DMZ America Podcast #19: Colin Powell DOA, Buttigieg MIA, China the new USSR, Taliban vs. ISIS-K and More

Conservative cartoonist Scott Stantis and progressive cartoonist Ted Rall go even longer this time! Sparks fly over whether Colin Powell was a hero or a zero, Ted offers a primer on the internal politics of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, Scott calls for a new Cold War against China while Ted deplores the old one against the Soviet Union, and Ted and Scott trade ideological places on whether transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg ought to take two months off from work six months into his new job. Plus more!


Colin Powell, Moral Weakling

Irrefutable' Iraq evidence - Baltimore Sun

            If Colin Powell’s life has meaning, it is as a cautionary tale about the perils of going along to get along.

Rarely has history offered such a stark example of a human being offered a clear existential choice between right and wrong. Hardly ever has so much hung in the balance for humanity and for an individual’s soul, as when then-secretary of state Colin Powell spoke to the United Nations to make the case for war.

It would be impossible to overstate the import of Powell’s February 2003 speech, in which he claimed that the United States had amassed a stockpile of evidence that proved that Iraq had retained chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in violation of its commitments under the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire. Iraq’s government, Powell argued forcefully, presented such a clear and present danger to its neighbors that the international community—led by the U.S.—had a right, even a duty, to remove it with an invasion. President George W. Bush and his co-conspirators had spent the better part of the previous year working to convince Americans to support a second war against Iraq over WMDs. Polls showed that voters remained unconvinced.

Possibly in preparation for a 2004 White House run—hard to imagine in these polarized times, but the ex-general had long been considered a top presidential prospect by both major political parties—the even-tempered Powell had previously distanced himself from his fellow cabinet members, dominated as they were by neoconservative hotheads, throughout the first two years of his term. Powell’s credibility towered over everyone else in American politics to an extent rarely seen before and certainly never since.

When you join a gang, you’re required to prove your loyalty. “You’ve got high poll ratings,” Vice President Dick Cheney told Powell as he ordered him to support the push for war. “You can afford to lose a few points.”

Which is why Bush and Cheney sent him to the U.N. They knew that Powell alone could close the deal with a public made recalcitrant by historical precedent: the U.S. had never before launched a full-out war without a pretext that made some sort of sense. And Where the president had failed the prestigious Powell succeeded brilliantly, with the American public as well as with key allies like Great Britain and Australia. Seconds after he stopped talking, TV talking heads told us what we already knew: the fate of a million Iraqis was sealed. We were going to war. 

There is an alternative universe in which Powell takes to the podium and tells the truth: there was no credible evidence that Iraq still had WMDs. I have often imagined the stressed-out secretary of state, music swelling Hollywood-style, beginning to read the litany of lies about anthrax, chemical decontamination trucks, falsified Iraqi death certificates and cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaeda—an alliance that not only was not true but could not have been true—before tearing up his prepared remarks. The statesman stares into the camera and speaks the words that would have saved a million lives, assured his place in history as a Profile in Courage™ and gotten him elected president by a landslide: “They told me to come out and lie to you. I will not. I swore to protect the Constitution of the United States, not the President of the United States, so help me God, and there is no evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.”

Powell’s defenders blame Bush. They say Powell was lied to, conned.

Powell fed the rube narrative in his 2012 memoir. “I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me,” he wrote, referring to the intelligence report he used for his U.N. speech that contained false evidence of supposed Iraqi WMDs. Powell never apologized.

Actually, Powell’s instincts were on point. His conscience went missing.

He knew it was all a lie.

At the time.

The weekend before his speech, Powell exploded in frustration as he read the manufactured intel reports he had been given by the Bushies. “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit!” he shouted, throwing the cherry-picked documents in the air. Then he picked himself up, took a deep breath and went out and lied the world into a war that would forever soil America’s reputation.

Weakness was baked into Powell’s personality early on. As a young officer serving in Vietnam Powell played a minor but telling role in covering up a soldier’s report about war crimes and other atrocities committed by U.S. troops during the same period as the My Lai massacre. Rather than investigate the allegations, which were accurate, Powell smeared the whistleblower as a coward. The whistleblower’s career faltered as Powell’s soared.

Powell’s memoir made clear that he understood the gravity of his shilling for the Iraq War. “It was by no means my first, but it was one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact,” he wrote. “The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary.”

