Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ferguson and America, hard by the Rubicon

POST-FERGUSON America”? You’re forgiven if your jaw dropped, if just a little, when you saw those words, in stories and headlines in news journals from The Huffington Post to The Nation to CNN. The first-blush reaction from editors and wordsmiths, of course, will be that there’s nothing to see here, that the phrase is just meant to convey a literal “before” and “after” of an actual event.

But it may not be as chronologically benign as all that. The very construction of the phrase embraces the possibility of an alternate interpretation: a watershed achieved, a Rubicon crossed, an Enough Moment finally realized, a point after which things change. And that remains to be seen.

For now the continued social attention paid to Ferguson, Mo., is welcome, justified and necessary. A rally in the town of 21,000 people took place on Saturday, with hundreds marching down Canfield Drive to the spot where Michael Brown Jr., 18, was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

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“We know that his life is not going to be in vain,” the Rev. Spencer Booker of St. Louis’ St. Paul A.M.E. Church said Saturday, as reported by The Washington Post. “We know you’re going to even the score, God. We know you’re going to make the wrong right.”

We the people represent on Ferguson in other ways particular to our modern culture. We’ve said the right things, tweeted the proper sentiments, made the well-timed affinity videos and Instagrams with our hands in the air, mute witnesses of commiseration.

And the machinery of the law — the same law likely violated by those sworn to uphold it — has ground its way along, resulting in at least some of the justice the protests have sought, as well as the pursuit of more enduring remedies.

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RAY ALBERS, a police lieutenant with the nearby St. Ann police department, pointed a rifle at Ferguson protesters on Aug. 19, while shouting “I will fucking kill you!” When asked for his name he shouted “Go fuck yourself!” A cooler head in the department intervened to get Albers to climb down, quickly walking the bad lieutenant away. An internal departmental investigation recommended that this big fan of the copulative expletive either quit or be fired for the videotaped incident. Albers has since resigned.

Officer Matthew Pappert of the Glendale Police Department lost his gig after losing his cool, online. Pappert was fired after being suspended for some ugly Facebook posts, in which he called Ferguson demonstrators “thugs” and “a burden on society and a blight on the community,” and suggested they should be “put down like rabid dogs.” One post had an especially monstrous grace note: “Where is a Muslim with a backpack when you need them?”

They had company; other officers are the subjects of lawsuits alleging a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, including use of excessive force.

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The Post reported: “In four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, colleagues of Darren Wilson’s have separately contested a variety of allegations, including killing a mentally-ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers’ clothes.

The Justice Department is reportedly considering whether to pursue a broader investigation into a pattern of this behavior by Ferguson police.

This follows the agency’s almost-immediate involvement in the Ferguson incident and its aftermath. Rather than taking the historically proven path of waiting for local officials to sort things out, Justice was on the scene within days — “Justice” meaning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who came to Ferguson himself and met with the ranking law enforcement official — a highway patrol captain and himself an African American.

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THE REACTION of others in the national political spotlight hasn’t been as encouraging, or at least the timing of their reactions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, was scored on Aug. 18, when MSNBC show host Rev. Al Sharpton took Clinton, and others, to task for their silence on the chaos in Ferguson.

“This is now a national, central issue and anyone running for President needs to come up with a formula or — in my opinion — they forfeit their right to be taken seriously,” Sharpton said on MSNBC. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, also name-checked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — neither of whom has said a mumblin’ word about Ferguson.

Finally, on Thursday, 19 days after the killing of Michael Brown Jr., Hillary Clinton finally weighed in with comments, most of which could have been made much earlier:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

ISIS erases the sidelines

AS IT’S done since 2005, in the headier days of the post-Saddam era, Iraq has taken baby steps toward the political pluralism and tolerance that define a modern nation. In Saddam Hussein’s old stomping ground, once the playground of his fellow Sunni Muslims, the Iraqi parliament has elected Fouad Massoum, a Kurd, as the country’s president (a largely ceremonial post). He picked Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, as prime minister, and the parliament elected Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni, as its new speaker.

The nation, riven by centuries of sectarian violence and victimized by an unnecessary American invasion, thus keeps inching toward power-sharing, trying to put distance between itself and the frictions of the past.

Enter ISIS. The highly mobile, financially liquid, breathtakingly ruthless Sunni terrorist gang, is  running roughshod over Iraq and neighboring Syria, threatening both countries and others — a fact that requires not just cooperation within Iraq but also among other nations as well. And doing that may be more complicated than anything else.

