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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Brand new poll just out this afternoon from Qunnipiac: DeBlasio 36, Quinn 21, Thompson 20. Oh yeah: Weiner, 8.
This represents a huge shifting and I confess is completely surprising to me. In the previous Qpoll, DeBlasio had nudged into a one-point lead over Quinn at 26-25. But then a few days after that another public poll had Quinn slightly ahead. So people I've been talking with all thought it was still pretty close. Apparently not. If a candidate gets 40 percent in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, he or she wins outright. If none does, there's a run-off between the top two.
Really interesting internals here. Bear in mind that Quinn is a woman and Thompson African American as you read:
A gender gap is opening as de Blasio gets 43 percent of men and 30 percent of women,
The far right wants to impeach the president over Obamacare, but what truly matters is that this could become a real litmus test for conservatives.
It must be said: WorldNetDaily always delivers. Whenever the earth really starts to shake on the right-wing fringes, WND is there, gleefully placing a finger or two on the Richter scale. So when the “Impeach Obama!” story started gathering legs this week, it was to WND I flew, and sure enough, they had the goods. I report this to you as a public service, because I’d bet that for many of you, when you hear that the right wants to impeach the president, your first thought is: for what? While for those of you on the right, you think: Benghazi! But even you are wrong. The answer, perhaps inescapably: Obamacare. It’s the all-purpose evil. It won’t fly—obviously. But it, along with Sen. Tom Coburn’s recent weird comment, instructs us that we just need to settle in and live with this noise for the next three years.
President Obama waves after speaking at an event on the the 90-day anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act on June 22, 2010, in the East Room of the White House. Obamacare is the reason Republicans are citing for trying to impeach Obama. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty)
The WND article (an “exclusive,” natch) “reports” on the findings of a book released yesterday by Aaron Klein and Brenda J. Elliott called, straightforwardly but unimaginatively, Impeachable Offenses: The Case to Remove Barack Obama From Office. Klein and Elliott exist in that sweaty and mephitic, yet highly profitable, corner of the swamp populated by people who write rumormongering books about Obama. Their earlier masterpiece is The Manchurian President. It made the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks, as have a few of Klein’s other works. Who said grime doesn’t pay?
The case is that Obamacare constitutes “taxation without representation.” But wait. Didn’t Congress, the people’s representatives, vote to pass it? Yes, it did. And wait again. Didn’t the Supreme Court—didn’t John Roberts himself—rule that Obamacare passes constitutional muster expressly because the mandate is in effect a tax? Yes, it and he did. So what’s the beef? Well, this is where the mainstream media have left you, citizen, in the lurch. The problem is that “the White House has been changing the law without involving Congress following the Supreme Court ruling and that multiple sections of the implementation of Obamacare are unconstitutional.”
Folk music dominated the soundtrack of the March on Washington 50 years ago, with performances by Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and of course Bob Dylan—who would later stage a weird and shocking retreat from protest politics, writes Michael Tomasky.
One aspect of the March on Washington that can’t be overlooked: the music. It’s around. You can see it. Bob Dylan’s three songs—two, really, as I’ll explain below—have inevitably made their way to YouTube, as has Mahalia Jackson’s song as have Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Marian. Anderson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” doesn’t appear to have successfully completed the social-media voyage, but perhaps even more interestingly, you can see her more historically important Lincoln Memorial performance, her “My Country ’Tis of Thee” from back in 1939 when black people weren’t supposed to appear on stages with white people at all.
They’re fascinating visual documents. Things were not, in those days, like they are now. Today—or really, probably since about the 1980s, when these kinds of events started becoming corporatized and professionalized; “staged” in a way they hadn’t been—there would be a separate stage for the musical acts, or maybe two. There’d be lighting and effects. Mixed-race children’s choirs from a couple of carefully chosen local progressive schools.
But in 1963, life and stagecraft weren’t that way. Bob Dylan sang from the same podium and through the same bank of microphones the speakers used. On the same podium where the speakers placed drafts of their speeches, Dylan set down the lyric sheets to “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” reading from them closely. For Peter, Paul, and Mary, whose habit was to gather around one microphone on an otherwise empty stage, the organizers at least removed the podium. They sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The latter is of course Dylan’s song, from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released that May. But Peter, Paul, and Mary had a hit with it—their cover was sitting at number 6 on the Billboard singles chart when the march took place (number one that week? “Fingertips, Pt 2,” by Little Stevie Wonder). So only real folkies would have known, in August of 1963, that it was a Dylan song.
Obama has good reasons not to let the Syrian regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons stand, but getting drawn into war with Iran would be even worse. Michael Tomasky on the torturous choice.
Ay yi yi. Suddenly we’re about to bomb Syria? How did this happen? Just last week, Barack Obama was sounding very circumspect about the whole business. Then we started moving naval forces closer to Syria. Then, on Saturday, President Obama met for three hours with his national-security principals to discuss the situation. Sunday morning, the Syrian regime, evidently taking note of developments, said it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors in to the site of a suspected chemical-weapons attack. Shortly thereafter, a “senior administration official” was deputized to say the offer was “too late to be credible.” It’s a horrible situation with nothing but bad options, and it right now it looks as if the United States is going to choose the bad option of bombing strikes. There are good reasons to do it, but also good reasons to be terrified of what it might unleash.
