Tag Archives: Amy Davidson

So, What Happened Over The Weekend?

Ed Morrissey:

NBC has a fairly comprehensive report on the American attack on Libyan forces this morning, complete with totals thus far on cruise missiles (114 of them) and attacks by stealth bombers on air-defense systems, with 20 of those targeted. Military airstrips around the country have been bombed as well, up to 40 of them. Libya claims that 48 people have died as a result of those attacks, and Moammar Gaddafi gave the usual warning to the Muslim world that this was the start of a “crusader war” against an Arab nation. One piece of news might raise eyebrows — the US has sent fighter jets from Sicily to attack Gaddafi’s ground forces around Benghazi

That would seem to go beyond the UN mandate for a no-fly zone. The Pentagon tells NBC that their interpretation of the mandate is that they need to protect civilians, an interpretation that would leave practically no option off the table. Even without considering a ground invasion, it could mean that the US could attack Tripoli or practically any target they wish from the air or through off-shore cruise missiles. As Jim Miklaszewski reports, it looks as though the intent now is to utterly destroy Gaddafi’s army in an attempt to force him into retreat.

Not for nothing, but wasn’t that more or less our strategy in Iraq in 1990? We had a lot more firepower on target in that case, and it still took a ground invasion to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — and that wasn’t his own territory, either. Had we done this four weeks ago, we could have protected a status quo, de facto liberation of Benghazi and other areas of Libya. Now, the Libyan position is so advanced that Gaddafi can likely abandon his armor in the city and reduce the rebels to destruction. It will just take a little longer. The time to stop Gaddafi from seizing Benghazi and stomping out the rebellion was when Gaddafi was bottled up in Tripoli.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

President Obama’s decision to join an international military intervention in Libya has met with a largely negative response in the United States across the political spectrum. Critics correctly point to a wide range of problems with the intervention: the absence of any clear planning for what comes after Qaddafi or for what might happen if there is an extended stalemate, doubts about the opposition, the White House’s ignoring of Congress and limited explanations to the American public, the selectivity bias in going to war for Libya while ignoring Bahrain and Yemen, the distraction from other urgent issues.  I have laid out my own reservations about the intervention here and here.

This emerging consensus misses some extremely important context, however. Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world.  For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi’s bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution.  If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.

Libya’s degeneration from protest movement into civil war has been at the center of the Arab public sphere for the last month. It is not an invention of the Obama administration, David Cameron or Nikolas Sarkozy.  Al-Jazeera has been covering events in Libya extremely closely, even before it tragically lost one of its veteran cameramen to Qaddafi’s forces, and has placed it at the center of the evolving narrative of Arab uprisings.  Over the last month I have heard personally or read comments from an enormous number of Arab activists and protest organizers and intellectuals from across the region that events in Libya would directly affect their own willingness to challenge their regimes. The centrality of Libya to the Arab transformation undermines arguments  that Libya is not particularly important to the U.S. (it is, because it affects the entire region) or that Libya doesn’t matter more than, say, Cote D’Ivoire (which is also horrible but lacks the broader regional impact).

The centrality of Libya to the Arab public sphere and to al-Jazeera carries a less attractive underside, though.  The focus on Libya has gone hand in hand with al-Jazeera’s relative inattention to next-door Bahrain, where a GCC/Saudi  intervention has helped to brutally beat back a protest movement and tried to cast it as a sectarian, Iranian conspiracy rather than as part of the narrative of Arab popular uprisings.  It has also distracted attention from Yemen, where rolling protests and mass government defections might finally today be bringing down the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. The TV cameras have also largely moved on from the urgent issues surrounding the ongoing transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. Cynics might argue that the GCC and Arab League have been willing to support the intervention in Libya for precisely that reason, to keep the West distracted from their own depradations.

Finally, as I warned last week, Arab support for an intervention against Qaddafi to protect the Libyan people rapidly begins to fray when the action includes Western bombing of an Arab country. It should surprise nobody that the bombing campaign has triggered anger among a significant portion of the Arab public, which is still powerfully shaped by the Iraq war and aggrieved by perceived double standards (one of the most common lines in Arab debates right now is “where was the No Fly Zone over Gaza?”).  Amr Moussa’s flip-flopping on the Arab League’s stance towards the intervention should be seen as part of that tension between the desire to help the Libyan people and continuing suspicion of Western motives.  Skeptical voices matter too —  ignoring or ridiculing influential or representative voices simply because their message is unpalatable is a mistake too often made in this part of the world.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

What are we doing in Libya? “Helping” is not a sufficient answer. President Obama said that, if we didn’t act, “many thousands could die…. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered.” But that is a motive, a desire—not a plan. Obama also said that America wouldn’t be leading operation Odyssey Dawn, just helping: our allies, particularly the French and British, had this one, and the Arab League would help by cheering. By Sunday, though, there was division in the Arab League, and there was something iffy to start with about making Nicolas Sarkozy the point man on anything. (One of the many, many things I wish I understood was what role French elections played in all of this.) Could Congress and the American people have maybe helped the Obama Administration think this one through?

Members of the Administration, including Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, and Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, keep repeating the phrase “days, not weeks.” But what they are referring to is not the length of the operation but of America’s “leadership” of it. Who will take over? There is more clarity on that point than on the question of who will take over Libya if Qaddafi leaves, but that’s a pretty low bar: as Philip Gourevitch points out in his pointed summary of the questions attending this operation, we have no idea. Hillary Clinton talked about people around Qaddafi deciding to do something—the eternal desire for the convenient coup. Do we care who the plotters are?

Another thing that more people perhaps should have been clear about was the extent of Odyssey Dawn. The Times spoke of discomfort at how it had gone beyond a “simple ‘no-fly zone.’ ” But, despite the blank, pristine quality of the term, imposing a no-fly zone is not a simple, or clean and bloodless, thing, as if one simply turned a switch and the air cleared out. Pentagon spokesmen talked about hitting anti-aircraft installations, aviation centers, and “communication nodes.” Empty skies require rubble on the ground.

Lexington at The Economist:

For what it is worth, I welcome the fact that the world at last seems willing to exercise its so-called “duty to protect” people at risk from their own governments. The failures to do so in Rwanda and Darfur and so many other charnel houses is a blot on its conscience that will never be erased. But there is no escaping the fact that this new entanglement was decided upon behind closed doors at the UN and with very little public debate here in the United States. None of this will matter if the end comes quickly. But if things go wrong and America is drawn deeper in, the domestic consequences for the president could be far-reaching.

Tim Carney at The Washington Examiner:

At once presumptuous and flippant, President Obama used a Saturday audio recording from Brazil to inform Americans he had authorized a third war — a war in which America’s role is unclear and the stated objectives are muddled.

Setting aside the wisdom of the intervention, Obama’s entry into Libya’s civil war is troubling on at least five counts. First is the legal and constitutional question. Second is the manner of Obama’s announcement. Third is the complete disregard for public opinion and lack of debate. Fourth is the unclear role the United States will play in this coalition. Fifth is the lack of a clear endgame. Compounding all these problems is the lack of trust created by Obama’s record of deception.

“Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya,” the president said. For him it was self-evident he had such authority. He gave no hint he would seek even ex post facto congressional approval. In fact, he never once mentioned Congress.

Since World War II, the executive branch has steadily grabbed more war powers, and Congress has supinely acquiesced. Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all fought wars without a formal declaration, but at least Bush used force only after Congress authorized it.

And, once more, the president’s actions belie his words on the campaign trail. In late 2007, candidate Obama told the Boston Globe, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

There is no claim that Moammar Gadhafi poses a threat to the United States. But asking President Obama to explain his change of heart would be a fruitless exercise. This is a president who has repeatedly shredded the clear meaning of words in order to deny breaking promises he has clearly broken — consider his continued blatant falsehoods on tax increases and his hiring of lobbyists.

James Fallows:

Count me among those very skeptical of how this commitment was made and where it might lead.

How it was made: it cannot reassure anyone who cares about America’s viability as a republic that it is entering another war with essentially zero Congressional consultation or “buy-in,” and with very little serious debate outside the Executive Branch itself. And there the debate was, apparently, mostly about changing the President’s own mind. I recognize that there are times when national safety requires an Administration to respond quickly, without enduring the posturing and institutionalized dysfunction that is the modern Congress. Without going through all the arguments, I assert that this is not such a moment. To be more precise: the Administration has not made the public case that the humanitarian and strategic stakes in Libya are so unique as to compel intervention there (even as part of a coalition), versus the many other injustices and tragedies we deplore but do not go to war to prevent. I can think of several examples in my current part of the world.

