Syria and the lessons of Iraq

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq: no to a war in Syria.

Apparently, the Obama administration is set to send weapons to the Syrian rebels. The New York Times article reporting that implies that this may be too little, too late if our plan is to prevent a military victory by Assad. To do that, we’d have to take out lots of Syria’s airstrips.

All this is excellent instrumental reasoning, but it’s time to contest the premise: since when has it become American policy to topple Assad, whatever the cost and consequences? Washington pundits, always more militarist than the American people, have been lamenting that the lessons of Iraq have made the Obama administration “cautious” or “loath to intervene”–as if reluctance to militarily intervene in a large and well-armed country, caution in trying to topple a dictator whose fall would produce a country consumed by deadly sectarian hatreds (partly ancient and largely new, but who cares?), were a bad thing.

David Bromwich’s article in the latest New York Review of Books, where he takes the role of what Mark Danner has called an “empiricist of the word,” provides an excellent corrective to the creeping insinuation that intervention is in the cards and that those who propose staying out must somehow justify that. Read it all, as they say, but here are some highlights: Bill Keller, who got Iraq so horribly wrong, is now asking us to trust him that Syria is different, but can’t really say why (after reading Keller’s argument, I think Bromwich is quite right.). Keller is determined that his past “error of judgment” not leave him “gun-shy,” but while he worries about his mojo, I care more about the people at the other end of his vicarious gun. A recent New York Times article “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria” already is slanted, as Bromwich notes, in the very headline (slightly revised in the online version without changing its substance): why would a lack of change in policy count as news unless we’re assuming that intervention is, or ought to be, the default assumption? By the way, Mark Landler, who co-wrote that article as well as what Bromwich shows to be an over-hyped article about chemical weapons, also co-wrote the latest article approvingly citing “[s]ome senior State Department officials” who  “have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria.” The man has at the very least a bias; at most, an agenda.

About those chemical weapons, by the way: Even stipulating that Assad has used them, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him, I deny that this gives the U.S. good reason to intervene. The bright-line taboo on using nuclear weapons is far more dubious when applied to chemical weapons, whose ability to kill and sicken horribly in a limited area is not qualitatively greater, and often less, than the ability of awful contemporary conventional weapons to kill and maim. President Obama was foolish enough to make chemical weapons a “red line”—as we now know, as an off-the-cuff remark that he hadn’t thought out—but neither America nor Syria deserves to pay the price for his gaffe, no matter what the White House thinks.

I realize that the Syrian civil war is horrible. Tens of thousands (perhaps more) have been killed; millions have fled. Assad is a vicious dictator and he does not plan to change. But the pundits eager for intervention have not explained an alternative better than this: another war. For reasons those State Department hawks have explained, this war would start with our bombing airstrips. I submit it would progress, given the need to protect our aircraft against surface attack, to our bombing all kinds of “strategic” targets, killing thousands of civilians (as in Iraq). We would quite likely send ground troops who would instantly become the targets of die-hard Alawites, not to mention Hezbollah. In the best case, and whether or not we sent troops, we would eventually hand over the country to a motley coalition of well-organized Salafis and poorly-organized moderates. Further civil war would almost follow—with no likely end to the killing, nor the flow of refugees.

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq. Shame on those who are so determined to deny that they are lessons that they would rather repeat them. We should stay out.

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”

Does Obama claim the power to take you out?

What extraordinary claim of Presidential power is Holder supposed to have made? If it’s unlawful to kill U.S. citizens on American soil without legal process, then police snipers can’t take out hostage-takers. If military force can’t be used domestically Washington had no right to use military force against the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln was wrong to order the killing of Confederate soldiers, and Eisenhower shouldn’t have sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock.

Update Answer: No.

Holder to Paul:

“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The answer to that question is no.


I’ve been known to ask a snarky question from time to time, but right now I’d like to ask a completely serious question: What extraordinary power is Eric Holder supposed to have claimed for the President?

Surely it’s not extraordinary to claim that an official may kill a citizen on American soil without a warrant or an indictment: an FBI sniper can certainly shoot a hostage-taker if it seems the best way to save the life of the hostage. Is there any controversy about that? Or about the authority of that person’s supervisors, up to the President, to give the orders under which that is done?

