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Our Ambivalent Endorsement of Gina Haspel

In the extremely unlikely case we found ourselves a United States Senator we’d be inclined to vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence, Gina Haspel, but we’d do so with some ambivalence. Some of the arguments made for and against Haspel seem reasonable enough, but the rest of the arguments we’re hearing, both pro and con, strike us as downright dumb.
The fact that Haspel would be the agency’s first female director is entirely irrelevant, as far as our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities are concerned, so we were disappointed but not at all surprised that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “tweeted” that any opposition to a nominee with such career credentials as Haspel must be motivated by sexism. Way back in the ’16 presidential former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had the far more relevant career credentials for the job of president, despite the many reasons that awful woman was clearly unfit for the job, and even such Trump-averse Republicans as ourselves scoffed at the notion that anyone should ever vote for a candidate based on his or her sex. We still reject that silly claim, and Trump’s White House press secretary — of all people — playing the gender card strikes us as sillier yet.
The Democrats’ opposition to Haspel’s nomination has been led by up-and-coming and potential presidential contender California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose feminist credentials are by far more unassailable than Sanders’, and are based on on an arguable complaint that Haspel’s otherwise exemplary career in the CIA included a stint at overseeing an overseas outpost where where she oversaw an operation that included harsh interrogations of captured suspected terrorists. Haspel admits giving the green to light to “waterboarding” and other undeniably harsh interrogation techniques that Democrats then and now regard as torture. Although she testified has testified before congress that we will eschew such methods in the future, Haspel has also has refused to condemn their use in the past, so the Democrats’ opposition to her nomination doesn’t seem at all hypocritical even if she is a woman potentially empowered to be the first woman director of the CIA.
On the the other hand, we’re not at all convinced that Haspel was overly harsh in the interrogations she oversaw. They happened shortly after Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks killed more than 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, after all, and didn’t involve anything that American troops weren’t trained to endure as they went off to fight various wars in response to that aggression. We’re the queasy sorts who are unable to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, but even after all these years we’d still countenance getting medieval on some suspected terrorists in those extraordinarily rare “ticking time bomb” situations that only seem to occur in the movies, and we acknowledge it’s a complicated question Haspel faced during an otherwise exemplary career.
On yet another hand, neither are we comfortable with Trump’s and his reconfigured Republican party’s newfound enthusiasm for torture.
During the campaign Trump slanderously excoriated Republican President George W. Bush for lying his way into mercenary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also blamed his processors for being weak-kneed against Islamist terrorism. He vowed that he would he would go way beyond mere “waterboarding” with suspected terrorists, not just in a rare “ticking time bomb” situation but on a regular basis, kill all the families of any suspected terrorists, summarily shoot any suspected terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and fire anyone who defied to his orders to commit such internationally-regognnized war crimes. He also derided all his Republican primary opponents who disagreed as “pussies,” and somehow that vulgar argument wound up winning the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency.
Among the few Republicans opposing Haspel’s nomination in Arizona Sen. John McCain, who suffered five years of undeniable torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam war, three of them voluntarily after he selflessly refused an early release because of his family’s clout rather than desert his comrades and hand the enemy a propaganda victory, which gives us respectful pause about Haspel’s nomination. During the last campaign the draft-dodging Trump said that McCain was only a hero “because he got caught, and I hate to tell you but I like a guy who didn’t get caught,” and although we’re still proud to vote cast our vote despite our many complaints about  Republican nominee McCain way back in ’12 we are also proud that we didn’t vote for either Trump or that awful Clinton woman back in ’16.
All the Trump apologists on the talk radio shows are damning McCain as as traitor to the country, and administration officials are joking about how the brain cancer-striken Senator and war Hero and former Republican presidential standard-bearer will soon be dead anyway. At that this point in ’18 we’d probably vote for Haspel’s confirmations if we were somehow Senators, but we’d feel ambivalent about her ambivalence in answer those questions the damned Democrats are asking about what she’d do if Trump kept his campaign promises and ordered her to commit a war crime without a “ticking time bomb” rationale.

