Monday, September 30, 2013

September 30, 2013

Chuck Todd of NBC has taken a good deal of heat over a comment he made regarding responsibility for misinformation about Obamacare: "What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.’ No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it." Todd’s remark may have been taken out of context, but it’s difficult to defend him, or contemporary journalism. Todd’s little lectures on the NBC Nightly News are longer on ego than substance, and much of the reporting on politics or government falls into the no-comment, faux-objectivity category.
Reporting on the impending shutdown is a glaring example of the phenomenon. Republicans demanded, as the price for a resolution allowing the government to operate, delaying implementation of the health care law for a year and a repeal of a tax on medical devices that helps finance it. This is an undemocratic, irresponsible, scorched-earth tactic, but the issue is treated as if it were merely a partisan fight, with equal fault on each side.
An example of that reaction appeared in The Seattle Times on Saturday; an article about the shutdown was captioned "Dems, GOP refuse to compromise on health law; shutdown imminent." The Democrats have objected to a Republican attempt to hold funding the government hostage to their obsession with undermining the health care act; that’s a refusal to compromise. The article was from the McClatchy news service, so I looked at its web site, expecting to find a more sensible heading, but all I found was a variation on the theme: "Both sides threaten government shutdown Tuesday over Obamacare." Here’s another example, a lead on the Washington Post web page: "Parties agree: It’s the other side’s fault."
Journalists either playing stenographer or blaming both sides for every conflict are doing a great disservice, to the country and to their profession.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September 17, 2013

