Saturday, September 21, 2013

Asylum Update

Congress has had its fair share of crazy moments, but this week something extraordinary has happened even by Congress's standards. Facing zero chance of success, absolutely zero chance, House Republicans have passed a CR to fund the government without any funding for Obamacare. This is not in and of itself stunning news—the GOP has made a habit of wasting everyone's time with ineffectual votes. More interesting are the rifts that have been exposed between right wing House and Senate GOPers. Representative Peter King, for instance, did not mince words about Senator Ted Cruz:
When Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Mike Lee fail in the Senate next week, maybe finally we Republicans will have ended their influence. We as House Republicans should stop letting Ted Cruz set our agenda for us.
King's frustration stems from Ted Cruz's near constant harping about repealing Obamacare from his consequence-free post as junior Senator from Texas. Because such bills have to originate in the House, Cruz's ideological tantrums are effectively commands for the House to keep attacking the health care law.

It gets weirder. Cruz, called out by his House colleagues, has to do something about this funding bill that will somehow live up to the unrealistic demands he himself has been spouting for months. But he knows that if the bill comes to a vote, it'll get defeated leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with the ability to cut out the House provision eliminating funding for Obamacare. So here's his plan:
I hope that every Senate Republican will stand together and oppose cloture on the bill in order to keep the House bill intact and not let Harry Reid add Obamacare funding back in.
Yes, Cruz's only option is to filibuster the very House bill that ultra conservatives wanted passed in the first place. Well... it may be his only option. Other reports suggest he won't even be able to launch the filibuster.
We won’t have an opportunity to filibuster,” a Senate GOP aide, presumably to one of the Republicans behind the repeal push, told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York. “It’s going to be a simple majority vote.
The whole course of events has led to a good deal of confusion for other GOP Senators. Lindsay Graham had been talking against the absurdity of the House bill for some time leading up to it. But today Graham tweeted that he supported the bill. Is it a reversal? Possibly... or maybe Graham just wants to get the charade over with as quickly as possible. His aide defended the switch as a continued play against Cruz.
"You don't get the situation we now find ourselves in. Senator Cruz and Senate Conservatives Fund now want to filibuster the House-passed bill," the aide told TPM. "You can't pass defund Obamacare legislation by filibustering defund Obamacare legislation."
Perhaps the best GOP line was reported by the National Review:
“I’ve not heard anyone dare to articulate, here’s what we really want at the end of the day,” said Representative James Lankford, the fifth ranking member of GOP leadership as policy chairman.
No doubt, no doubt.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Why Would Russia Help?

Fred Kaplan has written a piece about the sudden diplomatic intervention of Russia into this Syrian crisis that has led to a deal struck just as the United States was on the verge of taking military action, one of those 11th hour 59th minute developments that makes everyone scratch their heads and wonder why. Is Russia to be trusted? Why do this when they have supported Assad and funneled him weapons all along?

The answer, according to Kaplan, is that confiscation of Assad's chemical weapons is in the best interest of Russia:
Putin must have seen this distinction as confusing at best, duplicitous at worst. War, after all, is by nature political; military strikes always have political objectives. This is why he had so firmly opposed any talk of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons: He figured that U.S. airstrikes in Syria would be a pretense or prelude to deeper intervention and “regime change.”

However, when Kerry said that dismantling the weapons might halt the juggernaut of U.S. military action, Putin saw an opening. He took the narrowest slice of Obama’s rhetoric literally: that the coming airstrikes were strictly about Assad’s chemical weapons. OK, then, Putin replied: I’ll help to remove those chemical weapons, and you call off the airstrikes. End of story.

And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals—but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics. A win-win-win for Putin.
I'm hoping, of course, that Kaplan is right, but I think there's a better than halfway chance he is right if only for this piece of reasoning he offers later in the piece: that is Putin had other designs than the actual removal of Syrian chemical weapons, there was no reason for him to act before the vote in Congress that Obama looked sure to lose. Putin could have waited for Obama to get embarrassed, and then offered a half-hearted gesture toward diplomacy to make Russia look a bit better on the world stage, a gesture that would almost certainly have led to no real action. The likeliest reason to make this international deal now is that they want to get it done.

