The Obama Administration

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's The Washington Post 's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great...

One Small Step for Pot

Flickr/Dank Depot
Yesterday, the Department of Justice finally announced how it was going to deal with the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the result is surprisingly reasonable. In case you haven't been following this issue, those who'd like to see more enlightened policies on marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug supposedly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, have been terribly disappointed in the Obama administration. Could this be a real meaningful change? Despite early suggestions that they wouldn't waste time and resources going after marijuana and a 2009 Justice Department memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to make it a low priority, the war on pot has continued unabated in the Obama years. As Ryan Grim and Ryan Reilly described it earlier this year, "Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal...

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. At the outset, I should make clear that I'm talking purely about legality under domestic law; I'll leave the question of whether military action against Syria is justified under international law to others . I also don't subscribe to the the most formalist conception of the president's military power, which holds that any non-emergency action by the president requires a congressional declaration of war. Military action accompanied by a congressional authorization for military action (as with the second Iraq War) should be considered clearly constitutional, and I'm inclined to think that presidential initiations of military force in the face of congressional silence are...

The Law That Must Not Be Named

This is not actually a skit from "Portlandia."
Talking Points Memo has done a service and rounded up a bunch of the ads states will be airing to promote the health-insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, and they provide an interesting window into how the exchanges in particular, and the ACA in general, is going to look to the public. The first thing you notice is that none of ads mentions the words "Affordable Care Act, let alone "Obamacare." A couple of them use words like "official" to denote that this is sponsored by the state, but others just make it seem like a consumer marketplace that might not have anything to do with government at all. And many of the spots look like they were produced by the state tourism board, with quick cuts between picturesque scenes from all around the state and poetic words about how our state is awesome and we're all terrific people. For instance, this one from Oregon barely mentions healthcare at all; it's just a friendly Portland hipster musician bounding around the state...

Some Context for Our Upcoming Bombing Campaign

Flickr/Christopher Ebdon
It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd rather not do. Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force...

Heroes "Without Rank or Wealth or Title or Fame"

President Obama's speech at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will almost certainly be remembered as one of his most important. Presidents only get so many opportunities to speak at events like this one, laden with the trappings of civil religion and what we might think of as a contested consensus. That's a contradiction, I know, but I think it fits. The civil-rights struggle of the 1960s was among the most divisive controversies in American history, yet today there's no more argument about who was right. Even the National Review , at the time a vigorous defender of the privilege of the white South to continue oppressing black people ( see here for some details) today claims Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of their own: "The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative," they write, and they're not the only ones on the right trying to make the same case. That's both consensus and contestation right there, the...

No Empire Strikes Back

The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria.  

AP Images/British Official photo
AP Images/British Official Photo A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942 ; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état. In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern...

Let's Avoid the Fog of War

The benefits of a U.S. military strike against Syria don't outweigh the costs.

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use. The first case is fairly easy to dismiss. Supporters of military intervention tend to place a great deal of weight on “credibility,” which is almost exclusively defined as “a willingness to bomb something.” As this argument goes, the United States needs to use deadly force to maintain its table image, to use a poker term. If we get caught bluffing, other players will be more likely to call or raise us in the future. But there’s just not a lot of real-world evidence...

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

The Impeachniks Roar

Coming soon to an overpass near you. (photo from Facebook)
There have been only two presidential impeachments in the 224 years since George Washington became America's first president. Both—of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and of Bill Clinton in 1998—failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the Senate. And Richard Nixon, of course, was about to be impeached in 1974 when he chose to resign instead; unlike the other two, there would have been nothing partisan about Nixon's impeachment and he almost certainly would have been convicted. There are always some partisans of the party out of power who would like to impeach the president, simply because it's the only way to get rid of him if you can't beat him at the polls. But a presidency without too much actual criminality shouldn't produce too many such armchair prosecutors. Or so you'd think. But these are no ordinary times, and the Republican thirst for impeaching Barack Obama (or "Barack Hussein Obama," as impeachniks inevitably call him) has gone mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that The...

Washington's Weed Whackers

For most of Stephanie Kahn’s life, medical marijuana was a tempting remedy that remained just out of reach. Her father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, was told by doctors as early as the 1970s that medical marijuana could alleviate his symptoms. At first, he was repelled by the idea of using an illegal drug. But as the pain and muscle spasms grew worse, he eventually tried marijuana and found that, as the doctors said, it provided almost-miraculous relief. Decades later, when her mother was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, Kahn, a nurse, heard the same refrain. “She lost 45 pounds in a month and a half,” she recalls. “And the doctor kept saying, marijuana could help her handle the chemo, could help her get her appetite back.” Months after her mother’s death in 2009, Kahn’s husband of 37 years, Jeffrey, a Reform Jewish rabbi who had retired from congregational ministry a few years earlier, floated an unorthodox idea: What if they opened a medical marijuana dispensary? “...

A Bold Obamacare Prediction

An ad from Organizing For America
Love may not mean never having to say you're sorry (what a dumb idea, anyway), but being a blogger means being able to make predictions and not really worrying about whether you turn out to be right or wrong. Oh sure, if you're spectacularly wrong, and wrong on television (see Kristol, Bill ), people might make fun of you. But usually, nobody remembers. And if you're right, you can remind everyone of how clever you were. In that spirit, let me offer a prediction. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, begins with open enrollment for the state exchanges on October 1, with coverage beginning on January 1. Sarah Kliff, who knows as much about the law as pretty much any reporter, returned from a cruise to report that the regular folks she encountered, when they heard what she does for a living, all wanted to know whether Obamacare was going to work. This was true of supporters and opponents alike. Not that the people Sarah met on the Lido Deck are a...

The NSA Can't Be Trusted

flickr/Sparky
flickr/Alex Ellison O n August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record. The key finding of the story, by Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb: An internal audit found 2,776 "incidents" in which NSA surveillance breached rules between April 2011 and March 2012. Even worse, the rates of illegal "incidents" have been increasing. As the Post 's Timothy Lee says , "We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t ‘actually abusing’ its surveillance programs are untrue." The only question is whether Obama deliberately misled the public, or whether he was unaware of these violations. Neither...

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Flickr/ Elizabeth Brossa G race Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom while Texas was in danger. So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree. She stayed there while construction crews hired by TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, came and took down the trees around her. In October, TransCanada sued the group she joined, the Tar Sands Blockade, along with other organizations employing direct action against the pipeline. As the company tried to stop the blockaders,...

President Obama Wants to Talk to You

President Obama at today's press conference, talking about talking.
When Barack Obama made remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, saying there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not do anything about a problem—particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it.) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations. After a somewhat rambling discussion of all the safeguards already in place to make sure nothing bad could possibly come of the government tracking your phone and Internet traffic, Obama said he's "looking forward to having a conversation" about these matters with all kinds of people who have an interest in the topic. A conversation! In fairness, the...

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