I criticized President Obama’s Syria speech for, among other factors, inconsistency and confusion. However, at least he had a specific and limited aim, neutralizing Syrian chemical weapons, had sense enough to consult Congress when it became apparent that there was little public support, and was receptive to a diplomatic solution. His claim of the right to wage war without a declaration by Congress should not be accepted or ignored, but at least for now, he’s on a more useful and defensible track.
My impulse to give him some credit is prompted by a number of opinion pieces which exceed his for confusion and inconsistency. Begin with Thomas Friedman. His comments on September 10 [88] were, like Mr. Obama’s, ambivalent about intervention, but he attributed his indecision to new conditions in the Middle East: "Until 2010, the Arab Middle East had been relatively stable for 35 years," but developments since then force us "to confront some new and very uncomfortable questions." Where does the first half of that formula come from? In 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait; both are Arab nations. In 2003, Mr. Friedman enthusiastically supported our invasion of Iraq because "a terrorism bubble had built up over there. . . ." We needed to
partner with Iraqis, post-Saddam, to build a progressive Arab regime. Because the real weapons of mass destruction that threaten us were never Saddam's missiles. The real weapons that threaten us are the growing number of angry, humiliated young Arabs and Muslims, who are produced by failed or failing Arab states - young people who hate America more than they love life.
That’s an odd sort of stability. What are the "new and very uncomfortable questions?" Not the use of gas; Iraq used it against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s. He doesn’t want to send American troops to Syria, but that seems to be a new position on our role, not on intervention:
The only problem is that it is impossible to imagine a solution to the conflict in Syria without some outside force putting boots on the ground. Therefore you need either a midwife or a Mandela or a trusted military to referee the transition to a new order.
That is a truly strange comment. How, if someone needs to put boots on the ground, can a Mandela or a midwife "therefore" be needed?
David Ignatius thinks that "this new American caution is potentially dangerous." [89] As an antidote, he recommended that Mr. Obama read, as Ignatius has, a book about Machiavelli and learn its prescription for success, which is expressed in terms of foxes and lions.
Obama does the fox thing pretty well. He recognizes traps and generally avoids them. But he needs more lion. This means bold policy — diplomacy backed by the threat of military force. To succeed in reframing U.S. power, Obama will need to frighten the wolves on Capitol Hill and in the Kremlin . . . .
This sounds less like "reframing" American power than business as usual.
Ignatius worried that, if the President didn’t follow his advice, those wolves "will devour what’s left of his presidency." That’s exactly what one of the heavy thinkers on wants: "It has been a long five years, our Obama nightmare. . . . Along with the tragic economic consequences of Obama’s policies, Americans are now witnessing the dangerous effects of a left wing, inexperienced community organizer serving as Commander in Chief."[90] Mr. Obama has been wrong, our pundit declared, in Egypt, in Libya and now in Syria. "The President’s policy is a total disaster." What is the alternative? Don’t ask.
A similar appraisal of Mr. Obama’s presidency, also including domestic as well as foreign policy, came from Norman Podhoretz. "So far as domestic affairs were concerned, it soon became clear . . . that the fundamental transformation he had in mind was to turn this country into as close a replica of the social-democratic countries of Europe as the constraints of our political system allowed."[91] Horrors! The man must be a communist. That was bad enough, but foreign policy was even worse. "As a left-wing radical, Mr. Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs. Accordingly, the fundamental transformation he wished to achieve here was to reduce the country's power and influence." You see, his fumbling and changes of mind were merely cover for his real plan: "The president may look incompetent on Syria. But his behavior fits his strategy to weaken America abroad."
Marc Thiessen, complaining about "Obama’s unbelievably small presidency," took the opposite tack: "We’re conducting foreign policy by faux pas. This entire episode has been driven not by deliberate strategy but by slips of the tongue." In his speech, the President should have given Assad orders and threatened, in the event of non-compliance, "a devastating military response." [92]
Jennifer Rubin dismissed the "phony scheme" concocted by Obama and Putin. To replace it, she set out a model resolution for Congress, but at that point seemed to lose track of the issue. The first clause proposed using "all necessary force against Iran" if it didn’t stop enriching uranium, and the second pledged support for efforts to overthrow the Iranian government. Clause three advocated "aid and assist Syrians, including the Syrian Free Army, seeking to live in peace with their neighbors. . . ." The fourth clause denounced Russia. Finally, in the fifth clause, she addressed the issue, more or less, and opted in tangled syntax for the military solution:
The president shall be authorized to use all means necessary to achieve the president’s stated purposes, to wit, enforcing sufficient consequences for use of WMDs, preventing the risk of future use by the Assad regime or Hezbollah and degrading the Assad regime’s ability to use, deliver and command the use of WMDs.[93]
Jackson Diehl, ever ready to set the world right, declared: "A failure to respond by the only outside power capable of making a difference only invites greater crimes and worse threats to vital U.S. interests."[94] Here we have the world policeman, or hegemon, argument. "At the root of Obama’s foreign policy dysfunction is a refusal to accept that an American president must take on the history that erupts on his watch . . ., and use his unique power to shape it." The greater crimes and worse threats were not specified. The outline of a new policy apparently must await a future column.
Those are the honorable mentions. Second prize in the competition goes to Glenn Beck, who now is against intervention. "The cost of getting involved is far too high and it’s the people of Syria are the ones [sic] who will pay the price. It will eventually cost all citizens of the globe as it will put us another step closer to World War III." Wasn’t he in favor of adventures abroad? Yes, but that was then: it "all changed for me several years ago when I began to realize this democracy building mentality was a progressive mentality."[95] As he’s made clear, progressive means evil.
First prize, although he really belongs in a class by himself, has to be awarded to Alex Jones, who offered this [96] in one of his radio rants: Weapons inspections are a globalist, collectivist plot. "[W]hat the United Nations really wants to do here, is set the precedent that they can come into any country they want, that has any type of weapons systems — and call them WMDs, and then dismantle that country's infrastructure." That’s only the beginning: "Everyone is going to be deindustrialized. Everyone is going to be put back in the stone age to be controlled, and then Obama, and the globalists, and the robber barons, they're gonna fly around in their jetcopters, and their Air Force Ones, and their red carpets like gods above us, and they're gonna get the life extension technologies." Life extension? Well, yes, and more: most of us will be eliminated, and replaced by "a new species ... of humans merged with machines." Mr. Obama’s remarks and actions begin to look cogent.
89. chemical-weapons-syrian-war  
96. Textual excerpts and a link to the broadcast are at  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2013

