Numbers For The “Sage Of Wasilla”

Chris Cillizza and Jon Cohen at WaPo:

Sarah Palin’s ratings within the Republican Party are slumping, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a potentially troubling sign for the former Alaska governor as she weighs whether to enter the 2012 presidential race.

For the first time in Post-ABC News polling, fewer than six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents see Palin in a favorable light, down from a stratospheric 88 percent in the days after the 2008 Republican National Convention and 70 percent as recently as October.

In one sense, the poll still finds Palin near the top of a list of eight potential contenders for the GOP nomination. The former vice presidential candidate scores a 58 percent favorable rating, close to the 61 percent for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and 60 percent for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and better than the 55 percent that onetime House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) received.

But Palin’s unfavorable numbers are significantly higher than they are for any of these possible competitors. Fully 37 percent of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents now hold a negative view of her, a new high.

In another first, fewer than 50 percent of Republican-leaning independents — 47 percent — hold favorable views of Palin.

Andrew Sullivan:

But look behind the headlines and you find something more interesting:

“Strong” favorability matters in primaries, where motivation to turn out is an important factor. Among strong Tea Party supporters, strongly favorable views of Huckabee and Palin are highest, at 45 and 42 percent, respectively; strongly favorable views of Gingrich and Romney drop off in this group to 35 and 31 percent, respectively.

There’s a similar pattern in a related group, leaned Republicans who say they are “very” conservative. Palin and Huckabee (at 45 and 44 percent) again attract much higher strongly favorable ratings among strong conservatives than do Gingrich and Romney (30 and 28 percent).

In primaries, enthusiasm matters. And if Huckabee doesn’t run …

Jonathan Bernstein:

In response to the latest polling on the Sage of Wasilla, which show her continuing to lose support even among Republicans, I went looking through my old posts on her to see if I could claim a little told-you-so — if I had clearly said that if she continued to snub party leaders they would eventually turn against her, and if that happened (as it has) then the rank-and-file, or at least many of them, would follow, regardless of how popular she was with them back then. Yup! Hey, I’m wrong sometimes (and I’ll try to ‘fess up when I am), but I think I nailed this one.

I bring that up because I still don’t think it’s too late for Sarah Palin to turn it around, at least in large part, if she suddenly decided to play by the rules that normal candidates follow. Policy expertise can be bought and faked; party leaders, whether they’re national columnists, interest group leaders, or locals in Iowa and New Hampshire, can be schmoozed. It increasingly appears that either she is constitutionally incapable of doing those things or just has no interest in it, and even if she does them there’s no guarantee she would be nominated…but it is clear now, as it has been from the start, that the normal rules of politics apply to her regardless of what she or anyone else thinks.

One other thing that I did come across from last summer which still seems relevant now is the question of whether Republicans will campaign with Sarah Palin. I said then that given how few people, especially swing voters, are Palin fans — but also how many Republicans remain strong supporters — that it would make sense for Democrats to press their GOP opponents over whether they would campaign with her or not. Of course, skilled politicians know how to duck questions for which there are no good answers, but it can’t hurt to ask those questions.

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

The obvious question is why? Chris Cillizza suggests Palin’s tendency to polarize, but I’m skeptical. For starters, she continues to score a high favorability rating among Republicans: 58 percent, compared to 60 percent for Mitt Romney and 55 percent for Newt Gingrich. Moreover, her views are within the mainstream of the GOP; on every issue, Sarah Palin is an orthodox Republican.

As far as I can tell, Palin’s fall from grace has less to do with ideology or popularity and more to do with her obvious disdain for Republican elites. Since 2008, she has been on a one-pol crusade against the activists and donors who represent important interests and elites within the GOP coalition. This was tolerable last year, when she was something of an electoral asset, but with the upcoming presidential election — and her stark unpopularity among everyone else — it’s less than acceptable. Conservative elites are gradually distancing themselves from Palin, and in all likelihood, this has trickled down to the grassroots.

This isn’t to say that Palin has lost her influence among conservatives — she continues to enjoy a devoted following — but it does put a damper on her presidential ambitions, if she ever had them (I’m doubtful).

Steve Benen:

It may be counterintuitive, but I actually think this is good news for Palin. She’s done nothing but bring shame and embarrassment to herself on a nearly daily basis for years, and she’s likely dropped about as far as she can with the GOP. And at this point, she still enjoys favorable ratings from a clear majority of Republican voters.

James Joyner:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: By presidential candidate standards, Sarah Palin is an ignoramus. That is, she’s “utterly lacking in knowledge or training about matters of public policy, law, or international affairs” one expects of someone contending for the presidency. That was my assessment more than two years ago and it has only been buttressed with the passage of time.

But the fact that she’s not particularly studious or intellectually curious doesn’t mean she’s unintelligent. I’m guessing she’s within swinging distance in terms of raw IQ to George W. Bush or, certainly, Mike Huckabee. And she’s enormously charming and good in front of a friendly crowd.

Bush the Younger was thought by many to be a lightweight at this point in the 2000 presidential cycle. Granted, he’d finished his term as Texas governor and was into his second by this time in 1999. And he had his MBA from Harvard, so people presumed he had at least passing knowledge with business and economic affairs. But, aside from perhaps Mexico, there was little evidence that Bush had any particular interest in foreign policy.

But Bush surrounded himself with smart people and studied. Recall the great “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the second debate with Al Gore, in which he gratuitously cited the names of various obscure world leaders in an attempt to shake off a weak performance in the first debate. It worked.

When this debate last mattered, during the 2008 general election campaign, Republicans who disagreed with me on Palin rightly pointed out that her resume favorably compared with then-candidate Barack Obama’s. Even Democrats who ultimately supported Obama, like our own Dave Schuler, were concerned about his lack of experience. But, by the time the debates rolled around, Obama had mastered the playbooks and could intelligently debate matters of domestic and foreign policymaking. Yes, there were some early stumbles. But few thought he was stupid or ill informed by the time it mattered.

