Syria thread

A thread on the mooted intervention in Syria.

Commenters may want a Syria thread.

I have no peculiar insight to share with you, only the commonplaces.

Obama´s arguments for intervention:
P1. The use of poison gas is a war crime; against civilians, an odious one. It should be punished if possible.
P2. He, Obama, personally laid down a red line on the subject. Failure to follow through weakens the standing and credibility of the US.
P3. An intervention limited to bombing is likely to greatly reduce the Syrian government´s capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons again in the civil war.

Arguments against:
A1. A unilateral armed intervention, however limited, without the sanction of the UNSC, is itself a violation of international law. There is no prospect of an UNSC resolution authorising force, given Russian and Chinese opposition. You can´t uphold international law by means that violate it. (UNSC sanction isn´t needed for self-defence, but nobody is claiming that this applies.)
A2. The intervention has no prospect of ending the conflict through bringing about a negotiated peace, or the victory of either side.
A3. The slippery slope: given the very limited effect of the bombing envisaged, it will create strong pressures for further and more decisive involvement. This would have unpredictable outcomes, many of the possibilities being very bad.
A4. Precedents: the recent history of US armed involvements in the region does not support optimism about the effects of another one.
A5. Credibility does not require you to make good on all your threats, which makes bluffing unusable. It´s unlikely, after Iraq 1 and 2, Afgahanistan, Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Kosovo and Libya that foreign rulers will suddenly stop worrying about threats from the US government, especially on matters where its national interests are more clearly at stake.

Am I leaving anything vital out?

FWIW, I give a lot of weight to A2. The interventions in Kosovo and Libya were also illegal by the same standard, but they had the merit of being decisive. The standard criteria for just war include a good chance of winning; you should not shed blood for symbols.

In the Libyan case, it´s actually a good thing that Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy lied about their objectives of the bombing: their real aim was to overthrow Gaddafi by backing his opponents (a far more united and credible bunch than the Syrian rebels), and their means were sufficient to achieve this. Libya is still a mess, though probably an improvement on Gafafi´s creepy police state.

Poverty, Meet Cash Transfers

In my guise as The Nonprofiteer, I suggest that the solution to poverty might be money.

dorothea lange depression era photographs 13

Alert the media.  No, really.

Susan Rice withdraws

Rice´s withdrawal: the right call for the wrong reason.

An extract from Susan Rice´s public letter withdrawing herself from consideration as Secretary of State – my emphasis:

It is far more important that we devote precious legislative hours and energy to enacting your core goals, including comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation, and maintaining a robust national defense and effective U.S. global leadership. Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time.

Three domestic priorities and two foreign. Climate breakdown and the energy transition don´t rate a mention in either context. (¨At this time¨ is nice.)

The right call, for the wrong reason.

The Old Superb

A trial balloon that Obma will end the War on Terror, and a (British) patriotic sea-shanty.

At Balkinisation, Jonathan Hafetz discusses an important speech by Jeh Charles Johnson, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense, at the Oxford Union on 30 November. Key grafs:

But, now that efforts by the U.S. military against al Qaeda are in their 12th year, we must also ask ourselves: how will this conflict end? It is an unconventional conflict, against an unconventional enemy, and will not end in conventional terms [….]

In the current conflict with al Qaeda, I can offer no prediction about when this conflict will end, or whether we are, as Winston Churchill described it, near the “beginning of the end.”

I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point – a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.

At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an “armed conflict” against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community – with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.

At that point we will also need to face the question of what to do with any members of al Qaeda who still remain in U.S. military detention without a criminal conviction and sentence. […]

I suggested in February that Candidate Obama campaign on a declaration that Al Qaeda has been defeated and the War on Terror over. He didn´t. But the idea has clearly moved from liberal corners of the blogosphere to a seriously entertained policy option.

Continue reading “The Old Superb”

The American Right Throws Israelis Into the Breach

At this writing, Middle East watchers are, well, watching to see if Israel and Hamas can reach a cease-fire.  Signs are good, but pessimists are rarely disproved in the Middle East.

There is little doubt that Jerusalem would like a genuine cease-fire.  Even though the Israeli public strongly supports Operation Pillar of Defense, it is very wary of a ground assault on Gaza: only a small minority of Israelis support an immediate ground offensive, and such operations during Cast Lead and the Second Lebanon War quickly became quagmires that upended Israeli governments.  Few in Israel doubt that an actual cease-fire is in the national interest.

The caveat, though, is the phrase “in Israel.”  Once again demonstrating that it could not possibly care less about the Jewish state, the right wing has concocted yet another preposterous anti-Obama narrative.  Last night on the Hannity show, Oliver North claimed that Obama has threatened Israel with the cutoff of military supplies if it launches a ground invasion and refuses to accept a cease-fire on Hamas’ terms.  This story has now become common in the fever swamps of the American right.

