Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Responding with Cool Reason to the Negativity About Biden’s Summer

David Rothkopf of The Daily Beast uses Twitter to inject some cool, refreshing oxygen into this summer’s frequently stifling political analysis (with a few comments from me):

And now, the latest Biden report from the Conventional News Network…

It’s been a rough summer for the president folks because

–Job growth slowing slightly (although yes, Biden has created more jobs in his first six months than any president in history) [I’d rephrase this to say that coming out of last year’s lockdown, we’ve had the fastest job growth since such things have been measured, which is at least partly the result of Biden’s recovery and stimulus programs]

–COVID spiking (although yes, the administration performed a miracle getting the vaccine out & the Republican Party has systematically undermined admin efforts to save lives)

–Afghanistan exit chat (although yes, the president ended a futile 20 year war and the administration managed to evacuate 125,000 people so far in one of the biggest humanitarian airlifts every, and ending wars is chaotic by nature)

–Infrastructure plans face opposition (although yes, that’s the way Congress works, the infrastructure bill represents a bipartisan breakthrough and much of the opposition is posturing)

–Fires, floods and storms! (although yes, Biden has put together an aggressive plan to combat the climate crisis, undone the huge damage done by his predecessor, gotten the US back into the Paris Accords, and made this a priority in the way no prior president has) [plus, you know it’s the weather, which presidents don’t control]

–Biden draws on his own personal experience while expressing compassion (although yes, the previous president was a sociopath and the story that being a genuine human made people uncomfortable was a cynical political spin job by the opposition…like much of the above)

Record economic growth, record job creation, record appointments to the court, the most diverse administration in history, massive effort to undo the damage done by predecessors, ushering in a new future oriented foreign policy and ending the disastrous post 9/11 era…

Restoring compassion, competence, a respect for the rule of law and a commitment to governance…although yes, we get it, he’s not perfect, not every goal is achieved, sometime his opponents succeed in blocking him, sometimes mistakes are made but he’s actually having a great year.

But let’s be honest, a slight dip in public opinion polls is inevitable when there’s so much misinformation and false bothsidesism in media coverage and what’s really important–support for his core policies remains high and bi-partisan.

Oh..and one more thing..the opposition does not offer any kind of credible alternative policies, focuses on obstruction, remains loyal to the most corrupt, incompetent, malevolent demagogue in US history, are systematically carving away the rights of American women and voters and are conducting an assault on democracy in the United States that may yet succeed. Biden is hugely successful if imperfect and much remains to be done. His opponents represent a threat to everything we have cherished about America’s values and our institutions.

But sure…let’s go with that old conventional wisdom, that easy if entirely inaccurate set of takes that are so popular these days. Who cares if it makes terrible outcomes in our country’s future more likely? Who cares if it is deeply misleading?

(P.S. This is not directed at any one media organization. There are many great journalists at work at almost everywhere you’d watch or read, if you don’t watch Fox or OANN. But among them, there are others who are helping to create the problem flagged here.)

Unquote.

Adding my two cents, I’m not sure if the Democrats should have bothered negotiating infrastructure with the Republicans, or just put everything into one big reconciliation bill that could pass with no Republican support. My big problem with what Biden has done so far, or hasn’t done, is that he hasn’t been able to get Senate Democrats to create an exception to the filibuster to protect voting rights. I’m also not sure Merrick Garland was a good choice for Attorney General, since Garland doesn’t seem very interested in what went on in the previous administration.

Presidential Approval in a New Gilded Age

I wrote about a long book last month, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, and noted how some of that period’s major issues were much like ours. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes about Biden’s approval rating and how its recent decline of roughly 11% shouldn’t be surprising. (The hysterical reaction to our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major factor.)

One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last. George W. Bush was more divisive than Bill Clinton; Barack Obama was more divisive than Bush; D___ T___ was more divisive than Obama; and Biden may well end up more divisive than T___, at least in terms of approval rating by partisan affiliation. Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling. [I think he means their approval ratings stay in a narrow middle range, not very low and not very high.]

