Kevin Drum

The Endless Rabbit Hole of Secession, Shetland Islands Edition

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 6:02 PM EDT

Following a string of links from an Atrios post, I came across this paragraph from a piece a few months ago about the possibility of Scottish independence:

As for Mr Salmond’s fantasies about oil revenues: stocks are dwindling, fracking is driving down the price, when territorial waters are drawn up he may find some of what he thinks is his oil in the North Sea will actually be England’s, and the Shetland Islands — in whose waters much of his reserves lie — say that if Scotland goes independent, they will seek to re-join Norway.

Wait. What? Rejoin Norway? Hasn't it been quite a few centuries since they had anything to do with Norway? I clearly haven't been paying enough attention to this stuff. What's it all about? Here's a piece from earlier this year:

David Cameron today summoned Norwegian Ambassador Hårek Hardbalne to Downing Street to demand that Norway makes clear it has no territorial interest in the Shetland Islands. This follows yesterday’s extraordinary announcement by the leader of Shetland Islands’ Council, Leif Erikson, that Shetland planned to hold a separate referendum on independence from Scotland should Scots choose independence from the UK on September 18th.

....In an interview with the BBC, ambassador Hardbalne said that he did not wish to comment on the surprise move by Shetland but wished to stress that Norway has always upheld the democratic rights to self determination. The BBC reported that the threat of sanctions and exclusion from NATO already had the Norwegians running scared.

That's Dr. Leif Erikson, by the way. In any case, apparently the Shetland Islands really have been making noises about this. If Scotland secedes in order to grab a bigger share of North Sea oil wealth, then why shouldn't they secede from Scotland? They have the same gripe about unfair division of oil revenues, after all. This is from 2012:

The Orkney and Shetland islands could remain part of the UK if the rest of Scotland votes to separate, according to a report submitted by their MSPs to the Government. The islands could even declare independence themselves, it adds.

Alternatively, they could agree to join a separate Scotland only if they are granted a much bigger portion of North Sea oil and gas revenues, around a quarter of which lies in Shetland’s waters alone. Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, agreed the threat was political “dynamite” but questioned why Mr Salmond was the only politician who could use oil wealth to argue for self-determination.

This bit of soap opera is obviously old news to anyone who's followed the Scottish independence movement closely, but that doesn't happen to include me. In any case, it's an amusing confirmation of my belief that no matter how small a political unit you have, there's always a piece of it that's richer than the rest and feels like it should no longer have to subsidize all the rest of the freeloaders. I wonder if the Shetland Islanders would be open to an invitation to join the state of California?

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No, Ronald Reagan Was Not Just a More Amiable Version of Barry Goldwater

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

Jacob Weisberg is critical of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, the third volume in his history of movement conservatism from 1958 to 1980. The first two books covered Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon; the third spans the period from 1972 through 1976, which encompasses the end of Nixon and the rise of Reagan. Here's Weisberg:

Most historians view the Nixon-Reagan transition as a break in the ideological continuum, a shift from an era in which Republicans made peace with the growing welfare and regulatory state to one in which a newly energized conservative movement effectively challenged it. Perlstein, by contrast, sees the move from Nixon to Reagan as continuity: Both men tried to reverse what the 1960s were doing to the country.

....An alternative thesis is the one Perlstein seemed to be framing up with his first, shorter, and better book: that the crucial bridge in modern Republican politics was the one leading from Barry Goldwater to Reagan. Nixon was the last important President of the New Deal Era, in the same way that Bill Clinton is best subsumed under the rubric of the Reagan Era....In his attack on government, Reagan drew very little from Nixon, and a great deal from Goldwater....Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast. That’s the bridge Reagan walked across and the one I wish Perlstein had tried to sell us.

I think Weisberg has missed the bridge that Perlstein is trying to sell us. Reagan wasn't merely a better, more congenial version of Barry Goldwater. That's part of the story, but there's a second part as well: Reagan's exploitation of the politics of resentment that Nixon rode to victory in 1968 and 1972. Just as Reagan sanded off the scariest edges of Goldwaterism to make it more palatable to a national audience, he also sanded off—or perhaps just kept hidden—the scariest edges of right-wing populist resentment. But make no mistake: it was there, and it was a big part of Reagan's appeal. Intellectually, Reagan's politics may have been the child of Goldwater, but emotionally they were the child of Nixon.

That said, I think Weisberg also makes some sharp criticisms of The Invisible Bridge. I enjoyed it, but it rings true when he complains that "for long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers." It's a little more of a pastiche than either of his first two books, and too often this is to the detriment of the bigger story.

