Sunday, September 29, 2013

The GOP is drunk on the proven power of extortion

I am looking past the pending government shutdown to the looming debt ceiling standoff -- the point in late October when Republicans can, worst case, cause a global economic cataclysm, or, second worst, hamper U.S. economic growth for decades to come.

As Republicans keep cramming more fantastic demands into their debt ceiling ransom note, Obama is saying now what he should have said the first time they made fantastic demands ($2.5 trillion in spending cuts over ten years with no tax increases) a condition of raising the debt ceiling in spring/summer 2011. On Friday, he said:
I will not negotiate over Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills that have already been racked up.  Voting for the Treasury to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me.  That’s not doing me a favor.  That’s simply carrying out the solemn responsibilities that come with holding office up there.  I don’t know how I can be more clear about this.  Nobody gets to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States just to extract political concessions.  No one gets to hurt our economy and millions of innocent people just because there are a couple of laws that you do not like.
The continuation, though, rather airbrushed Obama's own history on this question:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

In which Lavrov disavows the language of the Security Council resolution his country just agreed to

The U.N. Security Council has agreed on a resolution compelling Syria to give up its chemical weapons for destruction.

The headline is that there is no preauthorization for the use of force if Syria violates the agreement, e.g., by not allowing access to its weapons, or by moving them, or, of course, by using them. But that is no surprise. The reported language with respect to enforcement is in line with that in the Framework Agreement the U.S. and Russia struck on September 14. In fact it is less equivocal than the Framework. The draft resolution
Decides, in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
Cf. the Framework Agreement:

Wired for War

It is doubtless hard for most Americans, and for most people who have not had extended experience of war, to fathom the experience, values, motives and emotions of a lethal and brutally effective military leader like Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran's Quds Force, profiled in this week's New Yorker by Dexter Filkins. The Quds force spearheads Iran's overseas military adventures, and Suleimani helped build up Hezbollah, choreographed and equipped Shiite militias' killings of Americans in Iraq, probably helped orchestrate Hezbollah's terrorist bombings of Jews in Argentina, and is directing Iran's military intervention on behalf of Assad in Syria. He cut his teeth in eight years of brutal combat in the Iran-Iraq war.

Filkins cites Ryan Crocker asserting that Suleimani is not motivated primarily by religion: "Religion doesn’t drive him. Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight.”  But Suleimani has a certain mysticism of his own.  "When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell that scent, and I lose myself," he recently said in an interview in Iran. Stranger yet is his response to eight years of World War I-like horror in the Iran-Iraq war:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Okay, now he can't move them

Assad, that is. His chemical weapons. Because he's signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and declared them.  In the LA Times, Shashank Bengali reports:
Syrian President Bashar Assad has disclosed the locations of dozens of poison gas production and storage sites to international inspectors, according to Western officials.

Officials familiar with Assad's disclosure — the first step in complying with an ambitious U.S.-Russian plan to seize and remove or destroy his arsenal of chemical weapons by mid-2014 — described it Tuesday as "a serious document" that comprises scores of pages and is surprisingly thorough.'

Information in the closely guarded document roughly tracks with U.S. intelligence estimates that Syria has about 45 sites used to produce or store illicit blister agents or neurotoxins...Syria submitted the declaration over the weekend to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the implementation and compliance arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The OPCW administers the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention stipulates (Article IV, paragraph 4) that once such a declaration is made,

Monday, September 23, 2013

On rate shock in Georgia

I have questioned (here and here and, to a lesser extent, here) whether Wall Street Journal coverage of the Affordable Care Act has a negative bias.  I don't want to overstate the case, as the Journal's health care reporters are well informed and thorough.  Perhaps the bias is mine. But today, in an article about how the experiences of potential beneficiaries of the ACA are likely to vary state by state, reporter Louise Radnofsky, sharing a byline with Amy Schatz, again made me bristle a bit, here:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Democrats won't cave on Obamacare -- but on everything else...?