This obviously demonstrates the Right’s desperation to undermine President Obama’s clear support of Israel’s position.  Throughout the 2012 campaign, conservatives insisted that Obama would betray Israel as soon if he was re-elected.  Since Obama very clearly backed up Jerusalem’s position, the American Right’s Plan B was to unilaterally re-define Israel’s security interests, insisting that in fact it should move in with ground troops.  What Israelis themselves want is irrelevant: the important thing is to convince American Jews and evangelicals that Obama is a closet anti-Semite.

The Right’s gambit, however, is more than pathetic: it is dangerous.  Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Today is Israel’s largest circulating newspaper (not “best-selling” because it is given away for free), and it carries the explicit attempt to drive the Israeli conversation rightward.  If it succeeds, we will face the grotesque spectacle of American conservatives seeking to make Israel more right-wing in order to justify its evidence-free conviction that Obama is anti-Israel.  And if they succeed, they will accomplish the goal of making Israel more aggressive and rejectionist.  That will lead to a further erosion of Israel’s international position, a magnification of settler violence, and putting even more Israeli soldiers and civilians at risk.

But none of this bothers the American Right.  In order to serve its own political goals, it is willing to fight to the last Jew.



The Emergency Committee to Promote Bill Kristol

For the last 20 years, the Right has worked hard to convert support for Israel from an area of bipartisan consensus into a topic for Republicans to beat Democrats with.  Even Washington’s most tepid disagreement with the Israeli government will be lept upon by right-wingers as an indication that the US is selling out the Jewish state — even though in most of those circumstances, the American position arguably helps Israeli democracy more than Jerusalem’s own.

No organization has played a more prominent role in this effort than the Emergency Committee for Israel, yet another fake think tank cooked up by conservative welfare recipient Bill Kristol.  Kristol’s foreign policy credentials comprise a series of embarrassingly wrong and ill-informed predictions about future events.  But his real talent seems to be inventing think tanks that he can get gullible GOP billionaires to spend money on.

Still, one might think that in the past week and a half, with Israel in the midst of a genuine security crisis (whatever you think of it on the merits), that an “Emergency Committee” might have something to say.  Statements of support?  Lobbying efforts?  Op-eds?  Something?

Well, no.  A check of the Emergency Committee’s website has nothing on the current crisis.  Indeed, its Twitter feed has nothing on it in the last 87 days.  All that the front page contains is a series of stale tweets, advertisments, and statements criticizing Democratic candidates for not standing with Israel.  ECI has produced a lots of anti-Obama propaganda, including an infamous and deceitful audio mash-up where Obama is supposedly debating Netanyahu, which now must be somewhat embarrassing given the President’s support for Israel in the current crisis.  The Emergency Committee for Israel has a lot to say during domestic elections, but what about when an Israeli public relations effort would really need it?  Sorry.  Must be on vacation.

None of this should be surprising, of course.  The Right’s supposed love of Israel is really more about its own domestic goals.  American Jews get this, which is why 70% of us voted for President Obama.  But Israelis should understand this as well: Republicans will make a lot of noises, but unless it serves their own political interests, they don’t really give a goddam.


How Obama just won Ohio: moderate isolationism

In repeatedly talking about “nation building here at home,” Obama tapped into the one feeling ardently held by American voters that is unmentionable in polite company: moderate isolationism.

In 2004, John Kerry said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention,

we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.

The line got huge applause. Christopher Hitchens noted and feared this, calling it “one of the sourest and nastiest and cheapest notes to have been struck for some time.” But Kerry knew a good line when he heard it, and re-used it endlessly in his stump speech and the debates—which he won.

Kerry played Mitt Romney in Obama’s debate prep. He taught some lessons that Obama used last night. Obama’s version of the same riff was:

the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home.

…and it wasn’t an accident or a minor point: Obama used versions of the line four times, unprompted.

I haven’t seen a single commentator noting the line. But I’ll wager it played a huge role in convincing undecided voters to give Obama a huge lead, 30 points, in the CBS instapoll. Though I can’t find the article, I remember a Kerry aide from 2004 commenting, a bit uncomfortably, that swing voters, who then as now tended to be low-information voters, were particular fans of the firehouse spiel.

Washington is a city of self-styled internationalists. (It would be bad manners to say “militarists,” much less to note that the Pentagon is a huge driver of the local economy, along with lobbying.) There’s a strong institutional bias in favor of candidates who call for higher military spending, lots of military interventions, and a hair-trigger attitude towards crises. But the American people have always been much more leery of military spending and foreign wars than the political class is. Scott Rasmussen—yes, that one—noted the disjuncture last month, in explaining why Republican efforts to make higher military spending a campaign winner were destined to fail. Polls on military spending are so unfavorable to the Republican position that Obama is running ads attacking Romney for wanting to spend more on defense. Military spending hikes are favored by 58 percent of Republicans—but only 40 percent of all voters.