But there was another, more fundamental, disappointment. The genius of Before the Storm, the first book in the series, is that it explained the birth of movement conservatism to a liberal audience. This is harder than it sounds. A conservative history, simply because of the unspoken assumptions that would inevitably color it, would largely leave liberal readers cold. An overtly liberal history, by contrast, would almost certainly be unable to truly explain the appeal of Goldwater and his supporters. But Perlstein threads this needle brilliantly. Before the Storm explains the rise of Goldwater in a way that conservatives consider fair but that liberals find comprehensible.

For better or worse, Perlstein abandoned this approach in The Invisible Bridge. Maybe that was inevitable as the spotlight moved first from a principled loser like Goldwater to a destructive manipulator like Nixon and then to a man who set back the liberal project in a way that's still painful to this day. It's just plain easier to be dispassionately curious about Goldwater than about either Nixon or Reagan. Nonetheless, this failing also makes The Invisible Bridge less interesting. Even granting the hagiographic glow that conservatives tend to demand of Reagan biographers, this really isn't a book that very many conservatives would consider fair. And except for brief flashes of insight1 it doesn't truly explain to liberal sensibilities just what was so appealing about the man.

It's still a lovely book that I paged through hungrily. And let's face it: saying that it's not as good as Before the Storm is something you could say about nearly every book ever written. It's still pretty damn good. But I wish Perlstein had gone a little lighter on his obvious contempt for Reagan and spent a little more time owning up—perhaps uncomfortably—to just what it was about the liberalism of the 70s that finally drove so many voters crazy.

1For example, there's this brief bit about the White House consulting Reagan during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war:

Kissinger [] solicited him for advice on the extraordinarily delicate matter of how to frame an Israeli resupply operation that, if handled incorrectly, could lead to a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Reagan suggested: "Why don't you say you will replace all the aircraft the Arabs claim they have shot down?"

This was brilliant. Since the Arabs were wildly exaggerating their success, presenting them with a Hobson's choice—saying nothing or facing international humiliation—was perfect. Reagan's interpersonal intelligence was something to behold.

More like that, please.

Quote of the Day: Maybe Bill Clinton Needs a Minder

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 1:01 PM EDT

From Ed Kilgore, commenting on the latest "gaffe" from Bill Clinton:

The idea of a former two-term President of the United States having to get his remarks vetted by some campaign operative who was in high school when Clinton was negotiating with the Israelis and Palestinians may seem humiliating. But it may come to that.

This is all related to a minor dustup over Bill making some ambiguous off-the-cuff remarks about Bibi Netanyahu in a rope-line chat at the Harkin Steak Fry this weekend. By itself, it's not a big deal, but it might be an omen of things to come. After all, you may recall that Bill's remarks during Hillary's 2008 run for the Democratic nomination were not, um, 100 percent helpful at all times. And there's nothing the media loves more than a bit of Clinton discord that can be dissected and psychoanalyzed for days on end. It might not be fair, but no one ever said presidential campaigns were fair.

Chart of the Day: Fox's Benghazi Obsession

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

The good folks at Media Matters have taken on the soul-crushing task of tallying up coverage of Benghazi on Fox's prime-time evening shows, and they report that Fox has aired nearly 1,100 segments in the 20 months since the attacks. In a bit of a shocking upset, the winner of the obsession war wasn't heavy favorite Sean Hannity, but the normally more mild-mannered Bret Baier.

However, don't count Hannity out quite yet. By far, the stupidest Benghazi talking point has been the endless "stand down" infatuation—the notion that rescuers were available but someone in the White House deliberately ordered them not to go in. This is stupid not just because it's been debunked over and over and over, but also because it makes no sense. Even if Obama hates America, why would he do this? It's political suicide.

Anyway, guess who's spent the most time on the stand down order? That's right: Sean Hannity, by a huge margin. Hannity might not have won the overall obsession crown, but he certainly won the special award for pandering idiocy.

As you'd expect, coverage was heaviest just after the Benghazi attacks in 2012, but even after that initial flurry Fox has kept up a steady drumbeat of 20-30 Benghazi segments each and every month. It makes me wish I could figure out an anti-Obama angle for my obsession with lead and crime. These guys would be the greatest allies ever. I need to put my thinking cap on.

Assignment Desk: How Does the Media Deal With Domestic Violence?

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 11:46 AM EDT

I have an assignment for an enterprising reporter or intern with access to a telephone. I'd like a survey done of a dozen or so major media outlets, including but not limited to ESPN, CNN, the New York Times, CBS, Fox, the Nation, and National Review. And Mother Jones, of course. Here are the survey questions:

  1. To your knowledge, have any of your employees ever been charged and/or convicted of domestic violence?
  2. In general, what is your corporate policy for dealing with employees who have been convicted of domestic violence?

Just curious!

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.