“Stop Watching Us”: Who Get Pardoned?

The maligned Warren Harding commuted Eugene V. Debs’ prison sentence and then invited the socialist anti-war felon to join him for breakfast in the White House. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, who otherwise might have landed in Leavenworth. George H.W. Bush pardoned Elliott Abrams after Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton, neither moralist nor saint, pardoned the fugitive crook Marc Rich. Barack Obama, who forgave all our chicken hawks, neocons, and torture lovers who lied us into Iraq, has offered not one word of understanding about the hard choices taken by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning except to say he didn’t “think Mr. Snowden was a patriot” and that Manning “broke the law.” Continue reading ““Stop Watching Us”: Who Get Pardoned?”

What Would Richard Holbrooke Say?


Yesterday would have been uber-diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s 72nd birthday. He died December 13, 2010 while on the job as our top envoy to Afghanistan, and one can’t help thinking that whatever 1960’s idealism still existed in terms of making that country a better place, died with him. At least symbolically.

That is not to say that Richard “bulldozer” Holbrooke wasn’t a strident advocate for the use of military force — he was for sure, and I believe it was only to his and our ultimate detriment. But unlike his neoconservative cohorts in Washington, Holbrooke believed in starting wars (Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq) as a matter of humanitarian intervention, not merely for “securing the realm” or for preserving “western interests.” That is not to say his positions on those wars were any better than those of his neocon peers, it’s merely a distinction, one being that humanitarian interventionists like Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton actually believed American power could transform societies. Neoconservatives, on the other hand, have shown time and again that while they are quite good at breaking things (and regimes), putting Humpty Dumpty back together again was never high on the priority list.

I raise the spirit of Richard Holbrooke now because I heard an old clip of him speaking on P.O.T.U.S Radio on Wednesday, in tribute to his birthday. It referred to the day in 2009 he was named special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there were a number of VIPs there to share in what was probably his last true moment in the sun. The radio spot tracked his Associated Press obituary, which noted his early service as a provincial representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam and then as an aide to two U.S. ambassadors in Saigon during the Vietnam War:

Holbrooke spotted an old friend in the audience, John Negroponte, his one-time roommate in Saigon (the former South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City) who later was the first director of national intelligence and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“We remember those days well, and I hope we will produce a better outcome this time,” Holbrooke said.

This seems so sad, veering into Shakespearean territory. Here is man who spent his entire life grooming to be in a position to produce “a better outcome” than Vietnam, and then he helps, in essence, to duplicate it, by supporting a military invasion that ripped the fabric of Iraqi society apart and turned nearly every religious and ethnic group against us at some point during the last 10 years . The U.S spent trillions and strained its powerful military and sent millions of Iraqis fleeing — and to what end?

By the time the Bush Administration was on its way out and Holbrooke could have put his diplomatic skills to the test for a Democrat in Afghanistan, the world had unfortunately moved on. The military was everything, not just a means to getting men like Holbrooke to the negotiating table. The new president seemed happy to keep the military on this course, whether that was to hell in a hand basket didn’t appear to matter, as long as the brass got blamed and some kind of deadline for withdrawal could be achieved.

So, after a voluminous career that stretched back to the Kennedy Administration, Holbrooke found himself patronized and later ignored by the young whippersnapper President, who never seemed to let him flex his legendary skills to get the job done for “Af-Pak” the way he had presumably did for the Balkans. Afghan President Karzai appeared to hate him, preferring military men like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had gobs of fun at Holbrooke’s expense in 2010, right in front of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. McChrystal lost his job because of it, but Holbrooke looked very much the weaker man throughout the entire episode.

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Holbrooke’s own ego didn’t do him any favors (more than once being called a ‘bull in a china shop’), making him as many enemies as friends during his 2009-2010 stint, one thing is clear: the military was (and remains) in control of the entire war and foreign policy effort in Af-Pak. The State Department as Holbrooke had known it was and is a shell of its former self — strangled by the petty bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom, subservient to the military mission, always begging for scraps at the trough.

Holbrooke Meets With Afghan And Pakistani Foreign Ministers In Washington

And the military was — and is — not negotiating. In fact, “negotiation” and “diplomacy” seem like quaint terms these days, right behind “Geneva Convention” and “law of war.” Depending on the “deal” the Obama Administration makes with Karzai for post-2014 military relations, the U.S could likely leave Afghanistan the same way it left Iraq, a country on the brink of disaster.

Holbrooke seems to have sensed this was coming down the road, perhaps staring up at the future from his diminished perch had made him see things more clearly. James Mann, who wrote extensively about Holbrooke for his book The Obamians in 2012, quotes Holbrook’s wife, Katy Marton:

“He thought that this (Afghanistan) could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”

There was even a question over his last words, the first reports being that he told his doctor “to stop this war.” The context in which he said this has been in dispute (his doctor says it was made in “painful banter” as he awaited the surgery from which he never emerged, alive).