Palin has the inherent talent to apply herself and win over skeptical Republicans and centrists. Many people really want to like her. But Bernstein is right: There’s no evidence thus far that she’s willing to do what it takes.

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Boss Hogg Says Something Interesting

Ben Smith at Politico:

Here’s a major moment in the nascent Republican presidential primary: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour tonight became the first among the leading Republican candidates to suggest that the United States reduce its presence in Afghanistan and its spending on defense.

Barbour echoed the concerns of critics of the Afghan war effort when asked by reporters in Iowa about American involvement in the conflict:

He also said that the U.S. should consider reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan. “I think we need to look at that,” he said when asked if the U.S. should scale back its presence.

But he said his reasoning isn’t financial.

“What is our mission?” Barbour said. “How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. … Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?”

“I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy” or a Western-style democracy, he said.

Barbour’s leading Republican rivals have positioned themselves to President Obama’s hawkish right on a range of foreign policy issues. They’ve also resisted calls from some associated with the Tea Party movement for deep cuts to federal spending that would include defense cuts. In fact, two of the candidates — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — have in the past backed the Heritage Foundation’s “4 percent for Freedom” initiative, which would actually raise baseline defense spending.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

Ben Smith correctly identifies the first sort of interesting event in the Republican presidential primary race: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has had enough of Afghanistan and wants to start drawing down troops. No details about how many and when, of course–and, in the end, Barbour’s timetable may not be all that different from Obama’s, which, I expect will have lots of troops coming home next year. But this is Haley Barbour, folks–and we know two things about him: he’s not the world’s boldest policy thinker and he’s probably the smartest political strategist in the field. When Barbour decides that Afghanistan is a loser, you can bet that more than a few Republicans are heading that way–and that means interesting times for the trigger-happy neoconservatives who have dominated Republican foreign policy thinking in recent years. It also means that the foreign policy debate in the Republican primaries may be a real eye-opener.

J.F. at DiA at the Economist:

The interesting thing about Mr Barbour’s comments is not that he said them, but that he’s right: of course reining in defence spending has to at least be part of the conversation if people are going to take Republican promises of fiscal responsibility seriously. The depressing thing about his being right is that it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of other ways for Republicans to show their fiscal bonafides. Means-testing Social Security, for instance. Trimming Medicare. Backing the cost-saving measures in Obamacare. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire (sigh). Any takers, Republicans? No?

My two cents: Mr Barbour will get a pass on those comments for now—and may even get some lip service from the Romney-Gingrich camp—because his candidacy is such a long shot. If things start to improve for him, though, look for him to be pilloried as soft on national security.

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

Of course, if Ron Paul runs, he would easily outdo Barbour on this front. But for now, Barbour is the only one, and Time‘s Joe Klein uses the opportunity to tout him as “probably the smartest political strategist in the field.”

Whether or not that’s true, you really don’t need to be a genius to know that Americans across the political spectrum are tiring of the war in Afghanistan. You just need the ability to read. According to a January Gallup poll, 72 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans want to “speed up withdrawal from Afghanistan.” And the sentiment is even stronger among tea partiers. According to a poll commissioned by the Afghan Study Group — in the words of founder Steve Clemons, “a bipartisan group of leading academics, business executives, former government officials, policy practitioners and journalists” — 64 percent of self-identified tea partiers want to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan or leave the country entirely. Considering the poll numbers, more surprising than Barbour taking a dovish position on Afghanistan is that the rest of his fellow candidates-to-be haven’t already done the same.

Alex Massie:

Barbour, the Boss Hogg governor of Mississippi, remains a long-shot for the GOP Presidential nomination but he’s not someone noted for policy boldness or imagination. True, his ideal timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan may not differ from the platonic ideal of withdrawal imagined by the Obama administration; that’s not the important thing here. What matters – though this is but a tea leaf into which too much should not be read – is the hint that Republican enthusiasm for the Afghan mission may be waning. That in turn may make the foreign policy debates during the GOP primary more interesting than seemed likely six months ago.

Barbour, of course, is an impeccably-connected member of the “elite” disguised as a southern good old boy. Doubtless that’s why he’s also able to argue that conservative claims to fiscal responsibility (an interesting concept in itself) are meaningless if the Pentagon’s budget is ring-fenced and protected from future budget cuts. Again, this is the sort of “Beltway” thinking disdained by talk radio and the populist right.

Yesterday James observed that it is “worrying” that ” the United State appears to have lost interest in its role as global policeman” but it’s also worth pointing out that this is a role it has performed fitfully and inconsistently in the past. Again, parts of the Obama administration’s foreign and security apparatus – notably but not only Bob Gates – owe something to the George HW Bush/Colin Powell approach to international affairs. Leadership is certainly important but the problems of foreign policy are something to be managed, not solved. Because often there are no solutions and even rarer still is the solution that doesn’t involve hefty, perhaps expensive, trade-offs.

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The Raymond Davis Case

Rick Moran:

Raymond Davis, the alleged CIA contract employee who was charged with murder in Pakistan after gunning down two would be robbers, has been freed by a Pakistani court.

Pakistan’s English language daily Dawn reports:

A Pakistan court on Wednesday freed CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was accused of murdering two men in Lahore, after blood money was paid in accordance with sharia law, the Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said.“The family members of the slain men appeared in the court and independently verified they had pardoned him (Davis),” provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah told a private television.

“He has been released from jail. Now it is up to him. He can go wherever he wants,” he added.

The lawyer representing the victims, Asad Manzoor Butt, said he was not allowed to appear for the hearing. The lawyer alleged that Davis possibly escaped from the prison with the consent of the authorities, DawnNews reported.

The lawyer further claimed that he was kept in unlawful confinement, according to DawnNews.

PML-N spokesman Pervez Rasheed the Punjab government was not involved in the release of Davis, DawnNews reported.

Could all of that be true? Anything is possible but Dawn is not the most reliable media outlet. At the time of Davis’ arrests, they reported that the two street thugs he shot were “commuters.”

