Kevin Drum

The US Has No Clean Battle Lines in the Middle East

| Sun Mar. 29, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

From The Corner:

The United States is sending mixed signals to its allies in the Middle East by simultaneously giving support to the Saudi-led Sunni coalition fighting in Yemen and negotiating with Shiite Iran on its nuclear program, according to NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel.

Engel pinpoints an apparent contradiction: Even as the U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia and other nations in “confronting the Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen” by providing intelligence and other support, it continues to negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear program, and to collaborate with Iranian forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

As a result, Engel says, “the Saudis, and the larger Sunni Muslim world, doesn’t [sic] feel the U.S. can really be trusted.”

Gee, no kidding. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni ally of the US that hates Iran. Iraq is a Shiite ally who's cozy with Iran. The US itself is hostile toward Iran, but shares a common enemy in ISIS. Syria is a total mess with no clear good guys. And, yes, a good nuclear deal with Iran would be a bonus for the safety of the entire region.

That's it. That's the way the world is. The United States is not allied solely with Shiite or Sunni regimes and hasn't been since at least 9/11. It's confusing. It's messy. And maybe President Obama hasn't handled it as skillfully as he could have. But who could have done any better? There just aren't any clean battle lines here, and the sooner everyone faces up to that, the better off we'll be.

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Peculiar Eyesight Question

| Sat Mar. 28, 2015 12:14 PM EDT

I'll be asking my optometrist about this shortly, but just for fun I thought I'd throw it out to the hive mind to see if anyone knows what's going on.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've noticed that my distance vision is a little fuzzy. Time for new glasses, you say, and you're probably right. But here's the odd thing. I keep all my old glasses, and last night I tried them all on just to see if an older prescription worked better than my current glasses. What I discovered was a little strange.

Right under my TV I happen to have two LED clocks. One uses red LEDs and the other uses blue LEDs. With my current glasses, the blue LEDs are sharp and the red LEDs are fuzzy. But when I put on glasses that are a few years old, it changes. The red LEDs are sharp and the blue LEDs are fuzzy. The difference is quite noticeable, not a subtle thing at all.

Anyone know what this is all about?

Should We Welcome Saudi Arabia to the Fight in the Middle East?

| Sat Mar. 28, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

I have occasionally griped in this space about the fact that putative Middle East allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan basically view the American military as a sort of mercenary force to fight their own tribal battles. Sure, they provide us with basing rights, and sometimes money, but they want us to do all the fighting, and they complain bitterly about American naiveté when we don't fight every war they think we should fight.

Recently this has changed a bit, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan launching independent air attacks against various neighbors, and Saudi Arabia even making noises about launching ground attacks in Yemen. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Josh Marshall makes some useful points:

It is always dangerous when power and accountability are unchained from each other. In recent decades, we've had a system in which our clients look to us for protection, ask for military action of various sorts — but privately. And then we act, but always in the process whipping up anti-American sentiment, mixed with extremist religious enthusiasms, which our allies often, paradoxically, stoke or accommodate to secure their own holds on power. This is, to put it mildly, an unstable and politically toxic state of affairs. This does not even get into the costs to the US in blood and treasure.

There are pluses to the old or existing system. We control everything. Wars don't start until we start them. But the downsides are obvious, as well. And nowhere has this been more clear than with the Saudis. The Saudis sell us oil; and they buy our weapons. We start wars to protect them, the reaction to which curdles in the confines of their domestic repression and breaks out in terrorist attacks against us. I don't mean to suggest that we are purely victims here. We're not. But it's a pernicious arrangement.

This is why I think we should be heartened to see the Saudis acting on their own account, taking action on their own account for which they must create domestic support and stand behind internationally.

There's more, and Marshall is hardly unaware of the risks in widespread military action among countries that barely even count as coherent states. "Still, the old system bred irresponsibility on many levels, including a lack of responsibility and accountability from the existing governments in the region. For all the dangers and unpredictabilities involved with having the Saudis or in other cases the Egyptians stand up and take actions which they believe are critical to their security on their own account is better for everyone involved."

Some food for thought this weekend.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Today I get to spend six hours in a chair getting Cytoxan pumped into my body. So this is it. No more tests or consults. This is the first actual step in the second stage of my chemotherapy. Following this infusion, I will spend a week injecting myself with a drug that (a) stimulates white blood cell production and (b) will apparently make me feel like I have the flu. Next, I spend a week in LA sitting in a chair several hours a day while they extract stem cells from my body. Then a week of rest and then the stem cell transplant itself, which will put me out of commission for a minimum of three weeks.

So no blogging today. Next week is iffy. Probably nothing much the week after that either. Then maybe some blogging during my rest week. And then I'll go offline probably completely for a month or so. It all depends on just how quickly I recover from the transplant. We'll see.

In the meantime, here are Hopper and Hilbert, hale and hearty as ever. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Democrats Should Pass the Doc Fix Bill

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 5:07 PM EDT

A bill to permanently reform the ridiculous annual charade over the Medicare "doc fix" passed the House today:

The House overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the Medicare system on Thursday, in the most significant bipartisan policy legislation to pass through that chamber since the Republicans regained a majority in 2011.

The measure, which would establish a new formula for paying doctors and end a problem that has bedeviled the nation’s health care system for more than a decade, has already been blessed by President Obama, and awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill would also increase premiums for some higher income beneficiaries and extend a popular health insurance program for children.