— Bud Norman

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The Afghanistan War Goes On

America has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years long years, and after President Donald Trump’s nationally televised address on Monday it’s clear the fighting will continue for a while. That’s not good news, of course, but it could have been a lot worse.
It would have been worse news if Trump had announced he was keeping his oft-repeated campaign promise to concede defeat and allow the Taliban to reassume control of the country where their al-Qaeda allies planned and trained for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Trump admitted in a fairly well-written speech that doing so remains his instinct, so it’s very good news that he allowed the more carefully reasoned and far-sighted analysis of his far more experienced advisors to dissuade his instincts for a change.
It’s also as good a bit of news as one can hope for at this point that Trump didn’t make any characteristically grandiose promises about how America’s going to be winning so much you’ll get bored with winning and that it’s going to be so quick and easy your head will spin. Winning in Afghanistan won’t require leaving a fully westernized and modern country, a far-fetched fantasy that Trump effectively ridiculed on the campaign trail, but any semblance of victory does require a reasonably sane Afghan government that can defend itself against the inevitable attempts to once again turn the country into a training ground for future Islamist terror attacks on America, and we are reassured that Trump has been made to realize even that more modest goal is still necessary and that even after 16 long years it still can’t be done quickly or easily. Trump didn’t give a Churchillian sort of speech to prepare the people for the long struggle ahead, but at least he overcame his instinct to make promises that can’t be kept.
There was the usual lack of any specificity in Trump’s address, but that’s probably good news as well. He hinted that more troops would be deployed, although probably not as many as his generals had requested and surely not enough to turn Afghanistan into a thoroughly modernized and westernized country, but at this point there’s no reason for us or the enemy to know with any more specificity that at least the fight will continue. He hinted that America would prosecute the war with more ruthlessly self-defensive rules of engagement, which we think wise, but the fairly well-written script didn’t include any historically unfounded talk about summarily executing prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, as Trump recently advised the Spaniards to do after a recent Islamist terror attack, and these days we also have to count that as good news.
Aside from the life-and-death consequences of war there are also political implications to be considered, and we expect Trump handled those well enough for a change.
If you’ve been following the Trump presidency reality show so far you know that he recently accepted the resignation of “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, a longtime champion of the inaptly named “America First” non-interventionist school of foreign policy that so aligned with Trump’s instincts, who had famously been feuding with the more experienced and knowledgeable and far-sighted and hawkish generals who were serving as Trump’s Defense Secretary and national security advisor and chief of staff, so that’s a big sidebar story that won’t amount to much. Bannon has returned to the editorship of the Brietbart.com news site, which did much to promote Trump’s candidacy and presidency among a certain readership, and is already running articles of the newly stated Trump policy, but at this point we don’t expect that Trump will lose the support of many of its readers.
The rest of the media probably won’t manage to do much harm, either. When America went to war in Afghanistan those 16 long years ago it was in response to that country providing haven for the planning and training of an attack on American soil even worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor that had forced America into World War II, and Republican President George W. Bush was authorized the use of military force with bi-partisan support. Although Democratic President Barack Obama had been a strident critic of America’s war in Iraq he also deployed more troops to Afghanistan, even if he did so at lower levels than the generals recommended and with ludicrous timelines and rules of engagement, and his congressional authorization also won bipartisan support. Even Trump can expect to get the same benefit of the doubt, and he won’t suffer any significant loss of support from the far-left and despite Bannon’s best efforts only a slight loss on the far-fight.
Besides, there’s bound to be a solar event or sports competition or debt ceiling debate or Russia revelation to divert the public’s attention coming soon. After 16 long years the public has become accustomed to waging war in Afghanistan, and has largely come to realize there are no quick paths to anything resembling a victory but no available way out of getting out that wouldn’t be disastrous, so its hard to fault Trump for overcoming his simultaneously noninterventionist and militaristic instincts and being led to the same conclusion.
Over the past long 16 years the war in Afghanistan has claimed more than 2,400 American lives, with far more life-altering casualties, and although each of them is a tragedy that should be honored and mourned and carefully considered there’s a ruthless mathematics to war that publics have always also acknowledged. At this rate the war will have to carry one for another century or so before it reaches the death toll that caused America to exit the shorter Vietnam War, and hardier previous generations sacrificed as many of their children on a bad afternoon at Gettysburg or a rough morning on the beaches of Normandy, so except for the occasional desultory address on national television by Republican and Democratic presidents alike the Afghanistan war will probably go on unnoticed by all but those few unlucky patriots who have to fight it.
We’ll hope for the best, though, and begrudgingly admit that at least Trump didn’t it make any worse.

