Kevin Drum

It's Hard to Say It, But US Policy Toward Terrorist Ransom Demands Is Probably Right

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

Rukmini Callimachi's story in the New York Times today about the anger and frustration of James Foley's family over their treatment by the US government is heartbreaking. Foley was among dozens of hostages being held by ISIS, but one of the few to be murdered. Why? Because the others were Europeans, and European governments routinely pay ransoms to win the release of their citizens:

“The F.B.I. didn’t help us much — let’s face it,” Diane Foley said in a telephone interview. “Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid, or should be paid,” she said. “It was horrible — and continues to be horrible. You are between a rock and a hard place.”

....The United States and Britain are among the only countries that abide by a zero-concession policy, refusing to accede to terrorists’ demands, arguing that doing so encourages more kidnapping. By contrast, European countries have repeatedly paid to free their citizens, despite signing numerous declarations vowing not to, prompting condemnation from former American officials and analysts.

....As early as February of this year, the Europeans proceeded from requesting proof of life to making a ransom counteroffer, according to a person closely involved in the crisis who said the average sum negotiated per person was around €2 million.

The Foleys and the other American families were left to answer the emails themselves and kept largely in the dark....The families said they had little evidence that the kidnappings had become a major concern for the Obama administration, though they acknowledge that they were not necessarily aware of all of the government’s efforts. While they reached out to the State Department and were repeatedly told “everything was being done,” they said they never had any clear indication that this was a policy priority.

The Foley family has been berating the Obama administration for the death of their son ever since the video of his beheading was released, and who can blame them? If I were in their shoes, I'd probably feel exactly the same way, and I probably would have been desperate to try to raise the ransom money.

But the hard truth is that this is why I wouldn't have been in charge of the government's response. There's very little concrete research that tells us whether the US non-negotiation policy is effective, but common sense suggests that it is. And at the very least, it starves terrorist groups of a flow of cash they can use to finance their operations. The European approach may seem more humane, but it's largely driven by political cowardice—their governments are afraid of the public backlash if they get stuck in a long-running hostage situation—and seems highly likely to lead to more hostages and more deaths in the long run.

Of course, we now know that the US government was trying to free Foley and the others. But the rescue mission failed, and the Foleys, of course, were told nothing of it beforehand.

How hard-hearted do you have to be to say that, sadly, the Foleys are wrong and US government policy is right? I'm not sure. But that's how it strikes me. And I have nothing but contempt for conservative writers who have used this episode as an excuse for launching crude attacks on Obama. If you think the United States should change its policy regarding ransom demands, then have the guts to say so. Otherwise, keep your yap shut. The Foleys have an excuse for their grief. No one else has an excuse for exploiting it.

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Americans Are Refreshingly Realistic About the ISIS Threat

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 6:28 PM EDT

Paul Waldman draws my attention to a new Pew poll with an interesting result. Hawkish Republicans have been running around for the past month insisting that ISIS terrorists are a direct threat to the United States, and therefore we have to fight them in Iraq so they don't come over here and start killing helpless women and small children en masse.

But apparently hardly anyone is buying it. Only 18 percent of Americans think that fighting ISIS will reduce the odds of a terrorist attack on US soil. And there's not a big difference between the parties. Even among Republicans, only 23 percent think a military campaign against ISIS will make us safer at home. That's a refreshingly realistic appraisal.

But why? Is it because the Republican fear campaign is so transparently unhinged? Or is it because of President Obama's unusually low-key approach to the ISIS campaign? I'd like to think it's at least partly the latter. I'm not very excited about any kind of campaign against ISIS at the moment, but as a second-best alternative, it's at least nice to see it being sold to the public as a case of having to eat our vegetables rather than as yet another exciting bomb-dropping adventure in defense of our national honor. It's a step in the right direction, anyway.

Madam Secretary? Seriously?

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 4:27 PM EDT

I may be off my rocker for wondering about this, but here goes. You've seen the ads for Madam Secretary, right? (Aside from those of you who shun TV as unworthy of your attention, of course.) Téa Leoni stars as a smart, tough, engaged, down-to-earth, problem-solving secretary of state who gets results by doing the right thing.

Now, sure, her husband is not a former US president. So she isn't quite just a gauzy, fictionalized depiction of Hillary Clinton. But she's close! And considering that secretary of state is surely one of the least glamorous positions in the federal government—another grueling day working the phones with fellow foreign ministers, hooray!—it's pretty hard not to see this as a fairly transparent attempt to make Hillary look like presidential timber. At least, that's what I'd think if I were either a Republican or any Democrat thinking of running against her.