I am getting weary of progressives' reflexive head-shaking over Republican "craziness" and mainstream reporters' warnings that the GOP may commit electoral suicide by ceding policy to their most extreme members.

Perhaps they will.  A party does not have a single will. There are doubtless Tea Party diehards that would shut down the government, push the nation into default, and never vote for any funding bill that includes the discretionary funding for Obamacare.

But they will not ultimately dictate the party's actions. What I strongly suspect will happen is that the Senate GOP will run down the clock, filibustering the so-called "clean" continuing resolution (with the Obamacare defund stripped out) until the last minute, then win a series of concessions making the horrendous House spending provisions worse -- shifting more funding under overall sequester caps from domestic to defense -- in exchange for allowing a vote [correction 9/24: Democrats need only a simple majority to amend the unchanged House CR -- thus, it's unlikely to get worse. But current reporting is confident that Senate Democrats will not amend the CR's spending provisions.] Then Senate Democrats will pat themselves on the back for "standing firm" against defunding Obamacare -- while locking in the sequester as a new funding baseline and shielding defense spending from much of its bite. Comforting reports that Red State Senate Democrats won't vote to defund Obamacare serve only to convince me that they'll give away everything else in the store.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Flip the script, Mr. President

Denouncing the latest Republican round of budget negotiation-by-hostage-taking, Obama said this to the Business Roundtable today:
just flip the script for a second and imagine a situation in which a Democratic Speaker said to a Republican President, I’m not going to increase the debt ceiling unless you increase corporate taxes by 20 percent.  And if you don't do it, we’ll default on the debt and cause a worldwide financial crisis.  Even though that Democratic Speaker didn't have the votes to force through that particular piece of legislation, they would simply say, we will blow the whole thing up unless you do what I want.  That can't be a recipe for government.
I think it's time that Obama did flip the script. Not in this round, and not by holding the debt ceiling hostage. But by using the leverage his office does afford him.

Since 2011, the extremist wing of the Republican party has consistently set the terms of our budget battles. That's because the the GOP House, enabled by the Hastert Rule and the extremists' ability to dictate to leadership, has wielded an effective veto over any prospective budget compromise. As funding and debt deadlines loom they loudly proclaim their intention to exercise that veto, even at risk of national catastrophe, and no one doubts their willingness.

But the President also has a veto.  It's time -- past time -- for him to prepare the ground on which he might use it to shape the terms of negotiation.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

J Street can reason. The Anti-Defamation League merely emotes

Whatever the merits of Ian Lustick's argument in last Sunday's Times that the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is all but dead and that it's time to start imagining long-term alternatives, letters in response from two Zionist organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and J Street, form an instructive contrast.  The letter from the ADL's Kenneth Jacobson is an emotional diatribe.  The justice and need for a Jewish state is assumed rather than demonstrated. Lustick has violated a taboo merely by raising the prospect of a single state in which Jews are neither a majority nor a ruling class:

Monday, September 16, 2013

But Greg Sargent, "handling and manipulation of process and theatrics" matter

Greg Sargent has quite rightly called out a bevy of reporters who have slammed Obama for the process by which he arrived at his Syria policy (and other policies) "without taking a stand on the substance of the policy debates underlying them. It's true that criticizing presidential process can be a dodge, shielding the writer from grappling with the policy merits of, say, a missile strike on Syria. But Sargent overstates the case, I think, by suggesting that process can be cleanly separated from policy.  Holding up Dylan Byers as Exhibit A, Sargent criticizes a
genre of criticism of Obama..largely focused on the President’s handling and manipulation of process and theatrics, and the consequences that allegedly has had for the president and the country. Into this category fall the arguments, mentioned by Byers above, that Obama’s changes of course during the Syria crisis have been “confusing and contradictory,” that this has made him “appear weak on the international stage,” and that he has failed to muscle a progressive agenda through Congress.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

So, Congress, how 'bout that AUMF?