President Obama delivered his speech on Syria [87] last night, as scheduled, but probably it was not the speech originally planned. Recent events, including resistance in Congress and among the public, and the possibility of a diplomatic solution, left him in an awkward position. He couldn’t simply demand support for an attack on Syria, but he couldn’t back down either. The result was a speech long on moral principal, laced with dubious claims about national security, leading nowhere.
"I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan." Apparently he means that, at some point in the past, he resisted; Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons crossed a line he had set, and he came to think that someone else’s civil war is our affair: "The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is [sic] prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it's also a danger to our security." As to atrocities, some skepticism or at least caution is in order; (alleged) atrocities are too commonly an excuse for military action.
In what way is the situation in Syria "a danger to our security?" This appears to be the answer: "As the ban against these weapons erodes" — apparently due to our failure to attack Syria — "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians." I have some difficulty in connecting the situation in Syria to the use of chemical weapons in some future war or terrorist event. Even if such a connection exists, would that not mean that our use of drones against civilians has invited others to us drones against us?
Of course there was a reference to our permanent enemy: "al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death." The theory, I suppose, is that Syrians will become desperate for an ally against Assad, and will be so cynical about American resolve that, even though they would have had nothing to do with al Qaeda before, now they will rush into its arms. Again, the logic seems strained.
"If fighting spills beyond Syria's borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel." Iran might be emboldened and so on; the domino theory lives.
Here’s the truly remarkable statement:
I'm . . . the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.
We have a constitutional system but, although the Constitution provides otherwise, he can declare war. However, because he thought it would strengthen his position, he asked Congress to approve the plan of attack. There is no "direct or imminent threat to our security," so a delay is not a risk but, as he stated earlier, there is "a danger to our security," so eventually we must intervene.
People have asked "Won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war? No, this would be a limited action, so small no one would notice it, a mere pinprick — oops, no, the "United States military doesn't do pinpricks." It will be something larger than a pinprick, but smaller than "a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." Maybe, if it works, if nothing goes wrong.
Mr. Obama agreed with critics that "we should not be the world's policeman." Does he mean that? "Over the last two years my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations. But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime." Therefore we must act; how does that differ from being the world’s policeman?
At that point, the speech caught up with recent events. We’ll wait to see what comes of the Russian proposal. We’ll rally support. Oh, and here’s a thought: "We'll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on Aug. 21st." As we’re going to have a delay, we may as well have the facts.
The President is on record that we have an obligation to do something, the something to be designated later. Those of us who think that, however awful the situation in Syria is, we should stay out, have been put in our place.
Am I too cynical, too sarcastic? Probably, but Mr. Obama has done everything possible to invite such a reaction. It’s really discouraging to be writing in 2013 something that sounds more like 2002 or 2003.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September 10, 2013
The President wanted to attack Syria. He may still want to, or may have changed his mind, or may be dissuaded, or a diplomatic solution may be found, but the prospect of military action has raised an issue, hardly for the first time, about presidential war powers. No one doubts that Mr. Obama could have launched an attack on Syria without consulting Congress. He’s even been criticized for not doing so. However, perhaps motivated less by fidelity to the Constitution than by political calculation, he belatedly asked Congress to concur in his plan.
Merely asking Congress for support (and cover), and doing so only when it suits, isn’t exactly what the Constitution contemplates: "The Congress shall have Power . . . To declare War . . . ."[78]  There is no suggestion that this is a divided or qualified power. "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States . . . ."[79]  However, that says nothing about commencing hostilities.
One argument for bypassing Congress is that a military operation against Syria would not be a "war." That doesn’t pass the laugh test: firing missiles is an act of war, Secretary Kerry’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, when convenient, we are told that we are at war, permanently, though Congress hasn’t declared one since 1942.

There is the humanitarian theory: we cannot stand by while people are gassed. That justification (which assumes that the stories we have been told are accurate) simply overrides any constitutional quibbles: the President must act, so he has the right to act. However, even ignoring the constitutional issue, there is the problem that outrages occur all the time; what is our standard for intervention? This is an area where decisions should be taken internationally, but paralysis is built into the UN structure, and humanitarian warfare in the Middle East doesn’t quite fit the NATO model. If the UN were to act, American participation in any military operation would, in theory, be subject to congressional approval under the United Nations Participation Act of 1945.[80]

   However, that apparently is a nullity because the US never has entered into the agreement with the UN which is required to trigger the Act. Even if it had come into play, it might have been ignored; we entered the Korean War under the "aegis" of the UN, but without any action by Congress.
Another argument is that there may be situations in which an immediate response is required, and there is no time for consultation with Congress. A variation cites the remark made during the Constitutional Convention that assigning to Congress the power to "declare" war rather than to "make" war would leave the president with "the power to repel sudden attacks."[81]  The immediate-response argument has merit, and perhaps the "sudden attacks" discussion supports finding an implied power, but how often do such emergencies arise? None of our recent military adventures, with the possible exception of the early stages of the operation in Afghanistan, have fallen within this exception, and Syria does not. 