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President Obama’s accidentally frank admission of the United States’ strategy for dealing with the situation — “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said on Thursday — speaks to just how swiftly ISIS (aka ISIL or the Islamic State) has altered the already precarious equation in the Middle East. The Daily Beast reported on Aug. 21 that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “acknowledged that ISIS had effectively erased the frontier between Iraq and Syria.”

Dempsey said ISIS “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this point a nonexistent border.”

ISIS’ advances in recent weeks would seem to concentrate the Iraqi government’s mind wonderfully. Controlling or contesting territory from Aleppo in Syria to just outside Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, ISIS is on the march.

The sudden impact of these terrorist cartographers may force a change in the old conflicting Sunni-Shiite dynamics within Iraq. If there was ever a time for unity, this is it. “It has never been more in the interest of Iraq’s political leaders to set aside their sectarian differences and to focus on the common enemy that is posed by ISIL,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told MSNBC on Thursday. “There is a clear motivation for them that may not have existed before.”

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FOR ALL the heavy lifting involved in finding consensus inside Iraq, the bigger challenge may be in getting other Gulf states to find common ground in opposing ISIS. This is Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission: rally the support of those states in a common objective to resist the ISIS threat.

In a Friday op-ed piece in The New York Times, Kerry said ISIS “presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. What’s needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force.”

Kerry continues: “ISIS has its origins in what was once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has over a decade of experience in extremist violence. The group has amassed a hardened fighting force of committed jihadists with global ambitions, exploiting the conflict in Syria and sectarian tensions in Iraq. ... There is evidence that these extremists, if left unchecked, will not be satisfied at stopping with Syria and Iraq. ...

Friday, August 29, 2014

‘The audacity of taupe’

THE PRESIDENT of the United States stepped before the button-down, blue-suited White House press corps on Thursday with statements about the U.S. strategy for dealing with the steadily metastasizing terrorist threat of the ISIS gang, and the equally malignant situation in Ukraine. In his brief appearance, President Obama broke with tradition in a way that said more about the White House press corps than anything else.

On a day that saw a high temperature of 86 degrees — with the Washington, D.C. forecast expected to average 89 degrees for each day of the Labor Day weekend — the dap president bounded into the White House Briefing Rom wearing a tan suit, a distinct departure from the charcoals and grays and navy blues that are the colors of the male plumage common to Foggy Bottom.

The twittocracy went nuts. To go by the reactions of reporters, you’d have thought Obama was there to announce DEFCON 1.

Esquire Magazine jumped in: “You are not the president of Sears.”

Jake Tapper of CNN was snarkily charitable in a recognizable way: “The audacity of taupe,” he tweeted.

Others weren’t charitable at all:

Amanda Wills, the deputy managing editor at Mashable, weighed in and clearly got it right away:

Others? Not nearly so much:

“Really not liking this Obama tan suit. Sends the wrong signals to our allies,” tweeted Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed. And what might that signal be, the fact that it’s hot as hell in D.C. in the summertime? The importance of what Obama said on Thursday wasn’t mitigated in the least by the color of his suit. Good God, man, he didn’t walk out in a T-shirt and cargo shorts.

Like Tapper, Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times also had pun with the president’s new look: “Has anyone done ‘Yes We Tan’ yet?” (MSNBC picked that up this morning.)

As a scribe at the Gray Lady, Confessore might have known better if he’d been at The Times years ago.

Yours truly (who worked at The Times back in the day) can attest that it used to be a Timesian tradition for male reporters and editors to wear seersucker suits in the newsroom with the first humid blush of summer. Regular as clockwork, when the temperature went up in May and June, the Times guys could be seen, proud as peacocks,  strutting and preening in the blue-and-white pinstriped rigs they hauled out of their closets for two months out of every year.

It was no big damn deal, and this shouldn’t have been one either.

John Dingell, dean of the House of Representatives, cut the president some slack, lending Obama gravitas by association:

If it’s good enough for the longest-serving member of the House, it should have been good enough for anyone ... anyone with the courage to make a principled break with the past.

In a town in which the unpredictable and the thoroughly predictable square off every day, Obama’s Labor Day-weekend fashion choice was a perfectly seasonable choice, despite the raised eyebrows. It’s not that complicated: Lighter colors reflect direct sunlight, while darker colors absorb it. On an 86-degree day heading into a 90-degree weekend ... it suited him very well. Here ends the lesson.

Image credits: Obama: Tweets are the property of their sartorially-unenlightened creators, and those who get it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mitch McConnell’s 47 percent moment

POLITICIANS, UGLY buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Noah Cross’ timeless advice to Jake Gittes in the 1974 film “Chinatown” is an enduring truth, in business and — sure as hell — in government. That pithy observation of the power of blind endurance has powered the career of Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell for decades.