Remember the alternative AUMF proposed by Senators Manchin and Heitkampf?
The Manchin-Heitkamp resolution* calls for two primary things. First, it gives the administration 45 days to secure from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a commitment to join those nations who have signed and agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention. If Assad fails to comply, then the Senate gives full authorization to the president to use whatever means possible to respond to the regime's apparent August 21 use of chemical weapons.
So now, thanks to the U.S.-Russian agreement on a Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, Assad  has already acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. And he will be required to provide an inventory of Syria's CW arsenal within seven days of ratification by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of a draft decision to be provided by the U.S. and Russia "within a few days." Once that inventory is provided, the Chemical Weapons Convention forbids moving any weapons, "except to a chemical weapons destruction facility" (Article IV, paragraph 4). Inspections are to begin in November, and the framework, as the FT puts it, "is structured around a series of deadlines which will allow the world to judge whether it is being adhered to or not." The framework also stipulates enforcement under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the Security Council to use both non-military and military means.

What the agreement (already famously) does not do is effectively pre-authorize military action in the event that Syria violates the agreement.  Whether this kind of agreement could be so structured, I don't know, but the Russians have made it clear that they will block any future call for a Security Council resolution authorizing force.

Friday, September 13, 2013

America's "inward turn" is moderate and proportionate

It's hard to deny, as Roger Cohen charges, that Obama and his surrogates have whipsawed the world with mixed signals in the wake of the Syrian government's chemical weapons attack on August 21. But Cohen overstates the case and its consequences when claiming that Obama's "dithering"
marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless.

The president has reflected the mood in America. Almost two-thirds of people surveyed think the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, according to a recent New York Times/CBS news poll. Principle backed by credible force made the United States the anchor of global security since 1945 and set hundreds of millions of people free. Obama has deferred to a growing isolationism. His wavering has looked like acquiescence to a global power shift.
The Times/CBS poll result cited raised my eyebrows too. Specifically, 62% said that the U.S. should not "take the leading role among all other countries in the world in trying to solves international conflicts," while just 34% said that the U.S. should do so. Perhaps even more striking, when asked,  "should the United States try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can, OR should the United States stay out of other countries' affairs?" 15% said "try to change," while 72% said "stay out."

So U.S. "isolationism" is "growing." But growing from what?  The Times/CBS pollsters have been asking the first question since September 2002, when the Bush administration was selling its prospective war in Iraq and was pretty fresh off an apparent quick victory in Afghanistan. You could say that the U.S. was at the peak of post-9/11 triumphalism.  At that point, 45% said that the U.S. should "take the leading role," while 49% said it should not.  A drop from 45% to 34% is significant, no doubt. But it strikes me as quite moderate in light of the decade of disastrous war that followed.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Beyond disputin', an element of truth

The author of the words below might ask Americans, as the malign plutocrat banker Potter asked George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life after sketching out his life and prospects, "Do I paint too grim a picture? Or do I exaggerate?"
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.” 

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
That's Vladimir Putin in the New York Times. Yes, he does paint too grim a picture, and exaggerate. The Libya intervention was authorized by the Security Council, e.g., by Russia under Medvedev   And Obama's proposed strike on Syria has little in common with Bush's invasion of Iraq. But the broad question -- have American military interventions post-9/11 done more good than harm? --is hard to answer in the affirmative.

 Again, below, does Putin paint too grim a picture?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why did Putin do it?

Like almost anyone watching, I would be delighted if a U.S. strike against Syria could be averted by an agreement to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control.

At the same time: A world in which Vladimir Putin defuses a crisis by proposing and following through on an executable plan to reduce violence is not the world I thought we live in.  I can't help but at least half-expect yesterday's hope to go up in a puff of smoke, perhaps as Assad simply denies that his regime has any chemical weapons (Syrian buy-in thus far has been voiced by foreign minister Walid al-Moualem). Yet events are rushing forward. France has proposed a Security Council resolution calling on Syria to empower the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy its chemical weapons and require Syria to join the OPCW, the implementing authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention. It's hard to see Russia blocking some kind of Security Council resolution to execute its proposal, if not France's current draft per se, and China too has indicated support. So even if action to secure Syrian CW does not materialize quickly, the Russian proposal seems to be on course at least to break the Security Council logjam and hence defuse the impetus for near-unilateral U.S. action. 