This is a major change from the 1970s and 1980s, when the public was less polarized and numbers could swing from the low 30s (even the 20s) to the high 60s and beyond. At the peak of his popularity, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89 percent, including 82 percent among Democrats and 88 percent among independents. Those numbers are just not possible in today’s environment.

Biden’s slide is noteworthy, but it is also exactly what we should expect given the structural conditions of American politics in the 21st century. But this cuts against the unstated assumption that a president should have an approval rating above 50 percent. It’s an assumption that, as Sam Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, observed, is “another example of how we’ve adopted the deeply exceptional midcentury interlude as our baseline — partly because it remains our vision of normality, and partly because that’s when reliable data start.”

The “deeply exceptional midcentury interlude” — roughly speaking the years between the end of World War II and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 — is the source of a lot of our normative understandings of American politics, despite the fact that the conditions of that period are impossible to replicate. When politicians and political observers pine for an era of bipartisanship, they are pining for the 1950s and 1960s (and to an extent the 1970s).

If we were to look farther back in time, to say, the late 19th century, we might find an era that, for all of its indelible foreignness, is closer to ours in terms of the shape and structure of its politics, from its sharp partisan polarization and closely contested national elections to its democratic backsliding and deep anxieties over immigration and demographic change.

We don’t have polling data for President Grover Cleveland. But we do know that he won his victory in the 1884 election by 37 votes in the Electoral College and a half-a-percent in the national popular vote. His successor, Benjamin Harrisonlost the popular vote by a little less than 1 percent and won the Electoral College by 65 votes. Those narrow results suggest, I think, a similarly narrow spread for presidential approval — high floors, low ceilings.

American politics eventually broke out of its late-19th-century equilibrium of high polarization and tightly contested elections. In the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley became the first candidate in decades to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, beating his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, by 4.3 percent. He won re-election in 1900 and after his assassination the following year, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would win in 1904 by the most lopsided margin since Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election victory.

What changed in American politics to produce more decisive national victories? Well, that’s not a happy story. Suffrage restrictions of immigrants in the North, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the success of capital in suppressing labor revolt and setting the terms of political contestation had removed millions of Americans from the electorate by the turn of the 20th century. Political power was concentrated and consolidated in a bourgeois class (mostly) represented by the Republican Party, which, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s twin victories in 1912 and 1916, held the White House from 1897 to 1933. It would take another catastrophe, the Great Depression, to change that landscape.

As for the tectonic force that might break our partisan and ideological stalemate? It is impossible to say. Oftentimes in history, things seem stable until, suddenly, they aren’t.

Unquote.

We might think their failure to deal with the pandemic, now amounting to actual sabotage, would destroy the approval ratings of Republican officials. Or their refusal to accept Biden’s win, followed by insurrection at the Capitol, which some of them now celebrate. Or their longstanding denial of the climate crisis. Or coddling the rich. But none of that seems to be making a difference, not these days.

We Are at Their Mercy

There are six Republicans on the Supreme Court. Three of them were nominated by a president who encouraged his followers to overturn an election after he’d lost the popular vote for the second time. Two others were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote the first time he ran, but became president anyway because a 5-4 Republican majority on the Court ordered the vote counting in Florida to end. The sixth Republican was elevated to the Court after he lied to Congress about his sexual harassment of Anita Hill.

This week five of those Republicans demonstrated that they can find an excuse in what they call “the law” to do anything they want in service of their reactionary ideology.

From Charles Pierce of Esquire:

My generally unfocused red-eyed rage at what the Supreme Court did late Wednesday night cleared momentarily and I realized that, according to the 5-4 decision allowing the blatantly unconstitutional anti-choice Texas law to stand, a state can pass all kinds of blatantly unconstitutional laws as long as they leave the enforcement of those laws to bounty hunters.

This moment of clarity passed, quickly, and unfocused red-eyed rage reasserted itself. This was completely appropriate when directed at a corrupted Supreme Court majority which did what it wanted to do, legitimate precedents be damned, and through such preposterous playground illogic that William Blackstone should rise from his unquiet grave and smack all five of those hacks upside their watery heads with copies of his Commentaries. 

