Mojo - April 2011

Drone Wars in Afghanistan

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 12:48 PM EDT

There's been a windstorm of big news on the unmanned aerial vehicle front in the last 48 hours:

  • The LA Times released a stunning minute-by-minute narrative, "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy," detailing how US helicopters in Afghanistan, goaded by a Nevada-based drone pilot and cameraman, annihilated a convoy of ethnic Hazaras trekking across the country...including women and children.

How to make sense of all this? Basically, there are profound human-error issues inherent in telling folks in Nevada and Florida to fight a remote-control war in Southwest Asia. There's also been an overreliance on drones as a panacea. And now, the military is acknowledging the difficulties, by way of tossing some money at new technology solutions.

How well's that gonna work out? I talked about that and more yesterday on RT's The Alyona Show. Check it out below.

(Full disclosure: RT is a sort of Russian Al Jazeera English. Its Western coverage, led by show anchors like Thom Hartmann, Adam Kokesh, and Alyona Minkovsky, is top-notch in my book. But it's also got a reputation in some circles for being Kremlin-friendly. They're probably more interested in my thoughts on US drones than on Uzbek politics.)

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Conservative Activist: We Need a New Word for "Gay"

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

Last weekend conservative activists converged at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University for "The Awakening," a two day conference devoted to issues of serious concern to the United States going forward—like the threat of Islamic law to the Constitution, the coming monetary collapse, and the abortion "Holocaust." Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was there scheduled to attend*; so was fellow GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich; Mike Huckabee couldn't make it but sent along pre-recorded remarks. In other words, kind of a big deal.

But the event's most illuminating speech may have come from Ryan Sorba, a "pro-family activist" who became a minor icon on the far-right in 2010 after condemning the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference for including gay people. At Liberty, Sorba took the occasion to criticize conservatives for using the word "gay," and instead suggested a handful of substitute words that he feels carry less baggage. Via the Florida Independent, here's Sorba's advice:

"Stop. Using. The word. Gay. Because if we continue to use this term that is grounded in an identity, we're conceding the premise that it is an identity and the rest of the debate we're on their ground. We're arguing on their terms. He who defines the terms controls the debate and by extension public opinion. What we need to do is state that look this is either same-sex attraction, or maybe they're engaging in same-sex intercourse or sodomy—whatever word you're comfortable using. And that's it."

Anyways, Sorba's right about one thing: Anti-gay activists are losing the debate. A majority of Americans support gay marriage, and 78 percent of Americans supported the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I'm just not sure that swapping "same-sex sodomy" for "gay" is really going to push back against the arc of history.

Here's the video:

*Update: Apparently Bachmann couldn't make it because of the budget negotiations, so she sent a video message. She also won the straw poll.

Can Judson Phillips Really "Primary Boehner"?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 5:01 AM EDT

Last week, in the wee hours of Friday night, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pulled off a major coup by forcing Democrats to agree to billions of dollars of spending cuts in the 2011 budget to prevent a government shutdown. Commentators gave the tea party movement heaps of credit for this state of affairs, acknowledging that the conservative activists had helped put deficit reduction on the table in Congress and had held newly elected House members to their promises of smaller government. The size of the budget cuts was indeed unprecedented, especially in the middle of a bad economy. Naturally, though, it wasn't good enough for the tea party. The movement's leaders took to the cable airwaves and twittershpere to decry the deal as insufficiently ruthless. Amidst the negotiations Friday, Judson Phillips, the leader of the Tennessee-based Tea Party Nation, tweeted, "Boehner is selling us out tonight. We will primary Boehner next year."

On Monday, he elaborated his disgust with the GOP leadership in a blog post:

The course Boehner and the GOP chose was timidity not bold and courageous. Had they been willing to be bold, with major objectives; had Boehner done what we suggested at TPN, demanding hundreds of billions in cuts by eliminating waste, he could have been hailed as a hero. Had he held firm for bold and decisive action and shut the government down, we would have had his back. Had he stood firm and called for Tea Party support, we would have flooded the Capitol to support him and the GOP.

Phillips may be good at spewing venom on Twitter, but could he really help oust Boehner? That seems unlikely for a guy who might have trouble getting 20 people to show up at a tea party in his hometown. Phillips is not well liked among the established tea party activists in Tennessee, who don't work with him in large part because they see him as someone hoping to get rich off the movement. (Tea Party Nation, despite its frequent pleas for "donations," is a for-profit operation.) And Phillips' track record as a national mobilizing force is hardly something to crow about. The only reason Phillips, a once-bankrupt DUI attorney by day, has catapulted onto the national scene is that he convinced a local investor to help him snag Sarah Palin as a keynote speaker for a convention he held in Nashville last year, for which the investor put up $50,000 to front Palin's exorbitant speaking fee.

