Kevin Drum

Is the Army Cooking the Books on ISIS and Iraq?

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 9:50 AM EDT

The Daily Beast reports that defense analysts are in revolt over what they see as too much happy talk about ISIS that doesn't reflect their actual views:

Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are....That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months.

....Some of those CENTCOM analysts described the sizeable cadre of protesting analysts as a “revolt” by intelligence professionals who are paid to give their honest assessment, based on facts, and not to be influenced by national-level policy. The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the commander in charge of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress.

....But the complaint also goes beyond alleged altering of reports and accuses some senior leaders at CENTCOM of creating an unprofessional work environment. One person who knows the contents of the written complaint sent to the inspector general said it used the word “Stalinist” to describe the tone set by officials overseeing CENTCOM’s analysis.

Hmmm. The "Stalinist" jibe sets off some alarm bells. It could mean one of two things: (a) the work climate at CENTCOM is really, really bad, or (b) the senior analysts who filed the complaint are cuckoo. For better or worse, I usually associate accusations of Stalinism with all-upper case rants written by lunatics.

Still, even if one guy is a little over the top, there are 50 more apparently willing to sign on to the general complaint:

Many described a climate in which analysts felt they could not give a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and Syria. Some felt it was a product of commanders protecting their career advancement by putting the best spin on the war.

....For some, who have served at CENTCOM for more than a decade, scars remained from the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, when poorly written intelligence reports suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when it did not, formed the basis of the George W. Bush administration’s case for war. “They were frustrated because they didn’t do the right thing then” and speak up about their doubts on Iraq’s weapons program, the defense official told The Daily Beast.

If this turns out to be true, I wonder what's really going on. My sense is that the Obama administration itself hasn't been especially inclined to rosy scenarios. The Daily Beast article tried to find examples of sunny public statements from Obama officials and didn't come up with much. But it's quite possible that commanders on the ground are loath to admit how poorly things are going, and are insisting that analysts do nothing to muddy the waters.

In any case, now that the scope of these complaints are public, it will be hard for either the administration or CENTCOM to ignore them. Perhaps as a result we'll finally find out what's really happening in Iraq.

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Jeb Bush Has a Tax Plan, But He's a Little Shy About Sharing It

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 1:08 AM EDT

This is nuts. Apparently there is a detailed Jeb Bush tax plan. His website now features a document laden with specific savings that various taxpayers can expect, which can exist only if there are specific proposals to work from. And a team of friendly economists has produced a paper scoring the tax plan, which can also exist only if there's a detailed document to draw on. And yet, that document doesn't appear on his website. What's going on? Why is Jeb's plan a secret?

For what it's worth, the economists say that:

  • The plan will cost $3.4 trillion over ten years.
  • But the tax cuts, along with Jeb's proposed regulatory changes, will supercharge the economy enough to reduce the actual cost to $1.2 trillion.
  • If we limit federal budget growth to 3.2 percent per year, that will save $1.4 trillion. Voila! We're ahead by $200 billion.

If you believe all this, Jeb has some swampland in his home state he'd like you to take a look at. But on the bright side, this paper does finally solve the mystery of where we can find the details of Jeb's tax plan: they're outlined in an appendix at the end of the paper. I guess it's meant as a special treat for people who actually read the whole thing.

But why is this the only place the details of Jeb's tax plan are available? Why not post it on his website? It's a mystery. But at least there's enough there that independent folks like the Tax Policy Center can probably take a pretty good swipe at scoring it themselves and figuring out the distributional impact. I can't wait.

The Secret Decoder Ring for Donald Trump

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 8:46 PM EDT

Dan Drezner, an allegedly serious professor of international relations, insists that we attend to two Donald Trump nuggets today. Twitter makes this kind of thing far too easy. First is this one, from a Rolling Stone profile:

With his blue tie loosened and slung over his shoulder, Trump sits back to digest his meal and provide a running byplay to the news....His staffers at the conference table howl and hoot....When the anchor throws to Carly Fiorina for her reaction to Trump's momentum, Trump's expression sours in schoolboy disgust as the camera bores in on Fiorina. "Look at that face!" he cries. "Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!" The laughter grows halting and faint behind him. "I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not s'posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?"

And now for the explanation, as told to Trump's biographer:

When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.

You wouldn't be surprised to hear a first-grader get all giggly over childish insults about his teacher, would you? That's what first graders do. At age 69, that's still what Trump does too.