A Syrian Army soldier walks on a street in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus on August 24. Syrian state media accused rebels of using chemical arms in Damascus, forcing them to resort to such weapons “as their last card.” (AP)
Why would Obama act now, after two years of letting Bashar al-Assad massacre 10,000 of his people? Slate’s Fred Kaplan laid out the rationale insightfully over the weekend. If—we’ll return to this “if”—Assad used chemical weapons, he crossed Obama’s famous/infamous “red line.” In addition, Obama, Kaplan noted, is big on international norms, and one of the biggest international norms going is taking action to prevent the spread of chemical weapons, which has been in place since right after World War I. A failure to act “would erode, perhaps obliterate” the taboo against such weapons. That’s something Obama is absolutely right to take very seriously.
But now, that “if.” We don’t know for sure that it was the regime that used these weapons. We assume it was the regime. But the opposition isn’t exactly a concert of Boy Scout troops. It’s split into many factions, some very anti-American. Maybe the administration has private intelligence fingering the regime. But publicly, it looks pretty strange on its face for the United States to turn down Syria’s offer on inspectors. How could we be moving toward military action without at least going through this motion? The rest of the senior official’s Sunday statement gives a specific reason why it’s too late: because “the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other international actions over the last five days.”
Tomorrow people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington. It is worth remembering two points.
First, there'd never been something like that before in the United States. People march today at the drop of a hat, and the news of a new march is now just wallpaper, something in the background of our lives; but then, it was brand new and without precedent. It's just worth remembering what a big, big deal it was for Americans to see 200,000 of their fellows converge on the mall.
Second, it's worth remembering what a plantation Washington DC was in 1963. I just re-watched the other day, for the fourth or fifth time, a WETA documentary on Washington in the 60s. Here is some info about it. Incredible. A moral focal point was Glen Echo Park, a wonderful art-deco playland in Maryland along the Potomac. Today it just has a carousel and some pavillions, while offering tons of activities and classes for the kiddies. But then it was a full-fledged amusement park.
And whites only. Although unofficially. A commuter train ran right up to it. Blacks, this show said, understood that they had to get off before the Glen Echo stop. The doc featured an amazing audio tape of a young African American who rode to the Glen Echo stop and asked a guard why he couldn't enter the park, the guard fumbling around for lies because he couldn't outright say "the color of your skin." Shocking to think this was in Montgomery County, my county, one of the most liberal Democratic counties in all of America, arguably. But those were the times. And that on top of all the stuff you already know--the racist senators and congressmen who prevented home rule and all that.
The majority of congressional Republicans, as well as the public, think that defunding Obamacare is a bad idea. Michael Tomasky on what that means for the election cycles ahead.
Are the Republicans really serious about defunding Obamacare? The answer depends on (a) which Republicans you mean and (b) how you define serious. We’ll get into all that below, but let’s cut to the chase: No. Defunding health-care implementation is something that I believe they will find to be totally impossible to do while in the congressional opposition, especially under the circumstances that are being discussed currently. For a lot of Republicans, the likely coming failure of this effort will redirect them to the next presidential election. And that, in turn, is likely to benefit the candidacy of the man who has most closely identified himself with the defunding movement, Ted Cruz. The question is, how much will he benefit?
Rep. Tom Price (R–Georgia), center, flanked by Rep. Mike Kelly (R–Pennsylvania), left, and Rep. Mark Meadows (R–North Carolina) speaks about his bill, which targets health-care reform by preventing the Internal Revenue Service from implementing any part of the health-care law. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
The lay of the land right now, after you strip away the rhetorical bluster, is this. A mere 14 Republican senators (out of 45) have signed Mike Lee’s letter pressing for defunding Obamacare. The letter has been out there for a while, and I’m told that few, if any, more are expected to sign. So, one third of the Senate caucus.
Then Thursday, a House version (PDF) of the Lee letter was released. It has 80 signatures. That’s a big drop-off from last year, when 127 Republicans signed a similar letter. As with the Senate, this 80 number constitutes almost exactly one third of the House GOP caucus. Not a huge number. In addition, this letter, circulated by a North Carolina representative named Mark Meadows, contains no explicit threat that the undersigned will oppose any funding bills that include Obamacare money. It just “urges” John Boehner and Eric Cantor to defund health care.
Some of my regulars readers who go back to my Guardian days have been asking—nay demanding—that I weigh in on the latest round of news on that front. I’m not sure I understand the obligation, but I aim to serve, so here you are.
Recent events haven’t really changed my previous position. I think Snowden broke the law and behaved egregiously; on the other hand, this is what it took to open up this badly needed debate, so in that sense I applaud him, and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, for making that happen. Somewhat contradictory positions, sure. The world’s a complicated place.
I just can’t see Snowden as a hero. There’s a lot of difference to me, morally if perhaps not legally, between Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg. In the Pentagon Papers case, Ellsberg had a longstanding security-cleared gig at the Rand Corporation. He was a believer who slowly rose to outrage over Vietnam, and he decided to break the law. Snowden took a job expressly to break the law. While it’s surely true that Snowden went through a similar arc of disillusionment, I think it’s a different thing to apply for a job swearing an oath that you’re going to do X but knowing all the time in your heart that your intention is to violate and destroy X (views on this will depend of course on how evil the beholder thinks X is).
Plus, Ellsberg turned himself in. He sought to remain anonymous, but once he was named, he pretty quickly reported to authorities. He was prepared to pay the price for his actions. He stood trial. It lasted 89 long days in the spring of 1971 before the judge declare a mistrial because of “improper government conduct” (White House plumbers breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and other acts) and made Ellsberg a free man.
From 'principled fiscal conservative protest' to 'Obama derangement syndrome:' John Avlon talks to CNN's Carol Costello on the fifth anniversary of the Tea Party.
The WikiLeaks founder participated in a glitch-filled—but candid—live video chat from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London as part of the South By Southwest tech fest.