It brings to mind the words of John F. Kennedy in his speech at American University in June, 1963:
We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest.
The biggest variable now is not Russia, but Assad himself. What will he do, now that his great benefactor Russia has struck this deal with his great enemy, the United States?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Solving Syria With Trial And Error

The news that hit the homepage of the New York Times this morning was the that the United States and Russia have agreed on a deal regarding Syria's chemical weapons. The article states in the fifth graph the unprecedented nature of this plan:
Security will be a major worry for the inspectors who are tasked with implementing the agreement; no precedent exists for inspection, removal and destruction of a large chemical weapons stockpile during a raging civil war.
But the challenge of policing an active war zone and extracting dangerous chemical weapons has not yet worried American editorial observers nearly so much as the status of American diplomatic strength in a multilateral world. Perhaps the most anxious of the hand-wringers is Times columnist Roger Cohen. About ten days ago, after Obama had decided to put this question of intervention to Congress, he wrote how "'red lines'... have been a foundation of the post-1945 world order." Then earlier this week Cohen wrote this of the administration's haphazard diplomacy:
The sight of a president who draws a red line on chemical attack and then says “I didn’t set a red line” (the world did); who has Kerry plead a powerful case for military action only to stall; who defers to Congress but seems happy enough with Congress ambling back into session more than a week later; who notes that for “nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security,” and then declares “America is not the world’s policeman” — the sight of all this has marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless.
I have not been especially impressed with Obama and Kerry in the past few weeks, though my disappointment has less to do with their decision making than the appearance of their decision making. The United States has appeared at many moments to be rudderless and it is the job of the executive branch to present a more resolute face to the world. That said, a lot of people confuse the quality of being "resolute" or "strong" with an inflexible course of action, which is a far more irresponsible line to take. Having a firm hand on the rudder does not mean a ship never turns; shifting direction is in fact the purpose of the rudder.

To return to Cohen's point, this new awareness that the world is now a chaotic and dangerous place because it is no longer "anchored" by American values and American power strikes me as a tilted way of understanding history after 1945. There were plenty of moments when America exerted its might and reversed destabilizing developments—Cohen mentions the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance. On the other hand, there were plenty of times when crises went unaddressed, ignored, or exacerbated by the United States. Was it an "anchorless" world when the US refused to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda? Did Latin America become more or less chaotic when Reagan chose to illegally fund the Contras and their terrorist insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? What good did any previous "red lines" do to deter Iran from seizing hostages in 1979?

Cohen is implying that we are in some new Wild West era of global politics compared with civilized foreign order of the Cold War. I'm unconvinced and much more inclined to side with Timothy Egan, whose recent column has called out all those pundits who want foreign policy to operate like a chess match with the United States playing fifteen moves ahead. Egan argues that to cherish constitutional democracies is to become reconciled to messy and unpredictable policy making. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, even if it seems unsettling. Eventually good ideas find their time and get adopted, a better outcome than when a nation clings stubbornly to a bad idea, just because it was the first idea. Egan writes of Syria:
The net result, accidental or not, is that Syria is no longer just an American problem. They say they will give up the poison gas that, wink, wink, was never used. The principle, as Obama said, “that with modest effort and risk we stop children from being gassed to death,” is there on the table for a world that preferred to look the other way. And, added bonus: the neocon warriors are gone, homeless in both parties. All of this is a hugely positive leap from where we were a week, a month, or a year ago.
It is also, as Emily Bazelon for Slate argues, a victory for international law. That, of course, is exactly what is driving the Republican into apoplexy. They are split between those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully intervening, and those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully not intervening. The former group, the neocons, are running into the problem of the legacy of Iraq. The latter group, Tea Party neanderthals, is running into the problem of logic.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Music Tuesday

Classes started today at my school. I was trying to think of an appropriate album to kick off the academic year. Music that is lofty and inspiring. Music that represents high ideals, that encompasses the joys of teaching and learning. Music that reveals the capacity of human scholarship as well as the human spirit. And I remembered that I have just such an album...

Monday, September 9, 2013

If Congress Says No To Syria...

