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Thu08132020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

On this week's gluten-laden weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World checks in with the pundits regarding Iran; Jen Sorensen examines the Big Dumb War Cycle; (Th)ink looks in on a chat between Trump and Baby Yoda; Red Meat features another round between Karen and Milkman Dan; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy talks "I" words.

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Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

I was 23 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—a just-out-of-college reporter for a local newspaper in Florida, part of a generation that had been shocked out of a brief era of unquestioned American hegemony by Sept. 11, 2001. We had just watched an entire country rally, drone-like, around a ground war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban had been routed, and the “peacekeeping” effort had taken its turn toward the generation-old morass we’ve come to know and love. The Bush administration then turned its eyes to a new target—a more dangerous target, we were told. One with Weapons of Mass Destruction. With Nuclear Ambitions. Run by a Madman. An Axis of Evil™. A country that, any day now, would attack the United States, so we had to act now or risk a “mushroom cloud,” as President George W. Bush ominously intoned.

I was skeptical of the Bush administration’s eagerness for war, of the constant drumbeat of stern men warning of immediate danger. But I was also young and naive, or perhaps not yet jaded enough to imagine that my government would wholesale manufacture a justification for war—that it would lie to the world and to the American people as a pretext for war. I distrusted Dubya and his cronies, but I figured there had to be some legitimate casus belli. Besides, for the most part, the national media wasn’t challenging the president’s claims, and neither were leading Democrats.

The Iraq War cured me of such naivete. My government lied to me, to the public, to the world. It did so brazenly and callously. It invented evidence to sell a war of choice—a war its chicken-hawk proponents had been itching to fight for a decade. (The fact that not a single one of the war’s architects is rotting in Leavenworth is a moral stain that won’t be easily erased.)

Although Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and the like had been fantasizing about toppling Saddam Hussein for years, and although these men had been in and around the highest levels of government for decades, no one apparently thought through what would happen afterward. Defeating Saddam—who had no weapons of mass destruction, let alone nuclear capabilities—was easy, but, as we soon learned, there was no plan for the vacuum of power.

Everything soon went to shit.

American soldiers ended up in a sectarian civil war. In time, the chaos gave rise to ISIS, which led to more fighting in Iraq and Syria, which had its own devastating civil war, which produced a refugee crisis in Europe, which prompted a surge of right-wing populism, which led, in part, to Brexit. Iraq’s collapse opened the door for its regional adversary Iran, which seeded Shia militias throughout the Middle East—including those in Iraq—and took steps toward its own nuclear program, and, more recently, engaged in a catastrophic proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

These are just some of the second- and third-order effects of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that reverberate 17 years later. For all of their foreign policy experience, his war planners never envisioned any of it—or anything like it. They thought it’d be simple; we’d be “greeted as liberators.” Instead, we got war without end.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking Iranian official that the U.S. assassinated via drone strike in Baghdad early Friday. Like most Americans, I’d never heard his name before he was killed. A New Yorker profile from 2013 paints him as a powerful-yet-invisible behind-the-scenes operative in the Middle East, “assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.” He was also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another blood-soaked human being who, in the convoluted politics of the Middle East, has been battling ISIS.

Suleimani had arrived in Iraq after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias marched on the U.S. embassy on Tuesday, imprisoning diplomats for 24 hours. (No one was harmed.) That was in response to the American bombing of three Kataib Hezbollah militia sites in western Iraq, and two more in Syria, which killed about two dozen people. That was in response to Kataib Hezbollah allegedly firing 31 missiles into an American base on Dec. 27, which killed an American contractor.

This strike goes well beyond what the military calls a “proportional response.” Though the American government considered him a terrorist, Presidents Bush and Obama had passed on opportunities to kill Suleimani, the ayatollah’s friend and the second-most-powerful person in Iran. (By longstanding executive order, the U.S. does not “engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” though “assassination” is never defined.)

President Trump’s move wasn’t just taking out a bad guy. It was an escalation, akin to Iran offing a secretary of defense or a four-star general. It was an act of war—conducted without congressional notification, much less approval.

The context shouldn’t be ignored: Trump is headed into a re-election year with lackluster approval numbers and facing an impeachment trial. The day he authorized the strike, evidence surfaced that he had personally directed the Office of Management and Budget to withhold Ukrainian aid while he was pressuring that country’s president to investigate his political rival, even as the Pentagon worried that doing so was both illegal and contrary to America’s interests. You’d be forgiven for suspecting the dog is being wagged.

