Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland the Brave (and the Angry and the Young)

EARLY REPORTS indicate a robust turnout for the Scottish independence referendum. The results aren’t expected until Friday, but the turnout, perhaps as high 90 percent of the 4.3 million people registered to vote, according to The Wall Street Journal — ought to be a bit of an embarrassment to the participatory democracy on this side of the Atlantic.

Some election analysts and other seers of Scottish voting trends have tentatively predicted a narrow win for the No side, which proposes to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. But two parts of the Yes cohort (those backing independence) bear special consideration, for different reasons. They jointly represent the extremes of the Scottish electorate; combined, they could create an accidental coalition that would make Scotland a new nation on the world stage.

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The Yes side is composed of older Scots, those who’ve cultivated reasons (largely economic) for ending the 307-year linkage to Great Britain. In modern times, the itch for Scots to have a government that responded to their needs without the interference of London — this in the face of an economy that declined for a time after World War II — gained steam in March 1979, when a referendum seeking more Scottish independence from Westminster passed but was repealed in June 1979, due to low overall turnout.

The passion for the Yes of independence achieved its greatest populist traction in 1989, when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed the Community Charge, a taxation scheme that imposed one single, flat-rate, per-capita tax on every working adult in parts of the United Kingdom.

Thatcher imposed the Community Charge first on Scotland, making it a testing ground for its implementation in England and Wales the following year. The tax plan, seen by many Scots as an attempt by Thatcher to use them as guinea pigs for British economic theory, aroused bitter resentment and laid the groundwork for a call for more direct control over Scotland’s own affairs.

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THE COMMUNITY Charge led to massive protests, including the so-called Battle of Trafalgar Square, a massive protest in London in which 200,000 people participated. Four hundred people were arrested, with another 113 injured, according to The Independent.

The tax was eventually overturned in 1993, after broad outrage from Scots who refused to pay it. But the bad feelings lingered, in no small part because, due to tax laws as a consequence of the Thatcherite venture, non-payers could be pursued for years. One Scottish financial expert wrote, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the tax’s imposition, that local governments were still chasing hundreds of millions in delinquent Community Charge payments, despite the formal end of the practice years earlier.

In more recent times, Scotland experienced other problems arising from being a “devolved” government working from within the UK’s constitutional monarchy.

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Scotland's deficit in fiscal year 2012–13 was £12 billion ($19.6 billion at the current rate of exchange), a £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) increase over the previous fiscal year. The UK's deficit declined by £2.6 billion ($4.25 billion) over the same period. As of July of this year, the Scottish economy grew by 1 percent, according to BBC News.

While welcomed by UK government officials, the news wasn’t seen as universally positive. Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, told BBC it was "good that Scottish GDP is now above pre-recession levels. However, it is complacent and somewhat misleading to crow about record levels of output.

"The truth of the matter is that the economy may never recover output lost due to the recession and the prolonged period of stagnation that followed,” Smith said. Earlier economic forecasts say any Scottish recovery could be hampered by effects of Eurozone deflation, declining real wages and, ironically, the steady rise in home prices in London, BBC reported.

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AMONG OLDER Scots, then, it’s the feeling nurtured in the Thatcherite era that “Scotland makes, the UK takes,” coupled with an economy seen as growing more slowly than it should, that’s powering much of the passion for independence playing out in Scotland today.

For younger Scottish voters, the frictions of the Thatcher days may not matter as much, for perfectly understandable reasons. It’s harder to object to something you weren’t alive to experience firsthand.

Figures from the 2011 census, the most recent available (Scotland conducts a census once every 10 years), show 6.25 percent of Scots between 15 and 19 years old, and another 6.8 percent between the ages of 20 and 24 years old. Moving each age cohort forward three years, to 2014, it means that at least 700,000 Scots were either too young to remember, or weren’t alive at all, when the Thatcherite government imposed Community Charge on Scotland a quarter century ago.

For them, there’s no personal memory of the impact of the Community Charge that’s thought to be a prime mover, and a major emotionally galvanizing factor, driving the expected record turnout in today’s vote. Add to that the fact that Scottish citizens 16 and older can vote in today’s referendum. In a close election, that could make the difference between independence or union. Between Yes or No.

As previously published at BuzzFeed. Image credits: Scotland flag: (Trinity College).  Thatcher: BBC News. Scottish vote real-time visualization: Trendsmap.

UPDATE: 11 PM PT: The blue in the Union Jack stays where it is. So does David Cameron: The No voters prevailed over Yes independence supporters by a wide margin (better than 10 percentage points at this writing). The United Kingdom stays intact, though with changes expected as a result of the election. 

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat in a moving speech: A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world, in any election or any referendum in history. This has been a triumph for the democratic process and politics. … The initiative by which 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote has proved to be a resounding success. I suspect no one will ever question their right to participate in democratic elections. 

Scotland will expect pledges to devolve powers to be honoured in rapid course. We’re being promised a second reading of a Scotland Bill by March 27 next year. Not just the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence, but all Scots will demand that timetable is followed. 

