Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

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. So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year. Today,...

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 Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Representative 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...

Can a Progressive Make It to Gracie Mansion?

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer B ill de Blasio is under attack in New York City’s mayoral race, and not just because his broad, towering frame makes for an easy target, that gray, conservatively-manicured block of hair rising above voters and the press at every campaign stop. A self-styled movement progressive with a biracial family from Park Slope, Brooklyn, de Blasio has seized the mantle of change in a city where many residents appear to crave it after a decade under billionaire incumbent Michael Bloomberg’s cold vision of financial capitalist technocracy. With just a few days left before the September 10 Democratic primary, de Blasio is way out in front of his rivals; in the latest Quinnipiac poll , he crossed the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off and advance directly to the November general election. Now de Blasio finds himself on the cusp of tremendous power over a city at a crossroads, facing existential questions over everything from expired municipal employees' union...

Class Struggle at the Airport

Settle in - you'll be here a while. (Flickr/Jonathan McPherskesen)
I've always thought that the real reason conservatives recoil in disgust from the idea of "socialized" health care is their belief that in a system like Britain's (actual socialized care) or Canada's (private care, socialized insurance), the wealthy can't buy more care than anybody else. In practice that's not really true—most single-payer systems include some kind of supplemental private insurance you can get that will give you more perks than the common folk, like a private room when you're admitted to the hospital. But the point is, American conservatives are deeply committed to inequality as a fundamental principle of resource distribution. Whatever we're talking about—iPads, cars, education, health care—rich people ought to be able to use their money to get more of it than the rest of us. What's the point of being rich if you aren't elevated beyond the teeming masses during every moment of every day and in every aspect of your existence? Maybe I'm caricaturing them because I'm a...

Daily Meme: Back to School for World Leaders

The G20 Summit—an annual meeting of world leaders focusing mainly on economics—kicked off today in St. Petersburg. The member countries combined produce nearly 90 percent of the world's GDP, and house two-thirds of the world's population. Here's what's on the agenda . But don't expect much of these topics to get much press or play. Thanks to the U.S.'s current deliberations about airstrikes in the Middle East, this weekend is going to be all about Syria. Russian president Vladimir Putin recommended that they discuss Syria over dinner , so that the more formal meetings could be saved for talk of stimulus and stock markets. So ... dinner conversation is likely to be awkward and unpleasant. Hopefully the food is good! One thing Putin won't want to talk about at the summit— the 2016 Olympics . Expect Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to bring it up anyway. Things might get tense, judging by the death stare Obama and Putin gave each other this morning. Another topic other...

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...

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Evan Vucci P resident 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 that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment. Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move...

Coming Out Guns Blazing in Colorado's Recall Elections

AP Images/Michael Ciaglo
AP Images/Michael Ciaglo This Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, voters in two Colorado districts will decide whether they want to recall their state senators. Based on the outcome of those two elections, media around the country will determine whether gun control legislation is a safe political bet for elected officials who want to keep their seats; pro- and anti-gun control groups will see if flexing their muscles with large donations has all been for naught. You might say the stakes in Colorado’s first-ever legislative recalls are high. But they probably shouldn’t be. Back in March, the two Democratic state senators now facing recall—Angela Giron and Senate President John Morse—both helped pass gun control legislation that limited the size of ammunition magazines and extended background checks. The legislation came less than a year after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70, and three months after the Newtown elementary school shootings...

Obama Administration Failing (So Far) to Convince the Public On Syria

We're just beginning to embark on something we only do every few years: have a real, national debate on whether we should start another war. Okay, so this isn't a full-scale war, at least not from our end; to hear the administration tell it, the whole thing could be over in a day or two. But Congress will be officially coming back into session on Monday, and at that point they'll be talking about little else for a couple of weeks. It'll be dominating the news, unless a young singer horrifies the nation by dancing suggestively, requiring us all to drop what we're doing and lament the debased state of America's moral fiber. So far anyway, it's pretty clear that most Americans don't think a military strike against Syria is a good idea. That in itself is unusual; you'd expect at the very least to see a closely divided public. The problem the administration confronts is that there seems to be no one unambiguously in favor of this action. Democrats otherwise inclined to support the...

A Twerk Too Far

AP Images/Charles Sykes
AP Images/Charles Sykes A t last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus continued her journey to adulthood, aided by proximity to popping black female asses. The former Hannah Montana star sparked a national dialogue about rich white girls borrowing empowerment from "low" black culture. The conversation we need to have about cultural appropriation is thorny and complicated—and necessary. But in the heat of a pop-culture moment, the significance is trivialized, reduced to the mere shock of a wiggling, latex-clad derriere pressed against Robin Thicke’s manhood. And ideas that support useful dialogue get lost in the scrum. It is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about cultural appropriation without first understanding the difference between inspiration and minstrelsy, the diversity of American racial experiences, and what we have a right to expect from white artists influenced by other cultures. One thing glaringly absent from last week’s breast-beating was recognition of...

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster M any 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. In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts. The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments...

Daily Meme: Wars Past and Present

Political debate in Washington this week has been dominated by discussions about what the contours of the U.S.'s involvement in Syria will be. There have been debates about the long-term effects of our decisions and there have been debates about how a potential strike could affect the balance of world power in the short term. It's important to look back at what our past military actions have left in their wake too. As of this week, 2,253 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan. In Iraq, 6,668 . Those soldiers who make it home hardly have it better . Their families suffer from the war's aftershocks too. Female veterans have few resources to help them avoid homelessness. Military hospitals can't deal with the waves of veterans who need help. It's not just American soldiers and their families that continue to suffer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 5,000 civilians have died in Iraq this year. A wave of coordinated car bomb attacks this week killed at least 67 people . Last night, a...

Rummy Returns

Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' new film.
Don Rumsfeld, believe it or not, is back. And though I haven't read Rumsfeld's Rules , (available in paperback soon!), I'm pretty sure he hasn't changed a bit. Which is something that I think it's fair to say is true of most people who worked at high levels for George W. Bush. As far as they're concerned, they were right all along, about everything. Rumsfeld thinks President Obama is going about this Syria thing all wrong, about which he could well be right, but how can anybody hear him offer opinions about that sort of thing and not remind themselves that he bore as much responsibility as anyone for what was probably the single greatest foreign-policy screw-up in American history? Anyhow, the real reason I mention Rummy is that Errol Morris has a new documentary about him coming out soon called The Unknown Known . Like Morris' The Fog of War , his film on Robert McNamara, it's basically a long interview with Rumsfeld. But unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld has no regrets. Watch this preview...

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...

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. Admittedly, not everyone sees Obama asking Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities as a good thing. You may remember the second Bush administration from such events as ... oh, I don't know ... the several catastrophic foreign policy blunders that happened under its watch. Rather than permanently hiding their heads in shame, several architects of these military and human rights disasters are publicly complaining about Obama's turn from presidential unilateralism. John Yoo, the arbitrary torture advocate and producer...

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