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

All it took was cash to end an acrimonious spy standoff between the U.S. and its Pakistani frenemy.

Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor held in a Pakistani jail since late January, is a free man. He reportedly left Kot Lakhpat prison after family members of the two men Davis allegedly killed agreed to accept $700,000 per family in compensation for their losses.  (The exact total is in some dispute.) Blood money: it works.

To say the case inflamed Pakistan is an understatement. Some 47 people signed up to give witness statements in Davis’ scheduled trial, including cops and hospital workers. Little wonder: while Pakistan’s government and military tolerates the CIA’s drone strikes in the tribal areas, popular sentiment is outraged by the presence of American spies roving Pakistani streets, as Davis apparently was.

A Pakistani court charged him with murder — Davis claims he shot the two men in self-defense when they attempted to rob him — and declined to rule on his claims of diplomatic immunity, something Washington insists Davis possesses. But that’s now overtaken by events: the Guardian’s Declan Walsh tweets that Davis is “en route to Kabul, landing shortly.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, praised Davis’ release and blasted Pakistan for detaining him in the first place. “If Pakistan wants to be taken seriously as a state based on the rule of law, it must respect its international obligations,” Rogers said in a statement. “Pakistan and the U.S. cooperate on many levels because it is in our mutual interest. Irresponsible behavior like this jeopardizes everything our two nations have built together.”

Huma Imtiaz at Foreign Policy:

As March 16th dawned over Pakistan, perhaps no one except for the powers-that-be realized that Raymond Davis would soon be free.

Earlier in the morning, the Lahore Sessions Court had indicted Davis, a CIA contractor, for murder, after he allegedly shot dead Faizan Haider and Mohammad Faheem in Lahore this past January 27.

Hours later, the news broke that Davis was a free man, after he paid blood money to the families of Faizan and Faheem. According to Geo News, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that the families had forgiven Davis, and been paid blood money under the Shariah law of Qisas and Diyat.  Another report aired on the channel said that 18 members of both families had announced in front of the judge in Kot Lakhpat jail that they had forgiven Raymond Davis, after which cash was handed over to the families. However, the families’ lawyer Asad Manzoor Butt told Geo News that they were forcibly made to forgive Davis, after being led to jail by a man without identification.

Munawar Hasan, leader of the right-wing religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, reacted to the news by accusing the government of being slaves of the United States. “They should know that traitor governments do not last for very long,” he said. “They have mocked the law, and the families were forcibly made to sign the Diyat document. Davis was involved with terrorist organizations, and yet they have let him go. The ISI claims to love the country, but they sell people to the States in exchange for dollars, they have failed in their love for the nation today.” Hasan says protests against the release of Raymond Davis will be held in the major cities of Pakistan.

Conflicting reports have emerged about how much money has been paid to the families. Sources on various TV channels aired figures ranging from Rs. 60 million to Rs. 200 million (approximately $700,000 to $2,350,000). Davis’ whereabouts are also unknown – Dunya News said he had flown to the United States, whereas Geo News claimed he had flown to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Another story attributed to “sources” on Geo News also said that Faizan’s widow Zehra had allegedly left for the United States.

Omar Waraich at Time:

Under Pakistani law, “blood money” is a legal means of securing forgiveness from the victims. Under the qasas and diyat laws, derived from Islamic jurisprudence, a court can release an accused person if the victim’s family agrees to a satisfactory cash settlement. The Shari’a-based laws are invoked in the majority of murder cases, Pakistani legal experts say. According to government officials in Punjab, Davis was charged with murder on Wednesday but then acquitted after the families of the two victims said in court that they forgave the CIA contractor and submitted documents attesting to that. Senior Pakistani officials told TIME that each victim’s family received $700,000 in compensation — for a total of $1.4 million.

David Ignatius at WaPo:

This deal had four principal architects: Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, who shared the “blood money” idea with Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry then traveled to Pakistan, where me met with President Asif Ali Zardari, with the leaders of the Punjab government that was holding Davis, and with top officials of the ISI. Haqqani also visited CIA Director Leon Panetta the evening of Feb. 28 to share the “blood money” idea with him, according to a U.S. official. The final details were worked out by Panetta and ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

U.S. and Pakistani sources said the process that led to Davis’s release Wednesday included a series of steps: First, the U.S. agreed to pay compensation to the families of the two Pakistanis Davis killed on Jan. 27. A Pakistani lawyer quoted by the Associated Press said the total payments amounted to $2.3 million. Another Pakistani source told me the payments were less than $1 million for each family. According to a U.S. official, the actual negotiations were conducted by Pakistanis, but the U.S. has agreed to pay the bill.

After the families reached the private financial agreement and formally forgave Davis, the settlement was recognized by the trial court in Punjab, which could then dismiss the murder charges under what is described as a standard process in Pakistani murder cases. With the murder charges dismissed, the Punjabi court resolved lesser charges against Davis, and he was freed.

An important aspect of the settlement, for the U.S., was that the principal of diplomatic immunity was never formally challenged in Pakistani courts. The Pakistani High Court refused to rule on the question and the trial court didn’t make a finding, either. That was crucial for the U.S., which feared that a legal challenge to its claim of immunity for Davis would expose hundreds of other undercover agents around the world who rely on the legal protection of their formal status as “diplomats.

John Ellis at Business Insider:

The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, emerged the winner in the show-down over the fate of CIA operative Raymond Davis.

The US position was that Mr. Davis was in Pakistan on a diplomatic passport, that he enjoyed all the privileges of that status and that the charges of murder lodged against him (he shot two Pakistanis, he says, in self-defense, which is almost certainly true) were therefore null and void.

[...]

Officially, Pakistan gets nearly $2 billion annually in foreign aid from the US.  And that figure is the public number. The actual number is much higher.  How it is that the American government can get jerked around by a government that enjoys such vast US support is a mystery.  But that’s what happened.