It can be argued that, in effect, war has been declared many times, through congressional resolutions. However, resolutions can be mere exercises in face-saving, taken with the knowledge that the president would proceed anyway; the 1991 Gulf War provides an example. In addition, resolutions can be vague and open-ended; how many times have courts been required to decide what the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq means?
The resolutions in this case demonstrate the tendency to say too much. The resolution proposed by the President asks for authority
to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to --
(1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; . . .[82]
He could use force "in connection with" the use of WMD in Syria, to prevent or deter their use or proliferation "within, to or from Syria;" that goes far beyond protecting innocent civilians from attacks by Assad and potentially extends to other countries. A declaration of war on Syria would be restricted by comparison.

The President’s draft resolution recites that
in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, Congress found that Syria's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction threatens the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.
So it did; it declared that WMD in Syria threaten our national security "interests," which seem to be something broader than mere security. Whatever the meaning, Congress in effect invited any president to propose an attack.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has taken a step further down the path of handing over power to the president. The recitals in its draft resolution on Syria include the reference to the 2003 Act, and add this:
"Whereas the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States . . . ."[83]
Considering that a national security interest can be whatever a president says it is, that recital, if adopted by the full Congress, would be an official and complete surrender of the war power.

Although given that recital, any limitations on the President’s power under the proposed resolution would be a contradiction and an exercise in futility, the committee draft pretends to impose some: force is to be used "in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria." Before resorting to force the President must certify that "the United States has used all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria," and there must be "a military plan to achieve the specific goals. . . ." We might be excused for thinking that the committee members who voted for the resolution are not up to the task.
The reason that presidents no longer follow the Constitution is that Congress already has abandoned its right to demand that they do so. In effect, it has conspired in a silent Amendment. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 [84] was a recognition of that, but it also was an attempt to set some limits on presidential action. Presidents have ignored the limits. Congress also has allowed the executive to be the repository of secrets, and the sole judge of who may share them, so even when Congress is consulted, it may not be able to make an intelligent decision.

We have developed a national attitude which tolerates, and often encourages, military solutions to any perceived, or manufactured, crisis abroad, and which assumes for us a world-policeman stance. National Security Advisor Susan Rice set forth that position: if we do not "punish" Assad, it "could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our country safe." Safe from Syria? No, from others who will think we aren’t much of a policeman: "Rejecting limited military action that President Obama strongly supports would raise questions around the world about whether the United States is truly prepared to use the full range of its power." We mustn’t encourage bad guys: "Leaders in Tehran must know the United States means what we say. . . . If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally, Syria, uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran?"[85]
Some of Rice’s hyperbole was prompted by Obama’s threat to use force, followed by his decision to ask for congressional approval. In other words, he’s gone out on a limb, from which Congress must rescue him by authorizing an attack. However, the insistence that we use "the full range of our power" also is part of a pattern; we have adopted what Andrew Bacevich terms the new American militarism, which "manifests itself through an increased propensity to use force, leading, in effect, to the normalization of war. . . . The American public's ready acceptance of the prospect of war without foreseeable end and of a policy that abandons even the pretense of the United States fighting defensively or viewing war as a last resort shows clearly how far the process of militarization has advanced."[86]
The nation has pressing domestic problems, such as unemployment, poverty, the weakness of the economy, the capture of the polity by the wealthy, and the breakdown of responsive and responsible government. When we can govern ourselves effectively and justly, then perhaps we legitimately can consider whether and how to manage other countries.
Syria and humanitarian intervention are not the only situations which pose war-power issues; drone assassinations, indefinite detention, and domestic surveillance also require an inquiry into the extent of and justification for presidential authority. At some point, Congress needs to step back, look at the whole picture, reassert its constitutional rights, limit the situations in which the president can act on his sole initiative, and set out rules for those cases.
78. Article I, Section 8.
79. Article II, Section 2
80. 22 U.S.C. § 287d
81. See Records of the Federal Convention:
82.  83.
84. 5 U.S.C. § § 1541-48
86. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, pp. 18-19
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day