I didn’t like the “shut up and leave it to us” mode of foreign policy when carried out by people I generally disagreed with, in the Bush-Cheney era. I don’t like it when it’s carried out by people I generally agree with, in this Administration.

Where it might lead: The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that “success” depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of “preventive” strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then?

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?  I usually do not agree with Peggy Noonan, but I think she is exactly right in her recent warning* about how much easier it is to get into a war than ever to get out. I agree more often with Andrew Sullivan, and I share his frequently expressed recent hopes that this goes well but cautions about why it might not. (Jeffrey Goldberg has asked a set of similar questions, here.)

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn’t even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of ‘The West versus lands of Islam’ drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.

I can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I’ve made. And listening to them I think I’d find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

As the United Nations-sanctioned war against Libya moves into its third day, no U.S., French or British aircraft have been shot down by Libyan air defenses. Part of the credit should go to the Navy’s new jammer, which is making its combat debut in Operation Odyssey Dawn. But the jammer isn’t just fritzing Moammar Gadhafi’s missiles, it’s going after his tanks.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told the media on Sunday that the EA-18G Growler, a Boeing production, provided electronic warfare support to the coalition’s attacks on Libya. That’s the first combat mission for the Growler, which will replace the Navy’s Prowler jamming fleet. Only Gortney added a twist: not only did the Growler go after Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, it helped the coalition conduct air strikes on loyalist ground forces going after rebel strongholds.

According to Gortney, coalition air strikes “halted” the march of pro-Gadhafi troops 10 miles south of Benghazi, thanks to French, British and U.S. planes — including the Marine Corps’ Harrier jump jet — thanks in part to Growler support. There’s no word yet on whether the Growler’s jamming functions disrupted any missiles that the pro-Gadhafi forces carried, or fried any communications the Libyan loyalists attempted to make back to their command. But Robert Wall of Aviation Week notes that the continued “risk from pop-up surface to air missile firings” prompts the need for Growlers above Libya.

And expect the Growler to keep up the pressure. The Pentagon plans to transfer control of Odyssey Dawn from Gen. Carter Ham and U.S. Africa Command to an as yet undetermined multinational command entity — at which point, the U.S. is expected to take a backseat in combat missions. But it’ll continue to contribute “unique capabilities” to the Libya mission. Namely, Gortney specified, “specialty electronic airplanes” such as the Growler. (And refueling tankers, spy planes, cargo haulers and command n’ control aircraft.) No wonder Defense Secretary Robert Gates hearts it so much.

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And The Verdict Is… Open!

Eli Lake at The Washington Times:

President Obama on Monday lifted the ban he imposed two years ago on military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, ending his bid to move most terrorism trials to civilian courts and pushing his already busted deadline for shuttering the island prison indefinitely forward.

The reversal came as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Afghanistan and indicated that he was willing to keep a presence of U.S. forces in the war-torn country beyond the Obama administration’s 2014 pullout goal, highlighting again the difficulty the president has had moving from the policies of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama announced the Guantanamo decision in an executive order that also sets forth a periodic review process for detainees who have not been charged or convicted but are still considered threats to the U.S.

White House aides stressed that Mr. Obama remains committed to closing the prison, which he has described as a key recruiting tool for terrorist groups, and pursuing some cases in civilian courts. Mr. Obama vowed during the campaign to close the prison by the end of 2009, his first year in office.

Massimo Calabresi at Swampland at Time:

All of this responds to Obama’s archives speech of May 2009, where he walked back his more progressive January 2009 position but tried to retain a bulwark of detention and prosecution principles for terrorism detainees. Since then, Congress has passed laws blocking the closure of Gitmo by preventing the transfer of detainees by the executive branch. House and Senate Republicans (McKeon and Graham) are expected to introduce bills further blocking detainee access to U.S. courts in the coming week.

On a conference call Monday, Obama senior advisors said the president remains committed to closing Gitmo by diminishing the number of detainees held there. But the moves announced today could have the opposite effect, admits a senior White House official. The Bush and Obama administrations have faced repeated habeas corpus challenges to their detention of alleged terrorists at Gitmo. Last I checked, detainees bringing habeas cases were winning by a 4-to-1 ratio. By increasing due process at Gitmo, the new measures make it more likely judges will defer to the executive branch and rule against detainees claiming they are being held unfairly at Gitmo. One administration official argued that judges would not be affected by the new procedures.

The habeas releases remain the only way that Gitmo’s numbers can decrease these days. The administration is still debating how to comply with the Congressional ban, but as long as it is in place even a detainee who uses his new due process rights to challenge his detention in military commissions and wins will stay in Gitmo forever… or until Congress changes its mind about closing it down.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

Who wins in this? Do we think that “American system of justice” means whatever it is Americans do, as long as some court-like trappings are present? The order acknowledges that the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” is available to inmates, but also sets up a routine for holding prisoners indefinitely without charges (what the order calls “the executive branch’s continued, discretionary exercise of existing detention authority”). In statements today, Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates all mentioned how highly they thought of the federal court system. Gates said,

For years, our federal courts have proven to be a secure and effective means for bringing terrorists to justice. To completely foreclose this option is unwise and unnecessary.

So this order doesn’t “completely foreclose” on the rule of law—is a partial foreclosure supposed to count as a moral stand? Given all the nice things the Administration has to say about the federal court system, one would think that it might find it wise, and even necessary, to actually use it a bit more. Instead, the statements seem more concerned to note that the President is not giving up any options or powers—as if bringing accused murderers to court were a prerogative, rather than an obligation. No doubt, Republicans, and some Democrats, have made it hard for Obama to close Guantánamo. But it might be easier if he wanted to do it; the order today makes it sound like he considers it a somewhat useful place. It is not.

Speaking of questionable detention measures: Can someone in the Administration explain, slowly and clearly, why Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of leaking the WikiLeaks cables, is required to stand naked in front of his cell in the morning and sleep naked, ostensibly for his own protection? The military’s explanations so far—that he could somehow harm himself with underwear (though he is not on suicide watch and is being monitored by video) so he can’t sleep in any, and then there is just no time for him to put underwear on in the morning before they get him out of the cell—are just not plausible. (By coincidence, a case about Americans being strip-searched after being arrested for minor offenses may be coming before the Supreme Court.) A naked man who hasn’t been convicted of a crime—that shouldn’t be what American justice looks like.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy

Bryan Preston at PJ Tatler:

Only two years into his presidency, Barack Obama has learned that there are no easy answers to dealing with captured transnational terrorists. It’s easy to create sound bites decrying the evils of holding terrorists at Gitmo, and it’s easy to create sound bites about how awful it is to try them in military tribunals (even though that’s where illegal enemy combatants should rightfully be tried), but it’s very hard to change reality. So bowing to reality, Obama has authorized the re-start of military trials for captured terrorists.

John Yoo at Ricochet:

The Obama administration’s anti-war campaign rhetoric and naive first-year promises continue to collide with reality.  And happily, reality continues to prevail.  The Obama administration has finally admitted, I think, that the Bush administration’s decision to detain al Qaeda operatives and terrorists at Gitmo was sensible.  It wasn’t driven by some bizarre desire to mistreat terrorists, but instead was the best way to address security concerns without keeping them in Afghanistan or inside the United States.

It also turns out that the military commission trials too were a sensible decision.  Civilian trials threaten the revelation of valuable intelligence in a covert war where hostilities are still ongoing. Military commissions allow a fair trial to be held but one that does not blow our wartime advantages.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s track record has been poor — it was lucky to get the limited convictions that it has.  Obama folks owe an apology to the Bush administration for their unjust criticism of military trials.

It should also be noted that Obama did not come to this turnabout after reasoned consideration alone.  I think there are significant figures in the administration that would still love to close Gitmo tomorrow and give every terrorist the same exact trials reserved for Americans who commit garden-variety crimes.  Congress dragged the administration kicking and screaming to this destination by cutting off funds for the transfer of any detainees from Gitmo to the U.S.  This effectively used Congress’s sole power of the purse to prevent Obama from making a grievous national security mistake.  The new Congress should continue to keep the ban in its Defense spending bills to prevent Obama from another 180 degree turn.

Adam Serwer at Greg Sargent’s place:

Conservatives committed to burnishing Bush’s legacy were quick to claim vindication, arguing that the decision proved that the detention camp at Gitmo was a good idea all along. But Obama’s decision doesn’t prove this at all.