The most moving thing I saw was the queue of people in Dundee patiently waiting to vote. I met a ... 61-year-old lady who’d never voted in her life… These people were inspired to enter democratic politics… Whatever else we can say about this referendum campaign we’ve touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by the democratic process. ... We shall go forward as one nation.(Graphic: BuzzFeed)

Mission creep: A history via current events

CALIFORNIA Sen. Hiram Johnson, in a 1917 statement before the United States Senate related to the country’s entrance into World War I, is thought to have said the first casualty of war is truth. As the United States prepares for its third conflict in the Middle East in 22 years, the first casualty of the current timed-release war is apparently language. The second casualty may be memory.

Explaining the actions already taken against the ISIS terrorist organization, Secretary of State John Kerry described it for CNN as “a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” Interviewed recently by MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said “we have initiated hostilities against ISIS, that’s for sure.”

Last Wednesday, in his address to the nation, President Obama called it a “counterterrorism campaign.” There’s deep reluctance to use the perfectly serviceable, thoroughly idiomatic word those actions deserve. “War.”

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Despite disagreement over what the hell to call this embryonic conflict, there’s been bipartisan support for doing something. Democrat Pelosi and Republican House Speaker John Boehner actually agreed on Obama’s plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat ISIS.

And The House of Representatives followed suit, voting Wednesday, 273-156, to approve President Obama’s plan. The Senate takes up the bill on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects passage.

To that point, Congress engaged in much gnashing of teeth about not knowing what “the endgame” is. Which made sense. Until very recently, we didn’t have a clear picture of what the begin-game looked like. That started to change on Sunday and Monday.

That’s when the United States began bombing ISIS strongholds outside Baghdad, the first such action that close to the Iraqi capital, as well as another strike near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement, alluding to a widening of the bombing campaign under way since August in northern Iraq.

Centcom announced seven more Iraq airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday. So far, 174 airstrikes in Iraq have taken place since the United States  intervened on Aug. 7.

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THE INABILITY to describe the U.S. military action points to a wider message at cross-purposes. On Wednesday at MacDill Air Force base in Florida, President Obama reasserted his intention that the United States would not be pulled into a conventional combat role, in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

“I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president said.

But Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, told The New York Times and other news organizations that ground forces would be needed to effectively drive ISIS back.

Admitting that air strikes would have a definite short-term utility, Odierno said that eventually, “you’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.” An all-air campaign “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he said of ISIS, which he called “a long-term threat” to Europe and the United States.

Odierno’s comments followed by a day the counsel of his boss, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Tuesday that, if the current airstrike strategy failed, “I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

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There’s pretty much uniform agreement that “boots on the ground,” the overworked euphemism for ground forces who’ll do the actual fighting, will be needed to repel ISIS. The rub comes over whose boots will be there.

While reflexive hawks like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain insist that only American forces can get the job done, the White House is actively pursuing a more global coalition including the Arab states with the most to gain, and to lose, in a fight with ISIS.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Black and Brown List

THE LANDSCAPE of late-night television may be tainted with what W. Kamau Bell calls “The Unbearable Whiteness of Late-Night,” but prime-time network TV is in the process of being another matter entirely.

With a flurry of new network series set to debut starting this week and continuing well into next year, prime-time TV, that mirror on both the national imagination and the national self-image, is about to reflect more of America than usual.

On the basis of numbers alone, ABC seems to have the season’s hot hand. The network takes point with no fewer than six series with either black and minority themes or lead stars. ”Black-ish,” a new ABC comedy series, promises to push the envelope on depiction of black life in America. Anthony Anderson (Guys With Kids) stars as Andre Johnson, a rising ad executive just promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency he works at. Tracee Ellis Ross co-stars as his wife, a successful doctor. They enjoy the trappings of success — kids, a sumptuous home, upscale neighborhood — even as they navigate the conflicting challenges of cultural identity and assimilation as African Americans in the 21st century. The show, executive produced by Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, debuts Sept. 24.

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ABC will also present ”How to Get Away With Murder,” the latest from the hit machine of Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. In the series created by Peter Nowalk and exec-produced by Rhimes, Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) stars as a college professor who becomes embroiled in murder cases, with her students, in unexpected ways. The show bows on Thursday, Sept. 25, in scheduling that will effectively make Thursday Shonda Rhimes Night on ABC (“Murder” will follow “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” broadcast earlier the same night).

ABC’s ”American Crime,” an ensemble drama to be written, produced and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), will dig deep into the lives of people caught up in in a high-profile trial with racial overtones after an incident in Modesto, Calif., upends their lives. It’s about as topical a TV show as you could ask for in a nation still grappling with the racial trauma of Ferguson, Mo.

BuzzFeed: Shonda Rhimes’ Leading Ladies Say Others Need To Measure Up In Terms Of Diversity

Comedian Kevin Hart is working on scripts for a semi-autobiographical comedy series for ABC. Romany Malco (“Weeds”) is slated to portray Hart’s counterpart in the half-hour comedy based loosely on Hart’s own life. And stand-up comedian and producer Cristela Alonzo stars in “Cristela,” a comedy series on a Mexican-American woman interning at a powerful law firm, despite the misgivings of her family.

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OTHER NETWORKS are part of the panorama. Alfre Woodard is the president of the United States in NBC’s “State of Affairs,” the Alexi Hawley drama that also stars Katherine Heigl, as a CIA analyst tasked with keeping the president abreast of what’s hot and not around the world. The series debuts on the Peacock Network on Nov. 17.