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

DMZ America Podcast #18: The Great Resignation, Katie and Ruth, Alden Capital, Social Media, Whitman’s Militant Moderates

Political cartoonists Ted Rall and Scott Stantis go long this time. Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs because they hate them. But why now? Katie Couric admits that she ran interference for Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Colin Kaepernick story. What does it mean, who will remember? Alden Capital, notorious for destroying newspapers, has come for the Chicago Tribune chain and it’s the end of the end for American journalism. You already knew that social media was terrible; here’s why it’s just as bad as cigarettes. Finally, Christine Todd Whitman becomes the latest centrist Republican to waste her time and ours trying to turn the GOP into a bunch of nice moderates.



Why Is Stalking Legal?

           Activists harass White House officials and senators as they eat dinner at restaurants. Another senator was recently stalked into the ladies’ room, where her pursuers shouted derision at her stall. Many other politicians have suffered protest demonstrations at their homes.

Now that they’re beleaguered, this may be the perfect time to convince lawmakers to act to protect Americans’ most personal information: their home address and phone number.

            Type your name into a search engine. Odds are, a few of the results will include private companies that reveal your home address or part thereof, your phone number or part thereof, employment and education history, along with information about “known associates” like your friends and family members. For a fee, these personal search services offer to fill in the gaps with data culled from public records such as those of the Department of Motor Vehicles, marriage records, voter registration rolls and consumer credit reports.

            Easy access to mountains of personal data is such a gold mine for identity thieves, stalkers and other predators that women’s shelters spend much of their time helping their clients to navigate convoluted state-run programs which allow victims of abuse to replace their home addresses with P.O. boxes in public databases like those run by the DMV. Trying to disappear from the Internet is an uphill battle. Millions of Americans report having been stalked.

It’s a murder pandemic: 54% of female homicide victims were killed by former romantic partners who stalked them first, many by using public-records searches.

            You can ask each of these companies to opt out by deleting their listings for you. But the processes are cumbersome and make you reveal more information, like your current phone number, that could increase your exposure. It’s like Whack-a-Mole; every time you get one taken offline, another pops up. And there are lot: 121 companies registered to comply with a 2019 Vermont law set up to monitor the data brokerage business. Preventing predatory purveyors of personal information from selling your safety shouldn’t be a full-time job.

            Nor should you have to install a VPN or script-blocker or, as privacy experts advise, avoid posting anything on the Web.

            Pre-Internet, you controlled access to your contact information. If you didn’t want strangers to know your digits, you could request that the phone company keep you unlisted from 411 information and the white pages. One too many late-night raids by students wielding toilet paper convinced my mother, a high school teacher, to avail herself of that service. It worked.

            The system wasn’t perfect. A determined stalker could follow you home. Announcements of home purchases, including the name of the buyer, were listed in local newspapers. But dead-tree publications weren’t keyword-searchable from anywhere on the planet. It took considerable effort to track a person to their residence.

Privacy was central to American culture. A high-profile, high-risk celebrity, the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn relied on an unlisted number and the respectful attitude of his neighbors in a small town in Vermont to keep KGB assassins and the innocuously curious at bay. “No Restrooms, No Bare Feet, No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home,” read a sign at the local general store. Nowadays they’d track him all the way to the gulag.

Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA intercepts our phone calls, emails, texts and spies on us through the cameras on our computers erased Americans’ expectations of privacy from their government. Yet many people aren’t scared of the feds, figuring that they have nothing to fear since they’re not doing anything illegal.

But that doesn’t mean we want everyone to have access to our personal records. At least nine out of ten people tell pollsters that they want control over their information and that it’s important to them.

            Information brokerage is a $200 billion a year industry, one that offers obvious benefits to marketers and entrepreneurs researching the viability of a start-up. They wield influence in Washington, where they dropped at least $29 million in lobbying campaigns in 2020, as much as Facebook and Google combined. And for the most part, data brokers follow the law.

            That’s the problem.

            Information brokerage is basically unregulated. Attempts to require opt-outs, require transparency in calculations of consumer creditworthiness and ban the collection of data under false pretenses have repeatedly died on Capitol Hill. We need legislation that protects vulnerable people, like women and men whose lives are ruined and sometimes ended because their addresses are made freely available online. But privacy shouldn’t just be for victims. Everyone deserves the right to eat dinner and go to the bathroom in peace, or relax at the end of the day without having to deal with a mob of angry demonstrators outside their house.

            Even a senator.

 (Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

DMZ America Podcast #17: Dumb Dems—Can They Save Themselves? Also, will we go to war over Taiwan?

Leftie cartoonist Ted bungles the opening but circles back after rightie cartoonist Scott gives advice to a Democratic Party facing major electoral challenges. Then it’s off to the Taiwan crisis and what you need to know: A little history lesson on how did we get here? How can there be two Chinas? Will mainland China go to war? Will we? And a look at how we’d look at Taiwan if we were Chinese.