The Senate Minority Leader is engaging in yet another scorched-earth campaign, this time against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and McConnell’s able Democratic challenger. McConnell’s pulling out all the stops, trying hard to paint Grimes as a surrogate for President Obama in a state that rejected Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

The senator, who’s prided himself on his track record, has a tough opponent in Grimes, whose family has an estimable history in Kentucky politics (her father was a former Democratic chairman and state representative). But thanks to a story by Lauren Windsor published online Wednesday in The Nation, we see how McConnell may be forced to confront his own words on the campaign trail. Comments he made in June to a conclave of millionaires and billionaires — including the infamous Koch brothers — may well be his undoing, a divisive statement of objective not unlike Mitt Romney’s fatal “47 percent” comments in Boca Raton, Fla., during the 2012 race.

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McConnell’s self-comeuppance may have started with an interview with Politico, last week. In the Aug. 20 interview with Manu Raju, McConnell laid bare his scheme to effectively dismantle the Obama legislative agenda by imposing a series of riders on appropriations bills if Republicans wrest control of the Senate in November.

Raju reports: “The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to ‘move to the center’ if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.”

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell told Raju on a campaign swing through deep-red Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

McConnell said the president “needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the funding process,. He would have to make a decision on a given bill, whether there’s more in it that he likes than dislikes.”

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THAT RELATIVELY benign expression of political strategy had a darker antecedent. In The Nation, Windsor reports: “What McConnell didn’t tell Politico was that two months ago, he made the same promise to a secret strategy conference of conservative millionaire and billionaire donors hosted by the Koch brothers.”

Windsor reports that The Nation and Lady Libertine, her political blog, obtained a recording of McConnell’s address to the donors. In a Q&A session after his June 15 talk, McConnell said: “So in the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board (inaudible). All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

He continued: “And we’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage (inaudible)—cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment—that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse.” (That last a reference to his part in blocking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to help Americans refinance student loan debt.)

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McConnell also weighed in on the widely unpopular Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which existentially equalized corporations and human beings, money and free speech: “So all Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech,” he said. “We now have, I think, the most free and open system we’ve had in modern times.

“The Supreme Court allowed all of you to participate in the process in a variety of different ways. You can give to the candidate of your choice. You can give to Americans for Prosperity, or something else, a variety of different ways to push back against the party of government.” This despite Citizens United being increasingly reviled by Republicans and Democrats alike.

And then, in a statement that distills the GOP’s corporatist agenda like maybe nothing else could, McConnell said: “The fact of the matter is the Democrats are the party of government. We are the party of the private sector. They have a government solution for every single thing. And the government has wanted more over the years and to have the government itself picking up the tab for political campaigns and pushing the private sector all the way out.”

“But they’ve got a problem because the Supreme Court opened up the process, and we now have the opportunity (inaudible) to push back to try to stop this movement that’s been on (inaudible) the last six years.”

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DESPITE THIS procedural, anodyne presentation, this is clearly McConnell’s genuflection to the donor class. It’s a bid to replace what he sees as the administration’s “overreach” with the Republicans’ very own. It’s a strategy that would complicate the last two years of the Obama presidency with legislative snares and thickets meant to roll back advances in health care, campaign finance reform, environmental regulation and more — in the process reinforcing the distinctions between the nation’s wealthiest citizens and everyone else ... the same distinctions Romney championed in Boca Raton in 2012.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Obama’s state of war with the media

NEWS OF the beheading death of American journalist James W. Foley, at the hands of the terrorists of ISIS, was quickly followed by President Obama’s truly heartfelt reaction — as close to outright explosive passion as we’ve seen from the sang-froid wielder in chief. His defense of Foley as a journalist in open of the world’s grimmest places held nothing back:

“He reported from difficult and dangerous places, bearing witness to the lives of people a world away,” Obama said Wednesday from his vacation location in Edgartown, Mass. “He was taken hostage nearly two years ago in Syria, and he was courageously reporting at the time on the conflict there.

“Jim was taken from us in an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world. ... The future is shaped by people like James Foley.”

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The president was equally impassioned on Aug. 14 when he spoke out against the brief arrest of Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, reporters held and roughed up by police in Ferguson, Mo., as they covered the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown.

“Here in the United States of America police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground,” the president said from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and the first family are vacationing.

But ironically enough, the president’s full-throated praise of Foley and the Ferguson reporters (and by direct extension their profession) comes amid concerns and criticism of a rising chorus of journalists and media advocates, who call the Obama administration one of the most secretive, punitive, risk-averse administrations in American history.