Internal documents Mother Jones obtained at the time showed that Phillips hoped to net a tidy profit by charging tea partiers nearly $600 to attend the convention and Palin's speech. Bill Hemrick, who gave Phillips the money for Palin's speech, thought Tea Party Nation was a nonprofit group and told me he didn't know Phillips intended to make money off the event. (Phillips ultimately refused to let Hemrick attend the speech; Hemrick is now suing him.)

Without Palin, Phillips has tried to organize a national tea party "unity" convention in Las Vegas last summer. It was postponed and then canceled at the last minute for lack of interest. None of this has kept reporters and others from continuing to cover Phillips. (He went on Glenn Beck's show Monday night.) But the media megaphone likely overstates his real influence on politics. Take, for instance, his endorsement last fall of Lynne Torgerson, an independent congressional candidate in Minnesota, who ran against Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison. Phillips rallied his (undefined) supporters to vote for Torgerson primarily because Ellison is a Muslim, and Torgerson made his religion her signature issue in the campaign. She won 4 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Ellison was reelected in a landslide. Closer to home, Phillips also endorsed a former state GOP official, Robin Smith, in a hotly contested GOP primary last fall for a Tennessee congressional seat. She lost.

Given Phillips' track record, Boehner should probably rest easy. While the tea party movement might pose some headaches for him, primary threats from a DUI lawyer in Franklin, Tennessee, should be the least of his worries.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 12, 2011

Tue Apr. 12, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Sgt. John Davis, Mad Dog Troop, 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment from Vilseck, Germany, silhouetted in a shaded area, performs a retina scan to a local Afghan citizen near Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, April 3. Photo via US Army.

Deficit Reduction, Meet the War Budget

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

The agenda in Washington has shifted to a single topic: the deficit, the deficit, and the deficit. Okay, also the national debt. With the recent 2011 budget deal and the upcoming fights over the 2012 budget and raising the debt ceiling, the national political discourse has become stuck in this muck, with politics and demagoguery transcending reasonable debate about policy and reality. The grand opening of GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's extreme budget plan was evidence that Washington has gone gaga over context, without focusing on the true substance. And as the Republicans and President Obama compete for cred as spending-cutters, there is a big matter they have yet to truly take on: military spending. All the slashing that they achieved this past week—to much mutual congratulation—will easily be wiped away by the phony bookkeeping of America's wars. As Matthew Leatherman, an analyst for the Stimson Center's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, explains,

The administration plans war spending one year into the future and then defaults to an agnostic "placeholder" figure for the following four years. Using that placeholder in next year’s budget request gives the impression that war spending will drop from $118 billion in 2012 to $50 billion annually in 2013.

It will not. Contrary to official policy, huge federal debt is hidden in this bookkeeping sleight of hand...

[A] $50 billion target for war costs in 2013 would be a long stretch. Congress and the administration should foresee costs in excess of the Pentagon’s placeholder and must be prepared to manage the situation, ideally by jettisoning the entire idea of a separate war budget.

So projected deficits are likely, in reality, to be much greater, once the true war costs are figured. This is just another indication that unless Congress and the White House get serious about reducing Pentagon spending, their attempts at reducing deficits and the national debt—for all the noise—will not be serious.

Obama's Upcoming Deficit Speech Leaves Dems "Scrambling"

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:20 PM EDT
Going it alone?

When the White House announced on the Sunday talk shows that President Obama would be giving a major speech on the deficit—responding to Rep. Paul Ryan's drastic 2012 budget proposal—it came as news to more than just the viewership of Meet the Press. House Democrats were taken aback by the announcement that Obama would be making a big move to address the deficit this week, according to a House Democratic aide. 

Many Congressional Democrats found out about Obama's surprise speech by watching the Sunday shows, as top Obama aide David Plouffe made the rounds to note that the president would lay out a plan for long-term deficit reduction this week. "Plouffe's announcement yesterday morning did leave us scrambling, that's something we're working on right now," the House aide said on Monday.

House Democrats had already been preparing to release their own 2012 budget, under the leadership of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the budget committee. The House Dems' budget plan had been in the works for weeks, as Van Hollen had been meeting with every major caucus in his party to craft an alternative to the Republicans' plan. Last week, the GOP's decision to push out Ryan's plan to radically alter Medicare and Medicaid in the middle of the 2011 budget fight threw Democrats for a loop. Now the news of Obama's speech has left Dems on Capitol Hill grappling with another unexpected turn of events that could force them to change their plans, as they won't want to be too out of sync with whatever Obama proposes.

Last week, congressional Democrats successfully united behind the message that Ryan's plan would "end Medicare as we know it"—an effective cudgel to use against the GOP. But as I explained last Tuesday, Ryan's plan could also work against his opponents by baiting the Democrats to meet him halfway on a radical plan. Now liberals fear that Obama may be taking the GOP bait, as he vows to make his own reforms to Medicare and Medicaid—an approach that could put a split between the White House and Congressional Democrats on entitlement reform. Obama's speech on Wednesday may end up playing well with centrist-minded independent voters, his target audience. But the timing seems to have unsettled members of his own party on Capitol Hill.

