If the Obama administration loses, many might not realize the full-fledged political crisis the president will face. His congressional opposition will be more emboldened, if that was possible. (Any advantage the Democrats hold in the upcoming fiscal fights ahead could quickly disappear.) A year before the 2014 midterms, Democrats will start hitting the panic button with a wounded Democratic president in office. (If you’ve paid attention to politics over the past two decades, when the going gets tough, Democrats often jump ship.) And any lame-duck status for Obama would be expedited. (After all, a “no” vote by Congress would rebuke the nation’s commander-in-chief.)
This implicitly follows the concept of “political capital”, i.e. that power is some sort of ethereal quantity that presidents use up during the course of presidenting. In reality, presidents tend to accomplish victories when there is a strong coalition for what they want to do, and tend not to when one is lacking. Obviously, the coalition is strongest during the first few years of a presidency, when lawmakers swept in on the presidents’ coattails are able to pass more laws that the president desires. Typically, midterm defeats diminish those numbers, and it’s also often the case that presidential re-elections also involve the president’s party losing further in the legislative branch. This is why a president’s influence tends to diminish over time. It is not, though, due to some intangible quality so much as numbers, issues and personalities.
Obama himself chose to bomb Syria. He did this despite knowing that it would cause a split in the Democratic Party. He did this knowing (or not, in which case he’s a fool) that Republican support for anything he chooses to do is about as solid as a sandcastle. His Administration also made a number of key mistakes on this issue, including the backfired scaremongering presentations by Secs. Kerry and Hagel, which were so overwrought, so ineptly characterized opponents of action in a way that made no sense considering how trivial the means and objectives were. “The world will crumble if we can’t make a symbolic statement” is not a strong argument and it appears many politicians treated it as an insult to their intelligence. Additionally, the president’s McCain-first sales job confirmed the worst fears of liberals that regime change was very much the objective, and the hints that he may act absent Congress’s assent are more likely to make Congress want to assert itself in the face of such contempt for its role. Also, jetting off halfway around the world during the key moments of the debate was rather a big mistake, it probably would have been better to put off the entire thing until his return. At the moment it appears unlikely that Congress will authorize the strikes, unless the Obama team proves the be much more adept at operating politically than has seemed the case over the past couple days.
However, the notion that a failure in the House will “end” the Obama presidency is silly. Assuming the Administration loses on Syria (which would be the best outcome for them at this point, IMO), the next debate will be over the debt ceiling, and Obama ought to be able to rally Democrats behind him quite easily. Saying no to a Syrian adventure isn’t going to also entail going wobbly on the sequester or on debt ceiling extortion. An inability to put together a winning coalition on Syria will not mean he’s unable to assemble one elsewhere, what’s more, it’s ahistorical to argue so. FDR’s failure in passing a court-packing bill did not prevent him from winning WWII. Ronald Reagan’s failure to prevent the series of veto overrides in 1987 and 1988–he openly begged Republican senators to sustain the vetoes, to no avail–didn’t stop him from advancing a goal similarly close to his heart: supporting murderous anticommunist Central American militias. Once again, this argument is based on a distorted reading of presidential power, which is that if the president is unable to build a coalition to do whatever he wants, he is therefore a weak president who can not build a coalition to do anything he wants, because he lacks political capital and is therefore “weak”. It is true that political leaders have sometimes managed to get to the point where they have no influence left at all and can’t get anything done period, but typically this involves some kind of major failure or scandal which causes the entire party to lose confidence in their ability to lead. There is simply no reason to believe a botched attempt to bomb Syria would have this effect on Obama.
To put it briefly, the end of the Obama Presidency will be at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2017.
I was just thinking about a recent-ish episode of Dan Carlin’s excellent Hardcore History podcast, in which he said something that really threw me, and that ties into the present Syria debate. He said that, in World War II, Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons on the battlefield, and might not ever have even considered it. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill intended to use them in the event of a Nazi invasion of Great Britain, after the Dunkirk catastrophe that nearly annihilated the British Army. Which made me think a little bit. We’ve had chemical weapons in various forms for over a century now. And in that time, we’ve had a large number of lawless, authoritarian, sadistic regimes. So why is the use of chemical weapons by state actors as low as it is?
