Political Animal

It’s Not “Awesome” That Americans Are Assassinating People in Yemen

BuzzFeed News published a troubling article Tuesday about an American company named Spear Operations Group that is run by Abraham Golan, “a charismatic Hungarian-Israeli security contractor who lives outside of Pittsburgh.” Mr. Golan openly admits that he ran a targeted assassination program in Yemen on behalf of the government of the United Arab Emirates:

“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.”

The article begins with an operation that went haywire back in 2015, while President Obama was our commander in chief. Mr. Golan’s mission was to kill a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is a whole lot more socially and politically complex than is commonly understood in the United States. To the Saudi regime and their Gulf allies, the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. Yet, in 2012, Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, as their president.

There is no simple way to explain the development and role of the Brotherhood. Its complexity is demonstrated through its leaders’ professed beliefs. On the one hand, it would be accurate to say that they’re religious fundamentalists who believe the Quran should be the central organizing basis of political society. On the other, they’ve become fairly consistent in expressing rhetorical support (at least when out of power) for many core American principles.

According to a spokesman on its English-language website, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in reform, democracy, freedom of assembly, press, etc.

“We believe that the political reform is the true and natural gateway for all other kinds of reform. We have announced our acceptance of democracy that acknowledges political pluralism, the peaceful rotation of power and the fact that the nation is the source of all powers. As we see it, political reform includes the termination of the state of emergency, restoring public freedoms, including the right to establish political parties, whatever their tendencies may be, and the freedom of the press, freedom of criticism and thought, freedom of peaceful demonstrations, freedom of assembly, etc. It also includes the dismantling of all exceptional courts and the annulment of all exceptional laws, establishing the independence of the judiciary, enabling the judiciary to fully and truly supervise general elections so as to ensure that they authentically express people’s will, removing all obstacles that restrict the functioning of civil society organizations, etc.”

As a political opposition party in a region where basic freedoms are lacking, suppressed, or indefinitely suspended, the Brotherhood has learned the language of civil and human rights, and their political critiques can sound like they’re coming from Amnesty International or the ACLU. That may be more expedient than sincere in some respects, but it’s not the language of terrorism. That’s not to say that the Brotherhood has not ever been responsible for terrorism and violence, it most certainly has, but that’s mostly been directed at toppling or undermining regimes like Anwar Sadat’s government, which was a hardly a beacon of political legitimacy.

Americans may not have a whole lot in common with the Brotherhood but we should recognize a shared loathing of monarchs and dictators. If the kings, princes, and emirs of the Arabian peninsula don’t like anti-monarchial organizations, that’s to be expected and it doesn’t make them credible when they term all of their political opponents as “terrorists.”

Of course, American interests in the Middle East are complicated and it’s not possible to consistently hold true to the purest version of our principles when we’re seeking to make military alliances, secure the global energy supply, and engage in commerce with a grouping of despots. In some cases, the enemies of our allies are still enemies even if they have a damn good point about the inadequacies, corruption, and cruelty of their leaders.

Yet, even if we acknowledge this, it’s still quite possible to be a geopolitical realist and at the same time consider it completely wrong for American companies to form mercenary units for the purpose of wiping out the political opposition of kleptocratic royal families.

To the extent that President Obama was aware of this arrangement and may have signed off on it, I think he’s subject to legitimate criticism. In truth, I don’t know what his knowledge or involvement might have been, but this program did start on his watch.

If you go to the National Review, however, you’ll see Jim Geraghty explaining that there are only two probable reactions to learning about the targeted assassination program. If you’re a Democrat, you probably hate it but are conflicted because you don’t want to tarnish Obama’s reputation. If you’re a Republican, you obviously think it’s “awesome.”

You probably have one of two reactions to a story like this.

One: “This is awesome. I want every anti-American extremist in the world looking over his shoulder and hiding in fear, and if this is the sort of thing that gets a person afraid to join an Islamist group, or that will cut down the next Osama bin Laden early in his career instead of late in it, God bless them.”

Two: “Dear God, this is horrifying. This is an assassination program that is staffed by Americans, targeting and executing foreign political leaders without any charges or trial, and our government is, if not explicitly endorsing these actions, giving these actions a tacit blessing.”

One complicating wrinkle for those who have the second reaction: The BuzzFeed story begins by describing an attempted assassination on December 29, 2015, and discusses the campaign of covert strikes in Yemen progressing throughout 2016. In other words, this isn’t some horrific, brutal Trump-administration policy that enables these actions; all of this started on the Obama administration’s watch.