But I’m not sure that’s the case, because I’m not sure that much thought went into it. Trump is nothing if not impulsive—and nothing if not driven by an atavistic impulse to prove himself tougher than his predecessor. Obama had negotiated with Iran; Trump was going to kill its No. 2. Iran jabbed; Trump pulled out the sledgehammer. To Trump, foreign policy is a dick-measuring contest; as long as he has to U.S. military to fight for him, he has no need for the soft power of diplomacy.

But there’s a reason Obama—who was never shy about hunting human beings with drones—declined to kill Suleimani. No one knows what happens now, only that it’s probably not good. In its statement, the Defense Department said it took out Suleimani to deter future violent acts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a video that showed what he said were Iraqis “dancing in the street.”

That seems unlikely to be the final word.

Iran’s supreme leader vowed “forceful revenge.” The State Department told Americans to leave Iraq. Iraq’s prime minister “strongly condemned the assassination,” called Suleimani a “martyr,” and labeled the strike a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, a blatant attack on the dignity of the country, and a dangerous escalation.” He also said it violated “the conditions for the presence of the American forces in Iraq and its role which is supposed to be limited to training Iraqi forces and fighting ISIS.” Foreign-policy experts say a conflict with Iran won’t look like anything we’ve seen before: “It will be fought throughout the region with a wide range of tools versus a wide range of civilian, economic, and military targets.” Oil prices are already rising.

Say what you want about the Bush administration, but they were the A-team of the neoconservative movement. Yet they failed to see beyond the first move. Trump’s foreign policy crew, on the other hand, isn’t the A-team of anything. His National Security Council is a dysfunctional mess. He’s on his fourth national security adviser—the first a convicted felon, the second short-tenured, the third fired via Twitter. The president has sought to purge dissenters and surrounded himself with sycophants. He’s degraded intelligence officials while seeking guidance from talk-show hosts.

As important, Trump has strained the alliances he’d need to fight Iran. The Europeans have been trying to make Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran work despite Trump pulling out. Now that hope is gone. And it’s increasingly likely that Iraq will ask the U.S. to withdraw its 5,000 troops from the country, which might allow ISIS to again develop a foothold. For all of this, Trump’s never had a coherent strategy in Iran; he paints himself as a noninterventionist, yet everything his administration does points toward wanting to force regime change, and those two things usually don’t go together.

Donald Trump is about to face an honest-to-god foreign policy crisis—one that stands to get a lot of people killed. What are the chances that he’s thought through what happens after he waves his dick around?

As with Saddam Hussein 17 years ago, the question isn’t whether we could kill Suleimani. Nor is it whether he deserved to die. The question is whether assassinating him is worth the blood we’re about to spill—and whether we even paused to ask ourselves that.

Second verse, same as the first

a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

One of Donald Trump’s few substantive defenses against the allegations that brought about his impeachment last week is that he didn’t try to extort an investigation into Joe Biden and a crackpot DNC server conspiracy theory for his own political benefit—but rather, he sought “a favor” for the good of the country.

The evidence for this, the president and his defenders say, is in the not-quite-a-transcript that the White House released of the July 25 call between Trump and then-newly elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky thanks the U.S. for pressuring Russia through sanctions, then expresses interest in buying more missiles.

And Trump, of course, replies: “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. … There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Zelensky mentions that one of his assistants had spoken to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Trump says, “I will ask him to call you along with the attorney general.”

In Trump’s telling, the fact that he referenced Attorney General William Barr shows that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine.

Put aside that this runs contrary to every known fact about Donald Trump. Instead, focus on how casually Trump lumps in the attorney general of the United States with his lawyer, who’d spent the better part of a year in Ukraine trying to manufacture a sham investigation into the Bidens—and who, incidentally, is reportedly under federal investigation.

In Trump’s mind, they’re the same They’re his guys. That should be a red flag.

The attorney general is not the president’s lawyer. The attorney general is—in theory—the lawyer for the American people, whose fidelity is to the country and the Constitution.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, however. So a year ago, Trump forced out his first AG, Jeff Sessions—the first U.S. senator to endorse his presidential campaign —because he deemed Sessions insufficiently loyal during Russiagate. For his second AG nominee, Trump wasn’t taking any chances.

Bill Barr believes in the unitary executive theory—put simply, the president is essentially above the law and has total control of the government’s law-enforcement system. Barr was also willing to play lackey.