Craig Robinson, a mainstay of The Office, will star in ”Mr. Robinson,” an NBC comedy, portraying a music teacher who rides herd over students at a middle school.

Michael Che (formerly with “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was just tapped to join “Weekend Update” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the first black co-anchor for the popular SNL segment since the show’s 1975 debut.

And TV comedy veteran Bill Cosby is plotting a return to TV with a new prime-time NBC comedy, which the network described for The Hollywood Reporter as “a classic, big, extended family sitcom.” Cosby is to star as the family patriarch and the father of three grown daughters with children — the template for what sounds like a more mature version of “The Cosby Show,” the hit NBC program that helped revitalize the sitcom genre in the 1980’s. Pending the right scripts, the show could be up and running by the summer or fall of 2015, THR reported.

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Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) stars as a hardcase nurse presiding over a ward of precocious teenage patients in a Los Angeles hospital. Fox’s “Red Band Society,” the dark dramedy adaptation of a Spanish TV series, starts its run on Wednesday, Sept. 17.

Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”), Terrence Howard (“Hustle and Flow”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) will headline “Empire,” a family drama on the rise of a hip-hop mogul. The pedigree is solid: Created by Lee Daniels (director of “The Butler”), the Fox series debuts in the spring of 2015, with Daniels, Danny Strong (“Game Change,” “The Butler”) and Brian Grazer (“Get On Up”) at the helm.

And even that relatively monochromatic late-night world is about to get a makeover. Starting in January, Larry Wilmore, once the “Senior Black Correspondent” for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” helms his own Comedy Central show. “The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore” will go head-to-head with “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and CBS’ “Late Show” as soon to be reconfigured under Stephen Colbert.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Get ready for Romney

THIS WEEK, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave Fox News a seemingly comprehensive statement of his non-interest in pursuing another run for the presidency in 2016. “I'm not running and not planning on running,” Romney said, in what may be the most sweeping denial non-denial of presidential ambition we’ve heard in some time.

Don’t you believe it. Not a word of it.

For reasons that have as much to do with the paucity of the current GOP field of contenders as with Romney’s own undying ambitions — and the relentless march of his own life calendar — a 2016 bid by the former governor is all but certain. That’s not a venturesome forecast, and it’s certainly been made before. But every Romney avowal of non-interest is accompanied by another Romney position paper on this or that. It’s a pattern, and it’s one that will continue until the moment he declares. Watch and see.

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Romney’s sitdown with “Fox News Sunday” is one of several leading indicators of where things are going for the former CEO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Salt Lake City Olympics. In a wide-ranging interview, Romney spoke about the persistent U.S. unemployment situation and foreign policy problems, blaming Obama all the way. “He’s too busy on the golf course. I don’t know if you can see the reality from the fairway, but he doesn’t see reality," Romney said Sunday.

Then there was the other interview he had, on Wednesday, with Greta Van Susteren on his familiar Fox News turf, just before President Obama spoke on the U.S. strategy for dealing with ISIS.

Romney came out swinging, lambasting Obama for not following through on his foreign policy initiatives. “People have come to see in the president someone who speaks eloquently and often times definitively, but doesn't follow through,” Romney said. “So there will be a great deal of discounting behind his words but then people are going to look for action.”

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THE FAILED 2012 presidential candidate said Obama's policies “have put us in a place of danger unlike anything we knew.”

“It's almost hard to imagine how the president's foreign policy could have been worse as it relates to keeping America safe from jihadists having territories and funds from which they can attack America,” Romney said. And Romney had already lit into Obama days earlier, in a hawkish Sept. 4 op-ed in The Washington Post.

All of it points to someone who, principled and thoughtful denials aside, is rhetorically and optically poising himself to throw his mink-lined fedora into the 2016 presidential race.

Never one to miss the main chance, Romney has been picking his spots and laying in the cut, just watching for his opportunity, and with good reason. Fact is, 2016 may be the best chance he’s ever had, and the best he’s ever going to get. That’s true for several reasons.

Consider: the purportedly smart money (or at least the early money) is on the GOP recapturing the Senate this November. If that happens, and nothing untoward to upend the math in the House, the stage would be set for (the horror!) Republican domination of Congress. It wouldn’t do a thing for most of the country; it’d be a flat-out disaster for everyday people. But with Pantone-red Republicans running the legislative table for the last two years of the Obama presidency, Romney could count on a big assist from senators and congresspeople predisposed to do all they could on Capitol Hill to help ensure a Romney win.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Poker player in chief:
The Obama ISIS strategy speech

ON THE EVE of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that ushered this nation into two wars, President Obama spoke for fifteen minutes from the White House and appeared to set the pretext for the United States getting into another one.

In his Wednesday address, the president hit all the expected high notes; the speech was tough yet charitable, reasoned and passionate, and properly characterized the ISIS terrorist organization for the threat it truly is, for Iraq, Syria and other states in the Middle East. The broad strokes he laid out for his strategy for ISIS’ obliteration were generally persuasive; the outline seemed solid enough. Now, of course, it’s a matter of filling in the details. And that’s where questions arise.

The president made clear his stated preference for getting countries in the region to do their fair share of the dirty work of fighting ISIS from the ground. “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,” he said. “Nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”

Read the president’s ISIS strategy speech in full

“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said. “Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” Obama said.

“Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

But later in the speech, Obama — forgive the metaphor — dropped the bomb that will resonate for Americans as much or more than anything else said Wednesday night.