Lisa Curtis at Heritage:

Despite years of working closely to target al-Qaeda and other terrorists in Pakistan, the ISI and CIA had seen their relationship begin to fray, partly over Pakistan’s handling of terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), which was responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistani-American David Headley, who was arrested in Chicago in October 2009 and later charged by a U.S. court with facilitating the Mumbai attacks as well as a planned terror attack in Denmark, revealed to interrogators that he was in close contact with Pakistani intelligence. As a result, the families of the six American victims of the Mumbai attack filed charges in a New York court against the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, General Shujah Pasha, for involvement in the attacks. Pasha’s tenure as Director General of the ISI was recently extended by one year by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

Adding fuel to the fire, the CIA station chief in Islamabad was forced to leave the country last December after his cover was blown in the Pakistani media.

While resolution of the Davis case may help to cool tempers between the ISI and CIA in the immediate term, so long as Pakistan resists taking serious action against terrorist groups like the LeT, tensions in the relationship will persist.

Washington is increasingly and rightly concerned about the global reach of the LeT and the potential for the group to conduct a Mumbai-type of attack on U.S. soil. It is highly likely that the CIA had recently sought to develop independent sources of secret information on the group in Pakistan to avert such a possibility. Many analysts argue that the LeT is focused primarily on India and thus has little motivation to attack the U.S. directly. However, the skill with which U.S. citizen David Headley operated in close collaboration with the LeT for so many years has raised concern about the LeT’s level of sophistication and its potential capability to conduct an attack in the U.S. if it so chooses.

The Pakistani authorities must now brace for the public reaction to the release of Davis. The religious parties held numerous protests over the past several weeks against Davis’s release. Whether the Pakistani security establishment will be able to use their links to the religious parties to temper their response remains to be seen. Following the Pakistani military storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007, the religious parties strongly criticized the operation, but their public protests were muted. The Pakistani Taliban, which has conducted numerous suicide attacks inside Pakistan over the last three years, will almost certainly react with further violence in retaliation for Davis’s release.

While the release of Raymond Davis is indisputably good news for the U.S and may temporarily improve ties between our two intelligence agencies, it could also heighten anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, especially if the initial news reports that the families were pressured into accepting the blood money gain traction. While one diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Pakistan has found resolution, the fundamental challenges to the relationship certainly remain.

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An Invitation From Their Cold, Dead Hands

Matt Schneider at Mediaite:

On a smaller platform than some may have hoped, President Obama wrote an op-ed in today’s Arizona Daily Star launching his intention to tackle serious and “common sense” gun control. Two months after the Tucson, Arizona shooting tragedy, Obama seems to be searching for middle ground on the issue in an effort to protect “our children’s futures.”Obama first reaffirmed he has no intention of confiscating guns:

Now, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. . . . And, in fact, my administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners – it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.

And Obama discussed his awareness of how difficult it will be to approach an issue that both sides feel so passionately about:

I know that every time we try to talk about guns, it can reinforce stark divides. People shout at one another, which makes it impossible to listen. We mire ourselves in stalemate, which makes it impossible to get to where we need to go as a country.

Then Obama outlined a few practical beginning steps, including “enforcing laws that are already on the books,” strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, rewarding states that provide the best data, and making the background check system “faster and nimbler” so that criminals can’t escape it.

Jacob Sullum at Reason:

In an Arizona Daily Star op-ed piece (which Jesse Walker noted this morning), President Obama urges “an instant, accurate, comprehensive and consistent system for background checks” in response to the Tucson massacre. But since there is no reason to think such a system would have stopped Jared Lee Loughner from buying a gun, this recommendation seems like a non sequitur (as gun control proposals often do).

Obama regrets that “a man our Army rejected as unfit for service; a man one of our colleges deemed too unstable for studies; a man apparently bent on violence, was able to walk into a store and buy a gun.” But people who are rejected for military service or thrown out of community college are still allowed to own firearms, and Obama does not propose changing the factors that disqualify people from buying guns. As for his description of Loughner as “a man apparently bent on violence,” that is true mainly in retrospect; the school officials and police officers who encountered him prior to his crime seem to have viewed him more as a nuisance than a menace. In any case, Loughner was never “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution,” which would have made his gun purchase illegal.

In short, the president’s solution would not have stopped Loughner, and it would not stop similar assailants in the future. Yet Obama not only says the current system of background checks is “supposed to stop the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun”; he claims beefing up the system (primarily by incorporating more state data regarding disqualifying criteria) “will actually keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.” Which is worse: that Obama believes this (assuming he does) or that he expects us to believe it?

Jennifer Epstein at Politico:

The National Rifle Association is declining to meet with the Obama administration to discuss gun control, signaling that the nation’s largest gun lobby isn’t willing to come to the table on a Democratic president’s terms.

“Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, in an interview with The New York Times on Monday. He cited Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the latter of whom has little to do with gun policy — as examples.

Jim Hoft at The Gateway Pundit

Weasel Zippers:

Or as Obama would call them, “bitter folks clinging to their guns and religion.”

Ben Armbruster at Think Progress:

However, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre immediately rejected that offer. “Why should I or the N.R.A. go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?” he asked, adding, “It shouldn’t be a dialogue about guns; it really should be a dialogue about dangerous people.”

Putting aside LaPierre’s posturing on the Second Amendment, it’s telling the NRA is not willing to state a substantive disagreement with Obama. The Post reported:

LaPierre said he favored much of what Obama endorsed in his op-ed, but he charged that the president was targeting gun ownership for political reasons rather than addressing the “underlying issue” of “madmen in the streets.”

The NYT similarly reported:

Despite his opposition to joining the administration’s table, by his comments in an interview Mr. LaPierre sounded at times like the White House.

Echoing NRA arguments, an Obama administration official told the NYT they want to redefine the gun debate to “focus on the people, not the guns” and they want to “begin by enforcing laws that are already on the books.” Nevertheless, the NRA is unwilling to be appeased.

