Kevin Drum

Vladimir Putin Says He Wants to Join the Fight Against ISIS

| Mon Sep. 7, 2015 11:19 PM EDT

Russia is a longtime supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, but lately the flow of military aid from Russia to Syria has been on the rise. Apparently this has given rise to scuttlebutt that Vladimir Putin may be hoping to lure the US into a joint effort to fight ISIS:

Observers in Moscow say the Russian maneuvering could be part of a plan to send troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State group in the hope of fixing fractured ties with the West....By playing with the possibility of joining the anti-IS coalition, Putin may hope to win a few key concessions. His main goal: the lifting of Western sanctions and the normalization of relations with the United States and the European Union, which have sunk to their lowest point since the Cold War amid the Ukrainian crisis.

....Sergei Karaganov, the founder of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a leading association of Russian political experts, said that Russia was considering the possibility of joining the anti-IS coalition, but the West so far has been unwelcoming. "They are reluctant to accept proposals from Putin, whom they want to contain," he said.

Karaganov, who has good connections among the Russian officials, said he doesn't expect Russia to opt for unilateral military action in Syria if it gets the cold shoulder from the U.S. and its allies. "It would involve enormous risks," he said.

This sounds mighty weird. Even Putin can't seriously imagine that the US and Iraq would join a Putin-Assad alliance, no matter what its goal is. I wonder what's really going on here?

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Bonus Labor Day Cat Blogging - 7 September 2015

| Mon Sep. 7, 2015 6:30 AM EDT

As a certified union thug (UAW local 2103, bitches!), I am honor bound not to work today. Unless, of course, someone is wrong on the internet somewhere and I have to step in. But that doesn't mean you will be left blogless. Hilbert is not unionized—and, like the lilies of the field, he neither toils nor spins. He just smells the roses all day long. So it's perfectly fine for him to entertain you today.

The American Egg Board Is Tired of Playing Softball With You People

| Sun Sep. 6, 2015 7:20 PM EDT

Here's something trivial and yet somehow sort of fascinating at the same time. The Guardian has an article today about the American Egg Board, which, as you might guess, is in the business of promoting the use of eggs. For example: "This year the politically connected AEB provided 14,000 eggs for the White House’s annual Easter egg roll and Ivy1 was photographed with President Barack Obama."

That's some mighty tasty PR—and perfectly legal. But although AEB is funded by the egg industry, its board members are appointed by the Department of Agriculture. This means it's limited to promoting the awesomeness of eggs. Attacking other foods is forbidden, a restriction that specifically includes "any advertising (including press releases) deemed disparaging to another commodity." The Department of Agriculture does not want to be in the business of sponsoring internecine wars between American producers of food (and foodlike) products.

But it turns out that the egg people have been concerned for a while about Hampton Creek, a Silicon Valley darling that makes egg-free products. You may have seen them in the news recently, when the FDA sent out a letter telling Hampton Creek to change the name of Just Mayo, their vegan mayonnaise alternative2—since, by definition, mayonnaise contains eggs. If there are no eggs, it's not mayonnaise. The AEB lobbied for this, and they also tried to sign up bloggers and cooking celebrities to promote eggs. But did they actually engage in advertising that disparaged non-eggs? That's harder to say. The smoking gun appears to be a section called "Beyond Eggs Consumer Research" in AEB's contract with their PR company. Here's the key sentence:

For example, research will, ideally, provide actionable intelligence on what attacks are gaining traction with consumers and which are not so as to help industry calibrate level of communications response (if any) to ensure a consistent response strategy moving forward.

This is....award-worthy biz-gibberish! I'm suffering twinges of professional jealousy just reading it. Big picture-wise, it gets everything right: it's all but impossible to even parse this, let alone use it to prove that AEB was asking for attack ads against non-egg products. It's a masterpiece of the genre.