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ONE IN particular. James Risen, has been a serious burr under the presidential saddle, and not just Obama’s. Risen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and a celebrated author on the workings of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote “State of War,” a best-selling 2006 book that provided details into Merlin, a failed Bush #43-era CIA operation to send faulty nuclear bomb blueprints to the Iranian government, monkey-wrenching the regime’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Federal prosecutors allege that Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former CIA operations officer in Iran, leaked classified information about Merlin to Risen, who used the information in his book. Prosecutors want Risen to reveal his sources under oath. Standing foursquare on his First Amendment protections, Risen has refused; he now faces jail time as a result.

The Obama administration claims that Sterling, who was indicted in December 2010, violated the federal Espionage Act. His trial date awaits.

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“Risen has taken his case to court, where a Federal district judge threw out the subpoena against him,” writes “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman, in an Aug. 14 column on the Web site.

“The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which, importantly, has jurisdiction over Virginia and Maryland, where the CIA and NSA are headquartered, respectively, reinstated the subpoena,” Goodman writes. “The U.S. Supreme Court, at the Obama administration’s urging, failed to hear the case. Risen has thus exhausted his legal appeals, and will either have to testify in Sterling’s trial, or face contempt of court charges, which can include massive fines and jail time.”

Risen’s petition for certiorari, sent to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 9 (before SCOTUS’ rebuff), gives you a sense of what’s at stake:

“The Department of Justice has itself acknowledged that ‘the prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter’s responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues.’ 28 C.F.R. § 50.10 (2013). This case tests that principle. The petition raises important questions about the existence and scope of a qualified reporter’s privilege not to testify about the identity of confidential source(s) in a criminal trial.

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“Exposés such as Watergate ... the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq ... the CIA’s waterboarding of terrorist suspects, the CIA’s use of secret prisons in Eastern Europe, and the NSA’s secret use of warrantless wiretaps on U.S. citizens illustrate that the public is often well-served by protecting sources of newsworthy information—even with unauthorized leaks of classified information.”

But he put in language plainer than that. In an interview with Maureen Dowd, published Sunday in The New York Times, Risen answered a hypothetical question, or tried to: “How can [Obama] use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistle-blowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his C.I.A. chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?”

“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson: The Justice Brothers

SOMETHING HAPPENED Wednesday in Ferguson, Mo., a mini-event that pretty much slipped the surly bonds of mainstream media comprehension. It was a very transient thing; if a mike was on it was just barely audible, and hardly what the media was listening for.

But in a few words, the two officials most responsible for easing the current tension (and investigating the incident that exploded that tension, and its root causes, into the national vision) gave us a clue of how personal law enforcement can be for an African American cop. Whether that cop is a highway patrolman or the Attorney General of the United States.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, in a serious show of just how far the Justice Department was prepared to go, from the jump, to get to the bottom of the multiple-gunshot killing of Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

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It would’ve been only natural for Holder to meet with his fellow prosecutor in the case, the district attorney, to discuss aspects of the case — at least for an all-hands photo-op. But the citizens of Ferguson and judicial analysts have problems with St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, whose past and current personal associations with law enforcement make them suspect his ability to prosecute this case impartially.

Meeting McCulloch apparently didn’t happen. But during a meet-and-greet with Ferguson residents at the highly regarded Drake’s Place restaurant, Holder encountered Capt. Ron Johnson, the African American Missouri Highway Patrol officer tasked by Gov. Jay Nixon with maintaining security in Ferguson.

“My man! You are the man!” Holder said, walking toward him.

“We’re trying to make it better,” Johnson said.

The Daily Mail (UK), citing a tweet by a Huffington Post writer, reported that this repartee contained a light Holder jab at Johnson on the occasion of the captain’s 26th wedding anniversary. “You didn't forget, my brother,” Holder reportedly said. “Oh, no! We'll write you a note, how about that?”

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EARLIER, HOLDER spoke before students at the Florissant Valley Campus of St. Louis Community College and got personal and national at the same time.

Holder told them that the history of racism “simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson” explaining how he came to that conclusion, and its poisonous consequences, himself. “I understand that mistrust,” Holder told the students. “I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man.”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson Nation: Michael Brown,
Ezell Ford and the war at home

ON AUG. 18, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was scheduled to start classes at the Sunset Hills campus of Vatterott College, a technical school with branches in Memphis, Des Moines and Wichita.

Instead, Michael Brown Jr. died on Saturday. In that dry recitation of facts are the seeds of a new American tragedy, one that’s been happening in fits and starts across the country as militarization by local law-enforcement authorities is brought to bear against all enemies, real and imagined, foreign ... and domestic.