“In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces,” he said. “Now that those teams have completed their work — and Iraq has formed a government — we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”

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THE PRESIDENT also said the United States would seek to assist the Syrian opposition in its fight against ISIS with training and financial assistance. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”

The U.S. will also continue humanitarian aid “to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities,” the president said.

For all its muscular language, Obama’s address aroused as many concerns as it sought to provide answers. At one point, the president said that “[t]his strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” This suggests that the Obama White House believes the U.S. anti-terrorist strategy in Yemen and Somalia — targeted air strikes in support of established governments working in concert with the U.S. military — could be seamlessly superimposed on the far different situations in Iraq and Syria. A surmise at best.

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And then there were the words of the address itself. Obama used the word “partners” seven times in the 15-minute speech. He spoke of enlisting “a broad coalition” without naming what countries — in the region and elsewhere — would be in that coalition. So, who’s signing on for this gig? Which states in the 22-member Arab League have already committed? What about partners in Europe? Was Obama speaking generally of confirmed coalition associates, or just players to be named later? That lack of specificity invites the suspicion that this coalition is still very much in the aborning stage. Details to follow.

The road to war is sometimes, even often, paved with unintended consequences. The prospect of U.S. action in Syria opens at least the possibility of a zero-sum-game dilemma, one Obama hasn’t addressed (at least not yet): How is it possible, in real-world terms, to “degrade” ISIS in Syria without enhancing the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus?

“We do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad's rule," a senior administration official told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. “These are Sunni majority areas in the eastern part of the country. We frankly believe that if ISIL degraded in these areas, the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition whom we work with.”

Perhaps. A lot depends on the integrity of those opposition forces, and their fighting capability as fortified, or not, by U.S. financial aid, which depends on Congress’ willingness to open the national wallet. Details to follow.

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ONE OF the more pressing matters — the introduction of more U.S. military personnel being sent to Iraq — was addressed by someone in a position to know. Speaking Wednesday night on MSNBC, in what amounted to a powerful State of the Veterans Address, Paul Rieckhoff, president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lamented what he called “a lack of clarity” in the president’s address.

Rieckhoff, an Iraq war vet, took issue with Obama’s assurance that the 475 more forces to be introduced in Iraq would be strictly non-combatants. “It’s combat,” he said. “if you’re on the ground right now, if it’s your husband or wife or son or daughter that’s headed over there with those 475 people, it’s combat. If they’re killed in action, it will be just like combat for them, and for our nation.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Obama and ISIS:
Preview to a walk on the high wire

THE FEATS of the Flying Wallendas are a walk in the park compared with what President Obama has to do tonight. The legendary aerialists’ accomplishments on the high wire were impressive, but in a televised prime-time address to the nation tonight, the president will be called on to perform a balancing act that’s more profoundly difficult.

Tonight at 9 pm ET, Obama will make the case for a more aggressive military posture against the ISIS terrorist fighters rampaging through Iraq and Syria. He’ll seek to adopt a plan that commits the U.S. armed forces to a battle in Iraq and Syria that doesn’t include troops actually being on Syrian or Iraqi soil (consistent with his own flat-out rejection of boots on the ground). He’ll presumably clarify his call for a coalition of regional entities doing the heaviest lifting in combat, despite persistent doubts that those forces will be enough to get the job done.

And the president who said, about a week ago, that he didn’t have a strategy for fighting ISIS will have to convince the American public that he has one now, as well as the ability to follow through on whatever plan he devises. And this in the face of cratering approval numbers for his handling of foreign policy — approval numbers that could have a follow-on impact on Democrats in November.

Obama will have to summon an equipoise, and communicate an urgency he’s never had to call on before, at what may be the most critical juncture of his presidency.

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The president can take some comfort in some of the results of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that finds 74 percent of Americans support a harder military stance against ISIS, with either air strikes alone or air strikes in combination with combat forces. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found 71 percent support for air strikes against the wildly metastasizing ISIS force. Both numbers reflect broad outrage over ISIS’ murders of two American journalists.

But more generally, he’s up against other numbers in the NBC/WSJ survey: 67 percent of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track,” and only 32 percent approve of his stewardship of U.S. foreign policy — an all-time low for the president.

Even worse, and more surprising, that poll determined that 47 percent of Americans think the United States is “less safe” now than it was before 9/11 — this on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the day that transformed America.

The picture for the Obama White House through a political lens isn’t much better. The NBC/WSJ poll found that 45 percent of the country prefer Republicans being in control of Congress, up from 39 percent last October. When you factor in the standing assumption that Democrats will be disinclined to show up at the polls in November, the president faces a political equivalent of DEFCON 1.

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THE PRESIDENT must be prepared to address three questions tonight:

First: What’s the direct national interest in escalating armed action against ISIS? With domestic measures against possible terrorism at a high level — anyone who’s been to an American airport in the last ten years knows this already — it may be hard to dramatically communicate the direct threat ISIS poses to the United States. Despite the new poll numbers indicating support for more military action, Obama still needs to spell out just what’s at stake for a war-exhausted nation, and to do so in clear, unambiguous terms that keep the country focused on the challenge.

