Kevin Drum

ISIS Fighters Lose Kobani In Win For Obama's Iraq Strategy

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:33 PM EST

From the LA Times:

Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Kobani appeared poised Monday to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State militants after months of street clashes and U.S. aerial bombardment, signaling a major setback for the extremist group.

....The apparent breakthrough shows how U.S. air power, combined with a determined allied force on the ground, can successfully confront Islamic State. The military watched with surprise as Islamic State continued sending hundreds of fighters, vehicles and weapons to Kobani, which was of no critical strategic importance to the overall fight but had become something of a public relations fight.

"Essentially, they said, 'This is where we are going to make a stand' and flooded the region with fighters," said Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command, in charge of air operations in the battle against the Islamic State.

My expert in all things Kurdish emailed me this comment today: "This is a big deal, and it proves the viability of Obama's strategy of working with proxies in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. My prediction is we won't hear much boasting about it from Obama though. These aren't the politically chosen proxies."

I've been one of the skeptics of Obama's strategy, and I'll remain so until the Iraqi military demonstrates the same fighting ability as the Kurdish peshmerga. Kobani, after all, is more a symbolic victory than anything else, and ISIS continues to control large swathes of Iraq. Nonetheless, at a minimum this shows that ISIS is hardly unbeatable, something that Iraqi forces probably needed to see.

Bottom line: this is a proof of concept. When we can do the same thing in Mosul with Iraqi forces in the lead, then I'll be a real believer.

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Scott Walker Is the Winner in 2016's First Republican Campaign Cattle Call

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 5:05 PM EST

Rep. Steve King (R–Tea Partyville) held his big annual Republican confab in Iowa this weekend, and most of the 2016 wannabe candidates for president were there. But I know you're all busy people who don't care about the details. Youjust want to know who won. Take it away, Ed Kilgore:

The consensus winner (first announced by National Review's John Fund, but echoed by many others) was Scott Walker, who did exactly what he needed to do: show he could twist and shout with the best of them despite his "boring" image, and make an electability argument based on the fruits of confrontation rather than compromise. This latter dimension of his appeal should not be underestimated: at a time when MSM types and (more subtly) Jeb Bush and Chris Christie continue to suggest Republicans must become less feral to reach beyond their base, here's Walker saying he won three elections in four years in a blue state by going medieval on unions, abortionists and Big Government. So Walker's passed his first test in the challenge of proving he's not Tim Pawlenty, and that's a big deal given his excellent positioning in the field.

Kilgore's "Tim Pawlenty" comment is a reference to Midwestern boringness, which has generally been seen as Walker's chief shortcoming. You can judge for yourself if you watch his 20-minute speech in Iowa, but I'd say he still has some work to do on this score. He wasn't terrible, but he never sounded to me like he really struck a connection with the crowd. He knew the words but not the tune—and even his words were a little too stilted and lifeless. Anytime you deliver an applause line and nothing happens, your words still need some work. And anytime you deliver an applause line, fail to wait for applause, then interrupt yourself to tell the crowd "you can clap for that, that's all right"—well, your delivery needs some work too.

I'm on record saying that I think Walker is the strongest candidate in the Republican field. He's got the right views, he's got a winning record, he's got the confrontational style tea partiers love, and he doesn't come across as a kook. But yes, he needs to work on the whole charisma thing. If he gets serious about that, I still like his chances in the 2016 primaries.

Does the Internet Really Make Dumb People Dumber?

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 1:55 PM EST

I don't normally get to hear what Bill Gates thinks of one of my ideas, but today's the exception. Because Ezra Klein asked him:

Ezra Klein: ....Kevin Drum, who writes for Mother Jones, has a line I've always thought was interesting, which is that the internet makes dumb people dumber, and smart people smarter. Do you worry about the possibility that the vast resources the internet gives the motivated, including online education, will give rise o a big increase in, for lack of a better tterm, cognitive or knowledge inequality that leads to further rises in global inequality?

Bill Gates: Well, you always have the challenge that when you create a tool to make activity X easier, like the internet makes it easier to find out facts or to learn new things, that there are some outliers who use that thing extremely well. It's way easier to be polymathic today than it was in the past because your access to materials and your ability if you ever get stuck to find people that you can engage with is so strong.

But to say that there's actually some negative side, that there actually will be people that are dumber, I disagree with that. I mean, I'm as upset as anyone at the wrong stuff about vaccination that's out there on the internet that actually confuses some small number of people. There's a communications challenge to get past.

