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Future Tense

Joe Biden spent Tuesday the same way he spent Monday: Getting assailed from nearly all quarters for his handling of the situation in Afghanistan. For right-wing pundits, and Trump-friendly politicians, it's like Christmas in August. The left, on the whole, isn't being much kinder, and Democrats in Congress are demanding answers from the White House.

We said plenty about the current state of affairs, both in reality, and in the spin room, yesterday. Our opinion hasn't changed much in 24 hours, excepting that we're downgrading our rating of Biden's speech from "pretty decent" to "mediocre." On reflection, he should have done more to take ownership of the mess (even if he doesn't really think he deserves to), and should have been less defensive. Also, getting in a few potshots at Donald Trump was a bad look; everyone knows about Trump's responsibility anyhow, and yesterday wasn't the time. Overall, it was definitely a lost opportunity.

Anyhow, having talked at length about the present yesterday, we thought we would dwell a bit on the future today, and in particular two questions that are definitely of interest to folks in the United States. The first of those: Did a terrorist attack against the United States just get a lot more likely?

Before we continue, let us remind everyone that we are not great fans of the word "terrorist," as it is applied inconsistently, and often with a fair bit of bigotry or nationalistic chauvinism as subtext. That said, it's the best term we have in order to describe what people are concerned about, which is a violent attack against the U.S. or its people, for purposes of stoking fear, and coming from a Middle Eastern and/or radical Islamic source.

The general consensus is that the Taliban is not likely to stage, or encourage, an attack of this sort. They may be theocrats, but they still aspire to build a basically functional government. Historically, their playbook has been—as special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sarah Chayes points out, in an excellent "what's next" piece compiled by Politico—"[to] commit acts of demonstrative violence, then negotiate—as we just saw."

And it goes beyond just saying "this is not how the Taliban operates." They know exactly what happened the last time there was a major terrorist attack against the United States: Their country was invaded, and the Taliban was out of power for two decades. They don't want that. Further, the Taliban are clients of the Pakistani military, which makes them part of a web of interlocking alliances and reciprocal agreements connecting them to other key players in that region, including India and China. None of these nations particularly want to see the return of heavy U.S. involvement in the region. So, there will be much pressure on the Taliban from outside powers to fly right and keep their noses clean.

The useful parallel here are nations like North Korea or Iran. Those governments treat their own citizens very badly, and the Taliban will do the same. And the leaders of those governments often rattle their sabers and engage in wars of rhetoric. There's also some cloak-and-dagger stuff, of course. But neither of those two nations is likely to engage the U.S. and the Western powers in an actual war, because it would be disastrous for them—feeling the military might of the Americans, plus making it open season for those nations' archenemies (e.g., Israel for Iran, and South Korea for North Korea). It may seem questionable to suggest that the U.S. would wade into Afghanistan (or some other Middle Eastern country) again, after what just happened. But if there's another 9/11-type attack, particularly after the bitter taste of the last week has had some time to recede? Then, all bets are off.

There is, however, one pretty big difference between Iran and North Korea on one hand, and the Taliban on the other. Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leaders of the two former nations, basically have their entire landmass under their thumbs. Nothing happens in those two countries without those two men's say-so. Anyone who breaks that rule risks finding themselves at the business end of a howitzer. By contrast, Afghanistan is large and mountainous and has poor infrastructure. Further, the Taliban are not exactly the Caesars of Rome when it comes to building an effective bureaucracy. And so, their control of their country, while firm and fanatical in some places, will be non-existent in others.

This creates a situation, then, that is ripe for ISIS or Al-Qaeda to set themselves up in a remote portion of Afghanistan and to use it as a base of operations. That's exactly what happened with 9/11, of course; it wasn't the Taliban, it was Al-Qaeda, using Afghanistan (and other nations) as a safe harbor. And in contrast to the Taliban, these groups largely don't have international entanglements. Further, they would very much like to launch a large and violent attack against the U.S. (or some other major western nation). That would serve to tell the world that the death of ISIS or Al-Qaeda has been greatly exaggerated.

For the reasons discussed above, the Taliban does not particularly want this, and will try to control it, as best they can. Many others will also be watching, including the United States, from bases just outside of Afghanistan. There could even be cooperation between the U.S. and the Taliban, though any president who reached such an accommodation would presumably keep it on the down-low. In addition, 9/11 was made possible by some very large holes in American security that are now tightly closed. The upshot is that one of these radical Islamist movements may just spring back to life, and may just stage a successful terrorist attack against the U.S. or one of its allies, but it will be a very, very steep hill to climb.