But it's actually even weirder than that. In purely conventional terms, Carly Fiorina is both perfectly attractive and perfectly businesslike. Lots of people might think she shouldn't be president—anyone who cares about actual success in some field of life, for example—but even a stone misogynist's first thought wouldn't be that he just couldn't stand to look at her face for four years. Even Trump's handpicked circle of sycophants apparently wondered what he was talking about.

But wait! It's even weirder yet: Trump says this kind of stuff in front of a reporter? WTF?

Kim Davis Is Either Big Winner or Big Loser, Depending on Your Perspective

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 6:47 PM EDT

It looks like I have my answer about what will happen when Kim Davis reports back to work in the Rowan County clerk's office:

One of Davis’ deputy clerks, Brian Mason, said he will continue to issue licenses even if Davis instructs him to not do so. “Because of the federal court order,” Mason said when asked why he might buck his boss when she returns to work.

....Mason patiently answered a dozen reporters’ questions Wednesday when the clerk’s office opened for business, displaying the license he and five other deputy clerks have used since they assured Bunning they would comply with his order. Those revised licenses do not include Davis’ name, instead indicating the license is authorized by “the office of the Rowan County Clerk,” where it once indicated “the office of Kim Davis, Rowan County Clerk.”

....“It was an office decision,” Mason said when asked who authorized the change.

Davis will not have to personally issue marriage licenses to any gay couples, and the licenses themselves no longer have her name on them. This is what she asked for in the first place, so she ought to be satisfied. Right?

Republicans Have a Cunning New Plan to Deal With the Iran Agreement

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 5:21 PM EDT

For some reason, I've been a whirlwind of blogging activity over the past week or two. Don't ask me why. Partly, though, I think it's because it's so hard to take anything seriously lately. It's all Donald Trump and Kim Davis and dumb tax plans and other political theater. So I've ended up writing lots of short, not-entirely-serious posts about things that amuse me. That's pretty much all I can find.

Take my lunch break today. I learned two things. First, I like Round Table pizza and I wish my local store hadn't closed. Second, Republicans have a shiny new plan for dealing with their inevitable defeat on the Iran deal. Max Fisher explains the latest outbreak of serious governing from today's Republican Party:

The new hotness among Republicans is that they shouldn't bother voting to disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal, and instead should vote for a resolution that, according to Politico's Jake Sherman, "would delay a disapproval vote because they believe Obama has not disclosed some elements of the deal."

....Republicans, in this new plan, would argue that President Obama didn't live up to his promise to fully inform Congress about the Iran nuclear deal....The alleged "secret side deal" is an agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (the UN nuclear watchdog) and Iran over how the IAEA will conduct certain inspections and verification procedures of Iranian facilities.

The IAEA has such agreements with every country where it works....It is not a "side deal," nor is its existence secret; the nuclear deal requires the IAEA to monitor Iranian facilities, so naturally the IAEA was going to work out the logistical details of that with Tehran. As nuclear experts Mark Hibbs and Thomas Shea explained recently in the Hill, anyone with the most basic knowledge of the IAEA understands that this is how it works, and that this secrecy ultimately helps the IAEA — and thus the US — against Iran's nuclear program.

....The controversy is thus by definition impossible to resolve. And that's precisely the point....The future of Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal will thus probably look something like the never-ending political circus over the Benghazi attacks. There will be various conspiracy theories and outrage stories that will live on for years in right-wing media long after they have been debunked. You will hear about "Obama's secret side deal with the IAEA" from at least one family member at Thanksgiving.

It's hard to work up the energy to write about this stuff seriously. It just doesn't deserve it. It's transparent political theater designed to feed the outrage machine, and it's apparently getting more attention from Republicans than passing a budget, which they have only a few days to finish up. And even if they do eventually get around to the budget, it promises to be merely another round of political theater as tea partiers vie to force a government shutdown instead.

So what's a hardworking political blogger to do? Relax and figure that this too shall pass, I suppose. In the meantime, it's gonna be a long campaign.

Perhaps It's Time to Calm Down Over Apple's Annual Product Fest

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 3:02 PM EDT

I guess everyone knows I'm not an Apple fanboy, but I've still got to ask: how long can Apple keep the press corps salivating every time they stage a product announcement? Today's is being followed with the usual breathless real-time tweeting and front-page liveblogging, but what did Apple actually unveil? A modestly upgraded iPhone. An iPad with a bigger screen. And an Apple TV box with Siri and some new apps.

These are all perfectly serviceable upgrades. They'll probably be popular. But really, it's pretty unremarkable stuff. Is it really still worth covering these PR events as if Apple is revolutionizing the world?

