Kevin Drum

When Will Republicans at Last Get Serious About National Security?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:23 AM EST

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page sings the praises of French President François Hollande:

French security forces Wednesday conducted hundreds of antiterror raids and placed more than 100 suspects under house arrest....Security forces found a weapons cache in the city of Lyon that included Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket launcher....France has some 11,500 names on government watch lists. Many are likely to be detained under the three-month state of emergency that Mr. Hollande declared after Friday’s attacks.

....Mr. Hollande has been right to declare war on Islamic State and order French bombing raids on its capital in eastern Syria. France is still a militarily capable nation, as it proved when it turned back an al Qaeda offensive in Mali in 2013. It can do significant damage to ISIS if it increases the tempo of its current bombing or deploys its Foreign Legion to liberate the city of Raqqa.

....Until America gets a new Commander in Chief, Mr. Hollande is the best antiterror leader the West has.

Hmmm. It's certainly true that Hollande has been among the most hawkish of European leaders. It's also true that France was one of the first to join the US air campaign against ISIS—though their military efforts so far have been little more than pinpricks. But let's roll the tape back to June 2014, when President Obama was first trying to put together a coalition. He and Hollande issued a joint communique with all the right promises, but as France 24 reported, "Behind that facade of unity, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS."

Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs....For the moment, however, no military measures are planned....Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

....The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

That's the best anti-terror leader the West has, according to the Journal. Nobody had "specifically" asked France, so Hollande decided to hang tight and see which way the wind was blowing.

This is the kind of thing that makes it so hard to talk about ISIS and terrorism. It's not as if this has been Obama's finest hour, after all, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the opposition has generally been much worse. Obama waffled over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then Congress bungled things further by refusing to approve Obama's call for retaliatory strikes—with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio joining in. Obama may have been late to recognize the threat from ISIS, but he's still the guy who put together the coalition. France has been a good partner in the fight against ISIS, but that happened only after Obama spent some time cajoling them into action.

And Republicans simply can't be bothered to take any of this seriously. They blather about Obama being weak, but when you ask them for their plans you just get nonsense. They demand "leadership"; they bask in cheap applause lines about a bigger military; they all chime in like puppets to agree on a no-fly zone; they suggest we stop worrying about civilian casualties; they propose more arms for the Kurds; they want to team up with Sunni tribal leaders without saying how they'd accomplish it; and they vaguely imply that we should bomb ISIS differently....or more....or with greater determination....or something.

None of this is remotely serious. A bigger military wouldn't affect ISIS. A no-fly zone wouldn't affect ISIS. Killing civilians would actively help ISIS. The Kurds aren't going to fight ISIS in Sunni territory. Sunni leaders aren't going to be reliable allies until they trust Baghdad to treat them equitably. And sure, we could bomb more, but there's not much point until we have the ground troops to back it up. But Republicans have been unanimously opposed to American troops all along, and Iraqi ground troops flatly aren't yet willing or able to do the job.

I hardly want to be in the position of pretending that Obama's ISIS strategy has been golden. But Republicans make him look like Alexander the Great. They treat the whole subject like a plaything, a useful cudgel during a presidential campaign. Refugees! Kurds! Radical Islam! We need to be tougher!

That isn't leadership. It barely even counts as coherent thought. It's just playground jeering. But right now, that's all we're getting from them.

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Jeb Bush Has Missed a Chance to Revitalize His Campaign

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 10:13 PM EST

I'm just noodling around here, but I wonder if Jeb Bush has blown a chance over the past few days. See, I figure his only hope of winning is to let everyone else fight it out for a share of the tea party vote while he gets the lion's share of the other half of the Republican Party. If he's the one guy who appeals to moderate Republicans, he can win.

Now, generally speaking, Jeb has been more moderate than the rest of the field in response to the Paris attacks. But should he have gone further? It wouldn't have been hard. Make a real case for taking in refugees. Propose a serious, conservative plan for dealing with ISIS instead of resorting to jingoism and shibboleths. Criticize the other candidates for fearmongering. Maybe even say that he agrees with President Obama that it's long past time for Congress to act on an authorization for military force against ISIS.

A serious, measured approach like this from a Republican candidate would have been so different, so unexpected, that it could have gotten him some real attention. The press would have swooned. Moderate conservatives would have noticed. Bush would have stood out from the field for the first time. And it would have played to his strengths instead of forcing him into a Trumpesque mold that he's obviously uncomfortable with.

And as an added bonus, it would have been the right thing to do. What's not to like?