And now onto the second question: Will there be severe political fallout here for Joe Biden and/or the Democrats? This is an issue where we already gave a preliminary opinion, both yesterday and on Saturday. We take the position that voters' memories tend to be short, particularly when it comes to issues that do not affect them personally. Further, the people who appear to be most upset about Afghanistan are largely people who were never going to vote Democratic anyhow (more on this below).

What we would like to add, at this point, is two cards that Biden and the blue team will have in their pockets if this becomes a "Hillary's e-mail server" type of issue next year. The first is that the Pentagon issued a report on Afghanistan yesterday that was so critical it could have been written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The basic conclusion is that the United States' mission in Afghanistan was not viable in 2021, and was not viable in 2001, and could only have ended in disaster. It might have been nice if they'd come up with that oh, say, 10 years ago. Nonetheless, if the military says it was a quagmire that had to end sooner rather than later, that's a pretty good talking point for the Democrats.

The second card—a Trump card, if you will—comes from the fact that Biden's predecessor had no filters, and could not keep his damn mouth shut, particularly when he thought he had some sort of achievement to brag about, and particularly when he was being egged on by adoring fans. And so, folks have already begun digging up the large amount of footage of him talking about how he ended the war in Afghanistan, and how he's responsible for bringing the troops home, and how great the Taliban is going to be once they are in charge. Here's one example:

In other words, it's not going to be so easy for the Republicans to rewrite recent history. And if they try, clips like this one might just find their way into a commercial or two. Also not helping the cause is that there are Trump administration members, like former secretary of defense Mark Esper, who are willing to go on TV and say that not only is Trump responsible for the withdrawal, he also undermined it by not holding the Taliban to the conditions they agreed to.

Bringing it all together, the executive summary here is that we think a terrorist attack is unlikely, and that severe political fallout is unlikely. That said, if we are proven wrong about part one of that, then we'll certainly be proven wrong about part two. (Z)

Proof of Concept for Fox

All of the various cable news channels tend to get their best ratings when a president from the other end of the political spectrum is in office. To some extent, they are all catering to viewers who are interested in today's news, and who are really interested in being told exactly why presidents/members of Congress/other officeholders/people in general from the other party are bad people.

Of course, Fox is the absolute king of this, in part because they have fewer journalistic pretensions than their main competitors, and in part because their audience appears to be particularly prone to/hungry for outrage. And so, the Afghanistan situation has been manna from heaven for Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, et al. In fact, as the various hosts shredded Joe Biden's speech after he delivered it on Monday, the channel drew the best ratings it's gotten since he assumed the presidency. Fox averaged 2.21 million viewers in the hours after the speech, peaking at nearly 4.2 million viewers for "The Five."

With that said, the Fox talking heads in particular, and Trumpy politicians and pundits in general, are settling on a very...awkward place when it comes to their narrative of Afghanistan. Most readers are familiar with the "Lost Cause" version of Civil War history, wherein Southerners made themselves feel better about losing by asserting that they coulda won, and they woulda won, but for [X], where [X] is the North's overwhelming industrial might, or the butchery of Ulysses S. Grant, or the poor performance of James Longstreet at Gettysburg, or whatever.

As Rebecca Onion points out in a piece for Slate, Republicans—led by Ronald Reagan—embraced a Lost Cause-ish interpretation of the Vietnam War starting in the 1980s. In their view, Vietnam was a noble endeavor, and it should have ended in victory, but for [X]. In this case, [X] is not Northern industrial might, or the conduct of some general, but instead is weak leadership from a Democratic president. This helps to explain why Republicans, from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on down, are nigh-on obsessed with the Kabul 2021-Saigon 1975 parallels. Both serve to affirm their sense that the U.S. is a fundamentally benign and well-intentioned nation whose best laid plans are often ruined by those namby-pamby Democrats.

There is a problem, however. Maybe Joe Biden screwed up a lot, a little, or not at all in Afghanistan. Whatever the case may be, the United States' diplomatic personnel, its armed forces, and its citizenry are going to escape the country successfully. So, if there is a human cost to Biden's handling of the situation, it will be due to a failure to extract some portion of the folks who helped the U.S. over the last 20 years, and who may well be condemned to death if they stay in Afghanistan. To that end, the administration is trying to distribute 80,000 visas to those folks, so they can flee to the U.S. as refugees. The same thing happened in 1975, of course, though the number of refugees was larger (about 125,000).

And this is where we reach the problem. While the Republican Party—or, at very least, the Trump wing of it—hates Democrats in general and Joe Biden in particular, it also hates refugees, particularly those who are brown and/or Muslim. And so, while the Foxy men and ladies have railed against Biden for his Afghanistan mismanagement in the past couple of days, they have also railed against the possibility of a bunch of Afghan refugees arriving on American shores. Tucker Carlson, for example:

If history is any guide—and it's always a guide—we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood. And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we're invaded. It is always the same.