We all knew that Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were bag-job nominations for the specific purpose of voting the way they did late Wednesday night, and we all knew that Neil Gorsuch and Sam Alito were just waiting in the weeds with Clarence Thomas.

But, at their moment of ultimate triumph, they at least could have tried a little harder. I mean, look at this mess.

To prevail in an application for a stay or an injunction, an applicant must carry the burden of making a “strong showing” that it is “likely to succeed on the merits,” that it will be “irreparably injured absent a stay,” that the balance of the equities favors it, and that a stay is consistent with the public interest. . . .

The applicants now before us have raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue. But their application also presents complex and novel antecedent procedural questions on which they have not carried their burden. [Note: I quoted a different part of the mess than Mr. Pierce did]

The Supreme Court of the United States is saying two things here: 1) that it really doesn’t understand the law it is being asked to adjudicate, and 2) that the Texas law, which depends upon a transparent scheme to dodge judicial review, is beyond the Supreme Court’s reach because its transparent scheme to dodge judicial review is so cleverly drawn. No wonder the five cowards in the majority issued their order unsigned. I wouldn’t want my name attached to this pile of offal, either.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not so reticent, and they clearly can see a church by daylight. From Sotomayor:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand…Because the Court’s failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent…In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.

The Legislature fashioned this scheme because federal constitutional challenges to state laws ordinarily are brought against state officers who are in charge of enforcing. By prohibiting state officers from enforcing the Act directly and relying instead on citizen bounty hunters, the Legislature sought to make it more complicated for federal courts to enjoin the Act on a statewide basis.

Today, the Court finally tells the Nation that it declined to act because, in short, the State’s gambit worked. The structure of the State’s scheme, the Court reasons, raises “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions” that counsel against granting the application, just as the State intended. This is untenable. It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

For her part, Kagan expanded her anathemas to include the Court’s continuing abuse of its “shadow docket,” of which this order is the apotheosis.

Today’s ruling illustrates just how far the Court’s “shadow-docket” decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process. . . . It has reviewed only the most cursory party submissions, and then only hastily. And it barely bothers to explain its conclusion—that a challenge to an obviously unconstitutional abortion regulation backed by a wholly unprecedented enforcement scheme is unlikely to prevail. In all these ways, the majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow-docket decision-making—which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.

(It is notable that [Republican] Chief Justice John Roberts joined the minority in dissent. This further reinforces my belief that the only issues on which Roberts is reliably implacable are restricting the franchise and enhancing the corporate power of the oligarchy. That’s why Citizens United is his defining decision. For Roberts, that was a two-fer.)

Expand the Court. Do it tomorrow. Jesus Christ, a 5-4 majority just ruled that a cheap legal three-card monte game at the heart of a law was too clever for the Constitution to address.

Transcript of Biden’s Speech on Ending Our War in Afghanistan

Below is a shortened, slightly edited transcript of Biden’s speech this afternoon. He explains his decision and responds to criticism (much of the criticism coming from what can only be described as an elite media freakout). I got the transcript from Rev.com, a company that uses AI with human support to create transcripts, captions and translations:

Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The longest war in American history. We completed one of the biggest air lifts in history with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts felt were possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history, and only the United States had the capacity and the will and ability to do it. And we did it today. . . .

In April, I made a decision to end this war. As part of that decision, we set the date of August 31st for American troops to withdraw. Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan. All the way back as far as March.

The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil war with the Taliban.

That assumption that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time . . . turned out not to be accurate. But, I still instructed our National Security Team to prepare for every eventuality, even that one, and that’s what we did.

So we were ready, when the Afghan Security Forces, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of their own, did not hold on as long as anyone expected. We were ready when they and the people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and the president flee . . .

As a result, to safely extract American citizens before August 31st, as well as embassy personnel, allies, and partners, and those Afghans who had worked with us and fought alongside of us for 20 years, I had authorized 6,000 troops, American troops to Kabul to help secure the airport.

As General McKenzie said, this is the way the mission was designed. It was designed to operate under severe stress and attack and that’s what it did.