Second: What’s the goal? Support for American action in the region, strong right now, could wither without a firm timetable for our involvement. The president needs to set a feasible time frame, even a provisional one, that establishes a beginning and an end for what the United States does. There’s little patience for another open-ended misadventure, and there’s something wrong if the world’s pre-eminent military force can’t be the timekeeper for an action of its own design.

Third: Will this be a truly coalitional effort? After years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this country has had a belly-full of war over the last dozen years. With countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan; Lebanon, Turkey and others mostly sitting on the sidelines in the past, the American public’s justifiably wary of a situation where Lucy moves the football just as Charlie Brown gets ready to kick it — a bait-and-switch that leaves the United States once again doing the grunt work with little or no participation from the countries in the region with the most to lose. Just because other countries with skin in the game can’t do everything, militarily speaking, is no justification for their being expected to do nothing.

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There’s indication Obama is moving on this last matter. Reuters reported Tuesday that the United States has circulated a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council resolution that, Reuters says, “generally targets foreign extremist fighters traveling to conflicts anywhere in the world,” with an unstated but obvious emphasis on the ISIS organization in Iraq and Syria. Obama will chair a meeting at the U.N. on Sept. 24 to address this.

It’s rare, or at least infrequent, when events foreign and domestic come to a head at almost the same time in a way that has the potential to define an American presidency. President Obama faces just such a time right now. How he responds to this conjunction of crisis and opportunity may well determine the arc of the last two years of his time in the White House. What he says tonight should make clear, like nothing else can, just what that response is.

The Flying Wallendas had it easy by comparison.

Image credits: Obama in the East Room, September 2013: Pool. NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll breakouts: © 2014 The Wall Street Journal. ISIS fighters: From ISIS video.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Upon further further review: Ray Rice, the NFL
and our visual culture

IT’S A VIDEO about 27 jaw-dropping seconds long and it’s been the topic of national discussion, passion and outrage. It’s certainly ended one career and just as certainly deserves to end another. It calls the question of what threshold of behavior, what tolerance we as a society have for domestic violence. And it highlights the power and authority of video in our visually-driven culture, for better and/or worse.

That video of Baltimore Ravens running back and his then-fiancĂ©e Janay Palmer at the Revel Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., on Feb. 15th, was the second to be released by Another video released shortly after the incident, the one we’d been seeing for months, was effectively the “after” image in a “before” and “after” series of events.

The February video — shot from outside the elevator — only showed Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator car. No full context, no antecedent imagery ... and apparently for the National Football League (Rice’s ultimate employer), no big deal. It led to an astonishingly light reprimand for Rice: a two-game suspension, less than that imposed on players caught smoking marijuana.

Rice and Palmer got married about a month later; he pleaded guilty to assault charges and entered a counseling program. And the couple appeared at a May 23 press conference, where Ray Rice, in a toweringly maladroit statement, said: “I won't call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down. It's not getting up.”

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But that was all about the “after” video — we’ll call it Video #1. The “before” video, Video #2, also obtained by, came to light on Monday. It is something else again:

In those 27 seconds, Rice and Palmer enter the elevator, at which point Rice appears to lean in and spit in the face of Palmer, the mother of their 2-year-old daughter Rayven. Palmer responds, either pushing Rice or brushing him back with a token shove. Rice then strikes Palmer, who raises her arm in a defensive action. Rice steps back as Palmer reacts in anger, stepping toward Rice a few steps.

Then, with a motion so fast it’s hard to capture even using TiVo’s frame-by-frame replay capabilities, Rice cold-cocks Palmer with his left fist, knocking Palmer to the floor of the elevator, her head ricocheting off the handrail on the way down.

Rice stands looking at her, seeming to almost dare her to get up. After several seconds, as the elevator doors open and close and open again, he clutches the unconscious woman and drags her out of the elevator with the delicacy of a man dragging a sack of flour into a storeroom.

He deposits her outside the elevator, her feet still inside, then walks back in to retrieve one of her shoes, then nudges her right leg with his foot, standing over her to survey the damage he’s done. Let the outrage begin. Again.

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WHEN THE thunderclap news was announced Monday that Rice had been fired from the Ravens, and then suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL — effectively excommunicated from the league for good — some in the media asked: Why did it apparently take so long to bring down this final hammer on Ray Rice? Why did it require a second video’s release to summon the punishment that could have, should have been levied with the release of the first one?

Some of the argument was that we had the proof all along, referring to Video #1, the one released in February that showed Rice dragging the prostrate form of the woman he presumably loved from the elevator. It seemed that we had the goods on him back then, that what we saw then was, or appeared to be, a clear-cut case of domestic abuse, or outright felonious aggravated assault.

Despite Rice’s admission of wrongdoing, the current debate over the surely dispositive Video #2 overlooks our longstanding insistence as a society and a culture on the visual as evidence — as proof.

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We’re obsessed with the actual observation of an event. We’re skeptical of implication, suggestion and the circumstantial. We’re disinclined to believe in that which we cannot literally, actually see. In our visual, forensic culture, we’re conditioned — in no small part because of the immediacy and ubiquity of information and news in a 24/7 mediasphere — not to fully believe something happened until we can really see it, either with our own eyes or with the surrogates of technology that substitute for our eyes, providing a full and indisputable chronology of events, from start to finish, from beginning to end.

That’s foundational for journalists, who have absolutely no problem using their eyes, or the video cameras that stand in for their eyes, as the primary tools for recording and reporting the news.