The administration also released an executive order outlining its new indefinite detention policy. Not much has changed from when I first wrote about it a few months ago — the new procedures formally adopt what Karen Greenberg referred to as “the heart of Bush policy” while making the process marginally fairer by allowing individuals detained indefinitely who have lost their habeas cases to be represented by counsel during periodic reviews every six months.

The president and the secretary of defense also reiterated the importance of trying terrorists in federal courts, but they might as well be shouting into the wind. The ban on funds for transfers of Gitmo detainees to federal court won’t be going away any time soon, but it’s worth remembering that ban actually ensures that fewer terrorists would be brought to justice than would be otherwise. Only six terrorists have ever been convicted in military commissions, compared to hundreds in federal court.

Failing to close Gitmo remains the most visible symbol of the president’s failure to reverse the trajectory of Bush-era national security policy, but the reality, as Glenn Greenwald notes this morning, is that most of the substantive decisions adopting Bush policies were made long ago. The new policies don’t amount to a “reversal” on the issue of whether Gitmo should be closed. Republicans are eager to portray Gitmo staying open as a “vindication” of the prison’s usefulness, but the fact that the indefinite detention order is limited to detainees currently at Gitmo means that the administration won’t be reopening the facility to new detainees, as Bush apologists have suggested doing.

Gitmo isn’t open because the administration doesn’t want to close it, although its efforts in this area are ripe for criticism. It’s still open because Republicans in Congress successfully frightened Democrats in Congress out of giving the administration the necessary funds to close it when they had control of Congress. In the process, they’ve managed to obscure the original reason detainees were brought to Gitmo — to keep them away from the scrutiny of the federal courts. Once the Supreme Court held that federal courts had jurisdiction and even habeas rights, the facility was useless for that purpose. Republicans are determined to keep it open not because we can’t safely imprison terrorists in the U.S., but because they feel its ongoing presence vindicates Bush in the eyes of history.

Glenn Greenwald

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Taking A Bite Out Of The Big Apple (Yes, The Worst Post Title We’ve Ever Written)

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic:

New York City’s role on the American scene isn’t unhealthy merely because it attracts creative, ambitious people with its dynamism, or because its residents have a healthy ego about the relative merits of their city. The problem is that along with those inevitable traits of great cities, Manhattan and certain of its surrounding boroughs happen to dominate American media, finance, and letters so thoroughly that even the most impressive achievements of other cities are routinely ignored while New Yorkers talk about local matters of comparatively smaller consequence, either tempting or forcing the whole nation to eavesdrop on their chatter depending on the day.

In Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio, all among the top ten most populous cities in the United States, the smallest with well over a million residents, the average person has watched countless hours of television set in various New York City apartments, and perhaps never seen their own city portrayed in a sitcom. The executives read The Wall Street Journal far more carefully than the local newspaper, the aspiring writers dream of getting a short story published in The New Yorker, the local Starbucks sells The New York Times, the romantics watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s on AMC at six month intervals, and every New Years Eve people gather around to watch a tape-delayed broadcast of a ball that dropped on Times Square hours earlier.

New York is a great city, but in America today, someone who seeks out the best television or novels or magazine writing or art or newspaper reporting is confronted with an even greater degree of NYC centric stuff than is justified. The city is a legitimate giant, yet its shadow somehow reaches much farther than it should. It thereby deprives other cities of the light they need to grow half as tall.

Andrew Sullivan:

I feel exactly the same way. I love it to death, but would never live there. And the narcissism of its inhabitants (yes, I know I’m not exactly one to talk) is deeply irritating. It’s much less different than it once was; and nowhere near as interesting as it believes.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I think this definitely true of media in the New York-Washington region. We give way too much attention to what happens in our backyards. On a personal note, the first five times I visited New York, I absolutely hated it. Everything just felt so inconvenient. I basically moved here because all the magazines were here, and Kenyatta (unlike me) grew up wanting to live here. But I didn’t come because I thought New York was the greatest city in the world. I came here because work was here. Even now, if Kenyatta weren’t in school, I would gladly live in a Denver, a Seattle, an Oakland, a Charlottesville, a Richmond, a Chicago or, above all, a Baltimore.
But that’s not because I think New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–if anything I think it’s more.
I think it’s hard to get what happens when you slam millions of  people who are really different into close proximity. It’s incredible to watch. I think that’s only smug if you’re the kind of person to attribute accidents of environment and history, to genetics.
Moreover, I think New Yorkers only seem more smug, because there are more people in New York and thus more arrogant New Yorkers. In my time, I have watched mo-fos from everywhere from Dallas to Cleveland to Columbia, Maryland hold forth about why their neck of the woods is touched by God. This kind of person would be that way, no matter where he or she were born. Regrettably, in New York we have more of those kinds of people, because we have more of all kinds of people. It’s worth remembering the sheer population size of the city–it’s like ten Detroits.

Ezra Klein:

“I think New Yorkers only seem more smug, because there are more people in New York and thus more arrogant New Yorkers,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “In my time, I have watched [folks] from everywhere from Dallas to Cleveland to Columbia, Maryland, hold forth about why their neck of the woods is touched by God.”

This is true, of course. About the worst thing that can happen to you in life is to be in a room with two Texans who start trying to tell you about the Alamo. Or about Texas. Or about how Texas was affected by the Alamo. But there’s something endearing about it, too. Texans are battling stereotypes that don’t tend to favor them. It’s like talking up your mom’s meatloaf. New Yorkers, by contrast, have what’s considered the greatest city in the country and can’t stop talking about it. It’s like an A-student bragging about his grades, or a rich guy making everybody look at his car. It’s unseemly.

Amy Davidson at New Yorker:

But on to the really baffling characterization: the supposed “tyranny” of New York.

In that context, it’s exceedingly odd that neither Friedersdorf nor Sullivan mention the most relevant fact about New York, vis a vis its supposed power over America: our city is not the nation’s capital. (We’re not even the capital of our state.) For all our business and media influence, and the endless sitcoms that bother Friedersdorf and, he worries, give writers in Phoenix complexes, we have deferred remarkably to a city built on disease-ridden wetlands (as opposed to on one of the best natural harbors that tectonic plates and glaciers ever conspired to carve out) and give to, rather than take from, places like Alaska. If we were actually tyrannical maybe we wouldn’t have to bother with an ethanol subsidy—the tyranny of Ames—or, looking backward, about a disproportionately powerful Southern bloc in the Senate. Perhaps we have let our retiring nature get the better of us, and should learn to assert ourselves more. But it’s for the best, really—good for our democracy. It’s steadying, and probably helps explain our resistance, over more than two centuries, to things like coups. If we were truly a country unbalanced by its metropole, those other cities Friedersdorf feels are unappreciated might never have emerged with the same force, or flourished.

The separation of political and financial-and-cultural power has benefited the country as a whole, and helped make America what it is. Really, far from being pathological, New York’s role has been remarkably healthy. Call that a narcissistic view, if you want to. New York can take it.

Julian Sanchez and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads

David Schaengold at The League:

But why did Conor pick a list of cities unusually famous—justifiably or not—for their blandness? Is it because the average American has watched countless hours of television set in San Francisco, Boston, LA etc, underscoring how much of a non-problem the supposed tyranny of New York is?  Baltimore, for instance, recently received a thorough, realistic, and gripping 60-hour treatment on television. Arguably national television audiences know more about how Baltimore works than about New York.

Conor’s lament wasn’t confined to television, however. He also objected to New York’s dominance in print and in the national imagination. This is a little more on the mark. People from the around the country really don’t read the sometimes pretty good stuff published in Baltimore magazines, or dream about kissing in fabled Baltimorean parks. I don’t see what’s so bad about this, though. People in Baltimore do read local magazines, and dream about leading lives in the city, even if a small, usually college-educated and fairly transient sub-set of the population reads the Times every day and knows more about Breakfast at Tiffanies than breakfast at Howard’s down the street. It seems inevitable that as a country we will have national newspapers and national magazines and places that loom large in the national consciousness. Isn’t in much better that these national institutions retain some local savor? Isn’t the New Yorker, in part because it sometimes seems like a local, even a parochial journal, superior to the tranquil no-whereness of Time magazine? Isn’t the inimitable New Yorkiness of the Times, what Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to call “our parish newsletter,” one its few redeeming features, especially compared with the truly national and placeless USA Today?

What Conor is complaining about is just that we have a cultural capital. Admittedly, having a cultural capital can be galling for provincial cities, even if ours doesn’t loom nearly as large over our country as Paris or London or Toronto or Lagos or Buenos Aires, say, do over theirs. But this isn’t an unusual set-up. The concept has a wikipedia page. In fact, national cultures without such dominant cities, Germany for instance, are quite unusual and usually indicate a fairly late or incomplete degree of cultural unity. Is it really so terrible that we have one?