Why did Putin do it? The authorization for military action against Syria that the administration has sought seemed headed for near-certain defeat.  Almost two thirds of Americans are opposed to a strike.  Regarding international conflict, Americans don't want the country to lead, whether from in front or behind. According to the latest New York Times/CBS poll, released today, 62 percent say the U.S. should not take the lead among all other countries in the world in trying to resolve international conflicts, and 61 percent oppose air strikes against Syria. Those numbers are trending the wrong way for the administration.  So why would Putin move to avert a military strike that pretty clearly was not going to happen, at least not until further atrocities hit the headlines? Four possibilities come to mind:

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Syrian site-setting in the Senate

Just what -- or who -- are the likely targets of a strike in Syria? This exchange in the Senate Foreign Services Committee hearing transcript made me pick my head up:
SEN. DURBIN: General Dempsey, we saw these photographs earlier -- these heartbreaking photographs. Page three of The Washington Post this morning, an ad by a group supporting the president's effort has a photograph that's riveted in my mind, as a father and grandfather, of the children on the floor in shrouds, victims of this chemical agent gas attack.

What the administration is asking us for is military authority to launch additional attacks. What have you been charged with in terms of the issue of collateral damage from those attacks as it would affect innocent people and civilians in the nation of Syria?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Does Obama really need to choose whether he's a liberal or realist in Syria?

Dan Dresner thinks so.  In his view, a leak to the effect that Obama does not want the contemplated punitive strike to topple the Assad regime (in keeping with his slow-walked support of "moderate" rebel groups) clashes with intimations that Obama aims ultimately to push Assad out, as well as with his stated desire to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons.  Dresner's conclusion:
There are a lot of areas of foreign policy where different paradigms can offer the same policy recommendation, and there are a lot of foreign policy issue areas where presidents can just claim "pragmatism" and not worry about which international relations theory is guiding their actions.  I'm increasingly of the view, however, that Syria is one of those areas where Obama is gonna actually have to make a decision about what matters more -- his realist desire to not get too deeply involved, or his liberal desire to punish the violation of a norm.  If he doesn't decide, if he tries to half-ass his way through this muddle, I fear he'll arrive at a policy that would actually be worse than either a straightforward realist or a straight liberal approach. 
Busy work day ahead, so I will keep this short and maybe flesh out later, but I see a balancing act rather than a contradiction.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Did Nancy Pelosi (and Kerry) read Max Fisher?

Kind of looks like it:
Ms. Pelosi said..that she was hopeful the American people “will be persuaded of” military action. 

“President Obama did not write the red line,” she said. “History wrote the red line decades ago.”
[UPDATE: guess that's the party line: Kerry echoed it in his testimony this afternoon:
Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we're having today is about President Obama's red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line. And it's a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw. ][9/5: Obama said the same in Sweden.]

Compare Fisher:
The U.S. decision to move toward possible strikes appears, rightly or wrongly, wisely or unwisely, to be all about reinforcing international norms. It’s not about us; it’s not about “because Obama said so.” It’s about “because international norms say so.”

Monday, September 02, 2013

Worth reading on Syria

As a Labor Day labor, I thought it might be useful to share some of the strongest analyses I've read about Syria, some of which are at odds with each other. The choices below address three interrelated questions: what should any U.S. response to the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack seek to achieve? How, if at all, does U.S. (and Obama's) "credibility" factor into the equation? And how, if at all, should we engage with adversaries other than Syria with a stake in the conflict?

1. How narrow a mission?

The Washington Post's Max Fisher argues that the "red line" is not about Obama, it's about a hundred year-old international norm. A strike narrowly focused on upholding the international taboo against chemical weapons use makes sense:

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