POSTSCRIPT: Aside from Apple's expertise at showmanship, part of the reason for this is probably demographic. A few years ago I attended a meeting of 30 or 40 people from left-leaning media outlets. About 20 of them had laptops out, and of those, 17 were MacBooks. Apple products are insanely popular among a small slice of urbanish/liberalish journalists, and I suspect this leads them to believe that their readers are equally entranced by Apple news. And maybe they are! But I have my doubts.

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We Must Crack Down on Refugees, Except for Refugees Who Are in the News

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 2:38 PM EDT

Donald Trump, immigration warrior, three weeks ago:

Every year, we voluntarily admit another 2 million new immigrants, guest workers, refugees, and dependents, growing our existing all-time historic record population of 42 million immigrants....We need to stop giving legal immigrant visas to people bent on causing us harm....Specific policy proposals....Increase standards for the admission of refugees and asylum-seekers to crack down on abuses.

Donald Trump, Syrian refugee humanitarian, yesterday:

Do you have people from ISIS in that group? You know, there’s a lot of security risks with it. But, something has to be done. It’s an unbelievable humanitarian problem....I hate the concept of [admitting refugees to the US], but on a humanitarian basis, with what’s happening, you have to....It’s living in hell in Syria, there’s no question about it. They’re living in hell.

This is what makes Trump the perfect Republican: magical thinking doesn't slow him down a bit. Tax cuts and budget surpluses? Sure. Free trade and higher tariffs? Why not. Tougher rules for refugees and humanitarian relief for Syrian asylum-seekers? You bet.

Obviously this appeals to a lot of people. Policy is for wonks and eggheads. Real Americans don't worry about that kind of stuff. We want to be free to act like horrible people and to think of ourselves as charitable Good Samaritans. Tap into that, and you've got a powerful message. Let the hobgoblins of consistency get in the way, and you're a loser.

Underwater Welding Can Be an Excellent Career Option

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

True or false? You make the call:

It’s telling that, in today’s America, more parents would be likely to accept their five-year-old son’s declaration that he identifies as a girl than would accept their 18-year-old’s proclamation that he wants to be an underwater welder, even though the pay for that particular vocation ranges from $54,000 to well over $100,000.

I'm guessing this is false by at least a factor of 10 or 20. Maybe more. But aside from the peculiar culture war grievance-mongering, which pops up out of nowhere (in an essay about the value of vocational training), it highlights the odd propensity of verbal, well-educated types to assume that all of America shares their views. It's something that happens among both liberals and conservatives. For all their talk of understanding their working-class brethren, an awful lot of them sure don't seem to.

Anyway, I have no real reason to post this. For some reason it was briefly popular in my Twitter feed last night, so I eventually clicked and read it. Aside from that one sentence, it seems fairly unobjectionable. And for the record, as long as my daughter promised to wait half an hour after eating, I'd have no problem with her being an underwater welder.

Emailgate Is Pretty Much Finished, Isn't It?

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

Stop me if I'm wrong, but here's what we know about Hillary Clinton and her emails:

  • HRC used a private email server while she was Secretary of State.
  • This was allowed by government rules at the time and the FBI is not investigating any wrongdoing by HRC.
  • But it was probably not a wise thing to do anyway.
  • Some of the emails HRC received contained documents that were not classified at the time but are now considered secret.

So here's my question: what are we still investigating? What I mean by this is, even in theory what more could we possibly find out? I guess there's always the remote possibility of testimony from someone or other claiming that in 2009 Hillary discussed nefarious and career-killing reasons for setting up her own server. But really, what are the odds?

So I don't get it. Every time a new tranche of emails is released or Trey Gowdy leaks something or another, we get more stories about this. But what more can we possibly learn? We can all decide for ourselves how badly we think this affair reflects on Hillary, but there's not really any possibility of digging up anything more, is there?

Queen Elizabeth II Breaks British Record, Sets Eyes on Louis XIV

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 12:44 PM EDT

Congratulations to HRH Queen Elizabeth II, who becomes the longest reigning British monarch in history today. As of a few minutes ago, she had been queen for 23,226 days and 16 hours (63 years and 215 days), beating the previous record held by Queen Victoria. However, Elizabeth is a mere 89, and her mother lived to 101, so she may yet break the record by quite a bit—and she'll need every bit of that if she wants to break the all-time European record of Louis XIV, who reigned for 72 years. The longest reign of a British king remains America's favorite, George III, at a bit over 59 years.