Tag: Washington Post

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Credit Where It’s Due: Sarah Kliff Edition

On Friday, President Obama announced an “accommodation” to those who object to his contraceptives mandate. Since then, I have been astonished at how many reporters have portrayed the president’s announcement as some sort of compromise, even though it would not reduce – not by one penny – the amount of money he would force Catholics and others with a religious objection to spend on contraception.

In fact, the only reporter who seemed to grasp this may also have been the first out of the box. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff:

“If a charity, hospital or another organization has an objection to the policy going forward, insurance companies will be required to reach out to directly offer contraceptive care free of charge,” one administration official explained…

Numerous studies have shown that covering contraceptives is revenue-neutral, as such preventive measures can lower the rate of pregnancies down the line…

“Contraceptives save a lot of money,” a senior administration official argued.

The catch here is that there’s a difference between “revenue neutral” and “free.” By one report’s measure, it costs about $21.40 to add birth control, IUDs and other contraceptives to an insurance plan. Those costs may be offset by a reduction in pregnancies. But unless drug manufacturers decide to start handing out free contraceptives, the money to buy them will have to come from somewhere.

Where will it come from, since neither employers nor employees will be paying for these contraceptives? That leaves the insurers, whose revenues come from the premiums that subscribers pay them. It’s difficult to see how insurance companies would avoid using premiums to cover the costs of contraceptives.

The Post’s subsequent coverage would have benefited from such scrutiny of the president’s spiel. If I missed such scrutiny in the Post or elsewhere, I hope someone will let me know.

‘The Dangerous Gym Membership’?

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post:

The dangerous gym membership” [Jan. 12] claims that in Medicare Advantage, “advertising a plan as the go-to health insurance source for marathoners could lure in a healthier subscriber base, disrupting the rest of the market place in the process.” Oh?

Does it disrupt the market for sneakers when running shops advertise themselves to marathoners? Since when does giving consumers something they want disrupt the market? That’s why markets exist.

What’s disrupting the market for seniors’ health insurance is government—in this case, Congress’ counter-productive attempt to cross-subsidize the sick via price controls that forbid carriers to consider each applicant’s risk when offering and pricing health insurance.

Cillizza on Cain and Know-Nothing Foreign Policy

Asked on Meet the Press this weekend whether the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was an act of war, Herman Cain gave the following response:

After I looked at all of the information provided by the intelligence community, the military, then I could make that decision.  I can’t make that decision because I’m not privy to all of that information… I’m not going to say it was an act of war based upon news reports, with all due respect.  I would hope that the president and all of his advisers are considering all of the factors in determining just how much, how much the Iranians participated in this.

That struck me as a refreshingly reasonable position. Yet the Washington Post’s election handicapper, Chris Cillizza, decided to make that quote the centerpiece of an article on Cain’s “know-nothing foreign policy.” He then presents a poll showing that Republicans don’t care much about foreign policy this year, only to conclude that foreign-policy ignorance could be a fatal handicap for Cain. His evidence for that conclusion is a quote from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in arguing for wars and imperialism. Boot, as it happens, just wrote a blog post for Commentary titled, “Iran Plot Goes Straight to the Top,” where he attacks those willing to question the evidence against Iran’s leaders and vaguely supports attacking them.

Cillizza’s article makes clear that foreign-policy ignorance is far preferable to the Washington Post’s idea of expertise. The worst part is that Cain, who claims not to know what neoconservatives are, seems likely to become one, call Boot for advice, and win the Post’s respect.

Max Boot Grades Own Work, Gives Self ‘A’

Max Boot photo via UPI

Sunday’s Washington Post ran a piece about 9/11 called the “pundit scorecard,” and gave Max Boot the “wishful thinking award” for his “Case for American Empire” piece. As the Post article described:

Not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor destroyed American isolationism has a school of foreign policy thought been so discredited as neoconservatism was by the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in the first months after the 9/11 attacks, neoconservative plans to redesign the Middle East found a sympathetic hearing in the White House and among the commentariat. Probably the most romantic neocon was military analyst Max Boot, who believed that the world was desperate for American domination.

“Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” Boot wrote in the Weekly Standard on Oct. 15, 2001. Just as the U.S. war in Afghanistan was beginning, Boot was planning other campaigns. “Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

Suffice it to say that Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, isn’t happy. In fact, he looks back at the piece and feels pretty good about it. He points out that he had called on Washington to “feed the hungry, tend the sick, and impose the rule of law” in those benighted foreign locales, to at least “allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over.”

But let’s also recall that in May of 2003 Boot was still pooh-poohing Gen. Eric Shinseki’s admonition that “several hundred thousand” troops would be needed for such an endeavor. Instead, Boot thought that our to-do list in Iraq should include “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government,” and that

This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners.

Just think about that for a second. In 2003, Max Boot was arguing that 60-75,000 U.S. troops could provide security all across Iraq, while simultaneously “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government.”

Grade inflation seems to have gotten out of hand at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

Washington Post Asks for Budget Plans

The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a challenge to the president and his Republican opponents: “show us your plans” for deficit reduction. In fact, the Post says it would be “delighted” to receive plans from its readers. However, the Post isn’t interested in “meaningless promises” to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”—it wants specifics:

Here’s what we’re not looking for: pablum about eliminating unnecessary spending without identifying where. Gauzy rhetoric about making hard choices without making them. Meaningless promises about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Broad assertions about where to find the money — “Medicare savings,” “tax reform” — without specifics. Arbitrary spending caps without accompanying details about how those limits are to be met. If you believe, for example, that federal spending should be kept to a specific share of the economy — 18 percent? 20 percent? — show the plausible path to getting there.

Amen. Chris Edwards and I have been beating the drum for Republican policymakers in particular to get specific about what they would cut. Chris recently noted that with the exception of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and perhaps a few others, Republicans aren’t putting much effort into identifying programs to terminate. And I have noted that “It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about ‘reducing waste, fraud, and abuse’ in government programs and ‘saving’ the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for ‘future generations.’”

As for deficit reduction ideas from Washington Post readers, we have a balanced budget plan on our Downsizing the Federal Government website. In fact, not only do we have a plan, we have over three dozen essays on numerous government agencies that provide details on what programs to cut and why.