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The other day I wrote a column about Republican hypocrisy on Syria, singling out Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz for special criticism. I then heared from Sean Rushton, Cruz's press guy, who wrote in to say that his boss has been consistent on Syria. Rushton wrote:

Senator Cruz's position on Syria has remained consistent. His op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post reiterated the same point he made on the Senate floor in June: a mission to secure chemical weapons from rebels would be a proper mission to protect U.S. national security. He opposes the current proposed strike because its aim is not to reduce any imminent threat or protect national security, but to enforce international norms.

I could offer a riposte to that, but I won't. I had my say, and now Sean gets his.

Syria

The Case Against Isolation

It’s one thing to be weary of war and wary of intervening. But Republicans who think the U.S. can survive as an island are wrong—and dangerous. By Michael Tomasky

It’s been quite a piece of theater, watching Republicans, most of whom would normally be shouting from the rooftops for bombs over Damascus, insist that we must stay out of Syria. I wrote about this GOP hypocrisy Monday.

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Andrew Kolb via Getty Images

But now let us direct our gaze toward the non-hypocrites. At least, it is often said of the isolationists, they are operating according to principle. Fine. But it’s a morally bankrupt principle, and an idiotic one, and one that will only hasten the advent of the kind of darker and more dangerous world that most conservatives are constantly trying to terrify the rest of us about. It’s hard to call anything worse than neoconservatism, but if there is one foreign-policy impulse that just might be worse, it’s leave-us-alone isolationism.

The foreign-policy history of the Republican Party is a history of the battle between the nativist isolationists and the bellicose internationalists. I’ve always found it interesting that the GOP should encompass both frothing extremes, while the Democrats have tended to occupy the saner (not always so sane, admittedly) middle ground. Historically, I would argue, the GOP defaults toward isolationism, because that was the natural reflex of many of the party’s key constituent elements in the early 20th century (Southern and Midwestern agrarians, self-made capitalists).

Geneva Talks

OK, John Kerry, You’re On

So now, the moment John Kerry has been waiting for all his life. He's dreamed of being secretary of State for years. Of course he wanted to be president, and came fairly close, but this is something he's always wanted to do: be today's Dean Acheson or George Marshall, broker something big. He's sitting down with Mr. Lavrov in Geneva, and we shall see what transpires.

Kerry has been rather shaky on Syria up to this point. Loose lips. Some very strange remarks, especially that one about an "unbelievably small" attack. Yikes. I don't know what made him say those particular words, but I do have a theory about the more general issue of his comments.

Hillary Clinton was kept on a pretty short leash by this White House. By some folks' accounting, astonishingly short. And, being who she is, she took it and was loyal. (I say this as primarily a compliment.) Kerry, of course, knew about all this, and I wouldn't doubt that he said to Obama when he took the job that he was demanding considerably more rein.

That's my theory. Plus, he's been a senator for whatever years, and senators have no boss and can say whatever they please.

My Fellow Americans

Obama's Long Odds

The president gave a great speech. But the public still isn’t buying what he’s selling—and there’s a good chance Russia will leave him in the cold, writes Michael Tomasky.

This was the best speech Barack Obama has given in a couple of years. (Read the entire text here. It was well-structured, right to the point, and direct; it anticipated the skeptical viewer’s questions and tried to answer them, and it did so persuasively. In places, it even did so powerfully, especially toward the end, where he made specific appeals to his “friends” on the right and the left to try to see this conflict in contexts that traditionally mattered to each side—the “commitment to America’s military might” to the right, and “belief in freedom and dignity for all people” to the left. And the sections of the speech that sought to tug at the heartstrings weren’t overwrought. He did nearly as well as he could have done.

OBAMA US SYRIA

Pool

This does not mean I think many people are going to agree with me, or more importantly, change their minds. Obama presented evidence and rational arguments to support his position. But when people have basically made up their minds, they don’t want to listen to evidence and reason. And most people don’t understand the region anyway. (It might have been helpful if they’d cut away to a map.)

The speech had four clear and logical sections. First he talked about the unique evil of chemical weapons—what they do to civilians, especially children, and then, a brief but strong bit on their history and why they are the target of distinctive opprobrium. Second, he tried to make the case that all this is directly threatening to U.S. national security interests. “If we fail to act,” he said, Assad will act again; and if Assad acts again and goes unpunished, other dictators might follow suit. The third section was the most important, in which he addressed the five or six key questions on the minds of the war-weary public. And finally, he closed it out with a historical argument: “My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them.”