Mark Thompson at The League:

Anyhow, there’s one important justification for New York’s cultural dominance that I don’t think David touched on, a justification that explains why large cities like San Diego, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix have little-to-no national cultural significance – and, indeed, why they shouldn’t have much: longevity.

New York is not only our biggest city/metro area, it’s also always been our biggest city/metro area. This is important – for the amount of time that New York has been a major center of American population and business, it has been able to develop deep cultural roots from which to build. To complain as Conor does about the lack of cultural import of San Diego, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Dallas is to ignore the recency of their development. Until about 1950-1960, not a single one of those cities was even in the 20 largest American cities, much less the top 10, and none was even regionally dominant like New Orleans was.

Point is, it takes time to develop a thriving and distinct culture that will interest people nationally, or even regionally – local hangouts don’t become dining meccas overnight; locally-published magazines need time to develop a national reputation; and brilliant artists need time to gel into a cohesive group.

And on top of all that, a deserved reputation as a cultural center can and does help to ensure that a city will continue to be a cultural center – as it should. Talented young writers want to write for the New Yorker or the New York Times in no small part because of the giants that have written in the past for the New Yorker or the New York Times and, significantly, the legacy those giants have left in their wake, a legacy that guarantees a certain level of prestige to anyone who writes for them down the line.  I realize that Conor laments the pull of this prestige factor on potential cultural elites from other cities, but that lament ignores that those cultural elites may (and often are) only able to realize their full potential by working in close contact with other cultural elites.

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And He Walked His Days Under African Skies

Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker:

In the early nineteen-seventies, Mark and Delia Owens, two graduate students in biology at the University of Georgia, were seized by the idea of resettling in remotest Africa. They organized an auction, sold their possessions, and used the modest proceeds to buy camping equipment and a pair of one-way air tickets to Johannesburg. When they arrived, in January, 1974, Delia, the daughter of a Georgia trucking executive, was twenty-four years old. Mark, who grew up on a farm west of Toledo, Ohio, was twenty-nine, the divorced father of a four-year-old boy named Christopher.

Mark and Delia had scoured the map of Africa, searching for a site so isolated that its wildlife would have no knowledge, and no fear, of humans. They eventually found their way to a place called Deception Valley, in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. It was a perfect spot for the Owenses to make camp. The wildlife there had not been depleted by poaching, as it had been in other parts of Africa, and though the valley was in many ways an unforgiving place—temperatures can climb above a hundred and twenty degrees in summer—it was distant enough from the capital, Gaborone, to insure that they would be left alone to do their work. The Kalahari is virtually empty of people: the Owenses later wrote of living with only “a few bands of Stone Age Bushmen in an area larger than Ireland.”

[…]

In the Northern Province of Zambia they discovered a place that seemed to fit their needs. The North Luangwa National Park, named for the river that forms its eastern boundary, is twenty-four hundred square miles of mopane forests, grasslands, leadwood and sausage trees, and lagoons filled with hippos and crocodiles. Outside its borders is more wilderness, thousands of square miles of forests and plains inhabited, like the park, by a great range of Africa’s most extraordinary mammals. The profusion of wildlife has made the Luangwa Valley a dangerous place for humans. Each year, crocodiles, elephants, and lions kill dozens of people who live in the mud-hut villages that are scattered across the region.

By the time the Owenses arrived, in 1986, North Luangwa was, in their telling, a national park in name only, undeveloped, unvisited, unguarded, and inaccessible by vehicle for much of the year because of flooding. Mark Owens said of the park, “Here’s where civilization ends.” In a lecture at the National Geographic Society, in Washington, D.C., in 2006, he described the challenge of settling in North Luangwa. “We had to first survey a way in from the air. And we found an old poachers’ route that snaked its way down the three-thousand-foot Muchinga Escarpment,” he said. “So we set about doing that . . . encountering creeks and rivers and streams, of course, that had to be crossed. And no way to cross except these footbridges.”

In “The Eye of the Elephant,” the book the Owenses published in 1992 about their experience in Zambia, they described the moment they realized that they could find contentment in North Luangwa. They were visiting the confluence of the Mwaleshi and Luangwa Rivers for the first time. “The floodplains near and far are spotted with wild animals: six hundred buffalo grazing across a grassy plain; fifty zebras ambling toward the river to drink; a herd of waterbuck lying on a sandbar downstream,” Mark wrote. “Where the two rivers join is a large pool crowded with a hundred hippos, their piggy eyes on us, their nostrils blowing plumes of water in the setting sun as they twiddle their ears. After our tangle with the bramble and the broken woodland, Africa has won us back.”

[…]

The Owenses, operating out of the park and out of an office in Mpika, the largest town in the area, had trained, fed, clothed, and armed about sixty motivated scouts in the park. Their small industries kept people employed. Medical care for the villagers had also improved; over time, the Owenses supplied clinics, held workshops in AIDS prevention, and trained traditional birth attendants. The most significant advance, though, came from outside the park. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species voted to ban the selling of African elephant parts. As legal importation became impossible and legitimate dealers abandoned the business, the price of ivory dropped by as much as ninety-six per cent. The number of poached elephants in North Luangwa decreased, too; the Owenses reported twelve dead elephants in 1991, compared with a thousand the year they arrived.

Still, poachers continued to infiltrate the park, and to the Owenses they seemed more dangerous than ever. Word reached them that one band of commercial poachers had targeted them for assassination, blaming them for ruining their business. These threats—and the shooting of an elephant near their camp—provoked Mark to intensify his antipoaching activities. For some time, he had made regular night flights over the park, in search of meat-drying racks and the campfires of poachers; he would fly low, intentionally backfiring the plane and frightening away the hunters.

[…]

ABC dispatched a crew to North Luangwa in 1994, led by a producer named Andrew Tkach, with Deborah Amos as the reporter. Tkach returned in the summer of 1995, with Meredith Vieira in Amos’s place. The episode aired nationally on March 30, 1996. The hour-long show, titled “Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story,” opened with an onscreen warning: “The following program contains some scenes of violence which might be upsetting to viewers.” Diane Sawyer, who shared anchor duty on the show with Barbara Walters, introduced the broadcast from New York. “They went halfway around the world to follow a dream,” Sawyer said. “An idealistic American couple—young, in love. But a strange place and time would test that love.”

Mark Owens is seen early in the documentary wearing camouflage, and with a pistol at his waist. “It was like going back in time to a time before, when all was right with the earth,” he says. Meredith Vieira, who is now the co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, was then the chief correspondent for “Turning Point” and appears throughout the program. “This is the real Africa, the way it was two hundred years ago,” Delia tells Vieira. Vieira, who is shown accompanying the Owenses on a walk to see a family of elephants, describes North Luangwa as an “uncharted wilderness,” and discusses the difficulties the Owenses faced in combatting poachers: “For more than three years, the Owenses begged unsuccessfully for government support.” Vieira reports that the Owenses, frustrated, decided to work around the government.

The confrontation with poachers brought troubles. Delia Owens tells Vieira that “there were several assassination teams that were sent down by poachers with the intent to kill us. I mean, lions don’t frighten me nearly as much as humans.” Vieira’s voice-over suggests that the threats created trouble in the marriage, and Delia says of her husband, “He was just out there. I couldn’t reach him anymore. He had become—he doesn’t like for me to say it, but I think he had become truly obsessed.”

The film cuts to Mark Owens: “To fly at night, to be shot at time and again, even to be hit, to go back up and keep doing it night after night without—without a military to support you, knowing that you’re ruining your marriage—”

Delia Owens says, “I kept saying to Mark, ‘If you die, then we’re going to lose everything. Then we won’t be able to save the park.’ I was so sick with worry. And you shouldn’t love anybody that much, but I did, so I just reached the point I just couldn’t take that anymore.”

The documentary suggests that the conflict between scouts and poachers had grown violent. Mark Owens is seen supervising the scouts’ firearms training, and at various points in the broadcast he carries a pistol, a hunting rifle, and an AR-15 automatic rifle. Later, he orders his scouts, “If you see poachers in the national park with a firearm, you don’t wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first, all right? That means when you see the whites of his eyes, and if he has a firearm, you kill him before he kills you, because if you let him get—if you let him turn on you with an AK-47, he’s going to cut you in two. So go out there and get them. Go get them, O.K.?”

