National Security

Is Barack Obama a Hawk?

Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

Back in 2008, one of the things—maybe the main thing—that convinced liberal Democrats that Barack Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton was that while Clinton had supported the Iraq War and was seen as generally to the more hawkish side of national security issues, Obama had opposed the war and sounded generally more skeptical about the use of American military power. Having been right on Iraq was a pretty rare calling card, and a lot of liberals took it as a proxy for something larger. It wasn't just that he was less like George W. Bush, it meant that he had the courage to stand up to Republicans and advocate for liberal values when other Democrats quaked in fear.

In retrospect, it doesn't seem that Obama was or is more liberal than Clinton in any substantive way, aside from perhaps a small policy difference here or there. And while he hasn't started any new big wars on the scale of Iraq, that isn't saying much, since Iraq was our biggest war since Vietnam. Today Kevin Drum takes E.J. Dionne to task for saying that "Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up until now."...

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?

Iraq Is Still Burning

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war.

But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence.

For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't mean. As horrible as it was, these days that would be a quiet day in Baghdad.

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.

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.

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 President are the very people who don't like foreign military adventures and were particularly disgusted by what happened the last time the government decided there was an awful dictator in the Middle East who had to be dealt with. And the Republicans otherwise favorably inclined toward a jolly good bombing campaign every now and again are the very people who can hardly bear the thought of supporting Barack Obama on anything. Members of Congress are reporting that the calls, emails, and conversations they're having with constituents are running almost exclusively against a strike.

That, of course is an imperfect measure of public opinion, but the better measures are showing much the same thing.

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.

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 screwup 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 all the way to the end:

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.

Is the CIA on Its Way to Hacking the Sky?

Human manipulation of the climate might be the quickest way to combat global warming. It's also the most frightening.

AP Images/David J. Phillip

The news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns.

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:

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 the 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 political story." Don't even ask what's going on over at Politico.

Look, I get it. These folks are political reporters, so they report on politics. You don't go into a restaurant and ask the sommelier to make your entree and the pastry chef to pick you a wine. I'm not sure you'd even want Chris Cillizza trying to explain the actual substance of a potential military action in Syria. Heck, I too spend most of my time writing about politics, and there are legitimate political issues to discuss. But it does seem that Obama's request for a congressional authorization has almost been greeted in the Washington media with a sigh of relief: At last, we get to frame this issue in terms of the political stuff we feel comfortable with, and can stop worrying about the serious and deadly substance of it all. We can treat it just like we treat everything else, as a game with winners and losers and a point spread to be debated.

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.