That explains our call for police officers to wear body cameras and use dashcams as they do the work they do — as a documentation of events more corroborative than police officers’ recall or even eyewitness statements.

That’s a big part of why law enforcement accounts of what happened to Michael Brown Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., the afternoon of August 9th are still being portrayed in the media in murky, conditional terms. Absent a video of the actual Brown shooting itself, there’s still room for skepticism, like it or not. And without the TMZ Sports video brought to light Monday, there was still apparently room for skepticism as to what happened in that elevator in Atlantic City.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lives on fire: Robin Williams and Joan Rivers

CAN WE TALK? Because the last 25 days or so have been harsh and terrible and a little soul-crushing if you’re a human being who laughs from time to time, or hopes to, in our headlong march toward the great inevitable.

Joan and Robin, Robin and Joan. They were seismographs, they were weather reports of the human condition. They were two lives on fire, blazing through our time with the gift, the gentle (and not-so-gentle) weapon of comedy, and we were helpless when they brandished that weapon, tears in the eyes for reasons that had nothing and everything to do with joy and sadness. Never more so than now.

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“He had that other gear,” Wall Street Journal culture writer Christopher Farley told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC last month. Farley was speaking about Robin McLaurin Williams, the relentlessly electric comedian and actor who took his own life on Aug. 11, at his home in Tiburon, Calif., at the age of 63.

Robin Wililams in an early (and peerless) stand-up performance

In films from “Mrs. Doubtfire” to “Good Morning Vietnam,” from “Dead Poets Society” to “Good Will Hunting,” Williams displayed the panorama of the human experience in roles that have permanently cemented themselves in the culture and the life of our time. But Williams first pushed his way into our consciousness as a blazingly original comedian able to summon gold from the dross of everyday life in a way that was breathtaking to observe.

I was lucky enough to witness it firsthand; for one brief shining moment, I was present at the creation of a legend. I met Robin Williams sometime in the fall of 1980, as a green-as-grass reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera, located in the real-life Colorado college town where “Mork & Mindy,” Williams’ breakthrough TV series, was set.

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THE “MORK & Mindy” crew was shooting scenes for an episode entitled “Dueling Skates,” in which Mork, Williams’ alien-on-Earth character, challenges Wheels, a roller-skating phenom and the owner of a day-care center, to a skating duel through Boulder, as Mork’s way of stopping Wheels’ plans to level the building. One of the interior scenes was shot at a shopping center, and it was there I watched a phenomenon in the act of becoming.

I managed to borrow a script of the episode, and I watched from the set and read along as a scene was shot. It was clear that, for Williams, the script was just a blueprint, merely a sketch for his manic talents.

Williams riffed brilliantly, taking the literal words of the script as a springboard from which his own ideas exploded like a Roman candle in darkness. When they finished shooting the scene, the crew and everyone one within earshot were doubled over in laughter. It was a glimpse of a legend in utero.

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There was nothing he wouldn’t try to do. He’d visited Colorado the year before, stopping in Denver to shoot another episode — and paying a visit to the Denver Broncos cheerleading squad with hilarious results, when he put on one of their uniforms and trotted onto the field at Mile High Stadium. He didn’t just push the envelope; he tore it to shreds and reassembled it in his own inimitable fashion.

Laughter and pain are lockstep companions, with each other and for each of us. In the years since “Mork & Mindy,” Williams regaled us with a universe of performances; maybe none was more illustrative of the demons to come than his star turn in “The World According to Garp,” the 1982 film of John Irving’s celebrated novel.

In the film, directed by George Roy Hill, Williams plays T.S. Garp, a moderately successful writer seeking to shield family and friends from “the undertow” of existence, the inexorable pull toward the final finality that awaits us all.

AN EXCERPT from Irving’s book is especially, painfully telling now, in light of the events of Aug. 11: “But T.S. Garp felt guided by an impulse as old as Marcus Aurelius, who had the wisdom and the urgency to note that ‘in the life of a man, his time is but a moment ... his sense a dim rushlight.”

He said much the same thing seven years later, in another film, with another passage, a call to live life as fiercely as possible. “Seize the day,” he told us in “Dead Poets Society.” “Because believe it or not, each and everyone of us ... is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”

“Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber will pay tribute to Robin Williams in “Robin Williams Remembered,” a one-hour TV special airing Tuesday, Sept. 9, on PBS. She’ll no doubt offer personal insights into her own encounter with the world according to Robin Williams, a galaxy of possibilities, a seemingly limitless source of material, a place of laughter and pain we got to live in for too brief a time.

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JOAN RIVERS died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City on Thursday, after going into cardiac arrest after undergoing a surgery on her vocal cords at an Upper East Side endoscopy clinic on Aug. 28. She was 81 years old. You know what happened, of course: She wouldn’t stop talking in the doctor’s office and the tube got stuck in her throat.

Over the top? A bit much? Outrageous? Welcome to the world of Joan Rivers’ brand of comedy, where nothing was outlawed, nothing was going too far. That was the Rivers cardinal rule: Everything and everyone was a target of opportunity.

The inescapable irony of a comedian who spent more than 50 years using her vocal cords like no one else — dying because they needed work ... Joan Rivers would have laughed at that. Like Joan Rivers laughed at us, and with us. Like Joan Rivers got us to laugh at ourselves.