After we started the evacuation 17 days ago, we did initial outreach and analysis and identified around 5,000 Americans who had decided earlier to stay in Afghanistan but now wanted to leave. Our operation ended up getting more than 5,500 Americans out. We got out thousands of citizens and diplomats from those countries that went into Afghanistan with us to get bin Laden. We got out locally employed staff in the United States Embassy and their families, totalling roughly 2,500 people. We got thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters and others who supported the United States out as well.

Now we believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave. Most of those who remain are dual citizens, long time residents, who earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan. The bottom line, 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave. And for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.

Secretary of State Blinken is leading the continued diplomatic efforts to ensure safe passage for any American, Afghan partner or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan. . . .

We are joined by over 100 countries that are determined to make sure the Taliban upholds those commitments. It will include ongoing efforts in Afghanistan to reopen the airport as well as overland routes, allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban has made public commitments broadcast on television and radio across Afghanistan on safe passage for anyone wanting to leave, including those who worked alongside Americans. We don’t take them by their word alone, but by their actions. And we have leverage to make sure those commitments are met.

Let me be clear, leaving August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives. My predecessor signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove US troops by May 1st, just months after I was inaugurated. It included no requirement that the Taliban work out a cooperative governing arrangement with the Afghan government. But it did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders . . .

By the time I came to office the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1st deadline, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces. But if we stayed, all bets were off. [Note: the previous president had reduced the number of American troops in the country to 2,500.]

So we were left with a simple decision, either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit thousands more troops going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating. . . .

The decision to end the military operation at the Kabul airport was based on the unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisors. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff and all the service chiefs and the commanders in the field, their recommendation was that the safest way to secure the passage of the remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue with 6,000 troops on the ground in harm’s way in Kabul, but rather to get them out through non-military means.

In the 17 days that we operated in Kabul, after the Taliban seized power, we engage in an around the clock effort to provide every American the opportunity to leave. Our State Department was working 24/7 contacting and talking, and in some cases walking Americans into the airport. Again, more than 5,500 Americans were airlifted out. And for those who remain, we will make arrangements to get them out if they so choose.

As for the Afghans, we and our partners have airlifted 100,000 of them, no country in history has done more to airlift out the residents of another country than we have done. We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk. We’re far from done. . . .

I take responsibility for the decision. Now some say we should have started mass evacuation sooner and “Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?” I respectfully disagree. Imagine if we’d begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuated more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There would still have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it would still have been a very difficult and dangerous mission.

The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenge and threats we faced. None. There are those who would say we should have stayed indefinitely, for years on end. They ask, “Why don’t we just keep doing what we were doing? Why do we have to change anything?”

[But] this is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan.
The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America. Not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. . . . I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan.

But I also know that the threat from terrorism [has] changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change too. . . . As Commander in Chief, I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago. That’s what’s in our national interest.

Here’s a critical thing to understand, the world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to shore up America’s competitiveness to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century. . . .

As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation in the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals. Not ones we’ll never reach. And second, I want to stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.

This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan . . . morph into a counter-insurgency, nation-building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan, something that has never been done over centuries of their history.

Moving on from that mindset and those kinds of large scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home. . . .

My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over. I’m the fourth president who has faced the issue of whether and when to end this war. When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I’ve honored that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people again. . . .

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refuse to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago. After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, a cost that researchers at Brown University estimated was over $300 million a day . . . for two decades. . . . You could take the number of $1 trillion, as many say. That’s still $150 million a day for two decades. And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?

. . . And most of all, after 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan . . . After 20,744 American service men and women injured. And the loss of 2,461 American personnel, including 13 lives lost just this week. . . .

So when I hear that we could have, should have, continued the so-called “low grade effort” in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low costs, I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the 1% of this country who put that uniform on. . . . A lot of our veterans and our families have gone through hell. Deployment after deployment, months and years away from their families, . . . financial struggles, divorces, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress. . . .

There is nothing low grade or low risk or low cost about any war. . . . As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look at the future, not the past. To a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure. To a future the honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called, “Their last full measure of devotion.”

I give you my word, with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America. . . .