But look at IQ test capability over time. Or even take a TV show today and how complex it is — that's responding to the marketplace. You take Breaking Bad versus, I don't know, Leave it to Beaver, or Combat!, or The Wild, Wild West. You know, yeah, take Combat! because that was sort of pushing the edge of should kids be allowed to watch it.

The interest and complexity really does say that, broadly, these tools have meant that market-driven people are turning out more complex things. Now, you can say, "Why hasn't that mapped to more sophistication in politics or something like that?" That's very complicated. But I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet.

I'm sure that was said when the printing press came along and people saw romance novels and thought people would stay indoors and read all the time. But I just don't see there being a big negative to the empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, Gates agrees that the internet can make smart people smarter. By analogy, the printing press also made smart people smarter because it gave them cheap, easy access to far more information. Since they were capable of processing the information, they were effectively smarter than they used to be.

It's equally unsurprisingly that he disagrees about the internet making dumb people dumber. It's a pretty anti-tech opinion, after all, and that's not the business Bill Gates is in. But I think his answer actually belies his disagreement, since he immediately acknowledges an example of precisely this phenomenon: the anti-vax movement, something that happens to be close to his heart. Unfortunately, to call this merely a "communications challenge" discounts the problem. Sure, it's a communications challenge, but that's the whole point. The internet is all about communication, and it does two things in this case. First, it empower the anti-vax nutballs, giving them a far more powerful medium for spreading their nonsense. On the flip side, it makes a lot more people vulnerable to bad information. If you lack the context to evaluate arguments about vaccination, the internet is much more likely to make you dumber about vaccinating your kids than any previous medium in history.

The rest of Gates' argument doesn't really hold water either. Sure, IQ scores have been rising. But they've been rising for a long time. This long predates the internet and has nothing to do with it. As for TV shows, he picked the wrong example. It's true that Breaking Bad is far more sophisticated than Leave it to Beaver, but Breaking Bad was always a niche show, averaging 1-2 million viewers for nearly its entire run. Instead, you should compare Leave it to Beaver with, say, The Big Bang Theory, which gets 10-20 million viewers per episode. Is Big Bang the more sophisticated show? Maybe. But if so, it's not by much.

In any case, the heart of Gates' response is this: "I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet." I won't pretend that I have ironclad evidence one way or the other, but I wouldn't dismiss the problem so blithely. I'm not trying to make a broad claim that the internet is making us generally stupider or anything like that. But it's a far more powerful medium for spreading conspiracy theories and other assorted crap than anything we've had before. If you lack the background and context to evaluate information about a particular subject, you're highly likely to be misinformed if you do a simple Google search and just start reading whatever comes up first. And that describes an awful lot of people.

Obviously this has been a problem for as long humans have been able to communicate. The anti-fluoridation nutballs did just fine with only dead-tree technology. Still, I think the internet makes this a more widespread problem, simply because it's a more widespread medium, and it's one that's especially difficult to navigate wisely. Hopefully that will change in the future, but for now it is what it is. It doesn't have to make dumb people dumber, but in practice, I think it very often does.

ANWR Proposal Shows That Obama's Power to Set the Agenda Is Alive and Well

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 11:59 AM EST

Here's the latest salvo in President Obama's flurry of executive activity following the 2014 election:

President Obama proposed designating 1.4 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as protected wilderness, drawing cheers from environmentalists but setting off a bitter new battle Sunday with the Republican-controlled Congress over oil and gas drilling in pristine areas of northern Alaska.

The plan would permanently bar drilling and other forms of development in the 19.8-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain, a narrow strip between the Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic Ocean where caribou give birth. The area, estimated to hold 10.3 billion barrels of oil, is home to more than 200 species, including polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen and thousands of migratory birds.

Now, technically this is meaningless. ANWR has been a battleground for years, as much symbolic as anything else. The amount of oil it could produce isn't really huge, but then again, the environmental damage that a pipeline would produce probably isn't that huge either.1 In any case, the Interior Department already bans drilling in ANWR, and there's no way that a Republican Congress is going to pass a bill to make a drilling ban permanent. So what's the point of Obama's proposal?

It's simple: once again he's using the agenda-setting power of the presidency. Basically, he's making ANWR something that everyone now has to take a stand on. Talking heads will fulminate on one side or the other, and Republicans will respond by introducing legislation to open up ANWR to drilling. This isn't something they were planning to spend time on, but now they probably will. Their base will demand it, as will the Republican caucus in the House and Senate. Nothing will come of it, of course, but it will eat up time that might otherwise have been spent on something else.