And here's Laura Ingraham:

Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan? All day, we've heard phrases like, "We've promised them." Well who did? Did you?

They've had plenty of guests on to say the same things. Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, for example, who can always be counted on to frame (non-white) immigration as an existential crisis, has been all over Fox this week.

And that's the real proof of concept we were thinking of when we wrote the headline to this item. The right-wing pundits, and their politician guests, are arguing in bad faith, as they nearly always do. They don't care one whit about Afghanistan or the Afghan people; they are just using the Afghans to "own the libs." It's the same with every other culture-wars-subject-of-the-week, whether it's critical race theory, or trans high school athletes, or the name by which Mr. Potato Head is known. It's hypocritical to condemn Joe Biden's wind-down of the war, and at the same time to begin rallying the troops to oppose his solution—the only possible solution—to the mess that has been created. This is a big part of our skepticism that this will hurt Biden, long-term. The people who are loudest and angriest aren't going to vote for him or for Democratic candidates anyhow, and are just using Afghanistan as a convenient bugaboo to drive the base and the viewers into a tizzy.

All of that said, while this is the playbook of a sizable portion of the Republican pooh-bahs, there are exceptions, and there are right-leaning folks who try to maintain some semblance of consistency in their words and actions. For example, many Republicans in Utah belong to a religion whose history has had its share of fleeing religious persecution. In other words, there's some empathy there, even if the victims are of a different race and religion. And so, Gov. Spencer Cox (R-UT) has already sent a letter to Biden telling him that he and his fellow Utahns are ready to help welcome Afghan refugees with open arms. In contrast to some denominations, Latter-Day Saints tend to be pretty good at practicing what they preach. (Z)

Today's Rachel Maddow News...

Having discussed Fox, let us now shift to MSNBC. Hope that didn't give you whiplash. The cable news network for lefties has one bona fide superstar in the person of Rachel Maddow. Her contract is up soon, and she's suggested she might leave for the greener pastures of podcasting, so she's been in the news a fair bit as a result. Note that no media analyst seems to think she is actually going to leave; she's just engaging in idle talk in order to compel her employers to back the Brinks truck up, since they cannot afford to lose her.

In any event, Maddow was in the news yesterday for two additional reasons, over and above her contract. We're going to put the two stories together for that reason, even though they don't have much else in common besides the MSNBC host (and 2020 election chicanery). Anyhow, the first bit of Maddow news is that she apparently has one or more sources inside the Georgia state government, who told her that the investigation of Donald Trump by Fulton County prosecutor Fani Willis is definitely ongoing and is not "cooling down," despite rumors to the contrary. Further, Willis has taken an interest in recent news that Trump lackey/DoJ official Jeff Clark tried to turn the screws on Georgia Republicans to get them to swing the state in The Donald's direction. In short, things are definitely not peachy for Trump in Georgia right now.

Moving on, Maddow has frequently been critical of pro-Trump outlet OAN. For some reason, she believes their "journalism" is of shoddy quality. And last year, she reported on a story that actually came from another outlet (The Daily Beast) about the fuzzy ethical lines that are characteristic of the OAN operation. Specifically, Maddow said: "We literally learned today that that outlet the President is promoting shares staff with the Kremlin. In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda. Their on-air U.S. politics reporter is paid by the Russian government to produce propaganda for that government."

OAN did not like being called out for allowing one of their reporters (specifically, Kristian Rouz) to work for the Russian government, and so they sued Maddow for defamation. Perhaps they retained Rudy Giuliani or Sidney Powell for the job, since whoever served as counsel apparently doesn't understand how defamation works. To start, Maddow was reporting (accurately) on someone else's story, which is legal in nearly all circumstances. For some reason, OAN didn't go after the original outlet, preferring instead a much-higher-profile target. It's almost like they just wanted some free PR, and didn't care if they had to abuse the legal process to get it. There's also one other small problem with OAN's suit, namely that the truth is an absolute defense against defamation. And Rouz really does work for Sputnik, which really is funded by the Russian government.

Anyhow, OAN lost in the initial trial, and yesterday they lost on appeal. In addition, the low-rent network is going to have to pay a high-rent $250,000 (or possibly more) to Maddow and MSNBC to cover their legal fees. She better make sure she collects that judgment before Dominion Voting Systems gets their hands on OAN.