He explains to Vieira, “I’m not comfortable at all with it. I’m absolutely uncomfortable with it. Sometimes poachers are killed and occasionally scouts have been killed.”

There is no mention in “The Eye of the Elephant” of incidents in which scouts killed poachers. But on “Turning Point” Owens says, “On some occasions, I do pick scouts up, and if they’ve killed anybody they aren’t going to tell me.”

Delia tells Vieira, “It was a moral dilemma that we had to go through. But we made the decision: Yes, we would continue to support the scouts.”

Then comes an arresting sequence, one seldom seen on national television: the killing of a human. Vieira introduces the scene: “We were allowed to accompany patrols in Zambia after we agreed not to identify those involved, should a shooting occur. On this mission, we would witness the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher.” A game scout in a green uniform walks in what appears to be a recently abandoned campsite. A pouch on the ground contains shotgun shells, and the scout removes a few of them to show the camera. The scout waits for the person camping there, a suspected poacher, to return. A new scene begins, and Vieira continues her voice-over: “Our cameras begin rolling again after a shot is fired at the returning trespasser.”

Amy Davidson at New Yorker:

Although Mark Owens had no military experience, he came to treat Zambia as a war zone (one Zambian described how “he ‘Apocalypse Now’ed into the [safari] camp with his helicopter”), equipping and training anti-poaching game scouts for confrontations with poachers. The shooting of a suspected poacher and the apparent moment of his death was filmed by an ABC crew that had come to Zambia to document the Owenses’ work; the case remains an open homicide investigation in Zambia.

[…]

Goldberg writes that in the ABC documentary, Meredith Vieira, the correspondent (who was not present at the shooting), says in a voice-over, as the shots are fired, “The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall for the animals to eat.” She pauses, and says, “Conservation. Morality. Africa.” Those are broad words that, in this case, answer little. Goldberg spent a long time on this story, and travelled to Zambian villages, small New England towns, and an isolated ranch in Idaho to try to get some answers. In the course of his research, a witness to the shooting named the man who fired the first and final shots—someone who had not previously been publicly known as a suspect. (The man denies that he was involved.) But there are other, harder questions raised by Goldberg’s piece that go beyond the murder mystery. Is it acceptable for a human to be killed in a fight over animals? What is the responsibility of a journalist who sees such a thing? And what does it mean to simply say “Africa”—what view of Africa and of Africans put these events in motion?

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Jeff has a piece in this week’s New Yorker that checks in, I’ve heard, at some 17,000 words. It’s a rather incredible take on a group of American preservationists who head to Africa and promptly lose their minds. Most impressive to me is just watching is the second half of the piece where we watch Jeff chase down lead after lead until he lands in square in front of his quarry:

The Owenses became involved in a state-sponsored effort to trap and tag the region’s few remaining grizzlies. Darrell Kerby, a former mayor of Bonners Ferry, the nearest town to the Owenses’ ranch, said that, over time, Mark Owens became more moderate in his approach to his neighbors. “He realized he couldn’t come in and just tell people what to do,” Kerby said. “This isn’t Africa.”

One day this winter, I made a visit to their ranch. The Owenses had long declined to speak with me. It was snowing when I arrived, and the clouds had settled on the slopes of the mountains behind their log cabin.

As I pulled up their drive, I saw Delia Owens emerging from a barn on the property. She was feeding hay to a herd of deer that had gathered near their cabin. Delia became agitated when I introduced myself. “I’m going to have a stroke right now. I’m going to have a heart attack,” she said. “How in the hell did you find us?”
He found you by being a bad-ass. When I was young, my first editor used to say he liked to take writers and make them reporters, not the other way around. The assumption was that writing was something more innate. I’m not totally convinced of that, as I think reporting often comes from an insatiable curiosity.

Nevertheless, I was a writer who, as he saw it, had to be made into a reporter. It took years for me to develop the work-ethic and willingness to make call after call after call. As a consequence, I’ve always fetishized great reporters, and deified great reporters who could also write. It’s something to read this piece. I feel like I’m there with Jeff making all those calls. Check it out. It’s a ripping good time

Stephanie Clifford and Brian Stelter in NYT:

That confidentiality, Mr. Goldberg writes, prevented some crew members from speaking openly about the shooting. “What kind of confidentiality agreement could you possibly have that prohibits you from identifying a perpetrator of a homicide?” said Mr. Goldberg, now a national correspondent at The Atlantic, who began reporting the story in 2001. “There are still mysteries here.”

It was only once the footage was shown in 1996 that the Zambian government began an investigation into the shooting. Biemba Musole, a Zambian deputy commissioner in charge of criminal investigations, was blunt in an interview with Mr. Goldberg. “The ABC News show is an accessory to murder,” he said, according to the article.

An ABC spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, said the network had not heard from the Zambian government about an investigation.

Lawyers for the Owenses say there was no evidence that a killing even took place. “No evidence at all was found that anybody had been killed — no missing persons report, no nothing,” said Donald Zachary, a lawyer for the couple. “The whole premise that there was a killing seems to be unsubstantiated.”

Their lawyers also said it was unclear that the ABC footage was filmed in the same location as the couple’s work. In a letter to donors after the documentary was shown, the Owenses said they were not involved in the events.

Mr. Schneider of ABC emphasized that the executives and producers involved in the 1996 report no longer worked for the news division.

“Today, when we enter into any kind of agreement involving confidentiality, we try very hard to walk all the way around it, to ferret out every potential legal and ethical question that could arise, and then make a decision about how to handle confidentiality,” Mr. Schneider said in an interview.

Ms. Vieira, now a host of “Today” on NBC, said in a voice mail message on Sunday that the shooting took place before she arrived in Zambia. “I thought it was never clear who had fired the gun,” she said.

Ms. Vieira also said she had no “real recollection” of an agreement not to identify the people on the patrols.

“I don’t believe that ABC would — if they knew that somebody had killed someone, I don’t think they would be complicit,” she said. “I would find that hard to believe.”

C Neal at The Vigorous North:

These crimes, and the American media’s permissive, even reverent attitude towards them, illustrate some uncomfortable truths about traditional environmentalism. First, it illustrates the arrogance of the myths we keep about an Edenic, pre-civilized nature, or of Nature as a place where there are no people. The truth is that people have lived in the wild for a million years, and they have important roles in natural ecosystems – we’re part of nature, not above it.

Many of the alleged “poachers” in Zambia were recent descendants of natives who had hunted in North Luangwa for generations before British colonialists expelled them to create an artificially human-free “park” in the 19th century. Americans did the same thing to Blackfoot tribes in Glacier National Park and to the Nez Perce who lived in Yellowstone. The idea of a wild frontier without human neighbors is closely bound to the history of atrocities from American and European colonial ambitions.

Second, the Owens story reveals how, as with any important cause, environmentalism can sometimes grow to seem so important to its adherents that it supersedes their own sense of humanity. Mark Owens claimed to be sickened at the gunfire exchanged between his patrols and the poachers. But nevertheless he went out every night in his plane to do battle with them. For him, protecting (and perhaps avenging) the lives of the park’s elephants was more important than human life – even if it ended up being his own.

I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a substantial Maine connection to the story as well. Goldberg’s report takes a taut 17,000 words to cover all the angles, and for such a complicated story – one that spans several decades and involves dozens of characters – the article maintains a tight sense of suspense throughout. I won’t even bother linking to the online version – find or borrow a copy of the magazine and enjoy it over the course of a long evening.

