Kevin Drum

CIA Director Delivers Some Blunt Talk About....Climate Change

| Tue Nov. 17, 2015 12:28 AM EST

In an address this morning, the New York Times says CIA director John Brennan used "unusually raw language" to talk about covert surveillance programs. Here's what Brennan said:

In the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging. And I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence security services are doing by some quarters that are designed to undercut those capabilities.

I don't happen to think that a concern over a massive program of warrantless domestic surveillance is "handwringing," but OK. That's Brennan's opinion. However, for all the people pointing to Brennan as a voice of authority for his blunt talk about surveillance, how about if we also pay attention to his blunt talk about climate change?

Across the globe, in both authoritarian and democratic societies, governments are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the demands, realistic or not, of their skeptical and restive populaces....Mankind’s relationship with the natural world is aggravating these problems and is a potential source of crisis itself. Last year was the warmest on record, and this year is on track to be even warmer. Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water supplies, can worsen or create humanitarian crises. Of the most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

There's some real talk for you, straight from the mouth of the CIA director.

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Congratulations! Americans Are Pretty Honest Folks.

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 8:31 PM EST

Let's switch the subject to pop sociology. Or maybe it's pop anthropology. I can never quite keep them separate. Anyway, this post is about a recent study that investigates which countries are most honest.

David Hugh-Jones a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, recruited about 100 people each from eight countries and sat them down for an online test. First, they were told to flip a coin and report the results. Second, they took a short music quiz that included three really hard questions—but they were told not to use the internet to look up the answers. If their coin came up heads, they got $5. If they got a perfect score on the quiz, they got $5.

You would expect 50 percent of the players to flip heads, so anything above 50 percent represents cheating. You would expect roughly zero percent of the players to get more than one of the hard questions correct, so any mean score above one also represents cheating.

Hugh-Jones did not himself concoct an overall honesty score, so I went ahead and made up one myself. I just normalized the scores on each of the two tests to 100 and then averaged them together. The chart below tells the tale.

So there you go. The Chinese are the least honest and Brits are the most honest. Does this mean anything? It might, assuming you think this methodology actually tells us anything meaningful about national attitudes toward honesty. I pretty much don't, for a whole bunch of reasons. But I was feeling kind of desperate to write about something other than ISIS, so here you go.

UPDATE: This post was originally based on a working version of the paper that included only eight countries and came to some conclusions that the final paper didn't. I have rewritten the post and redrawn the chart to represent the results of the final paper.

And Now For Some Turkish Cats....

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 5:34 PM EST

Maybe you've seen this before, maybe you haven't. But if you'd like a little break from the manliness contest being waged among Republican presidential candidates, here's the latest security breach at the G20 conference. The lesson is clear: we need to focus on the true threats to human civilization.

Let the Mudslinging Begin

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 5:18 PM EST

Hugh Hewitt quotes President Obama today:

What I'm not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of "American leadership" or "America winning."

Goodness, that sure sounds pusillanimous. I wonder how Obama can stand to look at himself in the mirror each—oh, hold on. What's that? There's more to the quote?

What I'm not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of "American leadership" or "America winning," or whatever other slogans they come up with, that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France.

And if you want even more, here's what Obama really said:

My only interest is to end suffering and to keep the American people safe. And if there’s a good idea out there, then we’re going to do it....But what we do not do, what I do not do, is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough, or make me look tough.

....We'll do what’s required to keep the American people safe. And I think it's entirely appropriate in a democracy to have a serious debate about these issues....But what I'm not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning, or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people, and to protect people in the region who are getting killed, and to protect our allies and people like France. I'm too busy for that.

I guess this is going to be "You didn't build that" all over again. I can hardly wait. Elsewhere, Donald Trump is crowing that (a) Obama just told Putin how important the Russian airstrikes against ISIS have been and  (b) now we're attacking the oil, just like he said a long time ago. "I TOLD YOU SO!" he tweeted. Except that (a) Obama actually told Putin he would like Russia to start striking ISIS, and (b) we've been attacking ISIS oil convoys all along. According to the Pentagon, we've carried out three or four airstrikes per week against ISIS oil infrastructure. And anyway, didn't Trump actually recommend that we encircle the ISIS oil fields?

Sigh. I guess none of this matters. We're now entering a period in which conservatives are going to start playing "Can You Top This?" on ISIS. A week ago they talked big but were afraid to actually commit themselves to any serious action. Now, we're in a war of civilizations and soon they'll be outbidding each other on how many divisions they're willing to ship overseas and how best to describe the complete and total inaction that the appeaser Obama has been engaged in.

I think I'm going to go take a nap.

Why Did the Media Ignore the Beirut Bombings One Day Before the Paris Attacks?

