Kristof on Syria: The Politics and Strategy of Stupid Stuff

Nicholas Kristof wants the United States to set up a safe zone in Syria, as Hillary Clinton has suggested in her platform. “Don’t do stupid stuff,” as Obama once famously described his Middle East policy, isn’t good enough, says Kristof.

From a moral standpoint, it is impossible to argue with Kristof. Syria is a nightmare. From a political and strategic standpoint, it is quite another matter. A place and a name epitomize the counter-argument: Srebrenica and Adam Szubin.

Srebrenica was the “safe zone” established by the allies in Bosnia during the 1990’s. The Bosnian Serbs overran it when they felt like it, massacring thousands of Bosniak Muslims against a pathetically-overmatched Dutch “peacekeeping” force. Who is to say it won’t happen again?

Put another way, a “safe zone” is not a policy, strictly speaking, but rather a policy goal. Making refugees safe is to a partial extent just a way of restating the problem. And it is worse in Syria because Assad and Putin are not interested in a safe zone and will be happy to use their air power to obliterate it. That means risking an air war with them.

So: which troops will guard the safe zone? So far, no answer. Kristof says pretty weakly that Obama should lead some sort of international effort to develop some sort of multinational force. Good luck with that one: that’s what we did in Srebrenica. The only way a US policy can count on a genuine safe zone is with genuine US ground troops. Do we want that? (And no, the Kurds won’t do it because it won’t be in a Kurdish area, and they won’t want hundreds of thousands of non-Kurdish refugees in a Kurdish zone). Do we want our planes dogfighting with Russian aircraft, and Assad’s still-powerful anti-aircraft guns?

Now, maybe we do. Maybe it’s worth it. Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe of the greatest proportions. It’s a huge risk. US soldiers will die; they will be captured. But to avert a Syrian holocaust? That might be within the finest traditions of American idealism.

And that’s where Adam Szubin comes in.

Adam Szubin was nominated by President Obama nearly a year and half ago to be Undersecretary of the Treasury for Financial Intelligence and Terrorism. That’s a pretty important job. And you would think that it would be important to have a confirmed nominee there.

You would be wrong. The Senate Republicans have not even scheduled a hearing for him. He is sitting there, “Acting” Undersecretary, and his term ends at the end of this Congress. Without confirmation, there will be no one to fill his space.

What does that have to do with anything? Simply this: to put US troops and pilots in harm’s way in an active war theater over a long haul, especially for purely humanitarian purposes, requires broad and deep bipartisan support. No President would or should go out on a limb for something like this, which is inherently politically risky, unless he or she knows that it will not become politicized.

And the Senate Republicans can’t even give a hearing for a frigging Undersecretary of the Treasury.

Not a good example? How about this? President Obama asked Congress a year and a half ago for an AUMF against ISIS. As Tim Kaine rightly says, it’s pretty close to a legal requirement. And the Republicans have refused to even take it up. It is obvious why: if they take it up, and they approve it, then they are partially responsible for US deaths. But if they reject it, then they are partially responsible for ISIS victories. So they have taken the most craven and irresponsible course and have refused to do anything, which means that anything bad that happens is not their fault and they can just attack the President. Putting party over country is the guiding light of the modern GOP.

And Nick Kristof thinks that in this political context, President Obama should go off on his own and put together a Syrian safe zone. “Mr. President, please, put your head on that guillotine. No, really, Mitch McConnell won’t bring down the knife.” Sometimes it’s good to be a New York Times columnist.

Obama’s political opponents often accuse his supporters of thinking him a saint. He is far from that, but more to the point, they want him to act like a saint, risking his political career and legacy while full well knowing that he will be attacked for it by the most irresponsible and cowardly opposition in the United States since before the Civil War. Sorry, he’s in the politics business, not in the saint business. More importantly, they want him to risk the lives of American soldiers and potentially get us into a quagmire.

Can we do something in Syria? Yes; the United States is the most powerful country in the history of world. Is there a compelling moral reason to do it? Yes. But any adult foreign policy requires a clear-eyed view of the benefits and risks involved, and any criticism of that policy requires a mature sense of the relevant political calculus. Attacking President Obama for not acting in this strategic, military, and political context is not a critique: it is an emotional spasm.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

24 thoughts on “Kristof on Syria: The Politics and Strategy of Stupid Stuff”

  1. "He is far from that, but more to the point, they want him to act like a saint, risking his political career and legacy "

    Um, "political career"? Traditionally, once you've been President, you retire from politics.

