The Search for Missing Americans in Iraq

The U.S. State Department is investigating reports by Middle Eastern media that American citizens are missing in Iraq, officials said Sunday.

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arab news outlet, reported Sunday that three Americans have been kidnapped by “militias” in Baghdad, citing its own sources.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the agency is aware of the reports.

“The safety and security of American citizens overseas is our highest priority,” Kirby said in a statement.‎ “We are working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals.”

The State Department would not say how many Americans are reported missing. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told the Associated Press that “several” Americans were kidnapped.

The Americans, all contractors, went missing two days ago, reported CNN, citing a senior security official in Baghdad. Their disappearance was reported by the company where they worked, CNN wrote.

The kidnapping report comes amid a worsening security situation in Baghdad and the surrounding area, and nearly one week after armed attackers stormed a mall in the Iraqi capital and detonated suicide and car bombs, killing at least 18 people and injuring 50 more. Following the assault, which lasted about an hour and a half, authorities shut down the city’s Green Zone, a heavily guarded area that is home to several foreign embassies, including that of the United States, and Western private military contractors.

This is a developing story and we’ll update as we learn more.

Why Can’t a Modern President Say, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear … ’?

In 1933 the newly inaugurated FDR said, Fear is the enemy. Today’s politicians have a harder time getting that message across. (Wikipedia)

A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)

Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.

In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)

Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over:  (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad for last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.

Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during this time in the White House. This message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:

[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I’m not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.

For decades now Dems have been awaiting their “emerging majority,” based on a tipping point in the nation’s demographics. Obama’s personalistic appeal and organizational sophistication helped speed this process along-at least as a presidential coalition on his behalf. The downside is that it made the Democrats more dependent on a coalition of irregular voters, and likely caused a counter-reaction of further consolidation of older, whiter, yet more consistent voters within the GOP.


As a result, Democrats have been boxed into a broader if more shallow coalition. A lot of veteran pols and operatives (that the media depend on for their narrative on this stuff as there is not tremendous interest in the nuts and bolts of party building by journalists) have expressed frustration over this…. That being said however, few would disagree that the long-term fate of the party rests with Obama’s coalition.


I suppose a case could be made that a slower transition that did not make the party brand quite as toxic toward certain high turnout segments  of the population would have bolstered Democratic short term electoral fortunes- especially in off year elections. But it should be remembered that since the 60’s, the Party’s struggles to maintain its non-white and more liberal factions, along with the white working class, has put it in a consistently tenuous position.


I think there is something to be said for ripping the scab off now, once this coalition could be established on a presidential level, and engaging in the difficult (and likely at times electorally painful) process of consolidating this coalition. This seems especially true given the scope of problems the country faces, and the intransigence of the opposition, likely means that  it will  take large Democratic majorities to pass meaningful legislation on issues like economic inequality, climate change, etc.



Another reader with a different explanation of the party’s weakness:

Someone well to my left told me years ago that he thought Barack Obama was several moves ahead of everybody else on the chessboard. I do tend to agree….


The criticism is fair that the Democratic party is worse off politically than it was when he took office, but is that his fault or the result of too many Democrats who are cowardly and feckless? I’ll cite Senators Mark Udall and Mary Landrieu–oh, that’s right, they were defeated in 2014 after running away from Obama and begging him not to issue an executive order on immigration. How about the Democrats who ran away from health care reform in 2010?


Perhaps it was best expressed by that great philosopher, Stanley Laurel, who said, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.”

And another reader arguing that the weakness is illusory:

It has fascinated me that most of the country has moved very far left since early 2012. It’s been hard to quantify. Maybe I was too young to truly remember what life was like before Obama (I am 25) but I feel like some major changes have happened since the 2012 election cycle.


Occupy Wall Street did not have any clear and immediate victories except perhaps how the 2016 election will discuss income inequality in a way no one would have imagined in 2008. The vocabulary of feminism is completely mainstream. The only real arguments remaining against the ACA are that maybe we need to consider single payer.


Cell phone video has brought the Rodney King anger mainstream. Marriage equality happened almost over night as Americans slowly realized their friends, neighbors and familes were gay.Over-incarceration and drug legalization are now things politicians can speak about. Less politically, Americans now define their eating habits more at Whole Foods, Chipotle and other more “conscious” establishments.


While a good 30% of the country is stubborn and angry, Obama’s re-election leads and reflects that a good portion of the rest of the country is actually ready to live up to the ideals our country was founded on.

These points are obviously related to the arguments that David Frum lays out about the Republicans and Peter Beinart about the Democrats in our new issue. (Subscribe! It’s the perfect gift.)

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In the Christmas Eve spirit of boundless giving, here is one more assessment. This one bears on the climate of fear / loss / resentment that has played such a part in Trump’s rise, and that Obama has struggled to deal with on both the substantive and the “messaging” levels:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trump/GOP America is not afraid. I think we do ourselves a disservice to credit them with actual fear. And it causes us to misunderstand the challenge we face.