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 2:16 PM EST

After the Paris attacks, a popular tweet made the rounds asking why the media was covering it so heavily when they'd ignored a pair of ISIS suicide bombings in Beirut just the day before. Over at Vox, Max Fisher says this is just plain wrong:

The New York Times covered it. The Washington Post, in addition to running an Associated Press story on it, sent reporter Hugh Naylor to cover the blasts and then write a lengthy piece on their aftermath. The Economist had a thoughtful piece reflecting on the attack's significance. CNN, which rightly or wrongly has a reputation for least-common-denominator news judgment, aired one segment after another on the Beirut bombings. Even the Daily Mail, a British tabloid most known for its gossipy royals coverage, was on the story. And on and on.

Yet these are stories that, like so many stories of previous bombings and mass acts of violence outside of the West, readers have largely ignored.

It is difficult watching this, as a journalist, not to see the irony in people scolding the media for not covering Beirut by sharing a tweet with so many factual inaccuracies.

I get Fisher's point, but come on. There's coverage and then there's coverage. On November 14, the New York Times dedicated a huge banner headline and nearly its entire front page to the Paris attacks. On November 13—well, don't bother looking for their Beirut story. Fisher is right that they had one, but it ran on page A6. And Vox itself? Beirut was relegated to one mention in its "Sentences" roundup on Thursday. By my count, Paris has so far gotten 26 separate posts.

It's true that readers tend to tune out reports of violence in the Middle East and other non-rich countries, but so does the media. Justifiable or not, there's plenty of blame to go around here.

The Return of the Warblogs

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 12:14 PM EST

We're in a war of civilizations. If you won't say radical Islam, you aren't serious. We need to fight them there so we don't have to fight them here. They hate us for our freedoms.

I really hoped I'd heard the last of this nonsense around 2003, but I guess not. The sensibility of the post-9/11 warblogs is back, along with all the overweening confidence in amateurish geo-religious belligerence that fueled them the first time around. But at least this time, in the midst of the panic, we have a president who says this when he's asked about committing more ground troops to the fight against ISIS:

We would see a repetition of what we've seen before: If you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremists, that they resurface unless you're prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.

The war against ISIS will be won when Iraq gains the political maturity to provide a working army that's not merely a tool of the endless Sunni-Shia civil war in the Middle East. Absent that, we could turn Anbar into a glassy plain, and all that would happen is that something worse than ISIS would crop up.

There's a lot we can do to defeat ISIS, and most of it we're already doing. Airstrikes? Check. Broad coalition? Check. Working with Arab allies? Check. Engage with Sunni tribal leaders? Check. Embed with the Iraqi military? Check. There's more we could do, but often it's contradictory. You want to arm the Kurds and create a partnership with the Iraqi government? Good luck. You want to defeat Assad and ISIS? You better pick one. You want to avoid a large American ground force and you want to win the war fast? Not gonna happen. Everyone needs to face reality: This is going to be a long effort, and there are no magic slogans that are going to win it. Unfortunately, they can make things worse.

The Paris attacks were barbaric and tragic. Let's try not to turn our response to them into a tragedy as well.

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President Obama's Air Campaign Against ISIS

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 10:49 AM EST

By popular demand, here is a chart version of last night's post about the French airstrike on Sunday vs. the ongoing coalition air campaign. Note that we've dropped a total of about 28,000 bombs and missiles over the past year, and so far the effect has been real but modest. There's just a limit to what air power can do, especially in a region like northern Iraq.

What Kind of Bombing Campaign Against ISIS Do Republicans Want?

| Sun Nov. 15, 2015 10:54 PM EST

On Sunday night, France launched a series of airstrikes against ISIS in retaliation for the Paris attacks. The Washington Post called it a "furious assault." The New York Times called it "aggressive," CNN said it was a "major bombardment," and McClatchy called it a "fierce bombing campaign." The French themselves called it "massive," and the LA Times, Fox News, and the Guardian agreed.

The French assault comprised 10 aircraft and 20 bombs.

Since the beginning of the American-led air campaign against ISIS, the coalition has launched 8,000 airstrikes and dropped about 28,000 bombs on ISIS sites in Iraq and Syria. In other words, we've been launching about 17 airstrikes and dropping 60 bombs per day. Every day. For over a year.

And yet this campaign is routinely described as feckless and weak.

We could certainly amp up the air campaign against ISIS, especially if we take Ted Cruz's advice and stop worrying about civilian casualties. But I guess I'd like to hear specifics. How many airstrikes do you think we need? We've done hundreds per day for short periods in other wars. Is that enough? Should we start ignoring Turkey and Iraq and our other allies and bomb wherever and whenever we want? Do you think that will be enough to put ISIS out of business?

Inquiring minds want to know. If President Obama's current campaign against ISIS is feeble and timid, what kind of campaign do you want? Can we hear some details, please?

Buy Silver! (Health Insurance, That Is)

| Sun Nov. 15, 2015 6:21 PM EST

In the New York Times today, Robert Pear writes that Obamacare has a big problem: high deductibles. And this is true. Many bronze plans have deductibles of several thousand dollars, making them all but useless except as catastrophic coverage. But if you just go to and look for the cheapest plan, bronze is what you'll end up with.