So why is Wayne LaPierre misrepresenting Obama’s views and rejecting his olive branch? Since everyone seems to agree on a path forward, the answer seems to be quite clear: money and self-preservation. Since President Obama took office, the NRA has benefitedsignificantly in increased membership, due primarily to baseless and unfounded fears actively promoted by NRA officials, supporters and sympathizers, that Obama wants to eliminate the Second Amendment and take away everyone’s guns.

The NRA tells its members not to believe Obama when he says he supports the Second Amendment. It’s no wonder then that rank-and-file NRA members think Obama wants to “get rid of all the guns,” “has no respect for the country,” is “an idiot,” and “anti-American.”

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We’re Talking About Money, Honey

Felix Salmon:

Individuals are doing it, banks are doing it — faced with the horrific news and pictures from Japan, everybody wants to do something, and the obvious thing to do is to donate money to some relief fund or other.

Please don’t.

We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.

In the specific case of Japan, there’s all the more reason not to donate money. Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it. On top of that, it’s still extremely unclear how or where organizations like globalgiving intend on spending the money that they’re currently raising for Japan — so far we’re just told that the money “will help survivors and victims get necessary services,” which is basically code for “we have no idea what we’re going to do with the money, but we’ll probably think of something.”

Tyler Cowen:

For reasons which you can find outlined in my Discover Your Inner Economist, I am generally in sympathy with arguments like Felix’s, but not in this case.  I see a three special factors operating here:

1. The chance that your aid will be usefully deployed, and not lost to corruption, is much higher than average.

2. I believe this crisis will bring fundamental regime change to Japan (currently an underreported issue), rather than just altering the outcome of the next election.  America needs to signal its partnership with one of its most important allies.  You can help us do that.

3. Maybe you should give to a poorer country instead, but you probably won’t.  Odds are this will be an extra donation at the relevant margin.  Sorry to say, this disaster has no “close substitute.”

It may be out of date, but the starting point for any study of Japan is still Karel von Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power.   Definitely recommended.

Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior

John Carney at CNBC:

The fact that Charlie Sheen has decided donate a portion of the money from his live stage shows to help people affected by earthquake in Japan should be all you need to know that donating money to Japan is a bad idea.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes and even chemical or nuclear disasters can provoke a strong urge on the part of people to want to provide disaster relief in the form of charitable donations directed at those afflicted by the most recent disaster. This is almost always a mistake.

Almost all international disaster relief is ineffective. Part of the reason for this is that relief groups rarely know who is suffering most, or how aid can be most effectively directed.

Reihan Salam

Annie Lowrey at Slate:

Concern and generosity are entirely human—and entirely admirable!—responses to the disaster and tragedy in Japan. But if you really want to be helpful, as Felix Salmon and others have noted, there might be better ways to donate your money than just sending it to Japan. There are two basic rules for being useful: First, give to organizations with long track records of helping overseas. Second, leave it up to the experts to decide how to distribute the aid.

The first suggestion is simple: Avoid getting scammed by choosing an internationally known and vetted group. Big, long-standing organizations like Doctors without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross are good choices. If choosing a smaller or local group, try checking with aid groups, Guidestar, or the Better Business Bureau before submitting funds.

The second suggestion is more important. Right now, thousands of well-intentioned donors are sending money to Japan to help it rebuild. But some portion of the donated funds will be earmarked, restricted to a certain project or goal, and therefore might not do the Japanese much good in the end. Moreover, given Japan’s extraordinary wealth and development, there is a good chance that aid organizations will end up with leftover funds they will have no choice but to spend in country—though the citizens of other nations wracked by other disasters, natural or man-made, might need it more. Aid organizations can do more good when they decide how best to use the money they receive.

Taylor Marsh:

As for giving to Japan, don’t and here’s why, unless you want to give specifically to an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

Mahablog:

Felix Salmon wrote a column for Reuters warning people “don’t donate money to Japan.” His argument is that donations earmarked for a particular disaster often “leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places.”

Commenters pointed out that many relief organizations accept donations with a disclaimer that surplus funds may be applied elsewhere. And other relief organizations don’t allow for earmarking of donations at all, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a burst of cash during an extraordinary crisis.

Salmon also wrote, “we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective.”

That last probably is true. I also have no doubt that various evangelical groups already are planning their crusades to Japan to rescue the simple indigenous people for Christ in their time of need. (Update: Yep.)

So if you do want to donate money, I suggest giving to the excellent Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization headquartered in Taiwan. Relief efforts in Japan are being coordinated through long-established Tzu Chi offices and volunteer groups in Japan, not by random do-gooders parachuting in from elsewhere. Tzu Chi does a lot of good work around the globe, so your money will be put to good use somewhere.

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Wikileaks 2.0

http://bankofamericasuck.com/

Adrian Chen at Gawker:

A member of the activist collective Anonymous is claiming to be have emails and documents which prove “fraud” was committed by Bank of America employees, and the group says it’ll release them on Monday. The member, who goes by the Twitter handle OperationLeakS, has already posted an internal email from the formerly Bank of America-owned Balboa Insurance Company

The email is between Balboa Insurance vice president Peggy Johnson and other Balboa employees. (Click right to enlarge.) As far as we can tell, it doesn’t show anything suspicious, but was posted by OperationLeaks as a teaser. He also posted emails he claims are from the disgruntled employee who sent him the material. In one, the employee says he can “send you a copy of the certified letter sent to me by an AVP of BofA’s [HR department] telling me I am banned from stepping foot on BofA property or contacting their employee ever again.”

OperationLeaks, which runs the anti-Bank of America site BankofAmericasuck.com, says the employee contacted the group to blow the whistle on Bank of America’s shady business practices. “I seen some of the emails… I can tell you Grade A Fraud in its purest form…” read one tweet. “He Just told me he have GMAC emails showing BoA order to mix loan numbers to not match it’s Documents.. to foreclose on Americans.. Shame.”

An Anonymous insider told us he believes the leak is real. “From what I know and have been told, it’s legit,” he said. “Should be a round of emails, then some files, possible some more emails to follow that.” The documents should be released Monday on Anonleaks.ch, the same site where Anonymous posted thousands of internal emails from hacked security company HBGary last month. That leak exposed a legally-questionable plot to attack Wikileaks and ultimately led to the resignation of HBGary CEO Aaron Barr.