Louisa Lombard:

As I read, I kept waiting for the climax. OK, I thought, so the Owenses were perhaps involved in the murder of one person. What else? This thought was immediately followed by another: has my time in Central Africa made me so cynical that I no longer react with outrage to the killing of an unarmed “trespasser”? Perhaps.
But I think my reaction stemmed less from cynicism than from Goldberg’s relentless focus on this one charismatic American couple at the expense of placing them within a larger perspective — a larger perspective that would in fact have been more chilling. For many people are killed every year in the name of combating poaching across the continent.
In CAR, militarized anti-poaching is done by a parastatal “project” funded by the European Union. (The project will end in July, at which point it will be replaced; its successor aims to critically examine the management of space in CAR, which hopefully will diminish the death toll of poachers, anti-poaching guards, cattle, elephants, and other animals.) In the past twenty years, this work has been done by French soldiers (“securing the borders”); an American conservationist (his efforts never really got off the ground, though, because the South African mercenary in his employ got into diamonds and attempted murder and other scandals); Russian former French Foreign Legionnaires funded by safari hunters…I could continue.
The well-armed poachers come in increasingly large groups (up to one hundred strong, with camels and donkeys), and, according to the anti-poaching guards, they shoot first. These are not people you can ask nicely to please not kill the elephants and go home. The poachers, who generally come from Sudan, used to target CAR’s north and east, closer to home. But they’ve killed all the elephants there, and the poachers have now penetrated as far as the southwest, and even Cameroon. Because of this dire situation, appearance alone suffice as justification for the guards to kill an interloper. It is war between the anti-poaching guards and the poachers and cattleherders who seek to profit from CAR’s vast, sparsely-populated terrain. Only it’s a war that is largely hidden from the outside world.
(I once spoke with a man who does militarized anti-poaching work about the fall from grace of one of his predecessors. The predecessor had apparently mutilated, or allowed his men to mutilate, the corpses of poachers they killed. I suggested that this was why he had been kicked out. My interlocutor, though, disagreed. The problem was not that he mutilated bodies. The problem was that he took photos, and, when he had a falling out with a few people, those photos made their way into the European press.)
There is a case to be made for militarized anti-poaching work. Richard Leakey makes it eloquently in Wildlife Wars, his book about his tenure as head of the Kenya Wildlife Services. It is a difficult issue that demands a sustained examination. But focusing on Owenses, and the fall-out from one particular incident, risks masking that what they appear to have done/abetted slots uncomfortably into a widespread division of labor in the conservation world. I once spoke with a director at a reputable international conservation organization, who explained his personal opinion: militarized anti-poaching work is necessary, and our programs would be useless without it, but we can’t do it, or say we support it, because of the outcry. Donors wooed with fundraising entreaties full of photos of furry friends would be scandalized. Again, the message is that it’s OK as long as it is hidden.

Ross Douthat:

But the prosecutorial spirit of Goldberg’s story notwithstanding, its vivid and meticulous reporting also makes it remarkably easy to relate to the Owenses’ trajectory. The endpoint proved deadly, but the couple was working, from the first, in an incredibly difficult situation, trying to save some of the world’s most remarkable animals from destruction with little or no assistance from the Zambian authorities (such as they were). The poachers seemed to have all the advantages: Money, guns, tight connections to the locals, and the gangster-ish ability to cross the legal and moral lines that the conservationists tried to respect, at least at first. To the Owenses, it no doubt felt like they had become players in a Western — Shane confronting the cattle barons, Gary Cooper taking on the Miller gang, Ransom Stoddard facing off against Liberty Valance. And we all know how those stories are supposed to end: With fundamentally-virtuous people doing what had to be done to tame a lawless country, and leaving the delicate ethical arguments about ends and means to the next generation.

This wasn’t a movie, and Zambia wasn’t their country. But if it’s important to stand outside the Owenses’ strange story and pass judgment, it’s also important to step inside it and recognize how understandable every step they took probably felt, how easy it was to justify going to extremes, and how the fine the line can be between heroism and something much darker. And it’s the great virtue of Goldberg’s piece that it allows you to move between these two perspectives, by exposing not only its subjects’ apparent crimes but also the fraught and hard-to-fathom context in which they happened.

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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Diem, I Mean, Karzai?

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up

Max Boot at Commentary:

Hamid Karzai is at it again. For the second time in recent days, he has lashed out at the West, blaming foreign officials for election fraud and even reportedly threatening to join the Taliban if there is any erosion of his country’s sovereignty. Such comments — coming from the man who benefitted from election fraud and who is able to stay in power only because of all the military assistance he receives from the West — are, no doubt about it, infuriating. But they are hardly unexpected, given that Karzai has a habit of boiling over in public right after he has been pressured by the United States, which is what happened when President Obama visited Kabul.

[…]

Bottom line: we don’t have any choice but to work with Karzai. Pulling U.S. troops out because we’re unhappy with him isn’t an option; our forces aren’t there as a favor to Karzai but to prevent a Taliban takeover that would be far worse for our interests than anything Karzai is likely to do in office. There is also no realistic chance of getting a new Afghan president anytime soon because Karzai was just elected to a five-year term. So we have to make the best of the current situation and try to soothe the sensitive Karzai rather than getting his back up with high-handed reprimands, especially in public.

Spencer Ackerman:

On the presumption that Karzai is being accurately quoted — something his spokesman denies — this is starting to fall into some I-wish-a-motherfucker-would territory. A failed attempt at a power-grab calling the integrity of the next government into question leads Karzai to bandwagon with the Taliban? That’s like the guy at the Burger King angrily swearing that if he accepts my expired coupon he’ll be left with no choice but to give me unlimited refills. Let the Omar-Karzai negotiations begin! Can we throw in Ahmed Wali Karzai and a couple draft picks?

The governance effort in the south is about strengthening sub-national governance and creating credible, deliverable reachback to the ministries. Whether by design or by default, the effect is that it balances/reduces Karzai’s influence while bolstering the stuff he was supposed to be doing anyway in terms of making a material impact on Afghan lives. Obviously it’s a strategy that has its limits: Karzai still governs the country, appoints ministers, etc. (To say nothing of what sub-national governance means in an area, for instance, in which people self-identify as Taliban.)

He successfully stole an election — that should be a decisive verdict on his interest in a well-run Afghanistan. To the extent the U.S. has no choice but to stick with him, the current strategy of caring more about sub-national governance than Kabul governance for immediate-to-medium-term impact has its merits. It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to dial down tensions, but if Karzai is just going to brazenly walk back his walkbacks, then it’s sort of pointless.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Karzai’s Really, Really Bad Joke

Or, let’s hope it was a joke, anyway

Michael Rubin at The Corner:

Daniel, don’t forget that Karzai was once with the Taliban (see page 2 of this declassified PDF document).

In recent weeks, the press has focused on Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi’s relationship with the Iranians and Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai going off the rails and threatening to join the Taliban. The press did not focus on — but could have — Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s meetings in Iran last week, and Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi’s embrace of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad earlier last month.

Too many policymakers, I’d argue, have not seen the forest through the trees. With any of these folks, it’s easy to say that the CIA or Pentagon or State Department simply got them wrong. That logic is too simple. All of these politicians pivot to maximize their own power and ally themselves with whomever they see as the dominant power. Previously, that was us. Now, it’s either Tehran or Damascus (in Iraq’s case) or the ISI’s Islamabad (in Karzai’s case). Karzai’s move comes not only amidst U.S. pressure to reform, but also after the success of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “strategic dialogue” with Pakistan. Behind all the self-congratulatory backslapping of the Obama administration and its fans in the press was a fact which Karzai certainly noticed — the White House acknowledged and legitimized Pakistan’s dominant role in Afghanistan.

Patrick Pexton at National Journal:

Karzai clearly wants to portray himself as the strong man in the face of increased foreign troop presence in his own country and steady western pressure on him to run a cleaner, more effective government. But he often seems like he’s playing a double game. On March 10 he hosted Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, just hours after Defense Secretary Robert Gates had departed Kabul. What do we do about Karzai? On the one hand, he is beginning to fit the stereotype of the U.S.-backed corrupt foreign leader, i.e. Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Cao Ky in Vietnam, Somoza in Nicaragua, or a host of others. On the other hand, he has a point: Whose country is Afghanistan anyway, theirs or ours? Can Obama execute his strategy in Afghanistan with Karzai? What should be the U.S. posture toward Hamid Karzai and his Afghanistan government?

Scott Horton at Harper’s:

The entire situation looks painfully like the one that confronted John F. Kennedy in the last weeks of his administration in dealing with Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. President Diem was instinctively authoritarian and corrupt, relying heavily on his extended family and allowing them to enrich themselves on the basis of his authority. Government contracts, including contracts that funneled U.S. assistance, were a substantial part of the graft problem. Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration appears to have concluded that Diem was too corrupt and incompetent to be an effective ally, and the Americans turned on him. Learning that the South Vietnamese army was plotting a coup, the Americans apparently gave the effort a green light. Diem was toppled, and he and his brother were shot and buried in a grave next to the ambassadorial residence of Henry Cabot Lodge in the first days of November 1963. Kennedy was himself assassinated only three weeks later, but the toppling of Diem was one of the events that triggered a change in policy ultimately leading to a heavy escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. The American effort in Vietnam was consistently crippled by the impression that the Saigon government was a weak American proxy, lacking legitimacy to rule.

The legitimacy of the government in Kabul is essential to the success of the allies’ military operations there. Karzai thus presents a particularly thorny problem. He is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, but to some extent the United States has contributed to that problem and that perception. And removing and replacing Karzai through extraordinary measures would likely only make the situation still worse. Karzai is Afghanistan’s elected president, and American policymakers need to accept that fact.