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How Many Republicans Will Vote Against the 2011 Budget?

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 11:16 AM EDT

Though Democrats are hailing the 2011 budget deal as a victory, it's really the Republicans who've won the bigger battle. Yes, Democrats fended off funding cuts to STD screenings, Pap smears, and other preventative services that Planned Parenthood provides—as well as protecting Head Start, Pell grants, and other Democratic priorities. But in the end, Republicans managed to extract deeper cuts than they'd ever imagined possible, shifting the terms of the entire spending debate in their favor. Only a few months ago, President Obama was calling for a budget freeze—rather than cuts—and underscored the need for boosting infrastructure, education, and other long-term investments in the economy. Now you have leaders on both sides celebrating major budget cuts. And the GOP's right flank is already poised to extract its next pound of flesh. 

Already, there are House Republicans who are gearing up for a fight in the next round. After the budget deal was struck (quite literally) at the eleventh hour on Friday, Congress passed a short-term, six-day extension of government spending to avert a shutdown, with the blessing of both both House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blessing. Though the measure passed by a huge margin, 28 Republicans voted against the budget extension—members who are likely to vote down the final budget on Thursday. 

The right-wing holdouts include tea party-backed freshmen like Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), as well as veteran firebrands like Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa). There won't be enough defections to scuttle the budget, but the GOP's conservative wing will be reinforcing the message that the 2011 budget doesn't go far enough—and that the GOP must push for more concessions in the fights over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget that are on the horizon. And Boehner has already promised them as much.

To be sure, an even larger proportion of House Democratic caucus voted against the short-term extension as, with 42 of 182 members voting no on Friday night. The defecting Dems represented the progressive left-wing of the party. But given the gigantic concessions that Obama and Democratic leaders have already made to the Republicans—both in terms of concrete funding cuts, as well as the larger message that major austerity measures are urgently needed—the rebel Dems have far less leverage than their Republican counterparts.

What the Shutdown Deal Says About the Dems

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

Late Friday night, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a last-minute deal to avert a shutdown and fund the government through the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

The Republicans got $38.5 billion in cuts, but dropped many of the policy "riders"—add-on provisions restricting how money can be spent—that social conservatives (who wanted to restrict abortion rights) and big business (which wanted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases) had sought.

Planned Parenthood, a major target of social conservatives, was able to avoid losing the federal funding that it receives through a law called Title X ("title ten") for cancer screenings, birth control, and other non-abortion health services. Democrats were also able to kill a provision that would have prevented any federal money from going to the organization.

The fight was a study in the priorities of the modern Democratic party. Planned Parenthood, remember, was subjected to almost the same attack that ACORN, an organization that specialized in registering and organizing poor and minority voters, faced in 2009.

What To Read This Morning

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 9:35 AM EDT

The Los Angeles Times' David Cloud has written a great story on drone warfare in Afghanistan. It covers, from start to finish, a drone and helicopter attack that led to the death of more than a dozen Afghan civilians:

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. "They're praying. They are praying," said the Predator's camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. "This is definitely it, this is their force," the cameraman said. "Praying? I mean, seriously, that's what they do."

"They're gonna do something nefarious," the crew's intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: "All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time."

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

"Oh, sweet target," he said.

Read the whole thing.

Republicans Hate Their Presidential Candidates

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 9:23 AM EDT

Republican politicians like to talk a lot about American decline. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, recently warned that Democrats have "declared war on marriage, on families, on fertility, and on faith." (Fertility!). Newt Gingrich went even further, suggesting that Obama's agenda "would mean the end of America as it has been for the last 400 years."

Now, it looks like the new era of American Unexceptionalism is starting to take its toll in the Republican Party. Here's Politico's Jonathan Martin:

Interviews on both sides of the Capitol have revealed widespread concern about the lackluster quality of the current crop of candidates and little consensus on who Republican senators and House members would like to see in the race.

While the days when congressional insiders could determine a party nominee are long gone, their open grumbling lays bare a broadly held sentiment within the GOP.

"I don't see anyone in the current field right now, and people say that to me, as well. I'm reflecting what I hear," said California Rep. David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

We just don't make smart, charismatic presidential candidates like we used to.

So what's the solution? Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has been floated as a potential candidate—and he's expressed dissatisfaction with the current field—but I'm not sure Americans are going to rally behind someone who thinks gays should be banned from teaching in public schools. Marco Rubio's been called the "Cuban Barack Obama," but he's only been in the Senate for three months. Martin's sources say they're considering "a to-be-determined business executive or military leader"—but Dwight D. Eisenhower's dead (not to mention term-limited), and David Petraeus says he's not interested.

It's still, of course, very early. Mike Huckabee is leading the polls in Iowa and he's probably not running; Donald Trump is in third. But it's never a good sign for your electoral chances when party bigwigs are publicly bashing your candidates before the first debate has even been held.