Katya Wachtel at Clusterstock:

Anonymous said late Sunday evening, however, “this is part 1 of the Emails.” So perhaps more incriminating correspondence is to come. And to be honest, these messages could be incredibly damaging, but we’re not mortgage specialists and don’t know if this is or isn’t common in the field. The beauty is, you can see and decide for yourself at bankofamericasuck.com.

But for those who want a simple explanation, here’s a summary of the content.

The Source

The ex-Balboa employee tells Anonymous that what he/she sends will be enough to,

crack [BofA's] armor, and put a bad light on a $700 mil cash deal they need to pay back the government while ruining their already strained relationship with GMAC, one of their largest clients. Trust me… it’ll piss them off plenty.

The source then sends over a paystub, an unemployment form, a letter from HR upon dismissal and his/her last paystub and an ID badge.

He/she also describes his/herself:

My name is (Anonymous). For the last 7 years, I worked in the Insurance/Mortgage industry for a company called Balboa Insurance. Many of you do not know who Balboa Insurance Group is, but if you’ve ever had a loan for an automobile, farm equipment, mobile home, or residential or commercial property, we knew you. In fact, we probably charged you money…a lot of money…for insurance you didn’t even need.

Balboa Insurance Group, and it’s largest competitor, the market leader Assurant, is in the business of insurance tracking and Force Placed Insurance…  What this means is that when you sign your name on the dotted line for your loan, the lienholder has certain insurance requirements that must be met for the life of the lien. Your lender (including, amongst others, GMAC… IndyMac… HSBC… Wells Fargo/Wachovia… Bank of America) then outsources the tracking of your loan with them to a company like Balboa Insurance.

The Emails

Next comes the emails that are supposed to be so damaging. The set of emails just released shows conversational exchanges between Balboa employees.

The following codes pertain to the emails, so use as reference:

  1. SOR = System of Record
  2. Rembrandt/Tracksource = Insurance tracking systems
  3. DTN = Document Tracking Number. A number assigned to all incoming/outgoing documents (letters, insurance documents, etc)

The first email asks for a group of GMAC DTN’s to have their “images removed from Tracksource/Rembrandt.” The relevant DTNs are included in the email — there’s between 50-100 of them.

In reply, a Balboa employee says that the DTN’s cannot be removed from the Rembrandt, but that the loan numbers can be removed so “the documents will not show as matched to those loans.” But she adds that she needs upper management approval before she moves forward, since it’s an unusual request.

Then it gets approved. And then, one of the Balboa employees voices their concern. He says,

“I’m just a little concerned about the impact this has on the department and the company. Why are we removing all record of this error? We have told Denise Cahen, and there is always going to be the paper trail when one of these sent documents come back. this to me seems to be a huge red flag for the auditors… when the auditor sees the erroneous letter but no SOR trail or scanned doc on the corrected letter… What am I missing? This just doesn’t seem right to me.

We suspect this is the type of email that Anonymous believes shows BofA fraud:

leak one

Image: Anonymous

Click here to see why these emails prove nothing interesting, and to see what what Bank of America says about the emails >

Chris V. Nicholson at Dealbook at NYT:

A Bank of America spokesman told Reuters on Sunday that the documents had been stolen by a former Balboa employee, and were not tied to foreclosures. “We are confident that his extravagant assertions are untrue,” the spokesman said.

The e-mails dating from November 2010 concern correspondence among Balboa employees in which they discuss taking steps to alter the record about certain documents “that went out in error.” The documents were related to loans by GMAC, a Bank of America client, according to the e-mails.

“The following GMAC DTN’s need to have the images removed from Tracksource/Rembrandt,” an operations team manager at Balboa wrote. DTN refers to document tracking number, and Tracksource/Rembrandt is an insurance tracking system.

The response he receives: “I have spoken to my developer and she stated that we cannot remove the DTNs from Rembrandt, but she can remove the loan numbers, so the documents will not show as matched to those loans.”

According to the e-mails, approval was given to remove the loan numbers from the documents.

A member of Anonymous told DealBook on Monday that the purpose of his Web site was to bring attention to the wrongdoing of banks. “The way the system is, it’s made to cheat the average person,” he said.

He had set up a Web site to post bank data that WikiLeaks has said it would release, and was subsequently contacted this month by the former Balboa employee. It has been speculated that the documents, which have yet to be released, would focus on Bank of America. The spokesman for Anonymous said he had no direct ties to WikiLeaks, which is run by Julian Assange.

Nitasha Tiku at New York Magazine:

WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, has threatened to leak damning documents on Bank of America since 2009. And Anonymous has backed WikiLeaks’ mission as far as the free flow of information. But these e-mails date from November 2010. Plus, they don’t exactly amount to a smoking gun. Whether or not the e-mails prove real, it’s clear Bank of America should have expanded its negative-domain-name shopping spree beyond BrianMoynihanSucks.com.

Naked Capitalism:

The charge made in this Anonymous release (via BankofAmericaSuck) is that Bank of America, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Balboa Insurance and the help of cooperating servicers, engaged in a mortgage borrower abuse called “force placed insurance”. This is absolutely 100% not kosher. Famed subprime servicer miscreant Fairbanks in 2003 signed a consent decree with the FTC and HUD over abuses that included forced placed insurance. The industry is well aware that this sort of thing is not permissible. (Note Balboa is due to be sold to QBE of Australia; I see that the definitive agreement was entered into on February 3 but do not see a press release saying that the sale has closed)

While the focus of ire may be Bank of America, let me stress that this sort of insurance really amounts to a scheme to fatten servicer margins. If this leak is accurate, the servicers at a minimum cooperated. If they got kickbacks, um, commissions, they are culpable and thus liable.