Daniel Korski at The Spectator

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker

Fred Kaplan at Slate:

The issue here is not Karzai’s peevishness or ingratitude. The issue is whether, under the circumstances, a counterinsurgency campaign can work—whether we’re wasting lives and money.

One key question, which U.S. officials are exploring, is whether this rupture with Karzai can be mended. Some officials cite a chronology of events that suggests we may have (unwittingly) sent him off the deep end and that, therefore, we might be able to calm him back down.

[…]

It may be time for Obama to send Sen. John Kerry back to Kabul for another half-dozen meetings with Karzai, over 300 more cups of tea, as he did last October, when he persuaded the Afghan president to hold a second round of elections after the first round was proved to be so rigged.

Maybe Kerry can pamper Karzai with recitations of reassurances. If not, there’s trouble ahead. Obama could threaten to pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t straighten up, but Karzai would surely see this as a bluff and might call it. Then what? If Obama really sees his commitment as vital to U.S. interests (and he wouldn’t have ordered the escalation if he didn’t), then he’s not likely to take the gamble.

Another option is to go around Karzai’s authority and deal more with Afghanistan’s provincial governors and tribal elders. This has been part of Obama’s plan all along. Last November, shortly before announcing his new strategy, Obama said in an ABC-TV interview that he and his advisers were focusing on “not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now.”

Gerard Russell, a former U.N. official in Kabul (who is now at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy), said in a phone interview Monday that the Western coalition is pursuing this approach to some extent. The ongoing military operation in Helmand province has elevated the power of some independent Afghans there, at the expense of Karzai’s people.

However, Russell added, there are risks to going around Karzai as the centerpiece of a strategy. “Karzai is very good at this sort of thing,” Russell said. “He could undermine these regional governors if they get too powerful.”

Wonkette:

Former UN envoy Peter Galbraith just said on MSNBC that Afghanistan’s weirdo president, Hamid Karzai, is a junkie. “He can be very emotional, act impulsively,” Galbraith said on the Andrea Mitchell show. “In fact, some of the palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports.” Ha ha, you should’ve seen the look on Chuck Todd’s face.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman

Ben Smith at Politico, here and here

Daniel Larison

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The Tennis Player, The Keystone Cops, And The British Passports

David Batty at The Guardian:

Amid the mounting diplomatic row over Mossad’s alleged assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai, the Israeli embassy has turned to Twitter to comment.

A tweet issued by the embassy today read: “@israeluk You heard it here first: Israeli tennis player carries out hit on #Dubai target http://ow.ly/18A79”. It links to a story about the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, who beat the top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki yesterday to reach the quarter-finals of the Dubai Championship.

But the tweet is open to interpretation. The Mossad hit squad accused of assassinating Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior figure from the militant group Hamas, at the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai were disguised as tennis players.

CCTV footage released by Dubai police shows the assassins dressed as tennis players following Mabhouh into the hotel lift as a member of staff showed him to his room.

Police said this was an attempt to note down his room number.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

The post isn’t there now; it’s not clear when it was taken down (see the screen shot above). It’s better down, as it’s really not funny—or maybe just funny in the sense of strange. The reference was to the victory of Shahar Peer, an Israeli tennis player, over Caroline Wozniacki, the top seed in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship. Apart from what Haaretz referred to as “criticism on grounds of taste,” the tweet was unfair to Peer, who has had her career politicized quite enough. Last year, she was denied a visa to take part in the tournament, and she’s been walking around Dubai surrounded by security guards. And tennis and politics had already been mixed enough in this case: in security videos released by the Dubai police, some of the alleged assassins are carrying rackets, presumably as camouflage. (The Economist described them as “stout figures in tennis gear.”) They also had wigs and fake mustaches: one surveillance clip shows a man entering a bathroom bald, and emerging hairy. (See Close Read’s earlier post on the assassination for more details.)

This is where one sympathizes with the Israeli-embassy Twitterer: there is certainly material for comedy in this story, starting with the Dubai police’s press conference on Monday unveiling the pictures, names, and passport numbers of the suspects—six, as it seemed, from Britain; three from Ireland; one each from France and Germany—only to have it emerge that the identities were assumed, the passports faked (the German one didn’t even have the right number of digits in its serial number). Most of the people didn’t exist, although half a dozen British-Israelis had had their identities stolen, and they were not very amused by the prospect of having Interpol after them. Reuters reported that they have been offered brand-new passports, to reduce the risk, a spokesman at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv said, that they might be “inadvertently detained.” It was mildly engaging to learn that the technical term to describe a fake passport based on a real passport is “cloned.” (See Shahida Tulaganova’s brilliant BBC report on how easy it is to get a fake E.U. passport, even when you don’t have the resources of an intelligence agency.) Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency is now investigating. The Dubai police mentioned that al-Mabhouh had bought a pair of shoes, while the Israelis, according to the Economist, put out “leaks to the effect that the victim was buying arms from Iran.” That would be much less entertaining. But other details were not entirely unfunny, like the New York Post headline on reports that the assassins used American credit cards: “ ‘Plastic’ explosive.” And then there was the outrage that the assassins had used Western European passports, as opposed to someone else’s, as if the problem, primarily, was one of etiquette. (What is the right nationality to wear to an assassination?) Some pointed out that the last time something like this happened, in the botched Israeli assassination of Khaled Mishal in 1997, fake Canadian passports were used; perhaps that option was dismissed this time in the spirit of the Olympics. And that, of course, leads back to the most and least funny part of the story: the question of Israel’s role.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that there was no evidence showing that the Mossad carried out the hit, although he added that “Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies.” Maybe it was someone else—do we know much of anything about the killers, other than that poor Melvyn Mildiner, like others whose identities were stolen, was not among the bewigged figures in Dubai? And yet in many quarters calling their nationality a mystery was laughable; the questions a number of British M.P.s were raising were less about whether the Israelis had done it than whether they had told Gordon Brown’s government first. (The Foreign Office denied that they had.) And it was the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, whom the Foreign Office called in because, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it, “We wanted to give Israel every opportunity to share with us what it knows about this incident.” Prosor told reporters afterward that he was “unable to add additional information.” Then he smiled.

So let me see if I can wrap my head around this: Israel tracked a Hamas terrorist to Dubai and executed him at close range and by hand so as to avoid any collateral damage to civilian life. Shouldn’t we be celebrating this as the way war should be conducted instead of putting our noses up in the air and acting as though we’re so much better when we lob a missile at a terrorist from an airplane?

I mean, look, I’m all in favor of lobbing missiles at terrorists from airplanes; it’d be nice to capture them alive and get some info out of them via harsh interrogations, but a Tomahawk up the keister works just as well as far as I’m concerned. But then you get all the hemming and hawing about “Oh, we’re just creating more terrorists when we accidentally kill an innocent bystander.” Well, there’s none of that here, is there? The guy was traced to his hotel room, zapped with a stun gun, and smothered to death. Quick and easy. If only all terrorists could meet the same fate.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Dubai police have released a video account painstakingly cataloging the sequence of events that led up to the January assassination — by smothering — of a Hamas terrorist and gunrunner in a swanky hotel.

The short version from DubaiTV is here:

[…]

The default assumption in such cases is Mossad involvement, though Israel’s elite clandestine service never confirms or denies such things. But now that 11 of the 17 suspects seen in the closed circuit tape have been “identified” — including three nonexistent Irish citizens, and six Britons and one German living in Israel who appear to be victims of identity theft — and the agents’ faces have been splashed across television screens, the hit is starting to look amateurish by Mossad standards. And it might just be the beginning of a major diplomatic incident.

Paul Mirengoff at Powerline:

Israel is receiving mounting criticism in connection with the murder in Dubai of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The slaying is assumed to be work of Israel’s spy agency, Mossad.

Mabhouh was a founding member of Hamas’ military wing and was linked to the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers years ago. More recently, he has been involved in supplying arms and money to Hamas militants in Gaza.

In light of Mabhouh’s past, the criticism of Israel (at least as presented in this Washington Post report) does not focus on the slaying itself. Rather, the critics cite improprieties in how Mossad (or whomever) went about getting to the terrorist.

Great Britain is unhappy that six of the 11 individuals thought to be part of the Mossad (or whomever) team used fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens. Prime Minister Gordon Brown sniffed that “the British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care.” However, I’m confident that if the agents had possessed real British passports, they would have held them carefully.