American isolationism has very large costs. It drives our shocking lack of policy learning—our unwillingness to learn from other countries that do anything better than we do—as well as relative indifference to global problems from hunger to climate change and beyond. But it also has its benefits: the war machine that Romney and the neocons would like to sell, the public isn’t buying.

This is a line of attack likely to fly under the radar of elites, or even offend them. But this is a democracy. And I think Obama just won Ohio.

Something Mitt Romney Almost Got Right

Perhaps the most outrageous part of Romney’s deservedly-infamous speech to the $50,000-a-plate dinner was his assertion that he inherited nothing from his upbringing.  After all, he was only the son of the CEO of American Motors and then the Governor of Michigan, who went to one of the country’s best prep schools and then to Harvard (where, as Andy Sabl has reminded us, he made ends meet by selling stock): how in the world could anyone think that that gave him anything?  He might be as delusional as his running mate, which is saying a lot.

But in that speech he did say one thing that is undeniably true (even if he said it to make an absurd point):

Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America.

Absolutely true.  In today’s world, a child’s life chances are pervasively determined by which country she is born in.  Being born in the United States or the rich countries of Europe is tantamount to winning life’s lottery compared to the rest of the world.  Martha Nussbaum a few years ago noted that

A child born in Sweden today has a life expectancy at birth of 79.7 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has a life expectancy at birth of 38.9 years. In the USA, GDP per capita is US$34 142; in Sierra Leone, GDP per capita is US$490. Adult literacy rates in the top 20 nations are around 99%; in Sierra Leone, the literacy rate is 36%. In 26 nations, the adult literacy rate is under 50%.

Suzy Khimm got the numbers last year while reporting on the Occupy Movement’s claim to be the “99%.”  True, but only in the United States:

Those at the 34th percentile of income in the United States are at the 90th percentile globally, and those at the 50th percentile in the United States are at the 93rd percentile globally. Even the very poorest Americans — those at the 2nd percentile of income in the United States — are at the 62nd percentile globally.

And this adjusts for relative price levels.  Recently the United Nations Development Programme estimated that hunger and malnutrition affect more than 900 million people worldwide — the overwhelmiing majority of them in the Global South.

Note, of course, that using Romney’s words in this way shows the absurdity of his message.  Romney was attempting to make the Social Darwinist claim that the distribution of wealth is a function of virtue.  In fact, it is anything but: it is essentially a function of luck. 

If anything, the Republican Party is doing its best to clamp down on any attempts to change that: the egregious farm bill written by the House GOP leadership increases farm subsidies and removes the small measure of food aid reform contained in the last farm bill.  If the “deficit chickenhawks” in the Republican Party get their way, the majority of your food aid tax dollars will continue to go to wealthy US agribusiness and shipping interests, essentially serving as a way to dump food into the Global South and undermine local agriculture.

None of this, of course, should be taken as a reason to stop fighting against inequality in the United States.  But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored.  US aid policies need to be the next frontier of a vigorous progressivism.

The Romney Clown Show Continues Apace

In the last three days, Mitt Romney and his campaign have:

1)   At best lied about and at worst divulged confidential conversations with the Australian foreign minister;

2)   Been unable to distinguish “Russia” from “the Soviet Union”;

3)   Used crude racial/ethnic stereotyping that even the Torygraph thinks is over-the-top; and now

4)   Insulted Great Britain and elicited a miffed push-back from the British Prime Minister.

And this doesn’t even include his vague and vapid bluster about Iran and China.  And note, none of this can simply be ascribed to misspeaking.  As Dave Weigel notes in Slate, for example, Romney’s position on Russia really does see it as the Soviet Union.

If anything, Fareed Zakaria is too kind when he refers to Romney’s foreign policy as “strangely amateurish.”  It isn’t strange: it is the actual flowering of a Republican Party ideology that thinks being a bull-in-the-china-shop exudes “strength.”  Dick Cheney seems like a wise man in comparison.  I suppose that’s what one should expect of a man who writes a book called No Apologiesand then changes it in the paperback edition in order to suck up to the Tea Party.

Romney just isn’t ready for prime-time: how much more trouble will he get the country into if he is elected President?

Romney’s “National Security” Speech: This Is A Test

In his speech supposedly about national security, Mitt Romney again said that President Obama has “apologized” to foreign countries for the United States.

This is a lie.

It is also a test: members of the Fourth Estate, will you report on this without saying that it is untrue?

UPDATE:  The invaluable Heather Hurlburt finds five more “untruths” (more commonly known as “lies”) in Romney’s speech.  Will the press call him on any of them?