Fascinating Day

Obama's Job Tonight

So what does Obama have to accomplish in tonight's speech? Before the Kerry-Lavrov plan, as I'm going to try to get people to call it, it was one thing. Actually, it was two things. One, explain clearly the consequences of not acting; try his best to make as many Americans as possible care at least a little bit about what it would mean for Assad to see the international community do nothing, for Iran and Hezbollah to see their regional ambitions face no American deterrence of any kind, for the al Qaeda–associated factions of the Syrian opposition to be able just to keep killing moderate rebels (the moderate rebels groups want U.S. military strikes, and the al Qaeda affiliates oppose them because they think U.S. strikes will help strengthen the moderate rebels). Two: make clear that every intervention isn't Iraq or Vietnam. Elevate Kosovo as the model here.

I'm not saying that making those two points as effectively as possible would change the poll numbers dramatically. They'd change them a little, but not enough for Obama's purposes.

But anyway, all that is kind of secondary now. Now the speech needs chiefly to promote Kerry-Lavrov in a way that reassures Americans and Democrats in both houses of Congress that a diplomatic solution to this crisis is at hand. There is going to be very shortly a Security Council resolution that will presumably spell out how this takeover and containment of Assad's CWs is going to work. He should explain that, to the extent possible. Tell people it's going to pass; Russia and China are on board.

Then: How will it work in practice? Who's going to watch over these stocks, when are they going to get to Syria, who's going to give them access, and what is the extent of the assurances about access? These are all things I'm going to want to know, anyway.

Go, Diplomacy!

Getting Behind the Russia Plan

My biggest question about what is evidently being called (slightly unfairly to John Kerry) the “Russia Plan” is this: What’s Russia’s motivation for suddenly being peacemaker here? Putin hates Obama, hates America, and has thrown about two tons of sand in the gears of the U.S.-Rossiya relationship since he got back into power. So why would he want to pull Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire?

I’m not sure, but I think it’s basically for the same reason that the guy on the other side of those double-yellow lines on the road doesn’t suddenly swerve in front of you. He may be an asshole. He may beat his wife. If you met him in a bar, he might be all likkered up and decide he wants to kick your pasty, yuppie ass just for the hell of it.

But he doesn’t want to die, or wreck his own vehicle. I think this must be kind of like that. Lavrov and Putin may fear U.S. military strikes not because they fear America per se, but because they recognize that American strikes could possibly set in train a series of events that might draw Russia deeper into Syria; it might drag Russia across the double-yellow line. Lavrov, evidently, kind of likes Kerry (another way to put that is that he seems to not have liked Hillary Clinton; sexism as a factor there might not be the most shocking thing in the world).

So now, everything is moving forward on this, apparently. France is placing a resolution before the Security Council. Russia and China say they’ll back it. Cameron spoke well of the plan. That leaves Obama. Leaks will probably start flowing sometime today in advance of his big speech, and he’ll surely address the issue head-on tonight. And he’ll surely endorse it. Tentatively, or sternly, or circumspectly; as a negotiating posture, he can’t do a dance. But he might be dancing on the inside.

Syria Flip-Flop

GOP Hypocrites on Syria

If Romney were president, his party would be wailing for Assad’s head on a pike. But since Obama wants action, Republicans like Cruz and Rubio are against ‘Obama’s war.’ It’s contemptible, says Michael Tomasky.

The Republican hypocrisy on Syria is just amazing. Imagine that Mitt Romney were president. Romney took a far more hawkish line than Barack Obama did on Syria during the campaign. He wanted to arm the rebels, supported in-country cover ops, and so on. So if Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons during President Romney’s tenure, there’s every reason to think he’d be pushing for action too. And what, in that case, would Republicans now temporizing or opposing Obama be doing in that case? They’d be breathing fire, of course. There’s a lot of chest thumping talk right now about how a failed vote will destroy Obama’s credibility. I guess that may be to some. But to anyone paying attention, the credibility of these Republicans is what will suffer, and the vote may well come back to haunt some of them in 2016.