On the other hand, shows like this usually flop, so maybe it won't work out. Or maybe Hillary will look wan and fainthearted compared to the hard charging, damn-the-politics Elizabeth McCord. I dunno. But it sure seems like a helluva coincidence, doesn't it?

Obama Has Indeed Learned Some Foreign Policy Lessons, Just Not the Ones the Establishment Likes

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 2:13 PM EDT

Over at FP, David Rothkopf has a long and critical examination of President Obama's foreign policy. Unfortunately, it starts with a biting assessment from "one of America's most dependable Middle Eastern allies," which is almost single-handedly enough to disqualify it as serious analysis. Anyone who still thinks that America's "most dependable" Mideast allies have anything but their own ancient parochial hatreds at heart really needs to find a different line of work.

But for some reason I kept reading. And as usual, among the endless parade of Obama horror stories, Syria looms the largest:

On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama met with reporters to discuss the crisis in Syria....In an unscripted moment, he suggested that he would take action against the Syrian regime if it used chemical weapons....Despite intelligence reports of multiple violations of that red line, the White House managed to ignore or sidestep the issue — that is, until exactly one year later, when, on Aug. 21, 2013, a major chemical-weapons attack claimed the lives of an estimated 1,429 people in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.

The tripwire strung by the president himself had been clearly and unmistakably tripped. Now, his credibility was at stake.

Three days later, Obama met with his national security team and indicated that he was inclined to strike Syria....Lacking many close relationships with European or other world leaders, he called one of the few he thought he could count on: British Prime Minister David Cameron....But Obama, Cameron, and their teams would soon discover that they had moved too quickly and had badly miscalculated....Parliament rejected Cameron's call to arms.

This coincided with the U.S. Congress's growing doubts about the action. Some, perhaps most, of this was politics....Despite these headwinds, by the afternoon of Aug. 30, 2013, the White House appeared set to follow through on the limited-attack option....But later that afternoon, the president went on a walk around the South Lawn of the White House with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough....Afterward, when the two joined a small group of top advisors in the Oval Office, Obama reportedly announced, "I have a big idea I want to run by you guys," and then segued into his new plan to put action on hold until he could get a formal vote of congressional support.

...."This was the real turning point for the administration's foreign policy," a former senior Obama advisor told me. "This was when things really started to go bad."

With Syria festering for more than two years amid pleas to the United States for leadership and support from longtime regional allies, the media was primed to respond, and many critics immediately assailed the president for being indecisive....It also set a precedent that would seemingly require the president to seek congressional approval for future military actions, even though the War Powers Resolution explicitly notes that he does not require it.

Rothkopf takes this as a fatal error, but it's telling what he thinks the error is. Obama has long had a fairly consistent belief that you should avoid bellicose, uncompromising rhetoric, but on August 20, 2012, he momentarily forgot that and set his infamous red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons. A year later, with his "credibility" at stake—perhaps the cause of more dumb wars than anything else in history—he was inclined to launch a military strike on Syria. But then he thought harder about it and decided to see if there was any support for the idea. As it turned out, there wasn't. Despite the endless hectoring of Republicans, when it came time to actually support a military response, they decided that playing politics was more important. And so Obama backed down.

Rothkopf thinks this was Obama's big mistake. But there's an alternative reading: that setting the red line in the first place was the real mistake. It took a while, but eventually Obama concluded that maybe it wasn't wise to let our foreign policy be dictated by a brief, intemperate remark. Figuring that out, rather than being goaded into a pointless response, is a rare sign of wisdom in a president, most of whom serve out their entire terms in endless fear of the media questioning their credibility.

The rest of Rothkopf's piece is choppy and incoherent enough that I couldn't really make sense of it. He thinks George Bush deserves credit for finally adopting a more diplomatic approach to foreign affairs in his second term, but criticizes Obama for continuing it. He praises Bush for adopting a more coherent foreign policy with less infighting in his second term, but criticizes Obama for basically doing the same thing from the start. He's obscurely critical of Obama's habit of asking everyone in a meeting for their opinions, and then not making a decision instantly. I don't quite know why. And there's the usual criticism of disjointed decision making and personality conflicts, which as near as I can tell has been a staple of foreign policy thumbsuckers since about the time of George Washington.

More generally, Rothkopf criticizes Obama for not learning from his mistakes, but he seems not to understand that Obama has learned from his mistakes. Among other things, he's learned that even the limited appetite he had for military intervention in his first term was probably too much. In his second term, he's even more reticent to use military force. But apparently this doesn't count as a lesson learned. Not in the world of serious foreign policy, anyway.