Taliban Fashion and Why It Matters

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021.

            The British tabloid The Daily Mail is taking small-arms fire for publishing an article bearing the headline: “It’s the trendy Taliban! Young fighters accessorize their traditional clothes with sunglasses, stylish trainers and own-branded baseball caps — while cracking down on Western dressing.” Though the piece took note of the brutal comportment of Afghanistan’s new and former rulers, woke journos at the Independent, Guardian and Politico slammed the very idea of talking about the wardrobe choices of the world’s most notorious insurgent army as “ridiculous,” a “puff piece” and “a Godawful take.”

            “Call me old-fashioned but the thing that stands out from the photos isn’t their fashion choices but that they are carrying MASSIVE GUNS,” the Politico railed.

            They’re not looking hard enough. If big guns defined the Taliban, I would be more worried whenever I see heavily-armed soldiers at Penn Station.

            Fashion matters more than you think and less than the fashion industry knows. Meryl Streep’s passionate rant in The Devil Wears Prada comes as close as possible to validating the socioeconomic importance of the fashion industry. Call me 60% convinced; no one could have done better. Anyway, Taliban 2.0 clothes and accessories are anti-fashion. That’s why they matter.

            “There is no easy way to describe the [anti-fashion] movement,” writes fashion blogger Mireya Perez. “Anti-fashion does everything fashion doesn’t do. It is a movement that goes against the mainstream.” Fashion signifies. Devotees of anti-fashion reject what everyone else takes for granted.

            Americans don’t talk about the raging cultural and political battle across the globe about the future, but people in other countries do. Modernizers want their country to feel, look and work more like the United States and Europe: high tech, long hours, low pay, zero connection. Traditionalists reject modernizing for the sake of globalization. Fashion is an under-discussed barometer of this struggle.

            There was once a time, within the memories of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers (Millennials remember nothing), when the boldface names of international politics groomed and dressed themselves with disregard or outright contempt for a world homogenized by Western fashions.

Scan group photos of world leaders attending conferences like the G20 or the U.N. and you’ll see a lot of different ethnicities stuffed into off-the-rack business suits. Women don’t get a pass: business jacket over blouse, pearl necklace and big round gold earrings are the required uniform of 21st century post-modern modernity. Nearly alone, the Taliban are bucking the trend.

            Thirty or forty years ago, you could scarcely shake a General Assembly without a bunch of Nehru jackets, an esoteric scarf or an African animal print falling out. Saudis and Pakistanis aside, sartorial diversity is as endangered as the cheetah. The bar scene in Star Wars has become after work at Hoolihan’s.

            North Korean leader Kim Jong Un began his ten-year reign with the traditional Mao jacket favored by his father and grandfather, an easy-to-understand visual riposte to Western capitalist mores. Yet the baby-faced scion of dead-ender Stalinism quickly jazzed up the Mao cut with pinstripe fabrics. Now he has succumbed. He wears Western-style business suits, albeit with a retro vibe. “Kim Jong Un’s got some cool clothes,” raves fashionista Michael Madden. “If he were from America, he would be one of these fellas we see in Portland, in Brooklyn, one of these hipster guys.” The revolution will be accessorized.

            Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Pan-Arabist and the longest-serving despot of both Africa and the Arab world, went his own way when it came to his wardrobe, donning a dazzling array of Dr. Evil suits, Hawaiian shirts, kufis and gaudy bemedaled military uniforms worthy of a Terry Gilliam movie. The way things are going, with even journalist-slaughtering Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ditching his dishdasha for a business suit, there is no place for Qaddafi and his Tarantino-esque brigade of kung-fu-fighting female bodyguards (actual name: The Revolutionary Nuns). Had he survived being blown up by a U.S. drone and subsequently sodomized with a bayonet, Qaddafi would probably be another pinstriped face in the crowd of political cut-and-pasters.

            In a world Ameri-homogenized into ever-blander dreariness, the combination of the Taliban’s victory over the most powerful empire in history and their stubborn refusal to change much about themselves, Taliban anti-fashion does indeed matter. One of the most iconic images of the transfer of power in Afghanistan was the photo of Taliban fighters gathered behind the president’s desk recently vacated by the ousted U.S. puppet ruler, Ashraf Ghani. The contrast between heavily-armed fighters and the ready-for-TV choreographed corridor of power was striking; then guerillas’ unabashedly anti-Western clothes and turbans were downright startling. You’re in power now. Where are your suit and ties?