SECOND WORKING MEETING OF G20 SUMMIT

(L-R) Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. (AP)

Some Republicans are, to their credit, taking the position consistent with their records. John McCain stood up to those people who looked like they were about two feet away from his face at that town hall meeting last week. Lindsey Graham deserves more credit, since he’s facing reelection and is being called “a community organizer for the Muslim Brotherhood.” On the other side, Rand Paul and the neo-isolationists are probably taking the same position they’d take if Romney were president, although we can’t be completely sure. If Romney were in the White House, by 2016, “was so-and-so tough on Syria?” would probably be a top litmus test (unless, of course, things got really terrible over there). I could easily see Paul declaiming on the unique evil of chemical weapons that just this once required him to break from his noninterventionist views, but as things stand he at least is taking the position with which he is identified.

But most of them? Please. The Gold Weasel Medal goes to Marco Rubio, as others such as Tim Noah have noted. Back in April, Rubio thundered that “the time for passive engagement in this conflict must come to an end. It is in the vital national security interest of our nation to see Assad’s removal.” Removal! Obama’s not talking about anything close to removal. So that was Rubio’s hard line back when Obama was on the other side. And now that Obama wants action? Rubio voted against the military resolution in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Truth and Consequences

When Liberals Enable Tyrants

Can a liberal oppose tyranny and support military intervention at the same time? Hell yes. Six reasons why Congress must authorize an attack on Syria now.

What is liberalism supposed to be about on the world stage? What values and goals do American liberals wish to promote around the world? I’m pretty certain most would say free democratic societies; full political rights for ethnic minorities; equal rights for women and, with any luck, gay people; a free press; an independent judiciary; and so forth. And, where those cannot be achieved, at least a base-level opposition to tyranny, reaction, religious fundamentalism, and so on.

Islamist Syrian Spposition

A member of the Islamist Syrian opposition group Ahrar al-Sham fires against a position of the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People during clashes in the countryside of the northern Syrian Raqqa province on August 25. (Alice Martins/AFP/Getty )

Most would name these things. But, I have to say, most rank-and-file liberals don’t seem to me to be very passionate about them. What most liberals are passionate about is one thing: opposition to U.S. militarism. That’s what really roils the loins. Ever since Vietnam, there’s been this template, this governing notion that every military action the United States undertakes is by definition both immoral and bound inevitably to lead to a quagmire; that the U.S. military can do only bad in the world. Lord knows, there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claim, and a posture of deep skepticism about all military plans and promises is the only serious posture (abandoned by most of the “serious” people back in 2003).

I’ve described here two impulses: the desire to do good in the world, or at least to prevent the bad; and opposition to American force. Often these desires can exist in harmony. But what if they conflict? Why is opposition to any projection of force always the deciding factor? At times it can lead people into some very illiberal little corners.

Yes, Things Can Get Worse

Life After Boehner

Sounds like Boehner is going to call it quits after this term. He’s bad. But things can get much worse.

In non-Syria news, HuffPo’s Ryan Grim and Jon Ward reported yesterday that some GOP Hill rats are now starting to say on background what most of us have been assuming for quite some time—that John Boehner won’t seek reelection in 2014 and thus will end his tenure as speaker.

If so, he will have lasted just four years, and, it must be said, a pretty crappy four years, when the House has passed almost no meaningful bills and when the most meaningful one it did pass, the sequester, is widely acknowledged to be a disaster and an admission of Congress’s inability to do its job. And remember, we still have, after the Syria vote, the looming government shutdown and the debt-limit fight coming this fall. A brief government shutdown and a credit default, while undesirable generally, would provide fitting capstones to a terrible tenure.

Now of course all this failure isn’t his fault. He’s got a lot of people in that caucus who weren’t elected to govern, but to burn down. His length of tenure reflects this problem. As speaker, you have to make some sort of attempt to govern. That’s the gig. But when half or more of your caucus is against governing, well, they’re going to get mad at you and consider you a sellout. As Grim and Ward point out, he won the speakership last time by just three votes.