    Anyway, not to actually defend the non-votes, but Obama probably shouldn't have picked a fight with the Senate over 'recess' appointments, if he wanted his legitimate appointments to get prompt attention.

    1. "We don't want the president using recess appointments, and to further that end, we will deny any action towards confirming regular appointments."

      I'm not saying that Republicans in Congress aren't stupid enough to have that as a strategy, but it's really stupid even by their own arguments.

      1. You don't have to think the response was brilliant, to recognize it was a response.

        Obama's approach to all this has been, "Acting appointments are about as good as confirmed nominees, so why should I bother to nominate anybody who stands a chance of being confirmed?" He's not really big on admitting that other parts of the government have any real authority.

        And, again, "political career"? The guy retires in five months.

        1. And exactly how does refusing to hold hearings or votes on the nominees he makes advance the Republicans position in any way that makes logical sense?* It's not so much that Obama isn't big on admitting that other parts of government have real authority; it's that he has a government to run even if other parts of government refuse to exercise their responsibilities.

          *It makes sense in the fashion that the public tends to blame the president for problems no matter whether those problems were caused by the executive or the legislature. That's not really a defense of any sort of logical position except in the most base sense.

          1. You're right, they should hold the hearings, and vote them down if they don't like his nominees.

            But ignoring Obama's nominees is still a response to Obama deciding he didn't need their consent to fill these positions. A bit childish response, I'll admit, but did Obama think it would improve his relations with the Senate to tell them he didn't need their consent to fill positions? Probably not.

        2. Forgive me, but surely it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that Obama is doing anything exceptional with his measly 32 recess appointments. Reagan is upwards of 200, Truman, Eisenhower in the high 100s, and George W. Bush and Clinton in the mid 100s. "Admirable restraint," "a due respect for the functions of the other branches of government" and "rejection of the theory of the unitary executive" seem more accurate characterizations.

          If Congress is trying to communicate "we don't like your other appointments," they're doing a poor job. An upvote communicates "we accept this nominee for this position; we don't have to like it, but we accept it." A downvote communicates "we reject the nominee; we may have think the world of the nominee and have nothing but respect for him/her, but we don't want him/her in the position in question; come up with another candidate." A refusal to vote communicates "we don't think this position should exist"–in this case, "we don't think it's worth pursuing questions of financial intelligence and terrorism."

          1. 32 recess appointments? Not extraordinary. Recess appointments when the Senate wasn't in recess? Yes, that was fairly extraordinary.

          2. One of the problems with your theory is that it has cause and effect reversed. Obama made his first batch of recess appointments on 27 March, 2010. The fifteen people he appointed had been pending before the Senate for an average of seven months without getting vote, at that stage due entirely to filibusters. Your claim that it was recess appointments that led to the refusal to allow nominations to be processed is simply wrong. Further, your argument that it was recess appointments when the Senate wasn't in recess that caused the problem is even sillier, since that didn't happen until January of 2012, by which time the practice of not advancing nominations in the Senate was well entrenched.

  2. Kristof is doing what The Economist does way too often in foreign policy pieces, state whatever everyone recognizes as a desirable policy outcome as if (a) It were a new idea and (b) It hasn't been achieved thus far because no one has thought of it, e.g., "The U.S. should respond by forcing China to give up all claims to Japanese territory, but not in a way that in any way antagonizes the Chinese government or its people". Oh, why didn't we think of that before?

  3. President Obama asked Congress a year and a half ago for an AUMF against ISIS. As Tim Kaine rightly says, it’s pretty close to a legal requirement. And the Republicans have refused to even take it up.

    I hear lots of complaining from the right that the President improperly expands the power of his office. But here's a huge opportunity for congress to reassert an authority that the constitution expressly reserves to them, and which they've shamefully shirked for decades.

    Their complaints ring hollow when they could assert their authority and they won't. The congressional leadership are a mirror universe John Marshall, judiciously seizing every opportunity to weaken the institution they lead.

    1. I'm a bit unclear how they're refusing to assert this authority by refusing to give Obama something he's asked for. They had the authority to refuse, they did.

      1. They haven't refused to give him the authority, though. They've just refused to vote on it at all.

        1. Since he only gets the authority if they vote to give it to him, not voting at all is equivalent to voting no.

          1. You're only responding to half of the argument. The issue isn't that Congress needs to vote on AUMF and either pass it or reject it. It's that, if Republicans in Congress aren't going to pass one, then they have an obligation to stop accusing Obama of not doing enough to fight them, since they're the ones who refuse to give him more authority. But, of course, they want the option of continuing to so criticize him, which means that they are shirking their responsibilities.