So is anyone going to be able to prove that AEB has been illegally targeting Hampton Creek for destruction? Unless there's more than this, I doubt it. They'll just say that their "response strategy" was to fight back against egg-related misconceptions and highlight all the goodness that real eggs can deliver to the dining tables of hardworking Americans. And who will be able to say otherwise?

1That's Joanne Ivy, AEB's CEO and its 2015 Egg Person of the Year.

2It's vegan, but don't let that mislead you into thinking it's necessarily healthy. As the FDA also pointed out, Just Mayo contains too much fat to be labeled "heart healthy." It's not much different from ordinary mayonnaise:

There Is a "Truck Line" Tearing America Apart

| Sun Sep. 6, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

A few minutes ago, President Obama's former "car czar" Steven Rattner tweeted the map below. Marcy Wheeler tweaks him for calling Hondas and Toyotas "imports" even though most of them are made in the US. I'd tweak him for saying the map shows the best-selling "cars" in each state, since it also includes trucks. Trucks aren't cars.

But that's enough tweaking. I'm willing to cut people a lot of slack on Twitter. Here's what I'm curious about. You've no doubt heard of the famous "soda line" in America: in New England and the West, most of us call fizzy sweetened drinks soda. In the South, it's coke. Up north, from Washington to the Ohio Valley, it's pop.

Apparently we also have a truck line in America. In the Midwest and Mountain states, people buy Ford F-series trucks. In the Great Lakes region, the Chevy Silverado reigns supreme. Out West, we seem to prefer Dodge Rams.

What's up with that? Is this just a weird coincidence? Or is there some genuine historical reason that different trucks are popular in different regions?

Here's Why America Doesn't Have a Seat at the Table Under the Law of the Sea Treaty

| Sun Sep. 6, 2015 11:58 AM EDT

It's Labor Day weekend, and even the Sunday chat show hosts are hard up for guests willing to give up their final few days of summer before getting back to the grind in Washington DC. This apparently left Jake Tapper with no choice but to interview Sarah Palin. She was her usual self, and even managed to pretend that she disapproved of Obama renaming Mt. McKinley as Denali. Then Tapper mentioned that Russian planes had been flying off the coast of Alaska and Chinese warships had transited the Bering Strait. What did Palin think about that?

Putin right now, he's flagging undersea our resources, claiming them as his own. What's America doing about it? We don't even have a seat at the table under the Law of the Sea Treaty. We're not even participating in fighting back, putting America first.

I assume Palin is talking about the fight over the Arctic, which is hardly breaking news. But notice what Palin failed to mention: Why does America not have a seat at the table under the Law of the Sea Treaty? Answer: because Republicans are dead set against it. The military is for it, the State Department is for it, and Democrats are for it. I think even Palin supports it. But no matter how many concessions get made to their concerns, conservatives have relentlessly claimed that it's a massive intrusion on American sovereignty and Republicans have accordingly refused to ratify it for decades. They refused under Reagan, they refused under Clinton, they refused under Bush, and they refused under Obama. So Palin is right: thanks to the GOP, we're not official participants in LOST. I guess that part slipped her mind.

Are the F-Bombs Getting Worse Here at Mother Jones? An Exclusive Investigation.

| Sat Sep. 5, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Apropos of my suggested response this morning to the most obnoxious kinds of gotcha questions, David Bailey writes in comments:

Recommended answer: "Oh, go fuck yourself."

This is off-topic, and I may not be the first to bring it up, but it seems as if Kevin's posts have been a bit saltier recently. I have a hard time believing he would have written this a year ago.

Not complaining or criticizing, but I just thought it was interesting.

Come on. This was an homage to Dick Cheney, people! Do our schools teach nothing these days?

But am I, in fact, using the word fuck more often than in the past? This is surprisingly difficult to get a handle on. The problem is that my readers are all such potty mouths. According to Google, there have been 6,330 F-bombs on this blog since its move to Mother Jones, but as near as I can tell, 6,314 of them have been from commenters. Still, that leaves 16 for me. Let's tot them up.