It’s worth reflecting on this before he goes back to Cincinnati (back to Cincinnati? What am I talking about? He’s staying right here, I would imagine, and will earn a few million dollars a year as a post-lobbyist lobbyist, doing most of his work on the courses at Burning Tree and Congressional; I guess in a way he will have earned that, and a carton of smokes): the current House Republican caucus doesn’t want a speaker who will attempt to perform the basic job of speaker—shepherd through compromise spending bills in a semi-timely fashion, work with the Senate to pass a few other respectably significant bills, keep something resembling an orderly appearance. Boehner did none of these things, and probably couldn’t do any of them. Immigration is a great case in point, when he was forced by the yahoos to say he wasn’t taking up the Senate bill at all.

Ghosts

Assad’s Debt to Bush

No wonder the American public is wary of intervening in Syria. The last time a president tried to push war in the Middle East, he sold a pack of lies. By Michael Tomasky

So here, potentially, if Congress votes against using force in Syria, is another black item to add to the legacy of the Bush administration: Their lies may help enable Bashar al-Assad to get away with mass murder.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush, answers questions from the media following a meeting with, from left, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell on May 12, 2006. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

You think that’s a reach? If that’s a reach, then tell me why Barack Obama, in brief public remarks on Syria Monday morning, said this: “The key point I want to emphasize to the American people … the military plan that has been developed by our joint chiefs, and that I think is appropriate, is proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground… This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime but also to other countries that may be interested in testing these international norms that there are consequences.”

This is not Iraq … Monday morning, I was on Bill Press’s radio show. Eleanor Holmes Norton came on while I was on, and Elijah Cummings had been on before. Both are Democratic House members, of course, and are Obama loyalists. Norton said that if a vote took place that day, it wouldn’t come close to passing. Cummings said his mail was 95 percent against force, and the main reason was the ghost of Iraq. This kept coming up also in another radio show I did Monday out of my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. One sees it across Twitter and Facebook. The American people fear another Iraq war.

Say What?

This Could Backfire

The president was right to take a Syria vote to Congress. But why then say he might attack even without lawmakers’ approval? Michael Tomasky on Obama’s unwise rhetoric.

Far and away, the single most confusing thing about Barack Obama’s confusing Syria policy is the claim that the administration can and maybe will proceed with the bombing even if Congress votes against it. For the time being, I’ll hold my fire on the substance of the matter. Let’s wait and see what happens. Who knows? The House could defy my expectations and approve a resolution (the Senate almost surely will). But for now I’m stuck wondering why on earth, even if they do believe it, they would say it publicly. Very hard to see how that does anything other than weaken the administration’s hand.

US Mideast Syria Protest

Protesters against U.S. intervention in Syria march in a demonstration in Boston on August 31. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

I would imagine that at least half of you, on reading that last sentence, immediately thought to yourself, but no, it doesn’t weaken his hand; it gives him the excuse he’s looking for not to do anything. I know a lot of people think that. I don’t. I think Obama is serious about the international norm of standing against the use of chemical weapons. In his two major public statements on this, he looked pretty mad, I thought. Not as mad as he looked after the Senate’s craven gun-control vote. But mad. And I think he knows that having said “red line,” he has to enforce it. So I think he is intellectually and emotionally inclined to take military action.

All right, you say, then why go to Congress? I chalk this up to what we might call “calculated principle.” That is, I do have little doubt that deep down, Obama knew that going to Congress was the right thing to do. That’s the principle part. But politicians act on principle only when it harmonizes with certain interests. The big interest here is that Congress’s imprimatur is the people’s. Obama no doubt saw that poll showing that 79 percent of Americans thought he should go to Congress. Presidents don’t like launching military actions that four out of five Americans are against. So if they vote yes and agree to make this their action (I think it’s a little overdramatic just yet to use the word “war”) as well as Obama’s, that makes it a little harder for them to pick at him.

High Risk

Kerry's Remarks: Here We Go, I Guess

John Kerry just finished his remarks. Here we go, it looks like.

Boy, I don't know. When writing the column that appears below, which I wrote yesterday evening right after the UK vote, I was equivocal on whether Obama should go to Congress. As I wrote in that column, the House will certainly say no. My mind hasn't changed on that. I think you'd see 25, maybe 30 liberal Democrats vote against the president, which means he'd need 45 or 50 Republican votes. You can laugh now. That ain't happening.