The most obvious answer is that chemical weapons really kind of suck. They present enormous problems to militaries who might use them, since you always stand the risk of gassing your own people along with the enemy. Most militarist authoritarians do not want to do this, as the army is the source of their power. Add in the problems of transportation and maintenance, and you have a genuine security hazard at every stage of these weapons’ use. This explains both why Hitler never was known to consider their usage on the battlefield, and that they’d only be considered by a head of government as a last-ditch, pure desperation move. I really do not think this is a good (i.e. not using chemical weapons) vs. evil (using chemical weapons) type of dynamic. Out of dozens, maybe hundreds, of what anyone would consider evil regimes, almost none have used such weapons. I think it’s fairly logical to infer that what keeps all kinds of regimes from using chemical weapons isn’t a piece of paper, being that most of these regimes are contemptuous of international law and human rights, so much as that the weapons themselves are kind of shitty, new technology introduced during WWI that was deployed in desperation to break a stalemate after generals learned that bayonet charges weren’t going to get it done. Foreign policy liberalists like Barack Obama would like to believe in the inspiring example of a humane, reasonable agreement, but it seems more logical to me that they’re not used because they’re not that good, outside of the psychological terror they create, and there are plenty of other ways of creating that terror that don’t carry the same risks.
Which is to say that I don’t buy Obama’s assumptions on this issue. Launching an attack due to a violation of a norm assumes that the thing that violates the norm is inherently appealing. There’s little evidence of this. Indeed, the argumentation seems to assume that chemical weapons use would spread like wildfire if Syria gets away with it. I’m hardly convinced, because it defies basic logic. This did not occur after Iraq used such weapons in the 1980s, and asking ourselves why seems reasonable. If poison gas really were a battlefield killer app (pun unintended), why wouldn’t someone like Adolf Hitler, who partly measured military success by how many genetically inferior people were killed, and who used gas against civilians, have deployed it constantly against enemy soldiers, especially during the darker later days of the war? Why wouldn’t the Red Army have done so during the Stalinist period? Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule since gassing Iranians and Kurds had to have seemed like a twofer for that monster.
Basically, as with virtually everything about this Syria strike, nothing much makes sense and the more you think about it, the more you want nothing to do with it. Also too, Sully gets it right here.
I strongly oppose any sort of military strike on Syria. But I’d like to think that if it happens, it would be just as limited and just as small as the Administration has been claiming it will be. However, it seems like every which way you turn, there’s strong evidence to cast doubt on this assumption.
On the one hand, this could be equivocal:
While stressing that Washington’s primary goal remained “limited and proportional” attacks, to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, the president hinted at a broader long-term mission that may ultimately bring about a change of regime.
“It also fits into a broader strategy that can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic, economic and political pressure required – so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria but to the region,” he told senior members of Congress at a White House meeting on Tuesday.
On the other hand, this probably isn’t:
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appeared to leave the door open to the U.S. deploying ground troops in Syria in the event the country “imploded, for instance.”
“In the event Syria imploded, for instance or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of somebody else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies — all of us, the British, the French, and others. I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the President of the United States to secure our country,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, debating whether to authorize President Barack Obama’s punitive strike in response to a reported chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.
And the incredibly broad language of the AUMF is troubling, though it’s possible it could be “anchoring” such that it makes a limited intervention the safe median option between it and nothing. If they’re even thinking along that track, who really knows.
Kerry is obviously just making this shit up as he goes. Which doesn’t make him any different from the rest of the people in charge, from what I can tell. I’m not a huge fan of Fareed Zakaria generally (h/t Goddard) but he really has the Admin. dead to rights here: ” Now a pundit can engage in grandiose speech. The president of the United States should make declarations like this only if he has some strategy to actually achieve them. He did not.” But as with Libya, what we see is a supposedly cool, calculating POTUS reacting emotionally and illogically in the face of pressure from hawks. I see no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’ll stay limited considering that a limited strike would be just like tossing chum to the piranhas, intensifying the pressure significantly from people like Sens. McCain and Graham, which Obama has proven time and again that he cannot withstand. Also, it’s personally disturbing to me that that’s Obama’s first target here, getting those assholes on board.
Ultimately, I do not like the idea of selective unilateral enforcement of international norms through bombing. However, what troubles me the most is that there’s no evidence of any method here at all. If Obama can be pushed into doing something he resisted doing because of some old quote, what happens when something happens and people bring up the “Assad must go” quote? It’s possible that Obama would indeed keep involvement contained to a small strike, but there are plenty of little problems to be concerned with here.
Arkansas state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R) experiences (simulated) armed-school-teacher reality — as opposed to the Westworld/Chopsocky fantasies the mouths on the right seem to float around in — and is informed thereby:
“The first two simulations they were just all bad guys, and so we got used to running in, you’d go to the sound of the gunfire,” Hutchinson said. “And then they threw a twist in on the third one, where there was what appeared to be a bad guy in the hallway, shooting into the classroom. And so, just instinctively, I shot. And then I turned the corner and see that the bad guy that I had just shot was actually shooting with another bad guy, which kind of blew my mind for a second.”