It turns out that David is right: I've already set a new personal best this year. At my current rate I'll double my previous most obscene year (2010). The deeply researched chart on the right tells the tale, and as a personal favor to Swami Bhut Jolokia, I've even labeled the y-axis.

In my defense, I should point out that this total represents only about 0.15 percent of my blog posts, an average of just a bit over two per year. Not bad! What's more, many of those were quotes of illustrious public servants like Dick Cheney. Still, I admit that if it were solely up to me these numbers would be far higher. However, (a) I know that casual F-bombs can put people off, and (b) my mother reads this blog. So I try to stay family-friendly most of the time.

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Sorry, Conservatives: You Deserve Donald Trump

| Sat Sep. 5, 2015 10:23 AM EDT

From Jonah Goldberg, in an epic lament about the trumpenproletariat's crush on Donald Trump and the willingness of mainstream conservatives to pander to it:

Every principle used to defend Trump is subjective, graded on a curve. Trump is like a cat trained to piss in a human toilet. It’s amazing! It’s remarkable! Yes, yes, it is: for a cat. But we don’t judge humans by the same standard.

I think this is unfair to cats who learn to piss in the toilet. At least that's a useful skill, and at least they don't spend all their free time bragging about it. Still, fair point.

On a related note, I continue to be impressed at the number of conservatives who are aghast not at Trump per se, but at the fact that the conservative base is so enamored of him. Most conservative support of Trump is "venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument," Goldberg says. And then: "I am tempted to believe that Donald Trump’s biggest fans are not to be relied upon in the conservative cause." Ya think?

But surely Goldberg understands that this is the right-wing base that he and his colleagues have built? I don't expect any conservative writer to acknowledge this in public, but surely in the occasional dark night of the soul they understand what they've done? For years they've supported the worst know-nothing bombast of Drudge and Limbaugh, the casual reality distortion of Fox News, and the resentment-based appeals of people like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. And they've turned a blind eye to even worse: birthers, Agenda 21 lunacy, Cliven Bundy's army, and much, much more. It was handy at the time, and helped win a few elections. But now the outrage-based mob they've nurtured has come back to haunt them—and unsurprisingly, it turns out not to care all that much about the debating-hall nuances of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. They just want to kick out the wetbacks and get back at those smug liberals who make fun of them.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. But if you want to survive, you'd better at least understand that once forged, a sword can be wielded by anyone strong enough to grab it. You might not like it when your army decides to follow, but you're the one who taught them to follow the shiny object without worrying too much about whose hand is on the hilt, aren't you?

A Republican's Guide to Gotcha Questions

| Sat Sep. 5, 2015 5:35 AM EDT

Are "gotcha" questions unfair? It depends. I'm personally averse to Jeopardy-style factual quizzes, but not because it's out of line to probe presidential candidates about what they know. Rather, it's the form of the question itself. It treats presidential candidates like schoolchildren being quizzed in front of the class. It's inherently demeaning for any self-respecting adult—and for politicians too.

That said, there are gotchas and there are gotchas, and some are worse than others. Here's a taxonomy:

SEVERE: "Can you name the president of Chechnya? The president of Taiwan? The general who is in charge of Pakistan? The prime minister of India?" Only an asshole asks questions like this.

Recommended answer: "Oh, go fuck yourself."

HIGH: "Have you ever used cocaine?" This is moderately nasty, but there are dangers to a straightforward refusal to respond. Humor is worth a try.

Recommended answer: "Once, but only accidentally when I picked up a friend at Mena airport in the 90s and left the car door open."

ELEVATED: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" This is a double-edged sword. Answer it properly and you sound like you actually know something about Islam. Waffle and you sound stupid. Your best bet is to turn it into an attack.

Recommended answer: "ISIS terrorists are Sunni. President Obama is a Shiite. That's why he hates those guys so much. It all goes back to the seventh-century, when Obama's 18th cousin 43 times removed insisted that someone from Mohammad's family should take up the leadership of the Muslim Ummah."