But of course there's a problem:

Senate Democrats have been resistant to provisions in the bill that preserve restrictions on the use of federal money for abortion services and extend a children’s health program for only two years, but they are expected to eventually work with Senate Republicans to pass the measure.

This is similar to the problem with the bipartisan human trafficking bill, which Senate Democrats filibustered last week because of a provision that none of its funds could be used to pay for abortions.

I suppose this will get me a lot of flack for being a sellout, but I think Dems should approve both bills. Yes, the abortion provisions are annoying, and go slightly beyond similar language that's been in appropriations bills for decades. But slightly is the operative word here. Like it or not, Republicans long ago won the battle over using federal funds for abortions. Minor affirmations of this policy simply don't amount to much aside from giving Republicans some red meat for their base.

This is mostly symbolic, not substantive. Let's pass the bills.

More Welfare = More Entrepreneurs? Maybe!

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

Walter Frick writes in the Atlantic about recent research which suggests that a strong social safety net increases entrepreneurship. For example, one researcher found that expansion of the food stamp program led to a higher chance that eligible households would start new businesses:

Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.

The same is true of other programs. For example, the Children’s Health Insurance Program:

By comparing the rate of entrepreneurship of those who just barely qualified for CHIP to those whose incomes just barely exceeded the cutoff, he was able to estimate the program’s impact on new business creation. The rate of incorporated business ownership for those eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it.

The same is true of recent immigrants to the United States. Contrary to claims by the right that welfare keeps immigrants from living up to their historic role as entrepreneurs, CHIP eligibility increased those households’ chances of owning an incorporated business by 28 percent.

The mechanism in each case is the same: publicly funded insurance lowers the risk of starting a business, since entrepreneurs needn’t fear financial ruin. (This same logic explains why more forgiving bankruptcy laws are associated with more entrepreneurship.)

Personally, I'd tentatively file this under the category of news that's a little too good to be true. After all, I'm a liberal. I want to believe this! And I haven't noticed that European rates of entrepreneurship are especially great, despite the fact that their safety net is much stronger than ours.

Still, what's true in America might be different from what's true in Europe. Different cultures etc. So it's worth reading the whole piece, which is generally pretty nuanced in its claims. At the very least, though, it certainly suggests that a strong safety net doesn't hurt entrepreneurship.

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Eventually, Two Billionaires Will Duke It Out For President Every Four Years

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

This is from yesterday, but I really can't pass it up. Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger write in the Washington Post that presidential candidates are no longer much interested in "bundlers" who can raise a paltry million dollars or so for their campaigns. Terry Neese, a successful bundler for George W. Bush, is their poster child:

This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. As of early Wednesday, the only contacts she had received were e-mails from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.

“They are only going to people who are multi-multimillionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”

....In the words of one veteran GOP fundraiser, traditional bundlers have been sent down to the “minor leagues,” while mega-donors are “the major league players.”

The old-school fundraisers have been temporarily displaced in the early money chase because of the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations. This year, White House hopefuls are rushing to raise money for the groups before they declare their candidacies and have to keep their distance.

So does this matter? Does it matter whether candidates get contributions from a thousand millionaires vs. a hundred billionaires? Are their political views really very different?

In a way, I suppose not. Rich is rich. One difference, though, might be in the way specific industries get treated. If you take a ton of money from Sheldon Adelson or the Koch Brothers, you're more likely to oppose internet gambling and specific energy-related regulations than you might be if you were simply taking money from a whole bunch of different gambling and energy millionaires.

On a broader note, though, it has the potential to alienate the electorate even more. Things are bad enough already, but when it becomes clear that presidential candidates are practically being bought and sold by a literal handful of the ultra-rich, how hard is to remain uncynical about politics? Pretty hard.

In the end, maybe this doesn't matter so much. Big money is big money, and most people are already convinced that big money controls things in Washington DC. Still, as bad as things are, they can always get worse. Eventually, perhaps each successful candidate will be fully funded by a single billionaire willing to take a flyer with pocket money to see if they can get their guy elected. This is not a healthy world we're building.

Middle East War Suddenly Getting a Lot More Warlike

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

I'm a little behind on the news right now, but it sure looks like things are getting a whole lot hotter in the Middle East. Here are a few headlines:

Saudi Jets Strike Yemen in Bid to Halt Houthis

Tikrit airstrikes draw U.S. into battle between militants and Iraqi forces

Obama Says He Will Delay Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan

Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

U.S. Role in Middle East Revamped Amid Chaos

That last headline comes from the Wall Street Journal, and seems to sum things up pretty well. The story includes this:

[Kenneth] Pollack, the former CIA analyst, said the military campaign in Yemen is unlikely to have a positive effect on the country’s fractured dynamics.

“The idea that this is going to produce some kind of a peaceful settlement is ridiculous,” Mr. Pollack said. “The more likely outcome is it just prolongs the stalemate.” The Persian Gulf countries could consider the use of ground troops to make progress, which should be a concern for the U.S., he said.

What could go wrong?

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

I'll be busy with various tests and doctor appointments all day Wednesday, so no blogging. I should be back on Thursday, health permitting.

Has Israel Given Up On Democrats?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Israel is doing its best to spy on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. No surprise there. But the Obama administration believes they've taken things too far:

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said....The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

....“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”

The upshot of all this is that support for Israel is rapidly becoming a partisan issue. “If you’re wondering whether something serious has shifted here, the answer is yes,” a senior U.S. official said. “These things leave scars.” This is not likely to be good for Israel in the long term.