(Well…sort of informed. Like, maybe 2.5 informed out of a possible 10 informed.)
Violent situations are messy, loud and confusing. This statement is so obvious as to be ridiculous, but after a while you get to suspecting that a certain percentage of the voting (and governing) public whose experience with violence is mainly first person shooters and, say, The Avengers, don’t actually realize this.
Antoinette Tuff, the person who talked down the shooter at the Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia the other day, mentioned something similar in various interviews:
I was like, if I go to the bathroom, them bullets don’t have no names on it. Nobody is going to know I’m in the bathroom.
When you fire a bullet, the bullet doesn’t choose targets based on the shooter’s intent. It just hits whatever’s in front of it.
I’m sure there’s something here to be learned about “surgical strikes” and believing folks when they say that the war — any war — will be over by Christmas too, but as my girlfriend’s grandma used to say, “can’t hear; must feel” — and then immediately proceeded to the whackin’s and general distribution of punishments.
Ah, well….on with the show.
“I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” – Barack Obama, 2002
So, let’s get this straight:
- War based on deliberately misleading intelligence in order to advance half-baked theories of democratization = dumb, rash
- War based on making good on an ill-advised threat in order to advance half-baked theories of deterrence, but with the promise that it will be too ineffective to matter = neither dumb nor rash
And to think that some of us voted for Obama over Clinton because we were tired of wading into other countries’ internal affairs. Ah, well.
This is pretty fascinating. One example:
One obvious critique you could make here is that “Why Germany Won’t Even Try To Save The World” is a more important question to answer. But sarcasm aside, it’s again worth asking the question of why the United States ought to be taking an active role in world affairs given that our electorate shuns periodicals with international stories on the cover. Of course, my guess is that the public would be perfectly happy never to intervene into a foreign conflict ever again, and it’s just elites who need to work out their white liberal guilt by having us save (some) foreign people with freedom bombs that explains why this stuff keeps happening. But what the U.S. military does abroad, unfortunately, falls into that category of “international news,” which leads us back to the same problem.
Needless to say, I think Syrian intervention is a terrible idea. I think virtually all humanitarian interventions are terrible ideas, and these days they’re driven by a combination of several things: liberal guilt, neoconservative dreams of hegemony, and politics. None of these is even a remotely convincing argument for using force. I think the United States has had a fatally flawed doctrine of defense and military use since WWII, before and including which we fought wars to win them, and we fought them very sparingly. Since then, military force is merely another tool in the toolbox, something to be used narrowly. I was mostly convinced by the logic of striking Afghanistan after 9/11 (not so much for nation building and all the rest), but outside of that, none of our post-war military conflicts have been remotely necessary and few have been remotely successful. My white liberal guilt does not extend to the need to bomb foreign people for their own good, which is I think what this all boils down to.
So this misses the point:
The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.
The list of bad things that have happened since could also be called a list of unintended consequences. The destabilization of Mali was a direct result of the Libyan bombing campaign, an unintended consequence but a consequence nonetheless. To ignore counting it would be deliberately obtuse and ideological. Of course, it’s possible to argue that decisionmakers could not have know about what would happen to Mali as a result of that action. This is fair. However, the conclusion to draw from this is that military action can often make a bad situation even worse in ways that are difficult to foresee. To use a military metaphor, let’s imagine that I managed part of a missile guidance system, and while my team’s code worked perfectly, in conjunction with another team’s code it had a tendency to accidentally explode once it was armed. I couldn’t very well say that my work was a complete success! In projects like that, you have a management team that make sure all the parts interact well together and avoids such mistakes. It’s not possible to do this so thoroughly with warfare, since there are far too many components to list them all on a flow chart, and all of them are dynamic and unpredictable. This is why people like Chait who see war as some kind of surgical tool that can be easily pulled out whenever political reasons call for it have been proven wrong every time from Korea onward. This has not dulled their ardor for bombing others for their own good, though.
Chait argues that people who grew up during the decade of military disasters known as the aughts have a skewed view of the value of humanitarian intervention, but considering how badly Clinton’s interventions went, and how horribly Bush’s went, and how poorly in an overall sense the Libyan episode went, I’d say that someone who’s based their philosophy of intervention on an outright fluke like Desert Storm that happened during their formative years might want to consider some newer evidence.
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