Nor is extraordinary to claim that military force can – in extreme circumstances – be used against citizens on American soil: cf. Washington personally leading an army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln ordering the attack at Bull Run, and Eisenhower sending the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. No indictments, no warrants: just the use of the military to assert government control against unlawful combinations.

Is it the combination of the specificity of a sniper going after a hostage-taker with the use of the military? If the Union Army had possessed drones, would it have been “assassination” to use one to kill Lee or Jackson – or Jefferson Davis – even away from an active battlefield? And yet that would have been the targeted killing of an American citizen on U.S. soil without any process of law.

If in fact Anwar al-Awlaki was waging war on the United States from Yemen, then I don’t see why his citizen status should have protected him from being killed, any more than citizenship would have protected an American who enlisted in the German army in one of the World Wars.

Now imagine that al-Awlaki’s base of operations had been Yonkers rather than Yemen. How would that have changed things? It would have made it much more likely that he could be captured rather than killed without undue cost. If he were walking down the street, so that he could be arrested (for murder or conspiracy or treason) or captured (as an enemy combatant), then the decision to kill him rather than giving him a chance to surrender would be unjustifiable. (Surely the mere difficulty of conducting a trial couldn’t justify it.)

If instead he were in a fortified place, or surrounded by armed men, or in a position to throw a switch setting off an explosion when the arrest attempt was made, then the practical situation would have been more like his actual situation in Yemen: killing him might have been possible at acceptable cost, capturing him perhaps not.

The demand for some sort of transparent accountability for such actions – now sadly lacking – seems to me sound, though the notion that having a judge sign a warrant would make everything better doesn’t. But to claim that killing al-Awlaki was “assassination” rather than warfare seems to me a mere rhetorical flourish unsupported by convincing argument, unless someone wants to argue that al-Awlaki was not waging war on the United States.

If Holder were claiming for the President the authority to decide, in non-exigent circumstances where arrest is practicable, that some citizen is merely better dead, that would be an outrage. (Though I’ve got a little list … .) But can someone point me to where Holder has made such a claim?

So I’m trying to figure out the jump from “people – even citizens – making war on the United States may lawfully be killed by military means, even inside the country” to “The President claims the right to kill anyone he dislikes.”

What am I missing?

[Given the sensitivity of the topic, let me reiterate the RBC’s “Play Nice” rules: no insults directed at posters or other commenters. If your only response to my question is that I’m a fascist or blind Obama-lover, you’re welcome to say so: on some other blog. I’d like to devote this comment thread to serious argument about the topic at hand.]

Study in contrasts

Watching Obama soar made me hopeful. Watching Rubio stumble made me confident.

Watching the President hit the SOTU out of the park – with John Boehner looking sour and refusing to applaud some very popular proposals – made me hopeful.

Watching supposed Republican savior Rubio give a speech suitable to the president of the Tea Party Youth Club at a second-rate high school made me confident.

Obama has learned to wrap liberal proposals in patriotic, common-sense rhetoric. The Republicans have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Footnote I switched off before Rubio’s lunge for the water bottle.


Obama needs to reach out to Republicans. Here’s an idea: name a former Republican Senator to the most powerful Cabinet post.

The problem in Washington is partisanship. And Barack Obama has contributed to that problem by being mean to the poor widdle Republicans who only want to make nice with him. So maybe he should reach out the hand of friendship.

I know! Maybe he could nominate a former Republican Senator to the most powerful office in Washington other than the Presidency, running the agency with by far the largest budget, the largest number of employees, and the largest volume of contracting. Just to be sure, he could pick someone named as a potential Secretary of State by a former Republican Presidential nominee. Surely the other Republicans in the Senate would welcome such a conciliatory gesture.

Oh, wait

A Damn Good Speech

I’m a little surprised that Mark hasn’t beaten me to the punch on this: a helluva speech by the President.  My personal favorite moment was when he noted that defending Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid “does not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”  Absolutely.  (This is why, by the way, that the most pro-entrepreneurial legislation of my political lifetime has been the Affordable Care Act: it allows people to open their own businesses without fear that they will no longer be able to obtain health insurance).