Brown was walking down the street in the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday with his friend Dorian Johnson when the two were approached by a police officer in a vehicle. The officer apparently exchanged words with the two, then attempted to get out of his car.

From there the narratives diverge.

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A police report apparently filed by the officer who shot Brown said either Brown or Johnson shoved him back into the vehicle and then grappled with him for his sidearm, firing a shot inside the car. The two ran, and the officer once again stepped from his vehicle and shot at the fleeing teenagers multiple times, killing Brown, who was unarmed.

Johnson said Brown was retreating from the officer with his hands up when he was shot. Gawker reported that Johnson recalled Brown saying “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” with his hands in the air. Johnson said the officer then fired several more shots.

The shooting has unleashed a wave of rage among the city’s black residents. Protests and looting soon followed; Ferguson is now in its fifth straight day of protest; SWAT officers arrived Wednesday night to put down a generally peaceful protest. What followed was a running battle whose visual aspects could be superimposed on conflicts in Gaza: the trappings of a war zone.

Brown was shot at least once, and possibly (eyewitnesses say) several times. The actual number of shots fired is being kept under wraps by the Ferguson Police Department. So is the identity of the officer who killed him, a violation of the state Sunshine Law.

And Ferguson police went further in trying to control the situation; two journalists, one from The Huffington Post, the other from The Washington Post, were detained and roughed up before being released, for the act of doing their jobs reporting what is now an international story.

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In news videos, Ferguson police are seen not just at the ready but locked and loaded in the extreme, bristling with body armor and camo, armored personnel carriers and tear gas, stun grenades and M4 rifles — an armamentarium more at home on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan than in a city of 21,100 people 12 miles northwest of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Iraq war veteran Phillip Carter writes in today’s Daily Beast: “[T]o a police force with such a military arsenal, every problem potentially looks like one that can be solved with military force. In hindsight, the Ferguson police department’s heavy-handed response to protests arguably caused the situation to escalate into the crisis that exists today.”

Rethinking Africa: The summit and where it leads

THIS IS probably something we should’ve done a long time ago.” Former president Bill Clinton said that last week, in what could be, economically speaking, the understatement of this decade — and maybe the next one. Clinton was one of several dignitaries and present and former heads of state attending the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

His coulda-shoulda statement distills the longstanding official attitudes toward Africa, and underscores the generations of missed opportunities for investing in that continent, and just how far the United States has to go to catch up doing what it shoulda done already.

The summit provided an opportunity for the world to recalibrate its perception of, and its attitude toward, the youngest and fastest-growing continent on the planet, the source of six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

As much as anything else, though, last week’s gathering of the American leadership, business leaders and African heads of state had a power simply by virtue of it happening in the first place — by forcing the world’s tweet-brief attention span to focus on a part of the world that rarely makes the evening news in a context unconnected to misery and deprivation.

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On August 5, Obama hailed “the new Africa that’s emerging” ater decades of languishing in the shadow of the world’s recognition, on the margins of progress. “More countries are reforming, attracting a record level of foreign investment,” the American president said; “it is the youngest, fastest-growing continent, full of people with dreams and ambitions.”

Obama says it’s time to exploit Africa’s greatest natural resource: “its people, its talent and its potential.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We have to do better — much better,” Obama said. “I want Africans buying more American products and I want Americans buying more African products.”

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TODD MOSS, the chief development officer for the Center for Global Development, told MSNBC how much of the battle to be fought is one of perception: “This is not the Africa of 10 or 20 years ago. People think of a country like Ethiopia, they imagine people are starving. Well, Ethiopia’s been growing at 10 percent or more for at least a decade.”

“It’s really become a continent of tremedous economic dynamism, lots of economic opportunity,” Moss said. “We are going through this once-in-a-lifetime transition of families sending their first child to college. They’re buying their first refrigerator, the first car in the family...”

This emerging modernity runs counter to the still very real perception of Africa as geopolitical backwater, economic basket case, epidemiological ground zero — Africa as “the dark continent.” The persistence of this monstrous fiction has over time led to the historical unwillingness of developing economies and major corporations to invest in Africa. That’s starting to change. Just ask the Chinese.

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Max Nisen in Quartz reports: “Last year, the US had about $85 billion in bilateral trade with Africa; China reported more than double that with $210 billion.

“China also beats the US in commercial envoys; it has commercial attachés in 54 African countries, compared to the US commerce department’s eight. China is also making massive investments in infrastructure. The ongoing summit is the largest such event ever held in the US, but seems conspicuously late.”

Give Obama credit for realizing that, for any number of reasons/excuses, the United States is late to the party — and for understanding that for this to really work, it can’t be a one-off affair.