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When Joan Alexandra Molinsky exploded into the public eye on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” on Feb. 17, 1965, she was a breath of fresh air by accident. The boy’s club of late-night television — and back then, even in its infancy, that’s what it was, much like today — was hardly ready for a brash, hypertalking Jewish blonde from Brooklyn ready to take on all comers. She walked on the set an anomaly and walked off a bona-fide star.

In later appearances there, and on her own trailblazing talk show, nothing was off limits; politics, marriage, bodily functions, the physical peculiarities of aging, urologists, gynecologists, zaftig physiognomy; people she loved, people she loved to hate — all of it in a slim, noisy, exuberant package crowned with a blonde bouffant as irrepressible as the woman underneath. Joan Rivers unfiltered.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bob McDonnell buys the farm

THE COST of a galaxy of gifts and considerations enjoyed by former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen — no-doc loans, trips on private jets, shopping sprees at Bergdorf Goodman, a loaner Ferrari, chicken-dinner catering for a daughter’s wedding, and an engraved silver Rolex watch — was reportedly more than $175,000, in purely financial terms. But in other ways, as we found out Thursday, the cost of those benevolences was higher than that. A lot higher.

McDonnell, once seemingly the heir apparent to a glittering political future, was found guilty on corruption charges on Thursday, capping a 27-day trial that was as personally embarrassing as it was politically disastrous for the first governor in the history of the Commonwealth to be charged and convicted of a crime.

A seven-man, five-woman jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 of the 13 corruption charges against him. His wife was found guilty of nine of 13: eight corruption charges and one count of obstruction of justice. Tears flowed from the family as the verdicts were read.

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“This was just a difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, speaking after the trial, as reported by The Washington Post. “Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”

In January, the couple was charged in a 14-count federal indictment with accepting the six-figure bling from businessman Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., the former CEO of Star Scientific Inc., a diet-supplement company.

And it didn’t stop with them. A Washington Post interactive — something that resembles a wiring diagram for an electrical grid — illustrates just how much corruption was truly a family affair. Apparently, everyone in Clan McDonnell bellied up to the trough; the couple’s five adult children received gifts from golf trips to private plane trips.

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AS IF THE trial outcome weren’t bad enough, spectators were treated to what must have been a new low in defense strategy. Throughout the trial, McDonnell’s attorneys claimed that any collusion between the former governor and his wife wasn’t possible because they weren’t on speaking terms. The Post’s Eugene Robinson, in an Aug. 21 column, detailed McDonnell’s brazen display of wife-shaming:

“It has been clear for some time that McDonnell’s strategy for winning acquittal amounted to what could be called the “crazy wife” defense. But only when he took the stand did it become apparent how thoroughly he intended to humiliate the “soul mate” he still claims to love. ...

“McDonnell testified that Maureen McDonnell was so volatile that the entire staff at the governor’s mansion signed a petition threatening to quit if her behavior didn’t improve. ‘She would yell at me,’ he told the court. ‘She would tell me I was taking staff’s side, that I didn’t know what was really going on over there.’”

For the 27 days of the trial, Maureen McDonnell sat in court, silent as the Sphinx; then when it was over, she left the courthouse from inside a private car — emerging from under the bus where her husband had pushed her.

Sentencing is set for Jan. 6.

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It’s all a big comedown for the man once hailed as the golden boy of Republican politics, his name actually bruited as a possible vice presidential contender as recently as the 2012 White House race.

Everything was once so promising. Winning office in November 2009, McDonnell would come to make some effort to break with Republican orthodoxy. In May 2013, McDonnell decided to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons released from prison, a bold conservative reach for the center, and for minority voters, in a state with a corrosive racial past. “Once somebody has done their probation, parole or incarceration and they’ve paid all their fines and costs, and don’t have any pending charges, we’re gonna automatically restore their voting rights, and their civil and constitutional rights,” he said on MSNBC.

To that point, McDonnell had restored the voting rights for more than 4,800 felons, more than any other governor in Virginia history. It was the kind of centrist overture that positioned him well as a possible presidential contender in 2016.

◊ ◊ ◊

MCDONNELL’S gesture didn’t go unnoticed. In a May 2013 interview, NAACP President Ben Jealous told me that “[w]hat makes this courageous is that he did not take politics into consideration. This is clearly about principle, he believes in the principle of redemption. In the past, we’ve met with Democratic leaders, but we also sat down with Republican leaders who share the same conviction, and believe in the sacredness of the right to redemption.”

[McDonnell] put principle above partisan self-interest, and that’s what so remarkable about this action,” Jealous told me. “It’s a very big deal.”

That same year, Virginia enjoyed a 5.2 percent unemployment rate — the 10th lowest in the nation — an increasingly diverse demographic; a home ownership rate and median household income higher than the national average; and a growing reputation as a high-tech hub, with AOL, Apple, Boeing, Verizon and other companies placing regional offices in the state.

◊ ◊ ◊

Not that the governor didn’t have his blind spots, the same ones consistent with others in the Republican Party. In April 2010, he issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans -- reviving a tradition that had been discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, and doing it without even mentioning slavery, the raison d’etre of the Confederacy.

In 2012 he was all set to sign into law SB484, a controversial measure passed by the state’s House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure to “determine gestational age.”

