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If only…

I just spent a moment re-reading the president’s speech on ISIS from a month ago. It’s well-constructed, although ultimately substanceless in terms of making the case to do this (guess having public opinion behind you for the moment obviates that task) and it’s worth noting that this is really the only argument he gives for involvement:

In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality [emphasis mine]. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.

So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East — including American citizens, personnel and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

I may have missed something, but does this argument actually wash? Is ISIS really that unique? The Taliban actually did commit genocide against a racial minority, after all, not just a threat. al-Qaeda has killed journalists–Daniel Pearl comes immediately to mind–not to mention 3,000 people in New York. Admittedly, we did actually wage war against those two specific groups, but they actually did kill off a lot of Americans before we did it. The rest are, unfortunately, not uncommon at all. So I have to wonder, is this really the logic of fighting a multi-year war sans Congressional approval? In essence, simply being bad people is now a sufficient cause for war, and an ill-defined, long-term war at that. A direct action to strike back at the people responsible would be merited. But destroying the entirety of ISIS? There is simply no logic here.

Now, I had no illusions that Obama would be a dove. I did not suspect that he’d be so willing to use force as often as he has, though the makeup of his staff and his long-time goal of cultivating “centrist” opinionmakers in Washington who happen to be reliable hawks were reliable indicators. Still, it’s still sort of shocking to me that this war seems to be based entirely on horror and disgust, which, while entirely understandable and merited, do not reliably tend to produce good foreign policy. Obama’s argument here makes no real logical sense, and the second part essentially concedes that it’s not necessary for national security, which means that there’s really no argument here whatever, so it has to be read as an indication of his emotional state. He simply hates these guys, which again, is the right response. But launching a war based on emotional reactions is eerily reminiscent of Bush, and a strategy of airstrikes and guiding allies to fight the bad guys is so similar to Vietnam so as to make no difference, only it’s even less likely to work without ground troops. Obama knows he loses the base if combat troops set foot in Iraq, but he went forward anyway. This has to be interpreted as, again, an emotional decision, not a logical one. Larison is right that simply calling the whole thing off would make the most sense, but given that the ISIS war isn’t about anything other than reaction, political ass-covering and emotion, I tend to doubt it.

Remember when everyone talked about how Obama was so cool-headed, strategic and logical? It’s been a while since I heard it too. Probably around the time his foreign policy approvals were in the positive zone.

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I’ve not seen any of the Taken movies. I admit that revenge and vigilante films (including Payback-style “gimme back my son!” films which play on the same themes and emotions) generally don’t appeal to me, unless they’re making the point that this stuff is ugly and self-defeating like Taxi Driver. Not to mention that such films tend to be inherently conservative and exploitative, inasmuch as contemporary conservatism involves never engaging a part of the mind other than the id. But until watching this video review of Taken 2, I guess I wasn’t aware just how psychologically lazy the movie is, but also derivative it is of so many other recent action movies. Rooftop chases a la the recent Bond films, jittery Bourne-style fights, jumping from car to train, hero and villain tossing aside their loaded guns to fight hand to hand at the end…it’s amazing how little originality penetrates this movie. With just the slightest push it could be a Tango & Cash-style send-up of this decade’s most overused tropes:

Also particularly risible is the epilogue where, after a traumatic ordeal that would require years of therapy to even begin to deal with the PTSD, they’re all just sitting in a diner, sipping shakes, back to normal American hokum, as though terrifying, life-endangering stunts are merely an anodyne part of American life. There is something deeply, deeply upsetting about this. It’s almost as though the NRA underwrote the movie to make the point that violent killing–though admittedly justified in this case–has no negative side-effects, and that it’s just a costless act, maybe even the manly thing to do. This is only true of violent sociopaths.

Additionally, while they’ll probably make these until Liam Neeson is beating thugs with his walker, it’s worth noting that this series has the same problem as the Home Alone series, in that the more of them there are, the less it makes sense. Leaving Kevin McAllister home alone once is an accident, but if they keep doing it, it just means the parents suck at their job. But Home Alone was about the kid, and the kids watching it didn’t care about the parents. This is obvious dad-bait, so one would think that after a point the audience would lose sympathy for a shitty father who fails to take adequate security protections and keeps getting his damn family kidnapped.

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This is hilarious. Arkansas Democrats may get a freebie in the Attorney General election because of some voting/registration shenanigans on the part of the GOP candidate. Considering the similar case of Charlie White, whose issues actually got him kicked out of office, I see no reason why Democrats shouldn’t get back up in Republicans’ face on voter fraud issues by saying that the most high-profile recent cases of this have involved Republican politicians. It’s also worth saying that this isn’t exactly hypocritical per se, as the party of Bush v. Gore is clearly not one very interested in ensuring maximal participation and accuracy in the voting process. These folks are merely exemplifying the contempt for fair and accurate voting that we’ve come to expect from today’s Republican Party, of which voter ID laws are but one component.

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That’s not a thumbs-up, so much as a symbolic gesture on how he will attempt to crush workers who vote to unionize.

We need a new scale, people. Its purpose: for measuring the relative corruption, sleazy buckraking and amoral behavior of former Democratic officeholders, named after Dick Gephardt, who spent a couple decades in the House insisting he was the banner carrier of New Deal liberalism, before leaving and working on whatever anti-labor, anti-healthcare, evil corporate lobbying effort paid best (a brief list can of course be found here). Needless to say it’s possible to be a former Dem politico and make some scratch without turning fully to the dark side–Al Gore comes to mind as someone who could very easily have gone this way but, surprisingly, didn’t. So if a guy who’s political career brought him close connections with AIPAC, DLC corporate donors and all corners of Clintonworld can forgo doing bad things for money, there’s really no excuse. Let’s see how this goes in this initial series:

  1. John Breaux – former Senator (D-LA) – lobbying for Gazprom, the Russian banking/energy giant7 Gephardts out of 10.
  2. Roland Burris – former Senator (D-IL), infamous Rod Blagojevich appointee – illegal lobbyist for Robert Mugabe8 Gephardts out of 10.