Here's the Defense of Unsalted Pasta Water That Darden Won't Make Itself

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 1:06 PM EDT

Over at Vox, a virtual water cooler for the world's most pressing problems, Matt Yglesias tells us that Darden is fighting back against charges that it has mismanaged Olive Garden. But he's unimpressed with their PowerPoint deck:

The entire Darden counter-presentation has nothing to say about salting the water. And to be clear, this is a 22 slide presentation. They had plenty of opportunity to explain themselves, apologize, or deny it. Instead, they're just keeping quiet.

Here at MoJo, an entirely different virtual water cooler for the world's most pressing problems, I don't know anything about cooking pasta. However, one of my readers claims he does. So here's the defense that Darden has declined to offer on its own:

I acknowledge that salting the water is a common and recommended practice for both pasta and dried beans, but this practice has the effect of toughening the outer surface of both pasta and beans during the cooking process. If you wait to add salt until after the cooking is completed the texture of the boiled food will be more tender. This does not mean it can’t be “al dente,” which refers to the structure of the complete noodle (or bean), just that the skin or surface is not tough. Try it.

So there you have it. Feel free to discuss this critical issue in comments.

Maybe Obama Can Change the Way We Think About War

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

Over the weekend, Peter Baker wrote a story about President Obama's cautious, calculated approach to the fight against ISIS. It is, Obama says, a reaction against the frenzied buildup to the Iraq War in 2002-03:

In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.

“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said.

His introspection that afternoon reflected Mr. Obama’s journey from the candidate who wanted to wind down America’s overseas wars to the commander in chief who just resumed and expanded one....He alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.

“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”

....This account of Mr. Obama’s thinking as he arrived at a pivotal point in his presidency is based on interviews with 10 people who spoke with him in the days leading up to his speech Wednesday night....The president invited a group of foreign policy experts and former government officials to dinner on Monday, and a separate group of columnists and magazine writers for a discussion on Wednesday afternoon.

What I'm curious about is why Obama is so intent on making this public. Obviously you don't invite a bunch of columnists and reporters for a chat—off the record or otherwise—unless you intend for everyone in the world to hear what you said. In fact, this is a bit of theater in its own right, since a supposedly "private" meeting is bound to get more attention than a garden-variety interview.

So....why? Is it something of a sop to his base, trying to assure them that he's not planning to let the current fight morph into Iraq War 2.0? Is it hubris, making sure everyone in the foreign policy community knows that he doesn't care what they think? Is it a deliberate jab against the media and its complicity in ramping up war fever? Or does he truly think that the Beltway punditocracy will respond favorably to this kind of thing?

It's all very strange. It's obvious that Obama truly believes he's being cautious and wants everyone to know that this is deliberate, not merely the ramblings of a tortured executive who can't make up his mind. Perhaps he's trying his best to normalize this kind of decisionmaking about war, since it's basically unheard of in modern history. If that's the case, then I wish him the best of luck.

And you know what? He might actually be having an effect. He might really be embarrassing a few people into facing up to their tacit assumption that the only kind of strong foreign policy is one that involves both liberal use of the military and plenty of Churchillian rhetoric to go along with it. Maybe he really is normalizing a more levelheaded approach to the world's problems. That would certainly account for the almost insane gibbering we've been getting lately from folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have apparently been driven mad at the thought that all-war-all-the-time might be losing its appeal as the default foreign policy of serious people. Who knows? Maybe a few serious people are even starting to see it for the folly that it actually is.

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There's an Easier Way to Get Rid of Plastic Bags

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Katie Rose Quandt explains why banning plastic bags is no panacea:

Although plastic bags' manufacture is relatively energy intensive (according to the Australian government, a car could drive 36 feet with the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag), other kinds of bags use even more fossil fuel. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag must be used 12 times before its global warming impact is lower than continuing to use disposable bags, according to a study by the UK Environment Agency. A cotton bag takes 132 uses, and a paper bag—which will still be legal with California's ten-cent fee—must be used four times before its global warming impact is less than using single-use bags.

What a mess. Carbon taxes are no panacea either, but this is a pretty good example of why they're so useful. Instead of sponsoring endless studies of the carbon impact of various bags—and then trying to educate consumers about these studies—just tax carbon and forget about it. The carbon-intensive bags will rise in price and eventually, if plastic bags really are the worst option, they'll get priced out of the market. No muss, no fuss. And if consumers decide to pay for them anyway, that's not a big problem either. It just means they'll have less money to spend on other carbon-intensive activities. One way or another, it will come out in the wash.

The downside, of course, is that this only accounts for carbon. If you want to ban plastic bags for other reasons, then you'll just have to go ahead and ban them. But that's true of everything. A carbon tax doesn't solve every problem on the planet, but it does quickly and cleanly provide a price signal that reduces the demand for carbon-intensive products.