Shopping Around Is the Key to Low Prices in Obamacare

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 7:56 PM EST

Abby Goodnough writes today about switching health care coverage each year during Obamacare's year-end open enrollment period:

The Obama administration is encouraging switching as a way to avoid steep increases in premiums — and to promote competition among insurers, as the law intends. Next year will be no different: The price of plans will rise in most states, and the administration says that 86 percent of people who currently have coverage through the federal exchange can find a better deal by switching.

“This may be just one of those environments where there’s a new normal,” said Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.

For many consumers, the volatility in the markets has been a source of anxiety and disruption. To have any choice at all is a welcome development, many say. But switching plans is also becoming an unwelcome ritual, akin to filing taxes, that is time-consuming and can entail searching for new doctors and hospitals each year.

This is unquestionably a downside to encouraging competition in the health insurance marketplace. As carriers jostle for position, the lowest-price coverage is going to change from year to year—and if you're a price-sensitive shopper, that means your coverage is going to change from year to year too.

I suspect this problem will settle down after a couple more years, as insurance companies get more experience with the Obamacare pool and get better at pricing their policies. In the meantime, though, it really does pay to shop around. A new Kaiser study of 2016 rate increases provides some concrete numbers. If you bought the cheapest silver plan in 2015 and then you stick with it in 2016, your premium may go up quite a bit. But if you shop around for the plan that has the lowest price in 2016, your premium will barely change at all. The chart on the right tells the story. For low-income buyers, shopping around means virtually no premium increase at all. For middle-income buyers, it means a larger but still pretty modest increase.

Moral of the story: If price is a major issue for you, shop around! It's a pain in the ass, but it pays off.

Even in the Hands of an Expert, Mockery Is Tough to Control

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 3:55 PM EST

I sort of promised myself that I wasn't going to comment again on the whole mockery thing, but President Obama's remarks yesterday are a pretty interesting case study of both the strength and weakness of mockery as a political tool. First, here's what he said about refugees at a press conference in the Philippines. I have a reason for including a very long excerpt, but feel free to skim it since the details aren't that important:

Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there.

And it is important for us to be reminded that we have to be vigilant, that rooting out these terrorist networks and protecting the homeland is hard work, and we can't be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks. That's why we built an entire infrastructure over the last decade-plus to make it much harder for terrorists to attack us; to go after terrorists where they live and plan these attacks; to coordinate with our partners and our allies; to improve our intelligence. All the work that we've been doing in our intelligence communities and our military over the last decade is in recognition of the fact that this is something we should be concerned about and we've got to work hard to prevent it.

But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media.

Understand, under current law, it takes anywhere from, on average, 18 to 24 months to clear a refugee to come into the United States. They are subjected to the most rigorous process conceivable. The intelligence community vets fully who they are. Biometrics are applied to determine whether they are, in fact, somebody who might threaten the United States. There is an entire apparatus of all of our law enforcement agencies and the center that we use for countering terrorism to check and ensure that a refugee is not admitted that might cause us harm.

And, if anything, over the last several years that the refugee crisis has emerged in Europe, we’ve been criticized that it is so cumbersome that it’s very difficult for us to show the kind of compassion that we need to for these folks who are suffering under the bombings of Assad and the attacks of ISIL. They’re victims of this terrorism.

And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome — we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn't admit three-year-old orphans  that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians — proven Christians  should be admitted  that’s offensive and contrary to American values.
I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.

OK. Got that? That was the first two minutes of Obama's remarks. He acknowledged the problem. He also acknowledged that a renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks was understandable. He explained that our screening process for Syrian refugees is extremely stringent. He said he didn't want to play into the hands of ISIS by stoking fear of Islam, and he criticized politicians who did so. No mockery. Just plenty of education and some tough words for partisan fearmongers.

Then he said this:

And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.

That's mockery. And here's the problem. Obama started off by speaking for a full two minutes calmly and rationally—exactly what I think he should have done. Then he briefly offered up a bit of mockery. I actually think that's OK too because it was prefaced with a deep and sustained acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

But can you guess how much of that first two minutes has been quoted? Can you guess how much of the mockery has been quoted? That's right: barely any of the former and mountains of the latter.

This is hardly surprising. The explanatory stuff is boring. How many of you read it all the way through? The mockery, on the other hand, is short and it makes great copy. Of course that's what everyone is going to focus on.

On the bright side, this means Obama got some press and the liberal base got stoked. On the downside, it means that your average reader got the impression that Obama tossed out a few jibes at Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and that was it. You don't even have to quote him out of context to make it look like he doesn't really care much about fears of refugees.