So, for instance, when the Mueller report came in, Barr dashed off a letter to Congress saying—deceptively, it turned out—that Trump had been cleared of wrongdoing, obscuring Mueller’s findings that the president had repeatedly obstructed justice and that he was only not charged with a crime because he Department of Justice policy forbade it.

And when, with Trump staring down impeachment, the DOJ’s inspector general released a long-awaited report demolishing Trump’s batshit claims about a Deep State vendetta against his presidential campaign, Barr sent out an unprecedented statement contradicting his department’s IG. If nothing else, he’s a company man.

More troubling was his speech to the Federalist Society in November, in which he leaned into his role as a partisan actor, accusing anyone to the left of Attila the Hun of “undermining (the) rule of law” and Congress of—as a “pursuit of choice”—“drown(ing) the Executive Branch with ‘oversight’ demands for testimony and documents.”

These are not co-equal branches, Barr believes. If the president finds congressional oversight annoying, he should ignore it.

Also, progressives—what with their “civil rights” and other such nonsense—are snowflakes, while conservatives are grounded in reason and as such at a political disadvantage.

“In any age,” Barr opined, “the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion. … Conservatives, on the other hand, do not seek an earthly paradise.  … Conservatives tend to have more scruple over their political tactics and rarely feel that the ends justify the means.”

Obviously, Bill Barr has never heard the name Mitch McConnell or watched C-SPAN in the last decade or so.

But gaslighting—or, more charitably, being obtuse—isn’t what bothers me most about Barr; that’s par for the course in the modern GOP. It’s this: Earlier this month, Barr told a roomful of cops that “the American people have to focus on something else, which is the sacrifice and the service that is given by our law enforcement officers. And they have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves. … (If) communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”

In other words, show your cops love—i.e., don’t protest if they beat up or shoot a person of color—or, well, you just never know, do you?

This is an attorney general, of course, who has criticized local district attorneys in Philadelphia and St. Louis for calling for police accountability, and has demanded zero tolerance for “resisting police.”

To recap: Trump should be able to do whatever he wants. Trump should have unchecked control over the law-enforcement apparatus. Law enforcement should be able to do whatever it wants. Resisters? Zero tolerance. Protesters? It’d be a shame if something happened to them.

All hail the police state.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

On this week's gift-return-ravaged weekly Independent comics page: (Th)ink looks at a primary difference between the current president and Hitler; This Modern World listens to Trump's Christmas address; Jen Sorensen ponders ways to enlighten people these days; Red Meat heads for a wintertime survival campout; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy checks in with the Saudis.

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On this week's yule log-warmed weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World examines the latest case taken up by Donald J. Trump, detective-in-chief; Jen Sorensen looks at a proposed Ohio law that demands doctors perform a procedure that ... doesn't exist?; The K Chronicles shakes his head at racism in Italian soccer; Red Meat takes in a festive Christmas movie; and Apoca Clips watches as Li'l Trumpy engages in some puppetry.

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On this week's multicolored-light-strewn weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World again puts on MAGA-vision; Jen Sorensen ponders all the retro trends; (Th)ink looks inside the mind of Mr. Zuckerberg; Red Meat needs to revise a history paper; and Apoca Clips posits that Rudy's goose may be cooked.

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Happy Thanksgiving! On this week's gravy-slathered weekly Independent comics page: Apoca Clips learns the real truth behind that ridiculous Tesla truck announcement; Red Meat makes plans for a solo Thanksgiving; This Modern World looks at the perspective of wealthy Democrats; Jen Sorensen wonders what happens if a president commits crimes, but almost half the country doesn't believe it; and The K Chronicles has a Hollywood moment.

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On this week's cornbread-stuffing-filled weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World wonders what the deal is with all this impeachment stuff; Jen Sorensen looks at Facebook going all the way to 1984; The K Chronicles isn't very impressed by Hollywood; Red Meat suffers the consequences of some unwise diet choices; and Apoca Clips "learns" something at a convention.

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On this week's pumpkin-pie-infused weekly Independent comics page: Red Meat deals with a bad cough; Apoca Clips checks in with Donny Junior on his book tour; Jen Sorensen ponders "woke culture"; The K Chronicles offers a soundtrack for the upcoming race war; and This Modern World looks at the aftermath of a Donald Trump bank robbery.

Published in Comics

In a mostly party-line vote last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution establishing the ground rules for the ongoing impeachment inquiry—allowing the release of deposition transcripts, providing opportunities for the president’s lawyers to present evidence, and setting up televised public hearings just in time for Thanksgiving.

