beyond the reach of FOIA just because they're in private hands.
  • On a related note, what was going on in the State Department's FOIA office? They received several FOIA requests that required them to search Hillary's email, and responded by saying there was no record of anything relevant to the request. But the very first time they did this, they must have realized that Hillary's email archive wasn't just sparse, but nonexistent. Did they ask Hillary's office about this? If not, why not? If they did, what were they told? This should be relatively easy to answer since I assume these folks can be subpoenaed and asked about it.

Generally speaking, the reason I've been skeptical about this whole affair is that the nefarious interpretations have never made much sense to me. What Hillary did was almost certainly dumb—as she's admitted herself—and it's possible that she even violated some regulations. But those are relatively minor things. Emailgate is only a big issue if there was some kind of serious intent to defraud, and that hardly seems possible:

  • Hillary's private server didn't protect her from FOIA requests and she surely knew this.
  • By all indications, she was very careful about her email use and never wrote anything she might regret if it became public.
  • And it hardly seems likely that she thought she could delete embarrassing emails before turning them over. There's simply too much risk that the missing emails would show up in someone else's account, and that really would be disastrous. Her husband might be the type to take idiotic risks like that, but she isn't.

School me, peeps. I fully acknowledge that maybe I'm just not getting something here. What's the worst case scenario that's actually plausible?

POSTSCRIPT: Note that I'm asking here solely about FOIA as it applies to the Hillary Clinton email server affair. On a broader level, FOIA plainly has plenty of problems, both in terms of response time and willingness to cooperate with the spirit of the statute.

Here's What Ben Carson Means When He Talks About Political Correctness

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Here is Ben Carson on Wednesday:

At a campaign event in New Hampshire, Carson noted that many people believe a situation like what took place in Germany in the 1930's and 1940's could never happen in America. "I beg to differ," Carson said. "If you go back and look at the history of the world, tyranny and despotism and how it starts, it has a lot to do with control of thought and control of speech."

At a press conference after the speech, reporters asked Carson who he thinks is like Adolf Hitler in the U.S. "I'm not going to go into that that. I think that example is pretty clear," he responded, without elaborating.

Carson hastened to add that he wasn't referring to Barack Obama. No siree. Someone else. But not Obama. Wink wink nudge nudge.

In any case, this provides a good opportunity to highlight Carson's views on political correctness. When Donald Trump talks about it, he's using it in the usual throwaway sense we're all familiar with. He wants to be able to talk about immigrants being rapists or women being shrill and ugly without everyone getting on his case. Others have in mind trigger warnings and other campus fads. But when Ben Carson talks about it, he means much, much more. It is the core of his worldview, so it's worth understanding what he means by it. Here is Amy Davidson:

In his most recent book, “One America,” he writes that agents working against this country’s greatness include the political-correctness police, who use “faux hypersensitivity” to take power away from the majority of Americans....Political correctness, Carson says, is used to keep conservatives from invoking slavery or Nazism, both of which he cites freely. (“Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”; “We live in a Gestapo age.”)

He wonders if Obama will cause the elections to be cancelled: “He’s sitting there saying, ‘These Americans are so stupid I can tell them anything.’ ” Trump, the businessman, tells Americans how the financial system is rigged against them. Carson, the brain surgeon, tells them how they are being denied knowledge.

This explains why, at the New Hampshire event, he's talking about "control of thought and control of speech" for seemingly no reason. In fact, Carson believes that liberals are deliberately making it impossible for conservatives to talk about the truly important issues that are destroying America. Keeping everyone cowed and silent is the first step to tyranny, which is why he thinks incipient Hitlerism is something to be taken seriously. Here he is explaining this view last year, before he was running for president:

Political correctness is antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Its most powerful tool is intimidation. If it is not vigorously opposed, its proponents win by default, because the victims adopt a “go along to get along” attitude. Major allies in the imposition of PC are members of the media, some of whom thrive on controversy and others who are true ideologues.

....The American people must learn to identify and ignore political correctness if we are to escape the bitter ideological grenades that are destroying our unity and strength. Political correctness is impotent if we the people are fearless. Let us emphasize intelligent discussion of issues and leave the smear campaigns to those with no constructive ideas.

Carson talks incessantly about political correctness, and he's been doing it for a long time. It is, he believes, the method by which the populace is kept too intimidated to object when liberal policies lead to moral decay and the eventual downfall of the country. You will hear him talk all the time about not being afraid to speak up, and when he does it's more than just a normal political stemwinder urging people to get involved and vote. He believes that political correctness today is the equivalent of brownshirt terrorism in 1933, and he believes that this is what brought Hitler to power in Germany. Whenever you hear Carson talk about either "political correctness" or "mind control," this is what it means to him.

Vatican: Pope Francis Barely Knew Who Kim Davis Was When He Met Her

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

I don't really care all that much about whether Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, but my sister is fascinated by the whole story. So this is for her. Earlier today, the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Davis was basically part of an hour-long press-the-flesh session and Francis barely even knew who she was:

“Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City,” Father Lombardi said.

He added: “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.”

....At the Vatican on Friday, a spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, said the invitation had been extended by the office of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the nuncio, or envoy, in Washington, not from Rome....Father Rosica said of the controversy: “I would simply say: Her case is a very complex case. It’s got all kinds of intricacies. Was there an opportunity to brief the pope on this beforehand? I don’t think so. A list is given — these are the people you are going to meet.

As usual with the Catholic Church, previous popes continue to have long arms even after they die or retire. It turns out that the papal nuncio, a culturally conservative guy who's loyal to the former Benedict XVI, decided to invite Davis. The current pope apparently had no idea this would happen and may not have even known who she was. Basically, Davis was ushered in for her 60 seconds with the pope, who blessed her, gave her a rosary, and then moved along to the next person in line. It would be wise not to read too much into this.