That's the risk of using mockery. Used on its own, it makes ordinary people feel like you're clueless and condescending. But even if you do it right, as Obama did, the way it's reported can end up having the same effect. And that effect is exactly the opposite of what liberals would like to accomplish. So if you care about the real world, and you care about public opinion, keep the mockery to a minimum. That doesn't mean you can't fight back, and it doesn't mean you have to go easy on the fearmongers. You can do both. Just do it in a way that doesn't immediately turn off the very people you'd like to persuade.

The SALt Lamp Explained

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 2:36 PM EST

You might have seen this in the New York Times today:

The president hosted a discussion of climate change at the chief executives’ forum along with Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Aisa Mijeno, a Filipino entrepreneur who invented a lamp that runs on saltwater.

In response to a question about her lamp from Mr. Obama, Ms. Mijeno said that it provided about eight hours of light, as well as power to a USB port for charging a phone. “And all you need to do is you just have to replenish the saltwater solution,” she said, “and then you have another eight hours of lighting.”

Just saltwater? Doesn't that seem like it violates some kind of energy conservation law?

Yes and no. The SALt lamp uses a fairly ordinary galvanic battery that consists of two electrodes and an electrolyte solution of salty water. Replenishing the saltwater will indeed get the lamp going again, but you also need to replace the anode every six months or so. There's no magic here, but there is a substantial engineering challenge. "It is made of tediously experimented and improved chemical compounds, catalysts, and metal alloys that when submerged in electrolytes will generate electricity," Mijeno explained earlier this year.

The other challenge is being able to manufacture the lamp so that it's reliable, cheap, and easy to maintain. If Mijeno's lamp works as advertised, it will produce about 90 lumens of light at a cost of $20, plus $3 every six months for a replacement anode. It's designed for areas with no electricity grid, and should be safer than kerosene lamps. She hopes to have it on the market in 2016.

Health Update

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 1:20 PM EST

I'm afraid the news can't always be good on the health front. I got my latest lab work yesterday and it wasn't encouraging. My immune system, after stabilizing last month, weakened again. My neutrophil count is down to 1500, which isn't quite in the danger zone but is mighty close. At the same time, my M-protein marker, which measures the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow, went up from 0.55 to 0.61. It looks like 0.55 might be as good as it gets, and that's nowhere close to zero. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that I can try a higher dose of my current chemo med with my immune system already so compromised.

Any single month can be an outlier, so there's no need to panic yet. I'll have another set of lab work in December, and I'll see my oncologist shortly after that. If the numbers haven't improved, I'll try a little harder than usual to drag some actual information out of her.

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Medicaid Provides Pretty Good Health Coverage for Children

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 12:30 PM EST

Via Harold Pollack, here's an interesting study of children's health care. The researchers investigated how good Medicaid coverage was, and the results were surprisingly positive. I have painstakingly modified the chart so that higher numbers are always better, and as you can see, reported satisfaction with Medicaid was equal to or better than private insurance on most measures, and very close on the others.

Now, this is only for children, and the results might be different for adults. Still, a lot of people—including me—generally think of Medicaid as fairly lousy coverage. If this study is correct, we need to rethink this.

Could Obama Have Prevented the Rise of ISIS in 2012?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 11:44 AM EST

Back in 2012, Fred Hof was President Obama's advisor for Syria. Today, Zack Beauchamp asks him if there was anything we could have done back then to prevent the rise of ISIS:

In mid-2012, President Obama's key national security officials — Clinton, Panetta, Petraeus, and Dempsey — all recommended a robust training and equipping effort designed to unite and strengthen nationalist anti-Assad rebels. One of the justifications for the recommendation was that they were beginning to see the rise of al-Qaeda-related elements in Syria.

Had that recommendation been accepted and then implemented properly, the ISIS presence in Syria would not be what it is today. Had the US been able to offer Syrian civilians a modicum of protection from Assad regime collective punishment — barrel bombs and all the rest — a major ISIS recruiting tool around the world and inside Syria could have been diluted and even neutralized.

That bolded phrase is doing a helluva lot of heavy lifting here. I wish Beauchamp had followed up and asked Hof if he thinks the US intelligence and military communities could, in fact, have implemented this policy effectively. Their recent efforts, which produced something like five trained rebels, don't inspire a ton of confidence. My guess is that Obama listened to their recommendations but concluded that in the real world, it wouldn't have worked. I suspect he was right.

We'll never know, of course, which means this can be a subject of debate pretty much forever. But there's sure nothing in the recent historical record to inspire a lot of faith in our ability to carry out a plan like this.

Here's Yet More Posturing From Republicans on National Security

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 1:10 AM EST

Here's the latest from congressional Republicans:

Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday his panel will launch a review of encryption use. Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) introduced a bill to extend a sweeping telephone data-collection program due to expire at month’s end.