“Given the success we’ve had this week, we agree that summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action,” he said. “The U.S.-Africa summit will be a recurring event.”

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JEFF IMMELT, General Electric’s chief executive officer, sees what’s coming, and what’s already happened. “We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and the Chinese later. Today [it] is wide open for us,” said, to Politico’s Eric Bradner.

To that end, the White House announced, the Export-Import Bank will assist in financing the sale of $560 million worth of GE locomotives to Transnet, South Africa’s largest freight transporter. GE also announced plans to invest $2 billion by 2018 to assist African countries in training programs meant to help those countries secure more American infrastructure and energy projects, InTheCapital reported on Aug. 7.

The Politico story handily boils down some of the other business pledges:

“The Overseas Private Investment Corp. is committing $1 billion to finance and insure business investments in Africa, and the Agriculture Department will guarantee $1 billion in agricultural exports to the continent over the next two years. ...

“IBM, meanwhile, said it has struck a $100 million deal to handle information technology for Fidelity Bank of Ghana.

“Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which is aimed at helping 600 million sub-Saharan Africans gain access to electricity, got a boost as well when World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced $5 billion in financing guarantees for the project. The private equity firm Blackstone Group and business conglomerate Dangote Industries also vowed to invest $5 billion into African energy projects over the next five years.”

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For Hanna Tetteh, Ghana's minister of foreign affairs, said energy, agriculture and telecommunications are key to the continent’s future.

“Energy is really the number one game changer in terms of investment that Africa requires in order for us to be part of a bigger, more competitive, more integrated global market," Tetteh said In an Aug. 9 interview with USA Today. "One of the challenges we have is that we don't have sufficient energy to be able to power all the other businesses and services that are dependent on it to be able to move.”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tea Party, hot water II:
Bad primary news gets worse

WE’RE advised not to seek perfection in our lives, at the risk of inevitably being disappointed. There are, of course, exceptions to its unexpected pursuit and the thoroughly expected outcome: the regular seasons of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, for example, or the 2007 New England Patriots. And there are other exceptions. Some seek out perfection, others have perfection thrust upon them.

The Tea Party fits this second description, well, perfectly. The timed-release train wreck of this leadership-averse conservative political movement continued late last week, with three defeats in about as many days of the calendar:

On Thursday, Lamar Alexander, the 12-year senator and former governor of Tennessee, secured the Republican nomination in that state’s GOP primary election, beating back a challenge from Rep. Joe Carr. Carr was backed by such Tea Party theoreticians as Laura Ingraham and political personality Sarah Palin, the former nominal Alaska governor. Like other Tea Party candidates in other states, he conducted a ritual attack on Alexander’s time in office, and on his position on immigration reform. In the end, it was sound and fury signifying nothing but a nine-point loss.

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On Tuesday, Michigan foreclosure attorney Dave Trott defeated Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the reindeer farmer and so-called “accidental congressman” whose rise to power began when he replaced nutball incumbent Thaddeus McCotter, who resigned amid a scandal in 2012.

Trott got 66 percent of the vote to Bentivolio’s 34 percent with all precincts in, The Associated Press reported. Trott will face Democrat Bobby McKenzie, a scholar and State Department counterterrorism adviser, in November.

“Trott’s victory is a boon for the Michigan Republican establishment,” Politico reported. “As party support lined up behind Trott, Bentivolio was left largely unprotected, a development made worse by a series of missteps within his campaign. Though the incumbent retained the support of tea-party and socially-conservative groups, his campaign struggled to raise money and was ultimately unable to afford TV advertising.”

Also on Tuesday, in a high-profile death blow to the optics and perception of the Tea Party as a viable entity, Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts turned back a challenge from diagnostic radiologist, conservative columnist and Tea Party darling Dr. Milton Wolf — this despite a campaign statement by Roberts that might have been turned into a liability by a more nimble, well-capitalized opponent.

The longstanding Tea Party math, by which opposition to a politician in office = equal to that politician’s time in office, found no takers in the Jayhawk State — or not enough people willing to conflate seniority with ineptitude. "He has just been so strong for the state of Kansas," said Roberts supporter Margie Robinow to The Wall Street Journal.

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THIRTY-ODD years in Washington gives you a good grasp of political politesse. Roberts, speaking to a crowd at a victory rally, called for unity in the fall. "We cannot afford a fractured party. The stakes are just too high," he said in Overland Park. “Republicans cannot afford the kind of intraparty fratricide that we have seen recently.” Spending that kind of time in D.C., you also develop a nose for where the money is. Roberts raised an estimated $3.2 million for his campaign; Wolf raised about $1 million.