Thinking it over today, though, I have reluctantly (everything about this requires reluctance) come around to the view that maybe Obama should seek congressional authorization. A, it's the law. B, there's that quote from him as a senator, making him a clear hypocrite here. C, if Congress says no, he has an out, which one suspects he might want. D, if Congress says yes somehow or another, then at least he has constitional sanction. E, if he acts without Congress at this point, he's handing the House R's an impeachment excuse on a silver platter. It doesn't help that he apparently did not get on the conference call yesterday evening with members of Congress (although at least he apparently did call John Boehner yesterday).

But my thinking doesn't matter. Obama's does, and based on what Kerry said, it looks like we're going to start bombing pretty soon, tomorrow night or Sunday. It also may end soon, in two or three days. We'll see what it will accomplish. If it really destroys chem weapons stores and sends the desired deterrent message to Tehran and Hezbollah and others, then good.

Syria Strike

Will Boehner Play Ball?

The stunning vote in Parliament against Cameron on Syria shows why Obama doesn’t want to go to Congress. But House Republicans aren’t going to take that lying down.

As if Barack Obama didn’t have enough factors to weigh in thinking about what to do in Syria, now he has another one: Congress. This is like telling a man wrestling four alligators not to ignore that 30-foot anaconda that just slipped into the pond.

Moderate Backlash

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

But trust me: As the debate over intervention builds, you’re going to be hearing more and more of the drumbeat that started mid-week, as Republicans start challenging Obama’s authority to launch a limited strike without congressional approval—especially after last night’s stunning vote in the U.K.‘s House of Commons, where David Cameron’s own party voted against his intervention wishes. For Obama, this brings its own set of perils, having to do not with international relations but with domestic politics, because even a successful military strike would not begin to insulate him from GOP political attacks. But first let’s deal with this news from Westminster. It’s amazing. For a prime minister to lose a vote like that, with his governing coalition controlling the house by about 100 votes, could be a game-changer. Cameron said he’ll honor the vote, which I suppose means no bombs. I think it calls into question whether Obama can even proceed with a military strike. It’s one thing to go around the Security Council; it’s been done. But not even to have England? That seems tough, from a PR point of view.

There are those who say the opposite: That now that the U.K. has decided to get out, Obama doesn’t have to wait for them, needn’t wait for that second vote, and he can start the action this weekend. I suppose that’s possible too. But I think it’s more likely that the U.K. is going to embolden the Republicans to demand that Obama give them a vote.

Obama: U.S. has 'concluded' that Syrian government carried out chemical weapons attack.

The other day, as I was reading about Tom Coburn mentioning impeachment for the first time, I noticed (as I wrote) that he just kinda said that, partly to toss some red meat to the Tulsa crowd, but what he was really trying to sell them on was the idea of a constitutional convention to rescue America from the likes of me before it's too late. 

This idea is really the spawn of Mark Levin, the wingnut radio host, who has (of course) written a book about it. Life's too short to read the book, but I was intrigued enough by this idea to read an interview Levin did with Terry Jeffreys, who used to be but I don't think still is affiliated with that loopy Human Events magazine.

Levin's general view here, of course, is that Americans are choking to death with the federal jackboot across their necks; that the states are where most power was originally intended to reside; ergo, the states (two-thirds of the 50 state legislatures must pass resolutions agreeing to hold a convention to change the Constitution) have no choice in this desperate situation but to band together and act, passing a range of resolutions to limit the size and scope of the gummint.

What steps? Well, I always get a chuckle out of things like this:

It's Coming

Syria, Iraq, and Proof

The lead story in today's New York Times hits the right point. There is pressure on the administration on the question of proof, which it says it is going to produce for the world today. From the article:

And yet the White House faces steep hurdles as it prepares to make the most important public intelligence presentation since February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made a dramatic and detailed case for war to the United Nations Security Council using intelligence—later discredited—about Iraq’s weapons programs.

More than a decade later, the Obama administration says the information it will make public, most likely on Thursday, will show proof of a large-scale chemical attack perpetrated by Syrian forces, bolstering its case for a retaliatory military strike on Syria.

But with the botched intelligence about Iraq still casting a long shadow over decisions about waging war in the Middle East, the White House faces an American public deeply skeptical about being drawn into the Syrian conflict and a growing chorus of lawmakers from both parties angry about the prospect of an American president once again going to war without Congressional consultation or approval.

About the Author

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Michael Tomasky

The Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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