GOP America is afraid of Muslims in the way the Klan and mobs of 20s feared blacks and drinkers and Catholics. Islamic terrorism gives people permission to assert dominance over one of the smallest, weakest groups of in our country — and fancy themselves bravely standing up for good by shitting on people.


It’s a win all the way around. It feels good. Lynchers thought themselves carrying out a noble, hard duty. And they took joy in it. The sentiments on display at the debate are precisely the same. GOP voters eat it up because it feels good. They’re not looking for reassurance. They’re demanding indulgence.


This follows up on the social permission that electing Barack Obama gave many Americans to indulge racist instincts and bile they long hid. Can’t be racist, I live in Barack Obama’s America. Inoculation and permission.


I saw this quote in a story about what Americans fear:


“I am very careful taking my small children into large crowds or celebrations – particularly those celebrations of our faith,” said one mother.”


This is obviously horseshit. And even if it’s not, it might as well be. The line between honest delusion and indulgent drama barely exists.


The point of this is that we won’t convince people not to act on the permission that their bullshit “fear” gives them. We have to revoke the permission to enjoy how this makes them feel. And that takes confrontation, not reassurance. We just have to beat them.


That’s our challenge.  

***

* Rules-of-journalism dept: Why, and when, is it worth accepting “off the record” strictures?

Sometimes that makes no sense, and a reporter will say to a source: talk with me on the record, or not at all. In other circumstances, there are things you learn this way that you couldn’t if participants thought that anything they said might be isolated for publication. When it comes to an incumbent president, unless you’re pursuing an active Watergate-style investigation and need on-the-record answers about specific allegations, the chance to someone explain and defend his views in fairly open conversation is presumptively worth taking.

As mentioned earlier, the main thing the White House would hope to gain in specifying “off the record,” that a single phrase or sentence wouldn’t be captured out of context, nonetheless happened this time. Someone relayed the news that the president said he “didn’t watch” or “didn’t watch enough” cable TV news to internalize the widespread panic after the San Bernardino shootings. This became another standalone gaffe. In context it was part of Obama’s discussion of the difficulty of weighing risks rationally, but that in-context version remains off the record. The leaked one-sentence version went public and became another “gaffe.”

***

Christmas Eve greetings to all so inclined, and appropriate holiday wishes in general.

There Won’t Be a Keystone XL Pipeline

President Obama has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, killing the long-stalled project to bring oil from the Canadian tar sands to Texas.

“The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interests of the United States,” Obama said. “I agree.”  

The announcement, during which the president was flanked by John Kerry, his secretary of state, and Vice President Joe Biden, is the culmination of years of debate—much of it rancorous—over the Canadian company TransCanada’s proposed 1,661-mile pipeline. On Thursday, the State Department rejected TransCanada’s request to put a review of the project on hold until a dispute in Nebraska over the project’s proposed route was resolved.

The State Department, which had final say because the project crossed an international border, had been reviewing the pipeline for more than six years, working to determine whether it was in the national interest. Congressional Republicans had tried—unsuccessfully—this year to circumvent that process and grant the project a permit immediately. Friday’s decision effectively kills all those efforts.

Environmentalists, some landowners in Nebraska, and liberal Democrats had long opposed the project, arguing the negative environmental impact outweighed any positive contribution. But supporters of the project—including politicians from both parties, some unions, and energy companies—said the pipeline would create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence of oil from the Middle East. (You can read about the debate here.) Both those arguments have been eroded since the project was first proposed: The price of oil is at multi-year lows amid a supply glut, and the U.S. is now one of its top producers. Add to those factors Friday’s jobs numbers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the U.S. added 271,000 jobs last month far higher than 180,000 figure estimated by economists. The unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent.

Obama’s announcement is likely to have an impact on the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, had already come out against it, as has her main rival, Bernie Sanders. The Republican candidates support the project.  

If You’re in D.C. Tomorrow, Come Hear Some News From Al Gore

The Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk spoke with the pontiff during his visit to D.C., her lawyers and the Vatican have confirmed.

The pope has left the United States, but details are still coming out about his trip. Here’s a big one: Last Thursday afternoon, during his time in Washington, D.C., he met with Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who has refused to perform same-sex marriages, her lawyers say.

“She left at 1:15 exactly, and she was at the Vatican [embassy] a hour and a half or so, maybe up to two hours, waiting, and that also included the meeting,” said Mat Staver, her attorney at the firm Liberty Counsel, said. Davis and her husband, Joe, met with the pope for “under 15 minutes,” Staver said. “The pope came out and greeted her, held out his hand, ask Kim to pray for him, and she clasped his hands with her hands, and asked the pope to pray for her.”