I've been spending this week reading up on Syria, for obvious reasons, and the English Civil War, for a class I'll be observing this fall. One boon to studying 17th century England is that it provides a useful reminder of just how bloody and disruptive has been the history of the West. The widespread contemporary view of the Middle East is of backward nations propped up by brittle political structures and rent by religious strife. That was England in the 1600s: kings held power with fluctuating, sometimes dubious authority; religious sects challenged the Church from conservative and radical postures; a titanic civil war unseated the king and resulted in his beheading; attempts to institute a stable political system failed, as power resided with the victorious army and its captain; and persecution of nonconformists and ethnic others occurred frequently. It was, as Christopher Hill once wrote, "A Century of Revolution."

This is not to suggest that there are specific and illuminating parallels stretching between England then and the Middle East today—just an observation that sometimes the sweep of history presents broad patterns that can teach us humility if nothing else. I should also say that in reading about Syria and England this week I have become acutely conscious of how much the word parliamentary looks like the word paramilitary to groggy morning eyes. Take my word for it, that can make some sentences confusing.

But what to make of Syria? To ignore for a moment the moral implications of the violence in Syria or a potential military strike by the United States, it is fascinating how the prospect of military action has cut across the familiar political fault lines in Washington. Tea Partiers, libertarians, and progressives find themselves on the same side opposing intervention, while establishment liberals, neoconservative cretins, and Republican hawks believe intervention is essential to preserve American prestige and the integrity of international law. I'm not sure what to think, though there is a handy rule of thumb which says when in doubt perhaps not going to war is the responsible course of action.

Most people have been writing about how Obama has painted himself into a corner and now is in danger of losing the upcoming Congressional vote on military action after having squandered his chance at the G20 for marshaling an international coalition. I suppose he has, but I'm not convinced the consequences are so dire as, say, Ross Douthat claims in his latest column:
Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says — that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.
But the United States hasn't made a commitment yet. Oh, there's all that talk about the "red line" comment of Obama's, etc. etc., however the President chose last week to link action in Syria to a Congressional vote. He did not have to. Should Congress vote the measure down (which looks more and more likely), Obama can defend American inaction quite truthfully as the will of the people, reserving to his office the judgment and power to act in the future. A collapse of the global system is not at stake here. The implications of a no vote, I think, are these:
  1. It will reaffirm that shocks to the global system are mitigated through coalitions using the mechanisms of international organizations. Although the world operates day to day using the old (possibly outdated) model of the sovereign nation-state, multi-lateral endorsement of military actions across borders has for a long time brought legitimacy, and therefore a semblance of order, to the community of nations. This is why the UN, NATO, and even the Arab League are important despite their numerous detractors. Even the neo-cons in the Bush administration knew this, which is why they scratched together the "Coalition of the Willing." (Don't forget Poland.)
  2. If we do nothing in Syria (which, it bears repeating, might be the right course of action), the critical reason will not be Obama, or the UN, or even the Tea Party. The parts each of them have played in this saga are, of course, impossible to ignore, but they are all swept up in the more powerful historical current that is the legacy of the Iraq War. This moment is one of the many costs of the Iraq War. The international community has refused to follow America down another sandy rabbit hole in the Middle East after the decade-long debacle that began with accusations and sketchy intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, the specter of Iraq loomed over the vote in the British Parliament—not to be mistaken for the British paramilitary, which does not vote nearly so often—and had Parliament voted to endorse action, the subsequent debate in Congress would have followed a different narrative altogether.
  3. There is another potential casualty at stake, and that is Obama's domestic agenda, which has already become imperiled. The no-vote on Syria (indeed, the very time it will take to conduct the vote) will spare virtually no time at all in the legislative calendar for something like immigration reform. That subject is not quite so desperate as the current crisis in Syria; nevertheless lives are at stake there too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Music for Labor Day

 Woody Guthrie, "I Ain't Got No Home"
I ain't got no home, I'm just a-roamin' 'round,
Just a wandrin' worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

Was a-farmin' on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I lay into the banker's store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
'Cause I ain't got no home in this world anymore

Now as I look around, it's mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin' man is rich an' the workin' man is poor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.