It was clear that the humiliation, his isolation, the failure of any way forward in Afghanistan had taken its toll, however, and was foremost on his mind when he collapsed. According to Mann’s well documented account:

On Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, Richard Holbrooke played tennis on Long Island with Bill Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, a former foreign correspondent who became friendly with Holbrooke when both were living in Europe. They played for about an hour. Drozdiak thought Holbrooke seemed unusually pale, pudgy and out of shape, as if he’d been working too hard.

 Afterward, they sat and talked. Holbrooke said he was in despair over his role in the administration. He simply could not establish a relationship with Obama, Holbrooke said. The president seemed remote and cold-blooded, at least in Holbrooke’s presence. And, as if that weren’t enough, Holbrooke’s problem wasn’t just with Obama: Holbrooke thought many in the White House were against him …

The following Friday, Holbrooke was at a meeting in Hillary Clinton’s State Department office when he suddenly became flushed and stricken with pain. He was taken to the State Department medical office, but collapsed and went by ambulance to George Washington University Hospital. He died there three days later of a ruptured aorta.

What would Holbrooke say today, now that his idea of “humanitarian intervention” has been completely discarded in favor of targeted killing, covert “dirty” wars and yes, a relatively low urgency for the humans themselves. Would he justify it, especially if he were given a prestigious inside view? Should he own it, considering that he and his “muscular Democrats” had set the stage for this evolution in the 1990’s, and had supported Obama’s tough “counter-terrorism” approaches from the beginning?

Daniel Ellsberg suggested in this interesting eulogy after Holbrooke’s death in 2010, that for as idealistic as Holbrooke was, his career came first. Perhaps the daily soul sacrifice working in the Obama Administration — for the scraps of condescension he got in return — was too much for the man. He must have known that the war enterprise was as dirty as it was doomed to failure, but he was committed to defending it nonetheless.

But we will never really know. We can safely say however, that this isn’t exactly the legacy Richard Holbrooke wanted to leave behind. Or this. Or this. In fact, it’s probably worse than he would have imagined.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Weakness

90 Days, 90 Reasons is a project conceived by author Dave Eggers to rekindle young(ish) America’s romance with Barack Obama. Each day features a post by someone you might have seen in movies or heard on NPR. Today’s post is by Reza Aslan, “an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions” who’s on The Daily Show a lot. He believes that “The difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is not solely a matter of policy or priorities.”

The difference is about something far more fundamental and significant to the lives of every American. It is a difference of world views. If you want to know how Mitt Romney views the world, you need not focus on the train wreck that was his recent junket to England, Israel, and Poland. True, the former governor’s first foray into foreign affairs gave Americans a glimpse of what a Romney presidency would look like to the rest of the world. The results were not encouraging.

Oh God, let’s get this out of the way.

In England, Romney managed to alienate nearly the entire British people by questioning their preparedness for the Olympics.

Is this going to become the liberal version of Churchill-bust fever? Why should we care? Whoever resides at No. 10 Downing will drool when Washington rings a bell. Lament that fact or celebrate it, but don’t tell me that the opinions of the British people make any difference.

In Israel, he delivered a shockingly ignorant speech in which he blamed the massive disparity in GDP between Israel and Palestine not on forty years of Israeli military occupation but on “cultural differences.”

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. This is important. What’s next?

In Poland, Romney was denounced and boycotted by the party of his host, Lech Walesa, because of his assaults on American labor unions.

Yes, but Romney was endorsed by Walesa himself, which I would consider an odd thing to omit if either fact told us anything about what a President Romney might do. Can we talk about that, please?

On the eve of his departure, Romney gave a much-anticipated speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFA), laying out for the first time his foreign policy philosophy. In that speech, Romney described his vision for America on the global stage by using a term that has become so toxic, so outmoded, so universally proven to be a dangerous, self-destructive, and intellectually bankrupt expression of the global order, that until Romney revived it in his remarks at the VFA, most Americans assumed they would never hear it again. Romney called for a new “American century.”

Ah, something relevant! Well, this is certainly a solid point in favor of Obama. He’d never be so toxic, so outmoded, so intellectually bankrupt as to say — oh.

“If we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century,” Obama said in his commencement address today at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

“That’s the future I see,” Obama told the cadets. “That’s the future you can build.”

That was less than three months ago. Aslan must have missed that, but he does sketch a bite-size history of The Project for a New American Century that will hit Jesse Eisenberg’s yurt like a knowledge grenade, so that’s something. And then things actually get interesting:

Barack Obama has made many mistakes in foreign policy (the failed reset with Russia comes to mind). Some of those mistakes, like his horrific handling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, will have consequences for decades to come.

I don’t know what Aslan dislikes about the “reset” — Obama hasn’t sent Navy SEALs to take out Vladimir Putin? — but “horrific handling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict” doesn’t need much elaboration. Which is a good thing, because Aslan doesn’t risk his seat with the cool kids by harshing their O-buzz any further. Nope, he goes right back to swooning:

But the one thing that President Obama understands at a deep, visceral level is that there is no longer any such thing as a unipolar or even a bi-polar world, and there never will be again. This is a president who recognizes that in a world in which the borders and boundaries that divide us into distinct and separate nation-states are becoming ever more porous, America can no longer dictate its will to other peoples. American might can no longer be based upon how many guns it can deploy (hard power) but on whether it can convince its enemies to lay down their guns first (soft power). American values can no longer be beholden to America’s security and economic interests, and those interests can no longer supersede the fundamental desire of all peoples everywhere to live lives of freedom, dignity, and democracy, even if it means losing our perfectly pliable dictatorial allies.

