Politics postsMonday September 01, 2008
The Smart Candidate
I just finished the second part of Suskind’s book (I’m a slow reader) and it’s overwhelming: the places he takes us, the people he interviews, the analysis he comes up with. All of these different forces clashing in an attempt to either stabilize or destabilize the world. Destabilizing is the easy part, of course — any fool can knock over a sand castle — which is why the process of stabilization is so fraught. The way it's been politicized hasn’t helped.
Here's the bad news: the experts agree that you can’t patrol it all. They live in fear of the nightmare scenario, “The Armageddon Test,” for which the second part of the book is named: Terrorists exploding a nuke in a large western city. The Brits have their experts trying to prevent this, the U.S. has theirs. One gets the feeling that an undue burden has been placed on these men while the rest of us dick around. Never have so few done so much for so many watching “American Idol.”
At one point, Suskind interviews Saad al-Faqih, a surgeon from Saudi Arabia, who is on the U.S.’s list of those who have provided material support to al Qaeda, and who says that the goal of 9/11 was “always to create deep polarization between America and the Muslim world,” and that 9/11 mastermind Ayman Zawahiri “understood precisely the cowboy passions of the American establishment.” Another money graph:
Of course, not everything went as planned. The swift fall of the Taliban and the elimination of nearly 80 percent of al Qaeda’s manpower in Afghanistan surprised both bin Laden and Zawahiri, who expected America to fall into a quagmire as the Russians had in the 1980s. By the middle of 2002, they were both dispirited, on the run, living in caves, with their top lieutenants scattered. “Which is why Iraq was the greatest gift,” Saad says. “It proved to the world that it was, in fact, always America’s mission to get Muslims, especially when your stated reasons for that invasion were shown to be hollow.”
As for the future? Al Qaeda’s goals include what Zawahiri calls “the pacification stage,” where the U.S., disconsolate, withdraws from the world. Suskind doesn’t really buy the possibility of this, although the U.S. has always had its isolationist elements; then he asks himself this key question: “I wonder what bin Laden and Zawahiri are hoping the United States won’t do?”
Exactly. What is the smart response? So far, our response hasn’t been smart at all.
Which leads me to the “60 Minutes” broadcast last night. Steve Kroft interviewed Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Kroft came at them, and specifically at Barack, with a lot of frivolous questions — beer and bowling — and then he came at him with some frivolous but volatile questions. Was he tough enough for the job? Why didn’t he mention that he was black during his acceptance speech? Shouldn’t he be further ahead in the polls than he is? For this last, Obama said:
This is gonna be a rough, tough battle. The Republicans don't govern very well but they know how to campaign. And, you know, what I would expect is that it's gonna take-mid-October before a whole lot of people start making up their minds. And there's nothing wrong with that. This notion that somehow this should be a cakewalk and I should just walk into the election with a 10, 15 point lead, I think doesn't give the American people enough credit. They wanna get this thing right.
To the black question:
Yeah, I think people noticed that.
As for tough enough?:
The fact that I don't go out of my way to call people names, or try to take cheap shots, and that I try not to throw the first punch, but to see if I can find a way to work together with people, sometimes leads people to underestimate what I've got. I think it's fair to say that if I couldn't not only take a punch, but occasionally throw one, I wouldn't be sitting here.
And I came away thinking: This man is so smart. No matter what Steve Kroft threw at him, he turned it into a smart response. Which is exactly what we need. During the next four years, when the worst elements of the world throw what they can at us, we need the smart response, instead of the response, full of cowboy passions, that plays right into al Qaeda’s hands.
“F**k it. We're going in.”
Sometimes you come across a disconnect so profound it almost gives you whiplash.
The cover story in this morning’s New York Times Magazine, by Peter Baker, presumably an excerpt from his upcoming book, concerns Bush’s final days in office, and the beginning of the article focuses on the McCain campaign’s attempt to distance itself from this most unpopular president. At the end of the first section, Mark Salter, McCain’s campaign advisor, says this about the President: “You feel bad for the guy if you think about it.” This leads to the first line of the second section:
George Bush does not want anyone feeling bad for him.
Allow me to back up for a second. Yesterday I came across the money portion of Ron Suskind’s The Way of the World. Suskind is writing about all the end-arounds the Bush administration performed in the lead-up to the Iraq war: ignoring George Tenet and the CIA to get the 16 words into the State of the Union address; using the CIA chief of station for Germany to muzzle German fears about the unreliability of Rafid Ahmed, or “Curveball,” who was feeding the administration misinformation about Saddam’s biological weapons operation; and, finally, not just ignoring but actually reversing the findings of the CIA Paris chief, who was told, in a clandestine meeting with Naji Sabri, Saddam’s last foreign minister, that Saddam didn’t possess WMD.