And it's a pretty market-friendly mechanism, too, so conservatives ought to like it. Except for the fact that it is, unquestionably, a tax, and we all know that taxes are verboten as long as a single Republican with breath in his body remains in Congress. So we'll get no carbon tax in the foreseeable future, even though it would be good for the planet; allow us to cut taxes in other areas; and make everyone's lives easier. Maybe someday.

How Should the NFL Handle Domestic Violence Cases in the Future?

| Sun Sep. 14, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

I was browsing the paper this morning and came across an op-ed by sports writer Jeff Benedict about Ray Rice and the NFL's problem with domestic violence. After the usual review of the league's egregious mishandling of the Rice incident over the past few months, we get this:

So this nagging truth remains: It should not take a graphic video to get the NFL to do the right thing. For too long the NFL has had an antiquated playbook when it comes to players who commit domestic violence.

....NFL players aren't like men in the general population, especially in the eyes of children. Rather, NFL players are seen as action heroes who epitomize strength, athleticism and toughness. That's why so many kids emulate them. And that's why one instance of a celebrated player using his muscle to harm a woman is too many.

Etc.

I read to the end, but that was about it. And it occurred to me that this piece was representative of nearly everything I've read about the Rice affair. There was lots of moral outrage, of course. That's a pretty cheap commodity when you have stomach-turning video of a pro football player battering a woman unconscious in an elevator. But somehow, at the end, there was nothing. No recommendation about what the NFL's rule on domestic violence should be.

So I'm curious: what should it be? Forget Rice for a moment, since we need a rule that applies to everyone. What should be the league's response to a player who commits an act of domestic violence? Should it be a one-strike rule, or should it matter if you have no prior history of violence? Should it depend on a criminal conviction, or merely on credible evidence against the player? Should it matter how severe the violence is? (Plenty of domestic violence cases are much more brutal than Rice's.) Or should there be zero tolerance no matter what the circumstances? How about acts of violence that aren't domestic? Should they be held to the same standard, or treated differently? And finally, is Benedict right that NFL players should be sanctioned more heavily than ordinary folks because they act as role models for millions of kids? Or should we stick to a standard that says we punish everyone equally, regardless of their occupation?

Last month the NFL rushed out new punishment guidelines regarding domestic violence after enduring a tsunami of criticism for the way it handled Rice's suspension. Details here. Are these guidelines reasonable? Laughable? Too punitive? I think we've discussed the bill of particulars of the Ray Rice case to exhaustion at this point, so how about if we talk about something more concrete?

Given the circumstances and the evidence it had in hand, how should the NFL have handled the Ray Rice case? And more importantly, how should they handle domestic violence cases in general? I'd be interested in hearing some specific proposals.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

A few of you have written to ask if we plan to get another cat. The answer is probably yes, but not immediately.  And what does "not immediately" mean? There's no telling. A new cat could walk into our lives tomorrow, or it might take a little while longer. We'll see.

In the meantime, my mother's cats continue to be perky and photogenic, and ever since she learned how easy it is to take pictures with her iPad and email them directly to me, I've been getting more photos of her brood. Below you can see the latest. Mozart has pretty plainly settled in to alpha cat status, and Ditto just as plainly isn't quite sure he's happy about that. But it's too late. Ditto has the bulk, but I think Mozart has whatever indefinable feline quality it is that makes him boss. It's his house now.

If You Want Good Workers, You Need to Pay Market Wages

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Today the Wall Street Journal is running yet another article about the inability of manufacturing companies to attract good employees. And Dean Baker is annoyed:

If employers can't get enough workers then we would expect to see wages rising in manufacturing.

They aren't. Over the last year the average hourly wage rose by just 2.1 percent, only a little higher than the inflation rate and slightly less than the average for all workers. This follows several years where wages in manufacturing rose less than the economy-wide average....If an employer wants to hire people she can get them away from competitors by offering a higher wage. It seems that employers in the manufacturing sector may need this simple lesson in market economic to solve their skills shortage problem.

The chart on the right shows what Baker is talking about. It's a slightly different series than the one he uses in his post, but it makes the same point. Manufacturing wages are rising more slowly than in the rest of the economy. If manufacturing companies are really desperate for qualified workers, they have a funny way of showing it.

Now, it's possible that what they really mean is that they don't think they can be competitive if they have to pay higher wages. So they want lots of well-qualified employees to work for below-market wages. And who knows? That's possible. But if that's really the problem, then apprentice programs and skills training aren't likely to solve it.