As we have stated repeatedly, servicers lose tons of money on portfolios with a high level of delinquencies and defaults. The example of Fairbanks, a standalone servicer who subprime portfolio got in trouble in 2002, is that servicers who are losing money start abusing customers and investors to restore profits. Fairbanks charged customers for force placed insurance and as part of its consent decree, paid large fines and fired its CEO (who was also fined).

Regardless, this release lends credence a notion too obvious to borrowers yet the banks and its co-conspirators, meaning the regulators, have long denied, that mortgage servicing and foreclosures are rife with abuses and criminality. Here’s some background courtesy Barry Ritholtz:

When a homeowner fails to keep up their insurance premiums on a mortgaged residence, their loan servicer has the option/obligation to step in to buy a comparable insurance policy on the loan holder’s behalf, to ensure the mortgaged property remains fully insured….

Consider one case found by [American Banker's Jeff] Horwitz. A homeowner’s $4,000 insurance policy, was paid by the loan servicer, Everbank via escrow. But Everbank purposely let that insurance policy lapse, and then replaced it with a different policy – one that cost more than $33,000. To add insult to injury, the insurer, a subsidiary of Assurant, paid Everbank a $7,100 kickback for giving it such a lucrative policy — and, writes Horwitz, “left the door open to further compensation” down the road.

That $33,000 policy — including the $7,100 kickback – is an enormous amount of money for any loan servicer to make on a single property. The average loan servicer makes just $51 per loan per year.

Here’s where things get interesting: That $33,000 insurance premium is ultimately paid by the investors who bought the loan.

And the worst of this is….the insurance is often reinsured by the bank/servicer, which basically means the insurance is completely phony. The servicer will never put in a claim to trigger payment. As Felix Salmon noted,

This is doubly evil: it not only means that investors are paying far too much money for the insurance, but it also means that, as both the servicer and the ultimate insurer of the property, JPMorgan Chase has every incentive not to pursue claims on the houses it services. Investors, of course, would love to recoup any losses from the insurer, but they can’t bring such a claim — only the servicer can do that.

Note there are variants of this scheme where insurance is charged to the borrower (I’ve been told of insurance being foisted on borrowers that amounts to unconsented-to default insurance, again with the bank as insurer; this has been anecdotal with insufficient documentation, but I’ve heard enough independent accounts to make me pretty certain it was real)

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

Just because something has a lot of anecdotal evidence behind it doesn’t necessarily mean the specific case is true. But the forced-place insurance scam has been part of other servicer lawsuits, so it definitely exists. Whether this set of emails shows that taking place is another matter. Apparently this is just the first Anonymous email dump, so there should be more on the way

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic

Parmy Olson at Forbes:

Yet however inconclusive the e-mails may be, the leak may have wider implications as Anonymous gradually proves itself a source of comeuppance for disgruntled employees with damning information about a company or institution. Once the domain of WikiLeaks, the arrest of key whistleblower Bradley Manning suggested the site founded by fellow incarcerate Julian Assange could not always protect its sources. “A lot depends on the impact of this week,” says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at NYU who is researching Anonymous, who added that “Anonymous could go in that [WikiLeaks] direction.”

Anonymous is not an institution like WikiLeaks. It is global, has no leader, no clear hierarchy and no identifiable spokespeople save for pseudo-representatives like Gregg Housh (administrator of whyweprotest.net) and Barrett Brown.

It has some ideals: Anonymous tends to defend free speach and fight internet censorship, as with the DDoS-ing of the web sites of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal after they nixed funding services to WikiLeaks, and the DDoS-ing of Tunisian government Web sites. It is also great at spectacle. The group’s hacking of software security firm HBGary Federal not only gained oodles of press attention, it inadvertently revealed the firm had been proposing a dirty tricks campaign with others against WikiLeaks to Bank of America’s lawyers.

That hack led, rather organically, to the establishment of AnonLeaks.ru, a Web site where the Anonymous hackers posted tens of thousands of HBGary e-mails in a handy web viewer. While it took just five supporters to hack HBGary, hundreds more poured through the e-mails to identify incriminating evidence, leading to more press reports on the incident.

Such is the nature of Anonymous–global, fluid, intelligent, impossible to pin down–that it is could become an increasingly popular go-to for people wishing to vent damaging information about an institution with questionable practices.

The collective already receives dozens of requests each month from the public to attack all manner of unsavoury subjects, from personal targets to the government of Libya, from Westboro Baptist Church to Facebook. It rarely responds to them–as one Anonymous member recently told me, “we’re not hit men.”

Yet for all its facets as both hot-tempered cyber vigilantes and enlighteners of truth, Anonymous is becoming increasingly approachable, as the latest emails between OperationLeakS and the former BoA employee show. Assuming this particular employee doesn’t end up languishing in jail like Manning, more people may now be inclined to follow suit.

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Looking Away From Japan For One Moment..

The Week:

Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 soldiers into neighboring Bahrain on Monday to help quell increasingly violent anti-government protests. While Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah, a Sunni Muslim, has offered to start a dialogue with the mostly Shiite protesters, opposition leaders have refused, demanding that the government step down, and calling the arrival of foreign troops an invasion. Saudi Arabia has problems with its own Shiite minority, and fears the unrest in Bahrain could spill over into its own oil-rich kingdom. Will the Saudis be able to quash the unrest in Bahrain?

Bruce McQuain:

Yes it’s another fine mess.  Of course while the Japanese tragedy and the struggles with their nuclear power plants has sucked all the air out of news elsewhere, there is, in fact much news elsewhere.  And not the least of it is coming out of the Middle East where Saudi troops, as a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), moved into Bahrain ostensibly to “guard government facilities”.

The GCC is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.   It was created in 1991 (think Iraq invasion of Kuwait), the 6 members share common borders and are committed by their charter to help each other in times of need.

The action by the GCC, as you might imagine, is in direct conflict with how the White House has indicated it would prefer the situation in Bahrain be resolved.  Obviously that’s not carried much weight with the GCC.

The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.

Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.

Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.

The GCC move has prompted both Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to cancel upcoming visits to Saudi Arabia.