What’s telling is that Geraghty says that “those who who have the second reaction” of horror are necessarily supporters of Barack Obama. Barack Obama critics are almost uniformly in the other camp, casting every member of the Muslim Brotherhood as anti-American and a potential future terrorist who should be slaughtered by American mercenaries, with the backing of Arab monarchs.

Unfortunately, Gerhaghty’s stereotypes of American reactions are probably more accurate than we might wish. But I don’t see how that speaks well of the right.

It’s not a good thing to be incapable of complex or nuanced thought. If you can’t tell the difference between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s not a point in your favor. It’s not a good thing to take the side of cruel and corrupt monarchs against people who are advocating for free elections and common sense political reforms. It’s not a good thing to advocate the killing of anyone who makes you the tiniest bit uncomfortable, let alone to cheerlead when your countrymen do the killing for money.

I do not intend to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as some uncomplicated and laudable organization. It is, in many ways, contemptible. But it’s a sad statement about where the Republican Party stands today that you can’t find more than a tiny handful of people with the knowledge and sophistication and moral compass to have any other reaction to this program than “it’s awesome.”

Mitch McConnell Begins to Contemplate His Legacy

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 76 years old, so it is probably not surprising that he is beginning to contemplate his legacy. Take a look at what he said during an interview with Bloomberg News:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blamed rising federal deficits and debt on a bipartisan unwillingness to contain spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and said he sees little chance of a major deficit reduction deal while Republicans control Congress and the White House…

“I think it would be safe to say that the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue, and it’s a shame, because now the Democrats are promising Medicare for all,” he said. “I mean, my gosh, we can’t sustain the Medicare we have at the rate we’re going and that’s the height of irresponsibility.”

Never mind that it was McConnell’s $1.5 trillion tax cut that made the deficit explode, the Republican Majority Leader’s single biggest disappointment for his time in Congress has been his failure to use the deficits he helped create as an excuse to hurt senior citizens and poor people by decimating entitlement programs. Isn’t that special?

It wasn’t that long ago that McConnell was celebrating his greatest accomplishment.

“You’ve heard me say before that I thought the decision I made not to fill the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Scalia died was the most consequential decision I’ve made in my entire public career. The things that will last the longest time, those are my top priorities.”

He’s actually proud of the fact that he took a sledge hammer to Senate norms in order to completely politicize Supreme Court confirmations. But as a reminder, that isn’t McConnell’s only legacy. Ed Kilgore summed up the rest quite nicely.

There was his career-long fight against campaign-finance reform, culminating in the legal battle that led to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. There was his famous strategic plan to make total obstruction of Barack Obama, rather than any positive agenda, the focal point for Senate Republicans, which contributed to the poisonous atmosphere that eventually produced President Trump. And speaking of Trump, there was McConnell’s refusal to go along with Obama’s request for a bipartisan warning about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections…

Mitch McConnell might have failed to stick it to senior citizens and poor people, but he will go down in history as the man who:

  • paved the way for an infusion of dark money into politics,
  • built on the legacy of Newt Gingrich to poison the political atmosphere,
  • chose party power games over national security, and
  • politicized Supreme Court confirmations.

That might rank up there as one of the most powerful legacies of anyone who has ever served in the United States Senate—and of course I don’t mean that in a good way.

What Happens to Democracy When Your Opponent Becomes the Enemy?

The Washington Post editorial board spoke out about the closing argument for the 2018 midterms that we’re hearing from Republicans.

Republicans have found themselves unable to gain traction on the issues. Neither their budget-busting tax cut nor their efforts to blow up Obamacare have proved as popular as they expected. So they have seized on a new and despicable tactic three weeks from Election Day: arguing that Democrats are an angry horde bent on destroying people. This is more or less direct a quotation from the president, the Senate majority leader and a host of other Republicans.

“The Democrats are willing to do anything, to hurt anyone, to get the power they so desperately crave,” Mr. Trump said last week. “They want to destroy,” he added.

They ended their piece with this cautionary note:

Democracy can work if citizens can view the opposition as patriots such as themselves who happen to disagree, perhaps fervently, about the issues of the day. It cannot work if citizens view one another as enemies.

We’ve heard that warning before. More than a year ago, Adam Gopnik wrote about the need to distinguish between honest opponents and toxic enemies.

