The Morning Jolt


A Shattered City

Men walk at the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

On the menu today: Unraveling the mystery behind yesterday’s devastating, jaw-dropping explosion in Beirut; reports suggest that Joe Biden’s vice presidential search isn’t going well — although one report suggests his list is down to two contenders; and yesterday’s primary leaves one less thing to worry about for Kansas Republicans.

In an Instant, a City Is Devastated and Left Forever Changed

Just think, all those years we wondered if someday some major city would be devastated by a suitcase nuke . . . and we should have been worried about massive supplies of ammonium nitrate being stored by the docks.

The videos out of Beirut, Lebanon, yesterday induced gasps; you could be forgiven for initially wondering if that massive shockwave indeed came from something nuclear or attempting to trigger a nuclear explosion. The blast appeared to stem from “more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, which had been stored in a warehouse at the port since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.” For perspective, the Oklahoma City bomb used about two tons of ammonium nitrate. The blast registered a 3.5 on the Richter scale used by seismologists to measure earthquakes.

As of this morning, more than 100 are dead, more than 4,000 are injured, and an estimated 300,000 left homeless as the blast tore apart buildings like they were children’s blocks. The scenes afterwards were downright apocalyptic.

For once, a catastrophic loss of Lebanese life can’t be traced back to Hezbollah, at least not directly. As of this writing, it appears this calamity stems from Lebanese government port managers who could figure out that the vessel that was originally shipping the ammonium nitrate was unsafe, but were not wise enough to realize that storing it all in a warehouse under extreme heat for years presented a separate danger:

According to contemporary reports, the Rhosus was scheduled to transport a cargo of ammonium nitrate from the Georgian port of Batumi to Biera in Mozambique in late 2013. But along the way it fell into technical problems, and failed a safety inspection in Beirut. The ship was later seized after its owner apparently ran out of money.

In 2014, with his crew essentially hostages and running out of provisions, Captain Boris Prokoshev warned of the dangers of his cargo.

“We’ve been here since 3 October 2013,” he told a journalist of the Ukrainian Sailor newspaper. “The cargo in the holds is ammonium nitrate, an explosive substance. We’ve been abandoned, living with no wage on a powder keg for the last 10 months.”

A Russian newspaper that reported on the situation carried a headline that reads especially eerily today: “Crew of the Rhosus cargo ship hostages aboard a floating bomb.”

In October 2015, the ammonium nitrate was transferred to warehouses: “Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses. The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

Some Lebanese people believe their country is cursed, and it is hard to disagree with them. After World War II, Beirut earned the nickname “the Paris of the Middle East” — a status that ended with the civil war of the 1970s and resulted in terrorism in the 1980s. The Lebanese lived as a vassal state to Syria for many years. Way back in 2004, I had the chance to irk the Syrian charge d’affaires in Washington with questions about that:

“We do not consider it an occupation,” Mustapha said. “The sovereign government of Lebanon is recognized by the entire world community. Lots of Lebanese are not happy with the Syrian presence, but there are also many who insist that the Syrians remain.”

When I asked how the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq compared to the Syrian “occupation” of Lebanon, he called the comparison “preposterous.” (Yes, it is a preposterous comparison, Mr. Ambassador, just not the way you think it is.) He told me to go ask the Lebanese embassy what they felt about the Syrian presence and talked about positive meetings between Lebanese citizens and Assad.

As luck would have it, a few Lebanese were in the audience, and they said definitively — and anonymously, lest the lurking men from the Syrian embassy identify them — that their home country was occupied by Syria.

Beirut started to enjoy another cultural and economic resurgence in the 2000s — and then lost a lot of that ground again in 2006 with the Israel–Hezbollah War.

Things had started to look up again. Our Carine Hajjar noted in June that in recent protests across Lebanon, “a notoriously sectarian country has united across social and religious lines to condemn the power of the Islamic Republic’s most successful export, Hezbollah.” Late last month, Hajjar detailed the country’s economically devastating hyperinflation, driven by government mismanagement and exacerbated by corruption and electricity shortages.

The Lebanese people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their government. And now those most common government problems — inertia, inattentiveness, squabbling over who has responsibility for moving a giant supply of dangerous chemicals — have left the city devastated once again.

Just What Is Joe Biden Looking for in a Running Mate?

Over at National Journal — a fine Capitol Hill publication, where I believe the slogan is “Getting Mixed Up with National Review Since 1969” — Josh Kraushaar observes that the fact that Joe Biden is reportedly considering Representative Karen Bass of California to be his running mate suggests he and his team haven’t really figured out what they want in a vice president:

. . . if you’re going to reject [Kamala] Harris for her lack of big-league political successes, it’s bizarre that Bass is seen as an adequate substitute. Representing a heavily Democratic Los Angeles district, Bass has never faced a remotely competitive campaign since being elected to Congress; even the primary for her first campaign in 2010 was anticlimactic. Her biggest leadership test was spending just two years as California’s House speaker before leaving to run for Congress. And her past activism in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, combined with warm condolences to the Cuban dictator upon his death in 2016, would be politically toxic to a Biden ticket, especially in the pivotal swing state of Florida (where Biden is underperforming with Hispanic voters). If the mantra for picking a running mate is “first do no harm,” then choosing Bass makes no sense.

The sudden emergence of Bass on the short list underscored just how convoluted that Biden’s process for selecting a running mate has been. She wasn’t seen as vice presidential material until she quickly became a compromise choice from her allies in the House. Bass doesn’t seem to offer anything to the Biden ticket, given her lack of presidential ambition and relative political anonymity.

Last week, I mentioned that Bass is so little-known, I couldn’t write about her name recognition because I couldn’t find any pollster who had ever asked about her. This morning, Vox writes about a new SurveyUSA/FairVote poll that finds Bass is seen favorably by 37 percent and unfavorably by 15 percent. The survey found 48 percent had no opinion about Bass. The survey found 49 percent had no opinion about Representative Val Demings of Florida.

At some point, you step back and ask . . . why? Why does Biden’s reported short list feature two little-known House members and a mostly forgotten former national-security adviser? Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms got vetted as well. Is the perception that any prominent African-American woman in the Democratic Party who isn’t asked to go through the vetting process is being snubbed somehow? Is it that Biden and his top advisers desperately want an African-American woman not named Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams?

For what it’s worth, Axios reports that Biden confidants believe his list is down to Susan Rice and Harris. Rice at least makes sense by the “worked with Biden before” criteria, and if Biden wants to run as the restoration of the Obama administration to the throne, he might as well lean into it. Harris? Assuming Biden has already hired a food taster, the California senator is an effective candidate on paper . . . but man, the reality of her presidential bid was not promising. She wowed everyone in the first debate — mostly because of an attack on Biden suggesting he was racist! — and then the air just slowly and steadily leaked from the balloon. Tulsi Gabbard laid out the blueprint on how to tear apart Harris’s record as a prosecutor. The Trump campaign has a steep uphill climb, but either pick would probably energize the Republican grassroots.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday, our Dan McLaughlin succinctly assessed a prominent Kansas Republican in a piece headlined, “Kris Kobach Is an Incompetent Loser Who Loses, and That Is Why Democrats Want Him.” Dan laid out how that Kobach’s rare electoral victories in Kansas have always come in GOP wave years, and with the slightest headwind, he loses to Democrats who cannot beat other Republicans.

Thankfully, Kansas Republicans do not appear to be gluttons for punishment. Roger Marshall won yesterday’s primary with 40 percent, and Kobach received 26.3 percent.

As they sing in the musical Hamilton, “that’s one less thing to worry about.”

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