Again, the apparent genesis of these tensions appear to be related to the way the US handled Egypt.  It has caused the Saudis and other GCC nations to trust the US less than before:

The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”

Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.

Obviously the Saudi’s have their own ideas of how to handle this and apparently aren’t taking kindly to the US attempting to dictate how it should handle it’s internal affairs.  And, given the treatment of Mubarak, the Saudi rulers can’t help but feel that they’re just as likely to be thrown under the bus if protests were to escalate as was Mubarak.

Consequently, they’ve decided to go their own way and handle it with force within the GCC  while throwing money at the problem within the Saudi Kingdom.  Speaking of the latter:

One of President Obama’s top advisers described the moves as more in a series of “safety valves” the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”

Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom’s ultraconservative society.

Of course the difference between their “stimulus funds” and ours is they actually have the money.   But it is ironic to see the adviser describe “stimulus funds” in those terms isn’t it?  The actual point here should be evident though.  The GCC has rejected the “Bahrain model” as the desired method of addressing the unrest.  As you recall that was the “regime alteration” model, v. the regime change model.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

It’s a move that undercuts the Obama administration’s rosy portrayal of the monarchy. Despite a paroxysm of violence in February when security forces attacked protesters in the capitol city of Manama, “today, the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain is a place of nonviolent activism,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured reporters on March 1. After a visit last week to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Gates said he was convinced the royals “are serious about real reform.”

If so, that lasted until about when Gates’ plane went wheels-up. Security forces are now trying to clear Manama’s financial district of protesters, firing tear gas canisters into demonstrators’ chests. About 1000 Saudi troops entered Bahrain on Monday, ostensibly to protect government installations, but protesters at the Pearl Roundabout set up barricades in preparation for the Saudis attacking them. The leading Shia opposition party, Wefaq, called it a “declaration of war and an occupation.”

And it’s not just the Saudis. Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine tweeted that forces from the United Arab Emirates are also entering Bahrain, fulfilling a mandate from the Gulf Cooperation Council to protect the royals.

Matthew Yglesias:

I wish folks urging the United States to start a war in Libya would think a bit more about the situation in Bahrain: “The king of Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency on Tuesday as more than 10,000 protesters marched on the Saudi Arabian embassy here to denounce a military intervention by Persian Gulf countries the day before.”

I don’t think the US military should attack Bahrain’s forces or Saudi Arabia’s any more than I think we should attack Libyas. But it seems overwhelmingly likely to me that if the Secretary of Defense were to call the relevant royal families and say that the United States does not intend to sell weapons in the future to countries that use them to crack down on peaceful democratic protestors, that this would be an important spur to political change. It’d be radically cheaper than a war with Libya and more effective than a war with Libya. If the answer is “well, America likes its client states just fine and doesn’t actually care about human rights in Arab countries” then maybe that’s all there is to say about it, but for people to run around the op-ed pages talking about no-fly zones in North Africa seems to me like it’s dodging the real question here. My view is that despotism can hardly be expected to last in the Gulf forever so getting on the right side of inevitable change will serve any meaningful conception of interests just as well as trying to prolong the inevitable will.

Ed Morrissey:

This will put a new wrinkle in the American reaction to the unrest.  Bahrain has a constitutional monarchy, as noted above, with a more liberal political environment than Saudi Arabia.  Both, however, are American allies; Bahrain has a free-trade agreement with the US.  Women have the right to vote and to seek education, which is much different than the Saudis.  The people have demonstrated peacefully for the most part in the Pearl Roundabout in the capital of Manama, but government forces used live ammunition to attempt to drive them out on at least two occasions last month.  They claim to want a republic based on representative democracy, exactly as protesters in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia demanded — and which the US endorsed in those instances, to vacillating and varying degrees.

Now that one US ally has more or less invaded another, Grenada-style, at the request of a monarchy that has fired on its own people to maintain its power, what will Barack Obama do?  The Saudis clearly see the threat in Bahrain as a potential destabilizing force in their own country as well as fearing a growth of Shi’ite power in the region with the takeover of Bahrain.  Will Obama tell the Saudis to stand down and let the people of Bahrain settle their own accounts despite their probably-legitimate fears, or will he side with the Saudis for the status quo while the rest of the Arab world gets turned upside down?  Frankly, there aren’t a lot of great options here.

Dov Zakheim at Foreign Policy:

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of Bahrain’s royal family with about one thousand troops crossing the causeway between the two countries. If more troops are needed to ensure that the al-Khalifa regime does not fall, the Saudis will oblige. Put simply, Riyadh cannot tolerate Shiite domination of its offshore island, whether or not the al-Khalifas remain in power.

A Bahrain that is ruled by its Shiite majority is one-third of the ultimate nightmare for the Sunni rulers of the desert kingdom. The other two-thirds are a revolt by the Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which could spill over from the troubles in neighboring Bahrain and a massive influx of Yemenis, many of whom are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Islam, and have little in common with Saudi Wahhabism.

Stability in Bahrain is therefore crucial for the long-term future of the al-Saud family as rulers of their eponymous kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s rulers fully recognize that because memories in the Middle East are very long, the fact that the Hejaz was a separate Arabian kingdom as recently as the 1920s until it was conquered by Ibn Saud and merged with his kingdom of the Nejd means that the break-up of their country is hardly impossibility.

Other Gulf States, notably Kuwait, whose rulers are close to the al-Khalifa, may join the Saudi effort to stabilize Bahrain. So might the UAE, which shares Saudi fears of Iranian domination of the island, which was once an Iranian province, and which continues to smart over the Iranian seizure of its islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war — one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq’s hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world’s No. 3 economy.

There are some bright spots: Morocco’s King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don’t seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region’s autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens to the streets.

Meanwhile, the region’s two traditional problem children — Lebanon and Palestine — haven’t even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It’s hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon’s March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven’t begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off — especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies — Israel and Saudi Arabia — are now flaunting their rejection of Washington’s advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn’t even get a courtesy call.

But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn’t behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt’s transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.

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