The Post also reports that Israeli citizens whose names appeared on the fake passports were “shocked to find themselves mentioned in the material released by the Dubai police.” No doubt. Israel’s position, though, is that “if there is concern about identity theft, those involved should consult a lawyer.” Always good advice.

But passport fraud and identity theft hardly exhaust the ways in which the slaying of Mabhouh affronts modern sensibilities. For example, the photos of the 11 suspects raise questions about the diversity of the team Mossad (or whomever) assembled. It includes only one woman (an attractive blond,naturally) and looks to be short on people of color.

There is also no indication that the team advised Mabhouh of his rights or offered him a chance to exculpate himself before he was killed. Indeed, from all that appears, no lawyer was present.

Finally, what about the carbon footprint of the operation? Did the team travel to Dubai in an energy efficient way? And how much electricity did they use once they arrived? Some reports say they used electricity to stun Mabhouh before killing him. Couldn’t he have been executed in a more energy efficient way?

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

Paul’s concerns to the contrary notwithstanding, the operation may in fact have been admirably “diverse.” This “diversity” adds context to the operation. The Guardian has reported that a “key security operative of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was under arrest in Syria tonight on suspicion of having helped an alleged Israeli hit squad identify Mahmoud al-Mabhouh before he was assassinated in Dubai[.]”

Our man in Damascus may not just have been a token. He appears to have been in good company. According to the Daily Mail, “[i]intelligence sources say al-Mabhouh was lured to a meeting in Dubai by two men who had worked with him in Hamas in Gaza.” Haaretz identifies the two Palestinians as Ahmad Hasnin, a Palestinian intelligence operative, and Anwar Shekhaiber, an employee of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The Daily Mail suggests that al-Mabhouh “did not realise they had defected to the more moderate Fatah, bitter enemies of Hamas, and were secretly working with the Israelis.”

The latest word from Dubai included more evidence of the operation’s tradecraft: “The director of the Dubai Police forensic medicine department revealed yesterday that finding the cause of al-Mabhouh’s death had been the most difficult post mortem he had ever done. British-trained Dr Fawzi Benomran said the killers had put his body in bed and covered it, to make it appear he had died in his sleep.”

According to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, Dubai police said Wednesday that they hold retinal scans of the suspected assassins. Given the volume of evidence, the story may yet resolve itself together with the weirdly misplaced indignation that surrounds it. And yet, one senses, such a resolution will not be conducive to a happy ending.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

Those JSOC guys doing America’s assassinating better make sure they don’t get caught using British passports. Because if the Brits’ claimed anger at Israel for giving its Mossad killers UK passports is any indication, it would not help relations.

Britain fired the first shot last night in a potentially explosive diplomatic row with Israel by calling in the country’s ambassador to explain the use of fake British passports by a hit squad who targeted Mabhouh in Dubai last month.

The Israeli ambassador was at the Foreign Office this morning for a brief meeting to “share information” about the assassins’ use of identities stolen from six British citizens living in Israel, as part of the meticulously orchestrated assassination of Mabhouh.

“After receiving an invitation last night, I met with Sir Peter Ricketts, deputy-general of the British foreign minister,” Ron Prosor said after the meeting. “Despite my willingness to co-operate with his request, I could not shed new light on the said matters.”

Britain has stopped short of accusing Israel of involvement, but to signal its displeasure the Foreign Office ignored an Israeli plea to keep the summons secret. “Relations were in the freezer before this. They are in the deep freeze now,” an official told the Guardian.

Of course, the UK is pissed about the passports, not necessarily about the assassination of a top Hamas figure more generally. So maybe Britain is okay with our assassinations squads, too.

But the very public response to the Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killing, as well as certain details like the involvement of the Palestinian Authority, is sure to bring some interesting scrutiny on our own practices (as a number of you have pointed out in comments).

And WTF? Did the clowns who botched the Abu Omar rendition in Italy teach this Mossad squad tradecraft? Or did they just misjudge Dubai’s willingness to play host to assassinations?

UPDATE: Eli Lake in the Washington Times

Sonny Bunch at Doublethink

UPDATE #2: Robert Wright and Jim Pinkerton at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #3: Scott H. Payne at The League

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Automatic For The Prisoners

David Alexander:

Interrogators at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay liked to blast rock ‘n’ roll music at inmates to try to induce them to talk.

Now some of the folks that made that rock ‘n’ roll music are blasting back.

Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Rosanne Cash, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and other musicians have joined the National Campaign to Close Guantanamo.

The newly formed campaign, led by retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard and retired Brigadier General John Johns among others, is increasing pressure on the Obama administration to move ahead with the president’s pledge to close the prison.

“Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured,” Morello said in a statement released by the campaign, charging that some inmates had been subjected to loud music for 72 hours in a row.

“Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney’s idea of America, but it’s not mine,” he added. “The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me — we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.”

John J. Miller at National Review:

If I was planning to torture people with the music of R.E.M., I would play these songs: “Bang and Blame,” “Crush with Eyeliner,” “Orange Crush,” and (of course) “Everybody Hurts.”

Eugene Volokh:

Copyright law gives the owners of copyrights in musical compositions — basically, the lyrics and the tunes — the right to control public performances of the work. (Performances here includes simple playing of CDs and the like.) But it doesn’t give copyright owners the right to control private performances. If the music was played to just one terrorist at a time (or even a few at a time), there’d be no infringement of the public performance right.

If the music was played to the entire prison (which I doubt), that might be a public performance, defined as a performance “at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” I suspect that the Guantanamo detainees don’t qualify as “a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances.” Then the question would be whether the military has a blanket license for public performances of this music, for instance via ASCAP and BMI — quite possible, given that the military doubtless performs music in other venues, though one would need to see whether that license covers all uses or only particular ones. But even if the military was infringing the copyrights, through an unlicensed public performance (and I stress again that the likely playing of the music was probably in a private setting), the remedies for federal government infringements of copyrights are limited to actual damages — here, probably a modest licensing fees — or the minimum statutory damages of $750/work; and even that could only be collected for infringements within the past three years. (Of course, there would also be the question whether the infringement took place within the U.S., and is therefore governed by U.S. copyright law in the first place; that returns us to the question of whether Guantanamo is U.S. territory, which the Court answered affirmatively as to habeas corpus, but which I’m sure has never been definitively resolved as to copyright law.)

Flopping Aces:

I agree Morello’s music is sickening. But do these moralizers understand what real torture is? And that Guantanamo today is the world’s most humane detention facility, thanks in no small part to their efforts in making it the most heavily scrutinized?

Admittedly, in its early days, Guantanamo had its share of problems. But that doesn’t hold true, today; nor has it been the case for quite some time, thanks to media sensationalism and world opinion outrage that did shed some light on some problems; and put the facility under a microscope.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

Dozens of musicians and bands—R.E.M., Rosanne Cash, Trent Reznor—are backing a Freedom of Information Act suit to find out if their songs were among those used to torture prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The suit was filed by the National Security Archive, and the list of records it seeks runs the gamut from Aerosmith to Tupac Shakur, by way of Pink, Prince, and Queen. From the A.P.:

“Based on documents that already have been made public and interviews with former detainees, the archive says the playlist featured cuts from AC/DC, Britney Spears, the Bee Gees, Marilyn Manson and many other groups. The Meow mix cat food jingle, the Barney theme song and an assortment of Sesame Street tunes also were pumped into detainee cells.”So we need to add the corruption of “Sesame Street” to the crimes of Guantánamo? They better not have messed with “Monster in the Mirror.” Perhaps Jon Stewart’s Gitmo muppet is not even a parody. (As for the Meow Mix jingle—did they use the actual commercial, or the Homer Simpson re-meow mix?) But the list of musicians is so ecumenical that it can’t even be used to tease anyone about his musical tastes—Britney Spears may be an instrument of torture, but James Taylor and Matchbox Twenty are there, too. Music as torture is not about bad music: it’s about volume, disorientation, and, above all, about control, or lack of control (a person who can’t turn the music off, or even pick Prince over Pink, is powerless). The practice supposedly ended before the Bush Administration left office; according to the Washington Post, the musicians, for the moment, just want to find out if their songs were among those played:

“They say they will explore legal options once the songs are known. It is unclear what, if any, recourse they may have.”Could they be owed royalties? Does the Pentagon have an iTunes account, or does the C.I.A., or were these songs downloaded illegally?

The Post notes that

“Another former prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, told Human Rights Watch that he had been forced to listen to the rapper Eminem’s song “The Real Slim Shady” for 20 days.”The real Binyam Mohamed has stood up—at least, he’s getting closer.

Chris Good at The Atlantic

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