And so on. Obama has been perfectly willing to dictate his will, deploy guns, and help dictators — freedom, dignity, and democracy be damned — and Aslan knows it. Watching a seemingly thoughtful person bury so much inconvenient truth in pablum is truly depressing.

Obama vs. Romney: There Goes One Lesser-of-Two-Evils Argument

Kevin Drum, the Leonidas of the left 49-yard line, predicts the ways in which a Romney presidency would differ from an Obama presidency. Drum assumes that Romney would have a Republican majority in the Senate, so this is not a best-case scenario for liberals. I scanned the list for anything related to foreign policy and civil liberties, and here’s all I found:

We might stay in Afghanistan significantly longer than we would otherwise — though I’m not sure about this. …

Romney has talked tough on China, but that’s just campaign bushwa. He’d quickly find out that his options are extremely limited on this score. On foreign policy more generally, Obama is actually fairly tenacious, despite Romney’s bluster to the contrary, and I doubt that Romney would be able to move much further to his right.

So, on two sprawling issues that could make a difference in a tight race, it’s practically a wash. No wonder liberals have aimed so much ire at another Republican.

Kevin Drum on Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich

Kevin Drum advises those who want a noninterventionist, pro–civil liberties candidate to ditch Ron Paul and look elsewhere. I grew curious about what Drum had to say about the two least interventionist, most pro–civil liberties Democrats who ran for president in 2008.

Here’s Drum on Mike Gravel:

About halfway through last night’s debate I suddenly noticed that Mike Gravel was missing. What happened?

Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Gravel was forced to withdraw from the Oct. 30 Drexel debate after being unable to meet the required criteria for polling and fundraising. The criteria to participate are set by NBC news and include sufficient and polling requirements, as well as an actively documented campaign.

“There was no record that Gravel made more than five separate appearances in New Hampshire [and] Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held,” NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd said. Gravel’s campaign committee claims that he has made more appearances, but that his schedules were not released.

Thank God. I know lots of people support Gravel’s appearance in the debates based on some inchoate belief that “he deserves to be heard,” but not me. He’s not seriously running and he never has been, and the point of the debates is to give the public a look at actual candidates, not to give equal time to any crank who has a burning desire to mouth off to a national audience. That’s what blogs are for.

Good riddance, Mike. The court jester routine got stale a long time ago.

Emphasis mine. There’s plenty more of that in Drum’s archives. Drum mostly just ignored Kucinich, as far as I can tell, though he did say four months before the Iowa caucuses that Kucinich, Gravel, and the slightly antiwar, marginally pro–civil liberties Chris Dodd should “put their egos back into cold storage and stop wasting our time.”

It’s almost as if Kevin Drum considers noninterventionism and civil libertarianism themselves cranky.

Kevin Drum: Not a Crackpot

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has some fatherly advice for all you idiots:

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. … In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.

Well, one thing you can definitely say about Kevin Drum is that he’s no crackpot. No sirree. He knows that in dissent lurks crankery. When he catches the first whiff of deviation from the D.C. consensus, he hightails it back to Broderville. For example:

Kevin Drum, Oct. 17, 2011:

Aside from the fact that Barack Obama did not, in fact, send troops to Uganda in order to “kill Christians,” what should we think about the fact that he sent troops to Uganda in the first place? Needless to say, I’m far more hesitant about sending U.S. troops anywhere than I was a decade ago….

… I’m pretty much OK with this operation.

Kevin Drum, April 1, 2011:

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

Kevin Drum, Feb. 21, 2003:

As much as I’m unhappy about how the Bush administration has mishandled everything, backing out now could have disastrous consequences. And so we liberal hawks hold our noses and hope for the best.

Kevin Drum, Feb. 9, 2003:

I’ve gotten a lot of email critical of my post on Thursday suggesting that Colin Powell had indeed made a strong case in his UN speech. This administration has lied about everything, they ask, so how can you be so credulous as to believe their latest dog and pony show? …

… I am sympathetic to the idea that George Bush has shown himself to be so hamhanded in foreign affairs that there’s little likelihood of success as long as he’s in power. And yet, what’s the alternative? We need to try, and I’m inclined — barely — to give him a chance. Something has to kick start the Middle East into the 21st century, and I don’t see anyone else willing or able to do it. …

So that’s it. I have tremendous misgivings about this war….

Kevin Drum, Feb. 6, 2003:

I am sympathetic to the notion that administrations lie a lot on the subject of war, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that this particular administration routinely lies about anything they think they can get away with. And yet….that leaves us with a problem, doesn’t it? If, a priori, nothing the administration says is believable, then opposition to war simply becomes a religious doctrine. After all, no one else is going to try and make the case.

Now I found all of that in about half an hour several months ago, so those who care to look should be able to find plenty of additional confirmation that Kevin Drum is no crackpot.