Wolf’s insurgent campaign got some loft for a while. He had the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express and RedState’s Erick Erickson, among others. Wolf may have had his best shot when Roberts told The New York Times that he didn’t own a home in Kansas, and used a donor's place as his official residence in the state he represents. In a radio interview, Roberts said he visits Kansas "every time I have an opponent."

It didn’t matter. Experience and deeper pockets won the day. Roberts moves on to the general in November, taking on Chad Taylor, who won the Democratic primary. Roberts is expected to lock it up.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Drawing the humanitarian sword in Iraq

WITH A potentially momentous eight-minute address last night from the State Dining Room of the White House, President Obama drew a figurative line in the Iraqi sand with a double-edged American sword, daring the latest terrorist danger to cross that line.

With a humanitarian instinct wrapped in the high-tech mailed glove of power, the president outlined a strategy that may usher in a new limited use of American military force in Iraq, the country we just can’t get away from. The question unanswered — the question no one’s even addressed — is just how “limited” limited can be when that terrorist threat has proven it’s no respecter of lines, or boundaries, of any kind.

The president ordered U.S. fighters to make “targeted” strikes against the forces of ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) if they advanced toward the city of Erbil, home to 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds and hundreds of American diplomats moved recently from the embassy in Baghdad. He also announced that C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, accompanied by two F/A-18 fighters, had completed a humanitarian mission, delivering 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals to perhaps as many as 40,000 Yezidis, Iraqi ethnic minorities hiding from ISIL forces in the Sinjar mountains.

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TO STOP the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” he said late Thursday. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.

“Second, at the request of the Iraqi government, we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. ...

“In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives. And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs. They’re without food, they’re without water. People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: Descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

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The Yezidis, who adhere to an ancient religion with links to Christianity, Judaism and the Zoroastrian faith, fled their homes after ISIL forces demanded they convert to Islam or be put to death.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world, Obama said. “So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The president offered what amounts to a two-pronged attack against ISIL, each representing one side of America’s geopolitical character: the soft power of goodwill, good works and the advance of storied American values; and, if necessary, the hard power of unrivaled military might, and its sometimes accidentally indiscriminate application.

Obama went to great lengths to put distance between this mission and the war in Iraq that formally ended in December 2011, rhetorically dismissing any possibility of history repeating.

“As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

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BUT IMPORTANTLY, officials told The Associated Press that the United States would be ready to provide more such humanitarian airdrops if necessary. And of course they will be necessary.

A seemingly simple act of humanitarian largesse thus runs the risk of becoming dangerously complicated in the days and weeks to come, because of the second edge of the mission — the military one. Imagine the Berlin airlift conducted with Soviet tanks ready to fire on U.S. supply planes without provocation.

Last night the president said the actions just taken and announced are part of “a broader strategy that will empower Iraqis to confront this crisis,” militarily. That was an echo of what he said in June, before the impact and threat of ISIS became more widely recognized. It was then that Obama said the United States reserved the right to execute “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

The targeted and precise hypothetical that the president advanced two months ago is now real, or likely to be so, and responding to that sudden or emerging reality raises operational questions that may not be easily answered.

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The first matter is assessing what “the situation on the ground” really is now and will be in the weeks to come. With no combat footprint in Iraq, getting credible, actionable intelligence will necessarily be a challenge, one that the Iraqi military and even the game Kurdish troops aren’t up to helping with yet.

The second matter is containing a situation on the ground that’s been out of our control (or anyone else’s) from the beginning. ISIL has spread like a virus across Syria and Iraq. As of Thursday, elements of the terrorist group are said to be about 40 miles from Erbil and moving characteristically fast.

It’s this dual, fluid ISIL threat — to Americans hunkering down in Erbil and to Yezidis doing the same in the Sinjar mountains — that complicates hopes of a surgical American response to either situation.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Into the rabbit hole: Murdoch’s bid for Time Warner

WHAT RUPERT wants, Rupert gets.” Those five words have been a maxim of the modern media world for so long now, it’s hard to remember when that wasn’t true. Like some modern-day version of a Barbary Coast buccaneer, Keith Rupert Murdoch has swept the high seas of media, creating or acquiring numerous high-profile media properties in the years since he was a maverick newspaper publisher in his native Australia.

The New York Post, Fox News, 21st Century Fox (the kinda-sorta-rechristened movie studio) and Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal have fallen under his sword in the last 40 years. On Friday, his flagship company, News Corporation, acquired the Harlequin romance novel publisher for $418 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

He’s not the rabid, swashbuckling velociraptor he used to be — he is 83, after all — but Jolly Rupert is still planning one more jewel for his crown, one last big job. Since early June he’s been quietly leading the charge for his 21st Century Fox to acquire Time Warner, the information and entertainment behemoth, for just north of $80 billion, or about $85 in cash and stock.