— Bud Norman

Jet-Setting and Leggings

Maybe it’s just because of a slow news cycle while the Republicans recover from their health care fiasco and the Democrats await the next big revelation about Russia or something helpful, but that flap about the two young women who didn’t get onto a United Airlines flight because they were wearing “leggings” is still getting a lot of attention. It’s a story with legs, as we used to say back in the newspaper days, and plenty of what used to be called sidebars.
By now you probably know, thanks to the diligent efforts of United’s crack public relations team, that the airline does not impose a dress code on its customers but does enforce one for its employees, and the two young women were attempting to board on company benefit tickets. There was nonetheless the predictable and understandable feminist outrage about women being told what to wear, and the usual fuddy-duddy but still-reasonable arguments about companies having a right to enforce dress codes, and a plausible counter-argument that the dress code in question is more restrictive of women’s choices than men’s, and a counter-counter-argument worth considering that there are practical reasons for that. The story mostly has legs, though, because it’s being argued across a generational as well as ideological divide.
Way, way back when we were in the early years of elementary school our beloved Pa used to fly almost constantly on business trips for his very big-time aerospace company, and our beloved Ma would often drive us out to greet his return at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, and it’s hard to describe how it overwhelmed our childhood imaginations. You could could walk right up to the exit gates without any hassles back then, and Pop would always come through the door in slightly wrinkled but otherwise impeccable business attire with all the weariness and slight smile of someone has just solved a high-tech problem or swung a very big-money deal, and pretty much everyone else looked pretty impressive. Even the returning tourists had a prosperous and classy look about them, which was hard for us to maintain on the long car rides that our family vacations entailed, and it inspired a certain inspiration to be part of what was then called the “jet set.”
By the time we were grown up enough to buy an occasional airline ticket things had changed, though, and the people we found ourselves standing in line with at the departure gate looked pretty much like the people at the nearest bus stop. The “airline hostesses” weren’t nearly so hot as those R-rated “stewardess” movies at the drive-in had promised, the food was just as awful as all the standup comedians said, and “jet set” had somehow been dropped from the popular lexicon. Then came the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and after that airline travel joined dental appointments and colonoscopies on our list of most dreaded activities, and of course the standards of what people were now being forced to undress had also further declined.
Meanwhile we started noticing people showing up at funerals and weddings and Sunday morning worship services and all sorts of places in shorts and t-shirts and ball caps, and a perhaps related decline in public civility, as well as a general lack of aspiration for anything like our childhood yearning of a “jet set.” We’re not so old that we didn’t notice when almost all the young women started wearing those skin-tight pants, although we are old enough that we put “leggings” in quotation marks because it’s still a neologism to us, and we have mixed feelings about that. Some of the young women look quite good in those pants, there are others we’d advise to try something different, but in no case do we feel it’s our place to offer either compliments or advice, and we just try to be civil. Neither do we offer any comment on those young men wearing shorts on the coldest day of winter or wool sherpa caps on the hottest day of summer, even if they do look damned ridiculous, and we always appreciate when no one comments on our slightly wrinkled and decidedly fuddy-duddy attire.
Still, we can’t help yearning for that “jet set” of our childhood imagination, and can still see ourselves seated in suit-and-tie on a carefree flight to an exotic location next to an attractive woman of a certain age attired in a loose but revealing-in-a-flattering-way dress, drinking some well-mixed cocktails and sharing some screwball comedy flirtations while a comely “stewardess” re-fills the glasses, and we’re free to gallantly light her cigarette should she desire one, and a world of elegant possibilities still awaits. If the kids prefer their “leggings,” even the ones who really don’t have the legs to pull it off, we’ll not deny them the choice, but they don’t know what they’re missing. We hope that United Airlines will continue to impose a reasonably fuddy-duddy dress code on its employees, and that a free-market will somehow reward its decision, and that a certain dignity will return to both the airports and the bus spots, but mostly we’re in favor of freedom and will accept its results.