I think we need to create a new maxim like Moore’s Law for the foreign policy arena. Let’s call it Villager’s Law:

If:
(1) the Very Serious talking heads in the opinion columns and Sunday morning talk shows say you’re doing the right thing; and
(2) there is a bipartisan consensus in Congress that you’re doing the right thing; and, finally,
(3) the thing you’re doing involves bombing shit and killing lots of brown people in a foreign country…

then, most likely:
(A) you’re not doing the right thing; and
(B) you’re going to unleash negative externalities equal to or worse than the problem you’re trying to solve; and
(C) history is going to call you an asshole.

The “War on ISIS” has not managed to turn around Obama’s problems with the public (h/t Political Wire):

As Mr. Obama broadens the military offensive against Islamic extremists, the survey finds broad support for United States airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but it also demonstrates how torn Americans are about wading back into battle in the Middle East. A majority is opposed to committing ground forces there, amid sweeping concern that increased American participation will lead to a long and costly mission.

With midterm elections approaching, Americans’ fears about a terrorist attack on United States soil are on the rise, and the public is questioning Mr. Obama’s strategy for combating the militant organization calling itself the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Most respondents say the president has no clear plan for confronting the group, and that he has not been tough enough in dealing with it.

Yes, the airstrikes are popular, at least for the moment. But the reason they are–the ISIS beheadings of journalists–were themselves a reaction to Obama’s initial decision to widen his initial “protect the Yazidis” bombing to strike directly at ISIS. Given the mumbly/incoherent PR work from the Admin. immediately after those murders, it really does seem as though they expected no response, as though it would always turn out like Libya did, with no reprisals or meaningful resistance, and they were not prepared. And these new bombs will undoubtedly produce even more similar responses, followed by more bombs. Khadaffy was a little occupied to send America a message, but ISIS has no such problems. This is going to create a vicious cycle for sure, and whatever else happens Obama will only take shit from it. Democrats, for reasons of partisanship as well as personality, will pretend this is not happening, as they have whenever Obama’s done one of these, so any successes against ISIS will not be amplified. They will probably not turn violently against Obama unless ground troops are actually deployed–one reason I believe he does truly want to avoid them, though post-2011 he’s often found himself “forced” into hawkish action by his own bureaucracy–but the right-wing faction will amplify any failures and at best mumble congratulations over successes, meaning there’s only political downside in this for Obama. Once again, the absolute dumbest thing a Democratic president can do is to escalate a conflict in the Middle East, the politics line up firmly against it. Best I can figure is that Obama and his top staffers are desperate to avoid something like Rwanda happening again, which is understandable, though the notion that freedom bombs could have played any positive role there is mistaken.

I can’t say I predicted this exact thing once the freedom bombs started dropping. But I knew as soon as I read about this particular war that it would not solve anything for Obama, and indeed it has not. He stupidly got himself into this by listening to the Clinton JV team he has advising him, and it’s the predictable escalation that these things often are. Unfortunately, while this seems to me like a clear-cut argument to avoid “humanitarian” intervention, future Democratic pols will probably only take from this the need to be more hawkish. It’s goddamn depressing.

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Why do they so frequently suck? The Dissolve asks the question. In theory, there’s no reason why a prequel couldn’t be good, even great. Sure, you know where the story ultimately goes, but people watch movies and read books and watch TV shows all the time where they know what will happen. Any well-made work will have plenty of other surprises along the way, aside from the ending. I think the real issue is indeed that they tend to revolve around generating origin stories that nobody asked for and are, indeed, quite dull.

Take one of my favorite examples, Star Trek Enterprise. Like its namesake vessel in the show, it was rushed onto television without all the aspects really having been thought through, and if you add in the inevitable creative drain of the same crew having produced Star Trek for (by that time) about fifteen years, the end result was a lot of episodes of television that felt a lot like what you’d seen on VoyagerDeep Space Nine, or The Next Generation. The show also wanted to have it both ways with the prequel concept: by setting it well before any prior Trek series*, the show wanted to make the show different from the rest so it would stand out, but they also wanted to showcase all the aliens that fans had come to associate with the series, which led to origin stories that actually superseded the original origin stories. Could anything be more superfluous? Guess what? Captain Picard didn’t first encounter the Borg, the crew of the first-ever Enterprise did. And the Klingons, and the Romulans, the Nausicaans, etc. We get another whack at the story about how Klingons got their forehead ridges. And did anyone truly want another origin story about the Ferengi? The question answers itself:

Again, it’s not so much that the concept of the series was unworkable (though it had a lot of shaky characterization and silly subplots, like the “temporal cold war” stuff). And indeed, the series did manage to find something interesting to do right before it was cancelled. But all too many prequels simply lack imagination and resort to telling boring origin stories, with enough in-jokes to try to fool fans of the original thing that there’s any point to this existing. Say what you like about the misbegotten Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, which certainly had its share of flaws, it at least had ambition. It still told an origin story (of the cylons), but it staked out a different tone, theme, look and feel, etc. Honestly, given how the network bumped and moved its time slot–and the much, much worse computer-generated effects relative to its parent series–it’s not surprising that BSG fans didn’t stick around for it. But it is the only even modestly successful prequel I can think of**, because it took care to use the familiar to create something new.

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