Then Suskind gets to the big one. In a casual conversation with an American intelligence officer in a Washington restaurant, and subsequently confirmed in face-to-face meetings with the former director and current assistant director of MI6, Suskind discovers that the Bush administration knew Saddam didn’t possess WMD before they went to war. They didn’t suspect. They knew.
In the months before the war, it seems a British agent, Michael Shipster, met with the head of Iraqi intelligence, Tahir Jalil Habbush, who confirmed everything we subsequently found to be true: Not just that Saddam didn’t have WMD but why he was unwilling to say so publicly. And it all made sense. Here’s Suskind talking with the unnamed American intelligence officer:
I ask if the intelligence was passed to CIA and the White House.
“Of course. Passed instantly, at the very highest levels.”
“And what did we say,” I ask. “Or, I guess, what did Bush say?”
“He said, Fuck it. We’re going in.”
Don’t know if that’s a direct quote or not. Either way, it’s probably a good thing George Bush doesn’t want anyone feeling bad for him.
38.4 Million Obama Fans Can't Be Wrong
Apparently John McCain doesn’t take this presidency business seriously. First he injected Paris Hilton and Britney Spears into the race, and now’s he’s injected Sarah Palin. Gail Collins has a good piece on his decision and her qualifications, but a friend of mine had the better line: “It shows his respect for the office has been subordinated to his desire for the office.”
Meanwhile, Barack’s acceptance speech, before 38.4 million people Thursday night, was about nothing but the serious business of getting us out of the serious mess we’re in. I had friends call me from California and Minnesota to talk about the speech. They were pumped.
Here’s the part that got me:
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.
The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.
Amazing. He talked about bridging our divisions and then gave concrete examples. And not just any concrete examples. He gave examples involving four of the most volatile issues in our country: abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and immigration. And I agreed with every one, every comment. This is a serious, common-sense response to the absolutism that has infected our country, not just over the last eight years, but over the past several decades.
For my brother-in-law, Eric, who is deeply involved in community projects, this was the big moment:
What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me; it's about you. It's about you. ... You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.
Both excerpts hearken back to why Obama originally (and immediately) appealed to me. Unlike 99.9 percent of the politicians out there, including John McCain, he’s not saying, “Here’s what I’ll do for you.” He’s saying, “Here’s what we can do together.” I think that’s hugely appealing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their life to have more meaning, and Barack is offering a path to that. He’s all about unity, no matter how divisive the issue. He’s all about what we can do when we work together. He’s a serious man for a serious time.
John McCain? I’m sorry, but he feels like a clown in comparison. Trotting out the same old divisive B.S. Sputtering the same old catchphrases. Injecting the same old fears. Focusing on everything that doesn’t matter: Britney, Paris, Sarah.
There’s no doubt who’s taking this presidency business seriously. The big question is: How serious are the rest of us?
If It's “Thrusday,” McCain Must Be Speaking
My colleague, Garth, pointed out this error on the Republican Web site. I'm sure it'll be fixed soon, if not already, and obviously it doesn't have much to do with McCain himself since he barely knows about the Internet let alone how to write for it. But if there's a perception out there that you're the “dumb” candidate, and “dumb” isn't as heartwarming as it was in, say, 2000, before we saw the kinds of shit “dumb” could get us in, then this isn't the kind of error you want to make. As Garth says, maybe he opted for “Thrusday” because Thursday is the start of football season and he knew his acceptance speech couldn't compete.
UPDATE: Saturday, 8:00 a.m.: Still not fixed.
UPDATE: Sunday, 9:00 a.m.: Still not fixed.
UPDATE: Monday, 7:20 a.m. Still not fixed. Is no one going to the GOP site? Can't anyone in the GOP spell? I don't think William F. Buckley is rolling over in his grave over this, but he's definitely rolling his eyes.
UPDATE: Monday, 10:21 a.m.: Fixed! And it only took 72 hours since Garth first noticed it. It's this kind of attention to detail, this kind of speedy, tech-savvy recovery, that makes the GOP the party that it is.
“We're Amazingly Incompetent or We Lied”
Related to the post below, here's a quote I read over lunch from Ron Suskind's The Way of the World. The speaker is an FBI man and a conservative Republican. He's talking to the author in June 2007:
“People don't realize in America how little underlying credibility the United States now has in the world, espcially on this matter of WMD, which, of course, has been driving everything. We went to war—the most important thing a country does—based on WMD, and we were wrong. That means either we're amazingly incompetent or we lied. Take your pick. Now, I think we lied, most people do, because no one could be that incompetent. But until we come clean—and here we are years later and we don't even care enough as a country to figure out what really happened—we're sunk.”
Pages 169-70. We get to the lying later.