Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he actually went ahead and went on prime time.

Government-Shutdown Crisis Proceeding on Schedule

Eric Cantor, liberal stooge. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

What with all the attention being paid to Syria, most people have forgotten that we're just three weeks away from a government shutdown unless Congress passes a continuing resolution (CR), which is the (relatively) quick-and-easy way of keeping the government operating at current funding levels without writing a whole new budget. As you may remember, Tea Party Republicans in the House would like to use the threat of a government shutdown to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, while the Republican leadership, conservatives to a person, realizes that this is spectacularly stupid. If they actually hold up the CR with a defunding demand, Barack Obama will say no, the government will shut down, Republicans will get every ounce of the blame, and it'll be a complete disaster for the GOP. Eventually they'll give in and pass a CR, but only after having caused a crisis and eroding their brand even further, and by the way not actually defunding Obamacare.

So House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came up with something resembling a solution. The way it would work is that the House would pass two versions of the CR, one that defunds Obamacare and one that doesn't. They would then send them to the Senate, which would presumably pass only the one that doesn't defund Obamacare, which Obama would then sign. As Politico describes it, "The arrangement allows all sides to express themselves, but it surrenders the shutdown leverage that some conservatives hunger for." And not surprisingly, Tea Partiers both inside and outside Congress don't like it.

What Happens If There's a Split Decision in Congress on Syria?

Flickr/World Can't Wait

As we begin the congressional debate on whether to launch some kind of strike on Syria, one of the main questions animating the political discussion is, what happens if Obama loses? People are saying some predictably stupid things about it, talking about how wounded Obama's presidency would be, and how he'd no longer be able to get Congress to do his bidding, unlike the last few years, when he got whatever he wanted from Congress. But here's a question: What if a resolution on the use of force in Syria passes the Senate, but fails to pass the House?

Right now that looks like a distinct possibility. People doing whip counts based on what members have publicly said (see here or here) are saying that in the House, a majority of members have either come out against military action or say they're leaning that way. In the Senate things are less clear; most senators haven't said how they'll vote. Of course that could change, but if it doesn't, what happens then?

The Summers Dossier

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

Dear Mr. President,

Welcome home. You have several immense challenges in the coming days and weeks, including of course marshaling support for the Syria attack, dealing with the next artificial budget crisis contrived by the Republicans, and continuing to move forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act against fierce partisan opposition.

How To Get Single-Payer Health Care, and More!

Based on Congressional Republicans’ apparently overwhelming opposition to President Obama’s proposal to strike Syrian military facilities in retaliation for the government’s use of chemical weapons, a new way to enact progressive legislation in the United States has become apparent.

The Fundamental Problem with the Argument for Airstrikes

Nicholas Kristof has a column that exemplifies why the case for bombing Syria is so unconvincing. There's a fundamental bait-and-switch at the heart of the article, using the (uncontested) fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a monstrous tyrant to skate over the question of what exactly airstrikes against Syria would do about it.

Over and over again, Kristof notes the death toll of the civil war in Syria:

It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month.

Amid the Unwashed Masses

Flesh pressed, opinions heard. (Flickr/Rep. George Miller)

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Rep. Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt.

In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along with some quotes, and they'd have a story. As some point they discovered it's more efficient to just go to a diner, but either way, for all their Northeastern elitism, the reporters still want to keep their finger on the public pulse. But reading some of these stories has me wondering. What do you do when you go out with a member of Congress to get in touch with the people, and the people turn out to be idiots?

The Syria Debate Is Very Good for Some People

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent.

It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about the rush to war like they were a bunch of San Francisco liberals. But for these guys, there's really no higher principle than opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. And if this is a "conscience" vote (i.e. one where the leadership is not demanding that they toe the party line), a lot of Democrats just don't find the administration's case persuasive.

And for some others, this isn't a difficult vote, it's a golden opportunity.

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his Air Force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once.

One intriguing question is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and why he is so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics. More on that in a moment.

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Many members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: the best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one.

Leave the Munich Pact Out of This, John Kerry

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact—the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a musty storage closet, “is the table on which the pact was signed.”

Let's Not Give the White House a Blank Check in Syria

With Congress highly unlikely to take the initiative, Barack Obama did something unexpected and good for American constitutionalism: he asked for congressional approval for military action against Syria. His recognition that warmaking is fundamentally a shared rather than a unilateral presidential power is most welcome. But this victory for a more rational policy process will ring hollow if Congress gives the Obama administration everything it's asking for.

The Republican Team Effort on Obamacare Obstruction

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, you have to give Republicans credit for sheer sticktoitiveness. They tried to defeat the law, but it passed. They tried to get the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, but that didn't work. So now, as the open enrollment period for the exchanges approaches on October 1, they're thinking creatively to find new ways to sabotage the law. Sure, at this point that means screwing over people who need insurance, but sometimes there's unavoidable collateral damage when you're fighting a war.

Their latest target is the Obamacare "navigators." Because not just the law but the insurance market itself can be pretty complicated, the ACA included money to train and support people whose job it would be to help people get through this new system, answering consumers' questions and guiding them through the process. Grants have been given to hospitals, community groups, charities like the United Way, churches, and the like in the 34 states that are relying on the federal government to operate their exchanges in whole or in part. You can see the problem: If there are folks out there helping people get health coverage, that will mean that people will get health coverage. And that won't do.

War Powers for Dummies

Nixon and Kissinger meet with John Wayne, probably to talk about how Congress is a bunch of no-good varmints. (White House photo)

Congress is now debating—informally until they return to session on Monday, formally thereafter—whether we should take military action against the Syrian government. But the Obama administration has made clear its belief that it doesn't actually need congressional approval for the strikes it plans to undertake. Are they right? Herewith, a brief explainer on presidents, Congress, and war powers:

Will Congress Continue to Refuse Its War Powers Responsibilities?

AP Photo

Matt Duss has an excellent piece for the Prospect explaining why military action against Syria is probably a terrible idea on policy grounds. In addition to the question of whether the policy is wise, however, it's worth considering whether a unilateral decision to attack Syria by the president would be legal.