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When the news that Rupert was loose again first broke, early in July, you could smell the hair on fire in Hollywood and the Time Warner boardroom in New York. The shock of the speculation itself conferred a gravity on the speculation. But that didn’t last. The big pushback has begun, with Time Warner rejecting the bid on July 16, and undertaking various preventive measures intended to block acquisition by Fox — joining  Hollywood creatives equally opposed to what such corporate gigantism would almost certainly mean for their livelihoods.

Everyone’s waiting for Tuesday, August 6, when Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, reports second-quarter earnings, almost certainly fielding questions from board members who wonder if rejecting $85 a share is a good idea for a company whose shares were riding handsomely in the low 70’s earlier this year.

It’s been almost exactly seven years since Rupert Murdoch last successfully scratched his itch for empire, with his acquisition of Dow Jones, the information giant and owner of The Wall Street Journal. Like Warner Bros.’ eternal mascot Bugs Bunny, Time Warner is hunkering down, prepping for the coming assault — not from Elmer Fudd, but from Murdoch ... who has a habit of getting what he wants.

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BUT MURDOCH is again doubling down on gigantism-as-leverage, a media strategy that was crumbling in 2007. In the years since then, social media, seismic shifts in content distribution, advances in personal technology and a more informationally intuitive Internet have changed the game.

Murdoch Fox may be the big kid of the schoolyard, but that doesn’t matter when there are a lot more kids in that schoolyard. Lean, strong, hungry, well-capitalized kids. Any one of whom could make a bid for Time Warner that would make more sense.

If it comes down to share price, Murdoch may have to sweeten the pot. A lot. And unlike in August 2007, there’s more players at the table now.

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Let’s name some of the names. Since Time Warner’s been put in play, such companies as Verizon and Comcast have been mentioned as possible suitors. Comcast isn’t likely to make a bid, having really just digested its acquisition of NBC Universal. For Hollywood, too, the prospect of combining Universal Studios and Warner Bros. into one company can’t be any more attractive than wedding Fox and Warners, and for exactly the same reasons.

A Time Warner-Verizon tie-up wouldn’t appear to make sense either. Verizon isn’t a content or entertainment company, regardless of how much content or entertainment is accessed by Verizon customers. At first blush, the potential for culture clash (to say the least) would be a concern.

How would Bugs Bunny feel about eating Apple with his carrots? Apple, a player with a history of jaw-dropping innovations and a reputation to revive in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, would be an interesting partner for Time Warner, a marriage of Time Warner’s content and Apple’s devices and services. And with a market cap of $460 billion and $150 billion in cash on hand, Apple could cut a check for Time Warner without breaking much of a sweat.

Moody’s senior VP Neil Begley told Digital TV Europe that if big tech acquired Time Warner, “digital innovators could gain access to content and drive more rapid change in the digital and mobile worlds.”

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AND THEN there’s the big G. Analysts have been name-dropping Google ($360 billion market cap, $60 billion cash on hand) as a possible Time Warner suitor. For one media seer, this is a scenario that makes the most sense.

Anthony DiClemente, media analyst at Nomura, told Dominic Rushe of The Guardian: “At some point, technology companies such as Google or Amazon or Apple may begin to identify the value of professional content – and rather than licence that content, they may attempt to acquire a media content company.”

In a way, that’s already happened — when Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, acquired The Washington Post last year. True enough, the WashPost buy was with Bezos’ own money and isn’t formally connected to Amazon. But you’d have to be naïve to think that Bezos won’t find ways to integrate Amazon and The Post before long.

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Animated by its own presumptive speculation, Murdoch Fox has already announced that it would sell its direct broadcast business, BSkyB, for about $9 billion, to help pay for a deal that hasn’t been consummated. And CNN, the flagship 24-hour news network, would also go on the block if the deal goes through — a fact that deserves to send shivers through many vertebrae in Atlanta.

But that needn’t be a disaster. If CNN is set adrift, it would be the perfect opportunity for CBS to make a bid for the assets of the 24-hour cable network that started it all. Speculation has ebbed and flowed in recent years about the likelihood of a full-on merger of CBS and CNN.

The two legacy news operations have joined forces before, picking their spots. Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper have made appearances on CBS “60 Minutes,” in their roles as correspondents. This time, with Fox seeking a buyer if Murdoch’s stars malign, CNN could be just what’s needed to give CBS the entrée into cable it’s never had (or exploited) before.

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