Democracies die when they can no longer distinguish between honest opponents of another ideological kind and toxic enemies who come from far outside all normal values.

Here is how Marilynne Robinson talked about it when she was interviewed by Barack Obama:

But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

If being an alarmist about the the “sinister other” is a threat to democracy, then liberals face a difficult dilemma. The GOP has become the party of Trump, aligning themselves with the lies, ignorance, cruelty, and xenophobia that undermine almost everything we believe in. With threats to a free press and the ability of citizens to protest under attack, the president is also failing to protect our elections and inciting violence. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point: the Republican Party is no longer interested in being an honest opponent and has placed itself squarely in the camp of being a toxic enemy.

That is what led Hillary Clinton to eschew civility during an interview with Christiane Amanpour and Eric Holder to part ways with Michelle Obama’s characterization of “when they go low, we go high.” They were basically affirming that the Republican Party has ceased to be an honest opponent.

Of course, both Clinton and Holder are right about that—these are extraordinary times. But it means that we are at a very dangerous point in this country’s history. If the narrative is all about two warring parties pointing at each other as an enemy that poses a threat, all of the warnings about what that means to democracy become very real. It doesn’t matter if one side is right in their assessment and the other is wrong, the enemy needs to be silenced at any cost. That is a recipe for things to escalate—potentially into a violent confrontation.

This isn’t a call for civility. The threat posed by Donald Trump and his enablers in the Republican Party is very real. It is important to be clear about that. But the dilemma we face is also very real and I doubt that it is going to go away any time soon.

I’d like to be able to suggest a remedy that would resolve this dilemma, but frankly, I don’t have one. I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said during his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I see those better angels of our nature in stories like the one about a few white evangelical women in Texas who are supporting Beto O’Rourke because they are learning to see the nuance in our political disagreements. I also think that a lot of Democratic candidates are working from the ground up to unite voters around a set of common values. For example, here’s Stacey Abrams:

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

This is David Garcia, Democratic candidate for governor in Arizona, in a heavily Republican district:

“When you walk away from here, I want you to walk away with a set of values. A value about the importance of immigration, a value about public education — because I don’t care what party you’re in. If you share those values, I want you to be welcome to mark my name on that ballot, because when we do this approach — this ‘us and them’ approach — we turn people off.”

Up until the first shots were fired by the confederacy at Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln attempted everything he could do to hold the union together. He promised that the federal government would never take the first shot, but also vowed that any use of arms against the United States would be regarded as rebellion, and met with force. I hope that Democratic candidates like Abrams and Garcia can be more successful in appealing to the better angels of our nature than Lincoln ultimately was. But the challenge we face feels eerily similar to the one confronted by this country’s 16th president.

‘Come on, Ted’

As someone who spent most of my formative years in Texas, the current senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke has been fascinating on many levels. Ken Thomas notes that O’Rourke is making a name for himself by being authentic. He has assiduously avoided negative attacks and attempted to make an appeal to all Texans by visiting every county in the state.

On the other hand, Ted Cruz has done almost nothing but attack his opponent. A review of his YouTube channel shows that it is filled with negative spots about O’Rourke. Pretty much the only thing Cruz wants voters to know about him is that he’s “tough as Texas,” which is his campaign slogan. Otherwise, as Ryan Bort notes:

Cruz has relied on cultural appeals, claiming that his opponent wants to turn Texas into California “right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.” He later joked that O’Rourke would work to ban barbecue in the state.

In other words, the Cruz campaign has almost nothing to do with the Republican candidate and everything to do with how voters define their home state.

It took a Texas filmmaker like Richard Linklater to understand what that means to Texans and shred Cruz’s claims with a good dose of humor.

That ad might be effective in any state, but in Texas it’s the equivalent of a knock-out punch.

On Monday, Linklater released another ad.

This time he’s taking aim at the fast food chains embraced by the candidates. If you didn’t grow up in Texas, you might not know about Whataburger. But whenever I go down to visit family members that still live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a trip to that particular chain is a requirement. To be honest, the burgers aren’t that great, but it’s an icon for people who grew up in Texas. During his travels around the state, O’Rourke was often filmed going through a Whataburger drive-through (sometimes playing air drums to The Who while they wait). Linklater compared that to Cruz’s professed love of White Castle, which happen to be located primarily in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic areas of the country.

In a sense, Linklater is suggesting that if Cruz wants to make this election a referendum on his bonafides as the most Texan candidate in the race, the correct response is, “Come on, Ted.”