The Taliban delivered an unmistakable message: we are here, we won, we are different, and we may have won because we are different.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

New DMZ Podcast: The Debt Ceiling Debate Triggers an Existential Discussion About Consumerism and Facebook Kids

From the left, political cartoonist Ted Rall discusses the dysfunctional political climate that gave us the ridiculous debt ceiling crisis with, from the right, political cartoonist Scott Stantis. Revelations in the Wall Street Journal about Facebook internal research and the company’s attempt to appeal to young children sparks a soulful discussion about everything from getting rid of your local cashier to self-driving cars.

Who Lost Afghanistan? H.R.

Contact Press Images

            Congress, the media and many voters are asking military officials this week: how did we lose the Afghan war? I’ve been reading a book, “The Afghanistan Papers,” by Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, that shows how America messed up its longest war. (Every now and then, corporate media hypes something that’s actually worth reading.)

            What it does not show, and what Pentagon leaders don’t seem to understand, is why.

Whitlock’s book reads like a synopsis of the many essays, books and cartoons I produced over 20 years, which were rejected by most newspapers and news websites because editors and producers refused to publish content that criticized the war.

For instance, Whitlock echoes my longstanding insistence that the Taliban posed no threat to the United States: “The Bush administration made another basic mistake by blurring the lines between Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” he writes. “The two groups shared an extremist religious ideology and a mutual support pact, but pursued different goals and objectives. Al Qaeda was primarily a network of Arabs, not Afghans, with a global presence and outlook… In contrast, the Taliban’s preoccupations were entirely local… The Taliban protected bin Laden and built a strong alliance with Al Qaeda but Afghans did not play a role in the 9/11 hijackings and there is no evidence they had advance knowledge of the attacks.”

We spent 20 years fighting people who meant us no harm and couldn’t have hurt us even if they had wanted to.

While the after-action investigation is necessary and interesting — I’m following it every day — the postmortem necessarily focuses on acts of commission and omission during the war, after it started. Perhaps because both major political parties were equally complicit in the invasion as a knee-jerk response to 9/11, or because both the Democrats and the Republicans are in the pockets of the defense industry, no one is questioning the decision to start the war, only its atrocious execution and embarrassing wind-down.

The sad truth is, the same screwups will continue. We will keep beginning wars against countries we ought to stay away from. We will make the same mistakes throughout the duration of those wars. Nothing will change because nothing has changed.

The reason is simple: personnel. Presidents keep hiring the wrong people to make decisions about war and peace. And the right ones never have a seat at the table in the room where it happens.

Voters who want to avoid fighting another Afghanistan war must insist upon candidates who promise to include anti-interventionists among their top military advisers and in their cabinet. They should withhold their votes from politicians, even liberal Democrats, who refuse to promise to include pacifists, war skeptics and isolationists among their inner circle. Personnel is policy, they say in Washington, and that is never truer than when someone near the President of the United States suggests military action.

Eisenhower was one of the last American political leaders to understand the importance of drawing advice from an ideologically diverse group. “I know of only one way in which you can be sure you’ve done your best to make a wise decision,” Ike said. “This is to get all of the people who have partial and definable responsibility in this particular field, whatever it may be. Get them with their different viewpoints in front of you, and listen to them debate.”

Unfortunately, there’s hardly any debate on whether or not to go to war.

What passed for diversity of opinion in the George W. Bush cabinet was a group of hawks with different styles and proclivities, but hawks nonetheless. After 9/11 Bush’s “war cabinet” included his notoriously bellicose Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State and former General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and CIA director George Tenet. No experts on Afghanistan were invited. No academics, no journalists, no one who had even spent a single night in a house in Afghanistan.

Predictably, all the choices discussed involved military action. “The war cabinet considered several options for the U.S. pursuit of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: a strike with cruise missiles, cruise missiles combined with bomber attacks, or ‘boots on the ground,’ that is U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan,” James P. Pfiffner noted in the journal Issues in Governance Studies. Most Americans now agree that the war was a mistake.

Bush should have stayed out of Afghanistan entirely.

Some people felt that way at the time, when it mattered, before we wasted trillions of dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. But antiwar Americans were ridiculed when they weren’t simply being ignored. Bush couldn’t make the right decision because no one who had his ear ever argued for it.

Joe Biden is a different and hopefully better president than George W. Bush, yet his group of advisers suffers from the same lack of ideological diversity. No one who generally opposes war meets with the president on a regular basis. When there’s a foreign policy crisis, none of Biden’s senior advisers can be counted upon to argue against getting involved.

Understanding how we lost Afghanistan is useful.

If we want to understand why we lost Afghanistan, and if we want to stop the next Afghan war before it starts, we should look at who.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)