This, of course, didn’t stop House Minority Whip Steve Scalise from complaining about “Soviet-style impeachment proceedings.” Other Republicans argued that Democrats were “abusing the process” or that, because no Republicans voted for the inquiry, it’s merely a partisan sideshow.

Even so, now that the impeachment inquiry is officially official, we should be getting a sense of how the White House and its allies plan to defend Donald Trump against mounting evidence that he withheld military aid as leverage to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rivals. What we’re actually seeing, however, is not one defense, but scattershot multiple defenses—some contradictory, some conspiratorial, and some that seem culled from a Reddit thread, all led by a president who refuses to admit the possibility that he did anything inappropriate, let alone illegal. As best I can tell, there are four at play:

1. No quid pro quo.

2. Sure, a quid pro quo, but it wasn’t illegal.

3. An attempted quid pro quo, but that doesn’t count.

4. Hell yeah, a quid pro quo, but it was a good thing, because The Truth Is Out There, man. 

The first defense belongs to Donald Trump, and increasingly to Donald Trump alone. In his mind, and on his Twitter feed, the July phone call with Ukraine’s president—in which, according to the White House’s edited account of the conversation, he conditioned aid on an investigation into a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians framed Russia for the 2016 DNC hack and urged an investigation into the Bidens—was “perfect.” There was nothing inappropriate about it. No quid pro quo.

Since Trump did no wrong, everyone who says he did must be part of a conspiracy. The whistleblower, Trump tweeted, “must be brought forward to testify.” The top Ukrainian expert on the National Security Council—who testified that he was told Trump would only meet with Ukraine’s president if Ukraine opened the investigations Trump demanded—is a now “Never Trumper,” Trump has asserted, as if that has any bearing on the substance of his testimony.

The no-quid-pro-quo line has become a bridge too far for even some loyalists. After all, even the best news the White House got last week—that a Trump appointee to the NSC said he didn’t think there was anything illegal about the call with the Ukrainian president—also came with the confirmation that Trump froze military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate his enemies.

That brings us to defense No. 2: The quid pro quo happened, but it wasn’t criminal (or impeachable). The Washington Post reported that, during a private Senate GOP lunch last week, some senators pitched this line of attack—“the U.S. government often attaches conditions to foreign aid and that nothing was amiss in Trump’s doing so in the case of aid to Ukraine.” As Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, told the Post, “To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to: Why did the president ask for an investigation? To me, it all turns on intent, motive.”

This defense would work better if Trump didn’t stomp on it. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the story was “false.” Perhaps a quid pro quo wasn’t impeachable, he said, but it didn’t matter, because there wasn’t one.

Then there’s defense No. 3, that Trump’s conspiracy failed, so no harm, no foul. Per The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “Democrats want to impeach Mr. Trump for asking a foreign government to investigate his political rival for corruption, though the probe never happened, and for withholding aid to Ukraine that in the end wasn’t withheld.”

It’s true that Trump released the money just before the scandal broke, but the fact that he got caught before his extortion scheme bore fruit hardly speaks to a presidential temperament. Besides, his efforts to stoke an investigation in Ukraine continue. Just last week, NBC News reported, Rudy Giuliani was in Ukraine meeting with a former diplomat who alleges that Ukraine’s government conspired with the DNC to hurt Trump in 2016. At the same time, a group of Russia-friendly Ukrainian parliamentarians are seeking an investigation into whether their country set up Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, now a resident of a federal prison.

Giuliani tweeted last week that “frenzied” Democrats are “covering up, because it’s bigger than you think.”

And herein lies the last line of defense, that there is a grand conspiracy yet to be unraveled, connecting the Deep State and the Obama administration and Joe Biden and the DNC and Ukraine and Russia and George Soros and probably Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files.

Trump’s die-hards are pinning their hopes on John Durham, the prosecutor Attorney General William Barr tapped to investigate the investigators who first looked into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, an effort—like Giuliani in Ukraine—to discredit the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. Over the weekend, The Independent reported that, based on Barr’s requests to British intelligence services, officials there believe “they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services.”

As incoherent as they seem, these defenses are all aimed at a singular audience. Over the weekend, NBC and Fox News released polls showing that 49 percent of voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. But both polls also showed that about 90 percent of Republicans oppose impeachment. As long as that’s the case, the White House’s bet is that there’s no way the Republican-led Senate will convict Trump … so long as there’s a thin reed to grasp.

Anything will do, really.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International