The answer, for many low-income people, is to choose a silver plan. It's a little more expensive, but the terms of the insurance are far more generous. That's especially true if you take into account Cost Sharing Reduction, a feature of Obamacare that low-income families qualify for automatically but don't find out about until they're at the very end of the application process. It doesn't show up if you're just window shopping. However, as Andrew Sprung points out today, CSR changes the picture considerably.

Sprung may well be the nation's top expert in CSR, and I think he's closing in on his millionth written word about it. I, however, will do it all in a dozen. I went to and randomly chose Richmond, Virginia.  My baseline is a family of three earning $40,000, with the parents in their early thirties. Here's the cost of equivalent Anthem plans with federal subsidies included:

The silver plan costs about $50 per month more. But my family's income puts them at just under 200 percent of the poverty level, which means they qualify for a generous CSR. Compared to bronze, their individual deductible goes down from $5,500 to $250. Their individual out-of-pocket max goes down from $6,850 to $1,450. Their copay for a doctor's visit is less, their copay for a hospital visit is less, and their copay for prescription drugs is less.

As Sprung tirelessly points out, CSR is only available with silver plans. This makes the bottom line simple: Low-income families trying to buy serious health insurance on an exchange should always buy silver. Bronze is basically catastrophic insurance for 20-something kids who are certain they'll never use it. Silver is modestly more expensive, but the benefits are worth it, even if you have to scrimp to afford it.

Let's Take a Look at How Tough Republicans Would Be Against ISIS

| Sun Nov. 15, 2015 2:10 PM EST

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, conservatives are eagerly taking the opportunity to accuse Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of fecklessness and appeasement for not taking a harder line against ISIS. We need someone with the guts to lead, and who isn't afraid to use the term radical Islam. Apparently that's important.

Maybe so. But ground troops are the only way to destroy ISIS in the short term, and the Republican presidential candidates have all been oddly reluctant to get behind a serious American invasion force. So before we allow them to get too far up on their high horses about how tough they'd be, here's a reminder of what they were saying about ISIS before two days ago.

Donald Trump wants to take away oil fields controlled by ISIS, but has explicitly dodged the question of whether he would use a substantial ground force to do it. His preference is for an air campaign: "I would just bomb those suckers. That's right. I'd blow up the pipes. I'd blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left."

From Tuesday's debate: "If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%."

Jeb Bush has previously ruled out a "major commitment" of ground troops. He would support a modest increase in "supportive" troops, and wants to unite the moderate anti-Assad forces in Syria. But he also thinks Trump is crazy.

From the debate: "Let ISIS take out Assad, and then Putin will take out ISIS?....That's not how the real world works. We have to lead, we have to be involved. We should have a no fly zone in Syria."

Carly Fiorina has specifically said ground troops are unnecessary. Our allies should provide any troops necessary.

From the debate: "We must have a no fly zone in Syria....We also have a set of allies in the Arab Middle East that know that ISIS is their fight....King Abdullah of Jordan....The Egyptians, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Bahrainis, the Emirati, the Kurds....They must see leadership support and resolve from the United States of America."

Marco Rubio said last year the he would like to see a permanent US presence in the Middle East. "I'm not saying 100,000 troops, but certainly some level that allows us to project power quickly and confront challenges and threats." More recently, he's backed off that position: "ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamic group. They need to be defeated on the ground by a Sunni military force with air support from the United States." And this: "Intervening doesn't mean ground troops. Intervening can be a lot of things." His official position on his website specifically recommends air strikes, special ops, training, arms for Sunni and Kurdish forces, diplomacy, financial targeting, and better PR. It does not mention ground troops.

From the debate: "ISIS is now in Libya....Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia....They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own."

Ben Carson has suggested that ground troops "might" be necessary, but has declined to go any further.

From the debate: "We're talking about global jihadists....We have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. Outside of Anbar in Iraq, there's a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I've learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there."

Ted Cruz has suggested that Kurdish pesh merga are all we need: "We need boots on the ground, but they don't necessarily need to be American boots. The Kurds are our boots on the ground." Cruz has generally dodged specific questions about sending in American troops, instead supporting an "overwhelming" American air campaign.

From the debate: Cruz declined to address ISIS during the debate.

And just for comparison, here is Hillary Clinton on her website:

ISIS and the foreign terrorist fighters it recruits pose a serious threat to America and our allies. We will confront and defeat them in a way that builds greater stability across the region, without miring our troops in another misguided ground war. Hillary will empower our partners to defeat terrorism and the ideologies that drive it, including through our ongoing partnership to build Iraqi military and governing capacity, our commitment to Afghanistan’s democracy and security, and by supporting efforts to restore stability to Libya and Yemen.

So Hillary is a little bit more categorical about not using American ground troops, but basically she'd fit in just fine on the Republican stage. She supports an air campaign; she supports a no-fly zone in Syria; she supports arming the anti-Assad rebels; and she supports partnerships with our allies. If the Republican candidates are any tougher on ISIS than Hillary, they've been oddly timid about saying so.