And by the way, Congressmember Ryan: f*ck you.

A friend wrote to me to say that celebrating this speech makes liberals a “cheap date” because it isn’t necessarily followed up by action.  It was a speech: unless he was going to announce a series of executive orders in it — which as far as I know has never been done in an inaugural –  all you’re going to get is rhetoric.  But good rhetoric it is, and rhetoric that progressives can use for the future — and demand that our elected officials uphold:

[W]e, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We  believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest  labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our  creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she  has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an  American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own…

[O]ur journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not  complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not  complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the  right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a  land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are  enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our  journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of  Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know  that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

President Obama cannot do this by himself, but he is doing the right things.  The fiscal cliff dealwas pretty good.  He has so far faced down the plutocrats on the debt ceiling. He appointed Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel and told the bad guys to pound sand.  He is turning Organizing for America into a 501(c)(4) instead of disbanding it.  He is, in other words, beginning to attempt to do to Movement Conservatism what Jefferson told his Attorney General he would do to the Federalist Party:

I shall . . . by the establishment of republican principles . . . .sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.

Now THAT’S change I can believe in.

Obama on guns

He went wide, and big.

I suspected that Obama would keep it fairly simple: background checks, real penalties for gun trafficking and straw purchasing, high-capacity magazines, tracing, data, research. Other than the magazines provision, none of that would have any impact on the acquisition and use of firearms by people entitled to possess them. That would have made it obvious how unreasonable the NRA is, and probably split the House Republicans enough to get something through. That might still happen if the Senate breaks the program down into bite-sized pieces.

Instead, the President went wide and big: all of the above, plus a renewed assault weapons ban, stiffer sanctions for gun trafficking, prosecution for ineligible felons who try to buy guns, money to hire extra cops, school security and counselors, and some sort of mental-health agenda.

Still, when Wayne LaPierre says “It’s about banning your guns … PERIOD!” he is obviously Saying The Thing That Is Not. As with the Romney campaign, reporters will have to decide whether to report the falsity of the charge in the same sentence in which they report the charge. Add that to the utterly over-the-top ad targeting Sasha and Malia, and we could finally see the NRA start to lose some of its power.

The same applies to the reflexive Republican accusation that Obama is trying to seize dictatorial power by using his authority as the head of the Executive Branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” As far as I can tell, none of the executive actions he announced today gets anywhere near the line.

Substantively, the minimalist agenda had most of the feasible items likely to actually reduce gun violence. (Not clear that a ban on selling new high-capacity magazines would matter much, but it, plus the AWB, provides a nexus to Newtown. Everyone has to wrestle with the fact that the event that put guns back on the political agenda is so atypical that good legislation will mostly be about something else. An Australian-style ban might or might not work, but it’s nowhere near feasible politically.)

More cops on the street are generally a good investment, especially if they’re used in ways that reduce, rather than increasing, the incarceration rate. And of course anything that prevents state and local layoffs from acting as a drag on economic recover is to be supported. But that’s hardly central here.

What’s done is done, and the battle lines are now drawn. This may serve as the first test of the Obama campaign organization’s capacity to mobilize voters for other purposes. Looking forward to 2014, that could be as important as the substance of gun policy.

Footnote I hope Harry Reid gives his colleagues a chance to vote on a resolution condemning the NRA for using the President’s children in an attack ad.

The President introduces the new Secretary of the Treasury

Keyword: “integrity.” But why should public service be a financial sacrifice?

Keyword: “integrity.” It’s always heartwarming when nice guys finish first.

Obama’s reflection on the sacrifices made by people like Geithner and Lew – and their families – and the fully-justified praise Geithner and Lew offered to the civil servants at Treasury and OMB, raised a question about when we’re going to start paying those civil servants – who don’t get to cash in with stints in the private sector – reasonable salaries.

When the top career lawyers for the government make less than twenty-something associates at top law firms, is it any wonder the public gets the short end of the deal? Singapore pays its top civil servants real money. Why can’t we?