In the Arena

TV Kerfuffles

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I’ve gotten into some trouble on TV twice in the past 24 hours–yesterday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, regarding raising the age for Medicare eligibility; just now on Morning Joe, about whether the Benghazi consulate attack was an Al Qaeda operation. I stand by what I said in both cases.

First, regarding Medicare eligibility. If we have universal health care, via Obamacare, the age at which you become eligible for Medicare–whether it be 65 or 67 or, heaven forfend, 70–becomes moot. But it’s got to be a supple, competitive universal health care system where the exchanges–the online health care superstores–offer individuals and small businesses plans at the same (lower) group rates that Time Warner or the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plans (which provides members of Congress with their coverage) do.

There are two caveats here: at a certain point in life, asking the elderly to make market choices becomes cruel. A modified version of Medicare as it now exists should be available starting at some appointed age–let’s say 75–that would be the default position for the elderly. The second caveat is this: fee-for-service Medicare should be phased out over the next decade. Doctors need to be salaried, as they are at the Mayo Clinic or the Geisinger system in Pennsylvania, and not rewarded for performing more tests and procedures on end-of-life patients who don’t need them.

As for Benghazi, Joe Scarborough pushed me to acknowledge that the attack on the consulate was an “Al Qaeda” operation. My response was, “Define Al Qaeda.” He said I was tap dancing. I wasn’t. What you had was a local street gang–a radical militia–using the excuse of the anti-Islamic film and the cover of riots in Cairo to stage a spontaneous attack on the consulate. When the thugs realized that security at the consulate didn’t exist, they came back, less spontaneously, with heavier weapons. No doubt, these terrorists were Al Qaeda sympathizers and wannabes. But was this an “Al Qaeda”-ordered assault?  Not in the sense of Al Qaeda as we first came to know it: not like the 1997 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa or the attack on the USS Cole, or 9/11. It was not an attack that was planned or ordered by Ayman Al Zwahiri or some central controlling illegal authority.

The Benghazi attack was a tragedy. The Republicans attempted to exploit it as a conspiracy during the campaign. That failed. The attempts to exploit it are waning now–even John McCain is softening toward Susan Rice. But it is important to be precise here: this was not an “Al Qaeda” attack–and yes, this is a distinction with a real difference. We will, unfortunately, see more of these. It is entirely possible that a more general struggle between the conservative Muslim Brotherhood governments and the extremist salafis in the region has begun. It may eventually become an organized region-wide battle, but it isn’t yet–the various street gang militias may unite and become the Crips, or a revivified Al Qaeda. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Update: Tom Ricks got into some trouble on Fox today, making the same argument about the Benghazi tragedy that I have. I guess Fair and Balanced still has a ways to go before it arrives at Fact-Based.