“It is likely that end-to-end encryption was used to communicate in Belgium and France and Syria,” Mr. Burr said. He said encryption was likely because no direct communication among the terrorists was detected....Mr. Cotton’s bill would pause the expiration of a broad phone data-collection program run by the National Security Agency, which is set to end Nov. 29, until the president certifies that a planned replacement is equally effective.

This is crazy. Anyone smart enough to use end-to-end encryption isn't going to use a package from Microsoft or Google. They'll find an open-source app instead. There are plenty of them around, and there's nothing the US Congress can do to stop people from using them. As for the NSA's metadata program, it's always had the authority to collect surveillance on overseas users. Nothing about that has changed.

Neither of these proposals seems to be related in any serious way to the Paris attacks. Instead, the attacks are just being used as a handy excuse to push legislation these guys have wanted all along.

Someday we're going to get Republicans to take national security seriously. I don't know when. Hopefully it won't take as long as it does to get them to admit that climate change is real.

How Should Fear of Syrian Refugees Be Fought?

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 12:38 AM EST

My blog posts don't usually provoke a lot of outrage on social media. I'm just not that kind of writer. But today was an exception, when I suggested that lefties should tone down their mockery of calls to limit the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the country. That spurred hundreds of tweets from fellow lefties—some in support, but most of it hostile. Here's a sampling—and I promise I'm not cherry picking:

Mockery is a reasonable response to the ridiculous.

"Low information voters" == bad citizens.

It's the equivalent of the Japanese internment hysteria, it deserves ridicule.

"Syrian terrorists" may be an existential threat, but gun waving rednecks are more likely to shoot me. Mock them? Gimme a break.

This @kdrum article is exactly why people don't like mealy–mouthed Liberals. This is a moral issue, not a compromised tactic.

Same objections against Vietnamese, Jews, Irish... same ol' catering to nativism, again & again. No more, thank you.

If voters are too racist stupid or sheeple to support progressives Dems Sanders that's their fault not ours

Oh, their fears are understandable all right. Xenophobia is widely understood. So is naked racism and Islamophobia.

@kdrum wants us to treat these concerns as if they are good faith security concerns, not racism.

Many "ordinary" voters are racists & know-nothings who do not want to be educated *or* calmed. Listen to callers on talk radio.

Let's remember that it's politicians we are mocking.

Sure, this is just Twitter, not exactly famous for reasoned and thoughtful debate. Still, what's disheartening about this is that I don't think there's any disagreement on substance here. We all agree that we should accept Syrian refugees. We all agree that screening ought to be rigorous.1 We all agree that Republican fearmongering should be fought.

There are really only two disagreements. The first is whether fear of Syrian refugees is even understandable. Here's Charlie Pierce: "It is completely practical to believe that [ISIS] would try to infiltrate their fighters into this country under the cover of being refugees. They would have to be stupid not to try. Charlie Baker is not a bigot. Neither is Maggie Hassan. Their concerns are not posturing. They are not for show....They should be taken seriously and addressed seriously." I agree—and I'd suggest that anyone who thinks these concerns are just ridiculous bedwetting is pretty far out of touch with ordinary folks.

Second, how should this fear be addressed? Here's the problem: people won't even listen to you unless they think you take their concerns seriously. That's why, for example, liberals mostly dismiss conservative posturing about race: we don't believe they even take the problem of racism seriously in the first place. And probably the best way to convince people that you don't take a problem seriously is to mock it.

Maybe it's true that we're only mocking some of the most egregious politicians. And maybe it's true that they deserve it. But who cares? Ordinary voters won't make the distinction—they'll just hear the mockery—and it doesn't matter what anyone deserves. What matters is what works. On issues of interest only to wingnuts, go ahead and mock. We're not going to persuade them of anything no matter what. But on issues like this, where a quite understandable fear is shared by a broad slice of the electorate, mockery is death. We can persuade these folks, and the way to do it is to acknowledge the problem and then fight the fear with facts.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. But it's got a way better chance than mockery does. For a good example of how to do it, check out President Obama's comments tonight. There were a couple of sentences of ridicule in there, but nearly all of it was a firm, fact-based pushback against fear of letting in refugees. Obama didn't give in to bigotry or xenophobia, and he was plenty tough on Republicans. But he took the fears seriously and wasn't guilty of mockery.2 That's how it's done.

1Which it already is. Refugee screening in America is an extremely long and arduous process.

2Not much, anyway. For some reason, conservatives get revved up by outrage while liberals get revved up by mockery. I'm not really sure why. And in small doses on the right occasions, it's fine. If you're a comedian, it's fine. If you're in private among friends, it's fine. But if it becomes your default public response even to the ordinary fears of ordinary people, you've lost the argument before it even begins.