And that's why Obama is doing this. It also lays down a marker and lets everyone know that Democrats are the party of natural beauty while Republicans are the party of Big Oil. It can't hurt to make that clear. Still, that's not the main goal here. The main goal is to toss some sand in the gears of Republican plans for the 115th Congress. Obama is proving once again that even with the opposition in control of Congress, he still has the power to decide what people are going to talk about.

1Please address all hate mail regarding this assertion to my editors. Thanks.

It's Time for Greece to Decide If It's Leaving the Euro

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EST

As expected, the Syriza party won power in Sunday's election in Greece. Their platform is pretty simple: the austerity forced on Greece after the 2008 financial collapse is no longer tolerable. The Greek economy is in shambles, growth is negative, and unemployment is above 25 percent. Europe needs to forgive its loans to Greece and allow the Greek economy to grow again. Here is Europe's response so far:

“The Greeks have the right to elect whoever they want; we have the right to no longer finance Greek debt,” Hans-Peter Friedrich, a senior member of [Angela] Merkel’s conservative bloc, told the daily newspaper Bild on Monday. “The Greeks must now pay the consequences and cannot saddle German taxpayers with them.”

In other words: Screw you. The loans need to be repaid no matter the cost. This has been the German position for some time1, and the German position is the de facto European position. So we have a standoff.

It's unclear what will happen next. There will be negotiations, of course, but the truth is that Syriza doesn't have much leverage. They can threaten to unilaterally default and leave the eurozone, but that's about it. A few years ago, that would have meant something because everyone was afraid that if Greece defaulted, perhaps Spain and Italy and Portugal and others would follow suit. This could well have destroyed the euro. Today things are exactly the opposite. Nobody is really afraid that other countries would follow Greece in leaving the euro, but they are afraid that if they make serious concessions then other countries will want their debt forgiven too. And that's simply not on the German agenda.

So is Syriza serious? Will they really default if they don't get what they want? Leaving the euro would be no easy task and would cause immense economic pain. The only question is whether the pain would be worth it in the long run. It might be, but it's hardly an easy call, and it would take real guts for Syriza to call Germany's bluff and leave the euro. The practical problems alone—how fast can you create new physical currency and coins to replace euros?—are nearly insurmountable. The economic problems of capital flight and being shut out of the international loan market would be colossal. Greeks would take an instant hit to their standard of living, perhaps as large as 50 percent.

But it still might be worth it. The Greeks may calculate that in the medium term, exiting the euro and adopting a devalued currency would allow their economy to become competitive and finally start growing again. Without that, they could be looking at a decade or more of pain and stagnation.

So there's the question: which road would leave Greece better off in 2025? Years more of stagnation followed by a slow, painful recovery? Or a huge hit now followed—maybe—by a robust recovery? It's not an easy question.

And of course, there's also the purely emotional aspect of all this. The Germans are tired of the whining Greeks. The Greeks are tired of living under the German jackboot. It may simply be time for a divorce, consequences be damned. The next few months will be a time of high tension for Europe.

1Ironically, this was the position of the allies toward German reparation debt following World War I, and we all know how that turned out. But no one is afraid of Greece starting a new world war, so no one cares about the irony.

Has Netanyahu Finally Gone Too Far With His Contempt for Obama?

| Sun Jan. 25, 2015 6:15 PM EST

I keep wondering if it's ever possible for Benjamin Netanyahu to go too far. He's treated President Obama with truly astonishing levels of contempt and disdain for nearly his entire tenure, and he's done it in the apparent belief that his political support in the US is so strong and so bipartisan that he'll never be held to account for it. And so far he hasn't been.

But what about his latest stunt? The fact that John Boehner invited him to address Congress is hardly surprising. Boehner needed to poke Obama in the eye to demonstrate his conservative bona fides, and this was a perfect opportunity since he knew Netanyahu would deliver plenty of trash talk about Obama's Iran policy. But the fact that Netanyahu kept the invitation a secret from the administration and failed to even notify them he was planning a visit—well, that's a whole different story. As former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk put it, "Netanyahu is using the Republican Congress for a photo-op for his election campaign....Unfortunately, the US relationship will take the hit. It would be far wiser for us to stay out of their politics and for them to stay out of ours."

And it turns out that even two Fox News hosts agree. Max Fisher relays the story:

Two prominent Fox News hosts, Chris Wallace and Shepherd Smith, harshly criticized Boehner and Netanyahu on Friday for secretly arranging a Netanyahu speech to Congress that is transparently aimed at undermining President Obama, and set up without the White House's knowledge.