And as long as we're on the subject of cable news personalities (non right-wing division), we had an item yesterday on the piece Jeffrey Toobin wrote arguing that Donald Trump should not be prosecuted for federal crimes. As we noted, we are not lawyers, even if we play them on the Internet. However, we were underwhelmed by his commentary on specific laws—which seemed rushed, like he had something better to do with his time—as well as his overall conclusion that the U.S. is too classy to prosecute former presidents. It turns out that actual lawyers were also unimpressed, with the result that Toobin was flayed on social media yesterday. For example, emeritus Harvard professor of law Laurence Tribe tweeted:

.@JeffreyToobin says AG Garland shouldn’t even investigate Trump’s role in the seditious insurrection because ”the leading precedent ... comes from a case from 1863!“ Hmmm. Could that maybe be because... wait for it: This is the first insurrection we’ve had since the Civil War?

— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) August 17, 2021

The quality of that piece is also causing many to raise the question, once again, why CNN is so very committed to having this particular lawyer as their legal analyst, given his history. There are many fine attorneys in this country, and most of them are not, for lack of a better term, overexposed. (Z)

Abbott Is Diagnosed with COVID-19

We don't use stories with actual death or human suffering in our weekly schadenfreude reports, which is undoubtedly for the best. Others do not feel so constrained, however, and so there was much glee in some (mostly left-wing) quarters when the news broke yesterday that Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has tested positive for COVID-19. Given his outspoken stance against mask/vaccine mandates, his illness seems to many observers to be an excellent example of "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." Or of karma, if you prefer a more eastern formulation of the same concept.

It is at least possible that this is a best-case scenario. Abbott is fully vaccinated, and is showing no symptoms, and should make a full recovery. But perhaps this will open his eyes, and cause him to change course. We aren't holding our breath, but you never know. More plausible is that his ordeal will be an eye opener for at least a few Texans, who may decide that masks aren't so bad after all, or that maybe there is some wisdom in getting vaccinated after all.

One person whose eyes most certainly weren't opened is Abbott's colleague (partner in crime?) Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). DeSantis, whose mantra these days is "White House or die, or maybe some of both," just keeps digging his heels in further. The Governor, and his administration, are now involved in a very public pissing contest with the state's educators. The latest salvo, fired on Tuesday, is a warning that school administrators who defy DeSantis' prohibition on mask mandates—and many are certainly planning to do so—are at risk of being terminated from their jobs. Because there's no better way to start a school year than by firing a bunch of people and leaving a bunch of schools without leadership.

Texas is not the only Southern state that DeSantis is pointedly ignoring right now. Alabama is experiencing a vicious COVID-19 surge, with the result that there are no longer any available ICU beds in the entire state. That may just have something to do with Alabama's worst-in-the-nation vaccination rate; only 36% of Alabamians have been fully vaccinated. Our staff virologist is looking into it.

This is hardly the first time in American history that an obvious public health need ran up against an entrenched (and usually right-wing) political agenda. Usually, public health ultimately wins out; Americans eventually got their polio shots, and fluoridated their water (outside of the odd Portland, OR, Wichita, KS), etc. That said, public health does not always win, at least not nationwide. To this day, you can pretty much tell if you're in a blue state or a red state by whether or not smokers are allowed to subject non-smokers (and, in particular, non-smoking wait staff) to secondhand smoke. And the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have already had plenty of object lessons, from the hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, to Trump himself getting the virus (and, for that matter, the vaccine). So, who knows how this one ends in the freedom-before-public-health states. (Z)

And So It Begins

This news largely flew under the radar, because it is wonky and bureaucratic. That's by design; as Georgia Republicans don't want anyone to pay attention to their endgame until it's a fait accompli. Anyhow, taking advantage of the brand-new election laws they just passed, the state legislature has taken the first step toward seizing control of elections in Fulton County. They have asked for the Georgia State Board of Elections to convene a review board to examine what happened in Fulton in 2020, and the Board of Elections has already agreed. This launches a complicated series of steps that could lead to the removal of the folks who currently oversee elections in Fulton, to be replaced by a single person appointed by the State Board. The State Board has a 3-1 Republican majority, and the person would almost certainly remain in control through next year's elections.

Fulton was an obvious target for the first test ride of the new laws. It really has had some high-profile ballot screw-ups, and that gives plenty of cover for an investigation. At the same time, the county is also overwhelmingly Democratic and heavily Black, and so is a profitable place to engage in chicanery, whether that is reducing the number of polling places, or reducing voting hours, or rejecting lots of ballots on technicalities, or having intimidating police officers around to "protect" voters, or whatever.

This story is just beginning, not only because the process set up by Georgia is slow and complicated (so as to give them plenty of legal cover), but also because the lawsuits will soon start dropping. Still, it's going to be a very important story to keep an eye on. (Z)

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