GUARDED: "What's your favorite Bible verse?" This is basically a hanging curve. If you ever went to Sunday School, you shouldn't have any trouble hitting it out of the park.

Recommended answer: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. I try to live up to this every single day. There will be no appeasement of America's enemies on my watch."

LOW: "What newspapers and magazines do you regularly read?" This is pretty much the opposite of a gotcha. It's the human interest version of "hello," a way of easing into an interview with a friendly little softball.

Recommended answer: "All the usual suspects. The Times, the Post, Human Events, and the Journal of Econometrics. Did you see their paper last month critiquing the Fed's easy money policies by applying a Tobit regression to a fixed-effects nonparametric model with time-aggregated panel data? It was killer."

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 September 2015

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 2:06 PM EDT

Like Hillary Clinton, we've been watching a lot of HGTV lately. This has inspired Marian to create a long list of renovation projects she'd like to do. It's inspired me to wonder if literally everyone in the world wants an open-concept floor plan these days.

And one other thing: It's also made it clear that most interior designers on TV are dog people. How do I know? Because they seem to be very fond of rectangular sinks in bathrooms. However, as we more refined types know, this is entirely unacceptable. Ovals fit the requirements of a properly outfitted household much better.

BONUS FEATURE IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: The prefecture of Hiroshima, in the cat-crazy country of Japan, has created the first cat's-eye version of Google Street View. Check it out.

The Iran Deal Highlights the Crackup of the Israel Lobby

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 1:54 PM EDT

Jonathan Chait writes that AIPAC's failure to stop the Iran deal shows that "there is no more 'Israel lobby'; there is a red Israel lobby and a blue one." And that matters a lot:

As a simple matter of political mechanics, acquiring a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress meant hawks needed liberal Democrats to take their side. But they did not have arguments that could appeal to liberals — even liberals with a deep emotional connection to Israel.

....This underscores the most important tectonic forces moving beneath the Israel lobby’s feet. Over the last 15 years, the foreign-policy debate in Israel has moved steadily rightward....[This] has pushed the American Jewish establishment to the right of American Jewry as a whole.

....But there is more at work than simple pigheadedness or habitual aggression. Many conservative supporters of Israel do not necessarily regard the crack-up of American Jewish opinion as a problem. In their view, diplomacy with Iran is the prelude to Israel’s annihilation, and support for Netanyahu’s permanent occupation is the sine qua non of genuine support for Israel. It follows that the Iran debate essentially succeeded, by smoking out the fake Israel supporters. An almost giddy Jennifer Rubin concludes that the deal’s victory destroys “the myth of bipartisan support for Israel.” The crack-up of the Israel lobby is, for its most conservative members, not a failure at all but the fulfillment of a longtime dream.

Benjamin Netanyahu no longer even tries to appeal to both liberal and conservative American Jews. As Gershom Gorenberg points out, he has all but turned his government into an overseas arm of the Republican Party, apparently in the hope that this would eventually work out for the best:

Netanyahu's imagined America is one in which Mitt Romney was sure to win in 2012, as can be seen from the prime minister's behavior back then. Like the Republicans to whom he is close, he treats Obama's presidency as a historical glitch. Like many Jewish Republicans, he expects American Jews to place Israel at the top of their voting priorities, to agree with his policies, and to wake up at last to the need to vote Republican. After all, that's how the American Jews he knows best see things. To these misreadings, add his irrepressible impulse to jump into American politics.

The consequence is that Netanyahu has done more than anyone else to identify Israel—that is, the Israel shaped by his policies—with the Republican Party. Nancy Pelosi's bitter, brilliant reproach after his speech to Congress last March was the clearest possible warning that his alliance with the GOP against Obama would free, or push, Democrats to break with him. He ignored the warning.

Like nearly everything else in American politics, Israel has become a dreary partisan issue. Conservatives might be thrilled with this because they think it will hurt liberals, but the evidence suggests just the opposite: it will hurt Israel instead.