— Bud Norman

Another Nervous Sept. 11

Today is September 11, and it seems as good a time as any to assess how America and the rest of Western Civilization are faring in the 1,400-year-old onslaught by the more bellicose adherents of Islam. We note with great relief and considerable nervousness that the west has suffered no attacks as deadly as the one that occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C., and over the skies of western Pennsylvania 14 years ago today, and hope and pray this will remain true throughout the day, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to be going very well for our side.
Smaller-scale but still horrific attacks on America and its allies have since become so commonplace they are largely forgotten after a 24-hour news cycle, and the ones in faraway places of which we know little, such as Mumbai and Moscow and Paris and London and Moore, Oklahoma, barely make an impression through the day. Each story comes carefully packaged with caveats about how it would be wrong to draw any conclusions about anybody but the particular individuals responsible for the carnage, who probably had legitimate grievances, not at all like the more infrequent stories about crazed white guys with guns who might have been listening to talk radio, and the cumulative death count is never mentioned. Although the death count is troublesome enough, the West’s instinct to ignore it is all the more so.
Meanwhile, the more bellicose adherents of Islam are rapidly gaining power in ever larger swaths of the religion’s Middle Eastern birthplace. A self-proclaimed Islamic State is imposing the most brutal and barbaric version of Sunni Islam in a growing portion of what was once Iraq and Syria, and the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism on behalf of Shiite Islam’s most murderous manifestation is about to get a $150 billion signing bonus from the West for a treaty that won’t prevent from them from acquiring nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to Western targets and implicitly acknowledges their rightful role to regional hegemony. Such assertiveness by the most bellicose adherents of both branches of Islam is troubling enough, but the West’s passivity is all the more so.
The head-chopping, crucifying, burning-at-the-stake depravity of the Islamic State has occasionally forced its way onto the otherwise pristine pages of America’s newspapers, but even the most stomach-turning stories always end with assurances from the administration that the Islamic State remains a “jayvee team” of terror and that the coalition of unaccountably moderate amateurs that has been assembled is somehow is not only holding its own against them but also the Syrian Assad regime’s professional Iranian-supported troops and the crack Russian soldiers that have lately been showing up in the middle of this convoluted conflict. This happy talk has lately been undermined by an Inspector General’s report, prompted by the complaints of more than 50 intelligence analysts working for the military’s Central Command, alleging that frank talk about the Islamic State’s worrisome gains have been censored. This seems all the more plausible given the administration’s determination to describe the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre as “Workplace violence” rather than Islamic terrorism, despite the culprit’s self-status status as as “Soldier of Allah” and his chants of “Alahu Akbar” as he gunned his victims down, or use any other explanation that will subtract from that troublesome death count of small-scale yet horrific terror attacks on American soil.
The same administration assures us that the deal delivering $150 billion and free reign to pursue intercontinental ballistic missiles and all sorts of ways to get nuclear warhead is the only alternative to what would surely be an unwindable war against the same Iran that president in his first successful campaign called a “tiny country” that “doesn’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union did.” There are still plausible options available to the Republicans and their more level-headed Democratic allies to scuttle the deal, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be willing to hold that crucial line. At this point, the best hope is that the deal will go down as an executive treaty that can be undone more a rock-ribbed president early in 2017.
Most of the rest of Western Civilization and its media seem to be on board, and only France, of all people, seem to have put much of a fight about it, and that this is not at all surprising is the most disturbing news of all. Europe’s government, if not its people, seem intent on welcoming what will eventually be millions of new arrivals from the lands where the most bellicose adherents of Islam predominate. A long-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination thinks it plays well with his party to advocate that America take in at least a few hundred thousand, the same front-runner for the Republican nomination who’s grabbed the lead by talking tough about Mexican Catholics takes the same position as that Democrat regarding Islamic Syrians, and nobody seems to be insisting on the democratic and republican and unabashedly Judeo-Christian yet rigorously secular values that have Western Civilization during its 1,400-year onslaught by the more bellicose adherents of Islam. So far the West has ceded to demands that there be no criticism of Islam, that even the most belligerent emigres to the west be afford their right to undermine the hosting civilization, and that western culpability always be presumed.
That Republican front-runner has admitted that he can’t think of any favorite passages from the Bible, and we’re sure that all the Democratic contenders will think of something about greed and covetousness in the unlikely event they’re ever asked the same question, but on this day we’re reminded of of the book of Jeremiah, chapter six and verse 14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