The onerous bill was widely condemned as nothing less than an attempt at state-sanctioned rape. After a torrent of criticism from protesters and activists, McDonnell and Virginia Republicans revised the bill, opting instead to require women to undergo the less invasive procedure of abdominal ultrasound.

◊ ◊ ◊

NOW, OF course, it’s all over but the sentencing. And the tragic irony.

In the May 2013 press release announcing his felons’ rights reform, McDonnell observed that “America is a land of opportunity and second chances, a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”

It’s a very safe bet that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s highest-profile felon had no expectation of being the object of his own gubernatorial largesse when he wrote that, one year and four months ago. Back when everything was so promising.

Image credits: McDonnell top: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post. Check image: Introduced as evidence at trial. Maureen McDonnell: Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Bob and Maureen McDonnell: Steve Helber/Associated Press. McDonnell lower image: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Vaginal probe illustration: Maddow Blog, MSNBC.

Monday, September 1, 2014

See Rand. See Rand run?

THE NATIONAL seismograph on the 2016 presidential race hasn’t kicked in yet; rumblings of the recent past from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have so far come to nothing, and campaign noises from New Jersey governor and traffic director Chris Christie probably never will. But if a spate of recent policy pronouncements and TV appearances is any indication, it’s a very safe bet that Rand Paul will jump into the White House derby.

In some meaningful ways, he already has. Slowly but surely, in a kind of aspirational mission creep, the junior Republican senator from Kentucky has been elevating his profile, taking steps to advance his star as Not Just Another Republican Politician.

It’s a course of action with as many pitfalls as positives.

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Paul has taken point on some novel policy departures from GOP orthodoxy. There’s his bold and principled stand on the need for prison sentencing reform, and speaking out against the corrosive effects of sentencing guidelines on African American men, for example (he’s formed an alliance with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker on this matter). It’s an implicit reach to black voters.

In other ways, he’s pushed back against the ritual rigidities of his party: He backed the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act — a victory for LGBT Americans. He filibustered on the floor against confirmation of John Brennan as CIA Director, winning hosannahs from Republicans and Democrats alike.

In a March 2013 speech on immigration reform, before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul staked out a pragmatic and politically courageous position, saying plainly that “the Republican Party must embrace more legal immigration.”

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HE’S BEEN working on his optics and op-eds too: Recall his interview with Vogue magazine less than a year ago, a piece that included a photo of Paul and one of his three sons, an image whose pastoral, polished, color-saturated setting looked like an ad for Polo Ralph Lauren.

Fast forward to last week, when the senator stepped briefly back into his old job as an ophthalmologist and conducted pro bono surgery on patients in Guatemala.

More recently, Paul has been a frequent fixture in the news pages, writing opinion pieces for The New York Times, Time, Politico, CNN, National Review and The Wall Street Journal. He’s been just as visible on the Sunday-gasbag shows like NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Fox’s “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren.”

He’s been carefully picking his spots, positioning himself as a man of good works, a true thought leader and not ... just ... another Republican politician. And Paul has been working the clock and doing it well. By marking his territory now, he’s smartly laying the rhetorical and optical groundwork for a presidential campaign — one that he’ll almost certainly announce by this time next year.

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A lot’s changed in the political landscape since last summer into fall. Christie’s hopes for a presidential run in 2016 are fainter now than they were then, as the Christiegate traffic scandal has clogged all the lanes of his political career beyond Trenton. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are still pulling their chins about a White House run. And there’s no one else on the radar on the Republican side of the aisle.

The Democratic side is another matter entirely, and a big reason Paul has been so visible lately. While Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn’t likely to get into the race — not least of all because of her effectiveness where she is in the Senate — a certain former secretary of state is poised to give Paul, or anyone else, all they can handle.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has also steadily ratcheted up her profile with speeches and comments meant to keep her top of mind for 2016 (as well as writing and promoting a book, “Hard Choices,” in a bookstore near you.

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THERE’S NO question Paul hears footsteps. He wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday, on U.S. interventionism and its possible role in the genesis of ISIS. That’s the profile part of the senator’s new persona. But while predictably scoring Clinton (as a loyal Republican is expected to do), his WSJ piece also brought the policy, taking some of his own party’s more “hawkish members” to task.

He writes: “Some said it would be ‘catastrophic’ if we failed to strike Syria. What they were advocating for then — striking down Assad's regime — would have made our current situation even worse, as it would have eliminated the only regional counterweight to the ISIS threat. ...

“A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe. Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best of the U.S.”

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Rand Paul’s big challenge will be dovetailing these libertarian-powered views on foreign policy with the unpredictability of foreign events, and how audiences foreign and domestic react. His cry against “U.S. interventionism” in Syria, in the Journal, for example, can be fairly extrapolated to mean that we have no compelling national interest in the outcome of events in Ukraine, or in Afghanistan or the Middle East. This consistent with his libertarian’s respect for observing the “practical limits of our foreign policy.”

Ben Domenech wrote this about Rand Paul in The Federalist back in February: “Republican primary voters don’t need you to be a foreign or defense policy expert: they need to have confidence in you as a potential commander in chief. Paul’s opponents will attempt to turn him into his father, and his perspective into a clownish and dangerous caricature. But they will likely be unsuccessful in that effort if Paul takes steps now to avoid this while it’s in his power to do so.
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