...."I agree 100 percent," Wallace said when Smith read a quote from Indyk criticizing the Boehner-Netanyahu maneuver. Wallace went on:

And to make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, Ron Dermer. The ambassador, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of congress and criticize the president's policy. I have to say I'm shocked.

Smith said, "it seems like [Netanyahu's government] think[s] we don't pay attention and that we're just a bunch of complete morons, the United States citizens, as if we wouldn't pick up on what's happening here."

Shep Smith goes off the Fox reservation all the time, so perhaps his comments aren't too much of a surprise. But although Wallace is no Sean Hannity, he's fairly reliably conservative and even he was shocked.

So has Netanyahu finally gone over the line? So far I haven't heard much criticism from sitting US politicians, so I'd have to say not. Not yet, anyway. But it sure seems like the day is going to come. No matter how close an ally Israel is, there's only so much contempt their leaders can show for a sitting American president and his policies. Eventually the American public is going to lose patience, even the folks who aren't huge Obama fans themselves.

It hasn't happened yet. Maybe it never will. But it sure seems as if Benjamin Netanyahu is hellbent on pushing the line until he finally rings a bell he can't unring. The only question now is whether he stays in office long enough to make that final, fatal mistake.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 23 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 2:17 PM EST

I wrote this morning's short post and then spent the rest of the morning napping. This is ridiculous, and I don't know what's going on. I'm a thousand percent better than I was Tuesday and Wednesday, but still dog tired. One possibility is that this is due to a change in my chemo schedule. Instead of getting all three meds on Friday, I got two of them on Friday and then the third as a standalone on Monday. The next day I was wiped out. Anyway, I hope that's the reason, since this was a one-time thing. I'll ask about it today, though I have little hope of getting any satisfactory answers.

In any case, it's finally Friday, so how about some catblogging? This week features a brand new addition to the extended family of Drum cats. My friend Professor Marc sends along this photo of Ivan Davidoff, his new Siberian. His report: "Seems to like being around people, but is not a cuddle-kitty. He likes being petted, will frequently come see if I’m still in the home office if I’m working there, sometimes jumps onto the desk to be next to me, but is not a lap cat. Maybe that will come as he gets more comfortable. Has woken us up in the middle of the night to get affection, but is not pushy about it." He is certainly a handsome critter, no?

John Boehner Faces a Revolt of the Moderates

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 12:16 PM EST

Having awakened from my slumber, I see that John Boehner has a whole new problem on his hands. Apparently the rump moderate wing of the Republican Party is starting to feel itchy:

Female lawmakers pushed the party to drop Thursday's planned vote on legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, forcing leaders to abruptly switch course and pass a different antiabortion bill.

Last week, a surprisingly large group of 26 House Republicans refused to support an amendment that called for ending deportation deferrals of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Those dissenters came within one vote of tanking the measure aimed at so-called Dreamers.

This comes from LA Times reporter Lisa Mascaro, who tells us these folks "bristle" at being called moderates. They prefer to be called pragmatists. Tomayto, tomahto, says me, though it's telling that "moderate" is still a dirty word in GOP land. It's also telling that all this fuss is over bills that everyone agrees are nothing more than the usual symbolic flotsam and jetsam that Republicans pass every year with no actual hope of any of them becoming law. This year, though, they're having trouble even doing that.

Why? Is it because the bills are slightly less symbolic than in the past? There is, after all, just a bare chance that some of them could get through the Senate if sponsors line up a few Democrats to join in. They'd still get vetoed, but they'd nonetheless be a little less symbolic in the public's mind. Or is it simply the fact that as Republican ranks grow, the party's victories increasingly come in more moderate districts? As Democrats lose ground in moderate districts and become more solidly liberal, perhaps it's inevitable that Republicans will become more like the Democrats of old.

In any case, John Boehner has his work cut out for him. He's got tea partiers on one side, moderates on the other, and a president who has been very effectively throwing sand in the gears of Republican priorities ever since November. Boehner's leadership skills, always a bit on the iffy side, are going to be sorely tested this year.

Yet More Housekeeping

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 10:36 AM EST

I have returned to the land of the living. The last 36 hours have been pretty hellish, but the good news is that I think I know what happened, and it's not likely to happen again. I hope.

That said, I'm still pretty tired. We'll see how the rest of the day goes.

Housekeeping Update

| Wed Jan. 21, 2015 11:43 AM EST

No blogging today. Sorry. Lots of stuff going on with my body right now. But I should recover eventually.