— Bud Norman

Anniversaries and Anxiety

Today is September 11, a date filled with dread. No American can help looking back in horror at the terror attacks that occurred on this day in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001, or at an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, nor nervously looking ahead for what might happen today. That nagging worry has occurred on this date for the past 14 years, but seems especially hard to shake this year.
The Islamist bloodlust that caused the past terror attacks is as impassioned as ever, and those afflicted with this ancient hatred have lately been conquering a large portion of the Middle East with beheadings and crucifixions, waging war against Israel with rockets lobbed into random civilians, committing the usual atrocities against one another, and issuing threats of mass murder against the west generally the United States specifically. It was once easy enough to dismiss such threats as mere Islamist bluster, but not now. Among the terrorist army rampaging through Middle East are hundreds of people with western passports that will get less scrutiny than the randomly selected businessman or tourist standing behind him at the airport, our  porous border with Mexico can’t keep out an illiterate and impoverished Guatemalan teenager much less an educated and well-funded terrorist, two Americans have been beheaded and others are being held awaiting the same fate, and the president’s prime time explanation of his hastily formulated strategy for dealing with the main Islamist threat on Wednesday offered no reassurance that our government is up to the challenge.
We’re not the only ones with this sense of foreboding. The United Kingdom has elevated its level of alertness in response to what the Prime Minister calls the “greatest terrorist threat in history,” Australia is considering doing the same, and a threatened king in Saudi Arabia has warned of attacks in the United States within months. A senior official at the Department of Homeland Security has told congress of Islamist plots to infiltrate the southern border, and although the agency quickly denied anything was currently afoot the brass at the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso has been ordered to implement increased security measures. Polling data show that the public at large is lately more worried about the threat of terrorism, too, and the president’s appearing on prime television to admit that al-Qaeda is not on the run and the tide of war is not receding and our enemies are not a junior varsity team suggest that he at long last has the same necessary worry something big might happen.
He’s probably not yet so worried that he’ll reconsider his ban on detaining terrorists at Guantanamo Bay or using the harsh-interrogations that have successfully thwarted past terrorist plots, or his supposedly more moral preference for drone strikes that incinerate the terrorists and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, or his instruction to Israel that even existential wars must be fought with the utmost politeness. Wednesday’s speech alternated tough talk about a “core principle” of his administration that “If you threaten America you will find no safe haven” with reassurances to his dwindling base of hippie peaceniks about the many things that he won’t do to the fight the enemy.
The president has recently described the country as “pretty safe,” a rather modest boast that he was obliged to admit he could make only because of all the national security apparatus created by his hated predecessor, and we’d like to believe it. Something about September 11 makes it difficult, though, so we’ll say a prayer, keep our fingers crossed and the radio on, and hope to be less anxious on September 12.

— Bud Norman