      2. I'm a bit unclear how not refusing a request turns out to be refusing it. They had the authority to say no to Obama, and didn't do it.

        1. "Not responding to" a request is refusing it, when your consent is required. Obama doesn't need the absence of a 'no' to start a war, he needs the presence of a 'yes'.

          Ah, I should amend that: To start a war legally. Libya demonstrated that he's not terribly concerned with whether his wars (Excuse me, "kinetic actions") are legal.

          1. The President has violated the rights of the Congress by seizing prerogatives that properly belong to them. So…what action are they taking? The constitution is squarely on their side. They could bring suit, as they did in the case of the PPACA. In the event that a court dismisses the case on the basis of the Political Question Doctrine, they could move on to political remedies such as a motion of censure.

            One is inclined to reach the conclusion that the Congress doesn't want to carry the burden of their war-making authority, and have delegated it to the executive to be free from that duty. But…maybe you know something I don't? Quite a few sparrows can fall to the ground without my knowledge. Are you aware of any kind of statement/protest/action on the part of the congressional leadership which suggests that they don't, in fact, mean to delegate this authority to the president?

          2. Hello, look just above. Yes, they're a bunch of slugs who are letting the President usurp more and more of their rightful authority, because being responsible for stuff is risky, and actually deciding things is too much work.

            Doesn't mean he had to usurp it. But they were glad to have him do it.

          3. So we agree on much. The President is claiming powers that rightfully belong to congress. And congress is glad to have him do it, because they don't want to bear the responsibility that comes with that power.

            Seems to me that our only significant point of disagreement here is that you think the President's war against ISIS is flatly illegal without that AUMF. My view is that congress is granting their consent by failing to protest this trampling of their rights.

            Does that sound to you like a fair statement of our respective positions?

          4. Yes, I would say so. There isn't any doctrine of adverse possession when it comes to constitutional authority; Just because the Legislative branch doesn't mind the usurpation, doesn't mean the power now legitimately belongs to the President.

            But it likely means the courts won't care, nominally because it's a political question, really because the legislature and President staff the courts, so they tend not to find parts of the Constitution both branches agree on violating worth enforcing.

  4. Great post!

    I don't agree though that there is anything much we could do about Syria. (I'd love to be wrong though.) What exactly do you see the US doing that could put that Humpty Dumpty place back together… even if in several pieces? (Partition at one point seemed to me a possibility… now I have no idea.)

    I see us risking having one of our people caught, and this would lead eventually… after the savagery… to us having another post 9/11 national freakout. Whereas, I can't imagine us achieving anything good that is anywhere near the same size. This just isn't our fight. What do you mean when you imply there is something we could do?

  5. This new. The maxim of the law, now, is that silence implies vigorous opposition?

    Is that what the congressional GOP did when they objected to Obamacare? Did they remain stoically silent, refusing to condemn the executive for his overreach, secure in the knowledge that their silence would be correctly understood as a firm and dignified rebuke to this executive overreach, and that nothing further need be done to reveal Obama as the tyrant that he is?

    Or did they, you know, take some kind of action? Like bringing a suit in federal court?

    On the subject of the executive proceeding against ISIS without an AUMF…the congress is silent. No impeachment. No censure. No shutdowns. No lawsuits. No complaint loud enough for me to to hear about it.

    Am I to understand, nevertheless, that congress is outraged at this usurpation of their proper authority? They're on much firmer ground here than on their PPACA lawsuit.

    No. I deny that their silence implies opposition. It's within their power, and properly within their constitutional authority, to stand up to the President on this. That they haven't done so clearly implies consent.

  6. Obama is in fact doing pretty much everything he can do in Syria without causing a much larger mess – helping the Kurdish-led alliance with airpower and specialist assistance. There is no other faction that has both support and aims even vaguely consonant with US interests (the other three groups with support are ISIS, the regime and the Islamists; all others lack any popular base). He also has to navigate with Russian, Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi interests and actions in mind. It's not the best option, but at least it's not the previous very stupid stuff.

    What stands out is the incoherence of US policy – it's backing at least three sides, opposed to the groups with the best chance of imposing a peace, it's diplomacy in the Gulf and Iraq is at odds with its declared aims, and its public discourse reads as if from another planet.

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