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Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Germany Problem

In the novelist Heinrich Boll's The Safety Net, which appeared in 1979, Fritz Tolm, elected to become the main representative of German business interests, feel suffocated by the intrusive security measures undertaken by the state to protect him from harm. His private life is upended. Everywhere he is spied upon. Tolm ends up chucking it all and moving into a vacant vicarage.

It is not clear whether German chancellor Angela Merkel has read Boll's novel and, coming off a fresh election triumph, she does not appear to be tiring of her post. But she is herself familiar enough with the dangers of an omnicompetent state that seeks to spy on its citizens. She grew up in East Germany, where the Stasi gathered so much information about its subjects that it drowned itself in a flood of official records. Now Merkel has once again been spied upon by her putative American ally. The latest revelation in the German weekly Der Spiegel—courtesy of Edward Snowden who remains holed up in Russia (doesn't Obama realize that it would be better to reach an agreement with him and extract him before he does further damage?)—that the National Security Agency has been tapping her personal phone—as well as those of numerous other world leaders—has triggered an uproar.

Together Brazil and Germany are pushing for the United Nations to pass a general resolution in support of internet privacy. Next week Germany and the European Union are planning to send delegations to Washington to institute further inquiries and to meet with the Obama administration. Gerhard Schindler, head of the Federal Intelligence Service, is said to be part of the planned delegation. If they are met with stonewalling, as the Europeans have in the past, relations will fray further. Trade talks with Europe are already being jeopardized.

The scandal has a number of other effects that are prejudicial to America's reputation abroad. President Obama's campaign in 2008 was partly based on the proposition that he restore America's luster after George W. Bush had harmed it. But now it is Obama who is starting to appear as a heinous, or at least mendacious, figure. His administration stated that it was not currently spying on Merkel, but did not dispute that it might have taken in the place, which is another way of saying that it did. Another peculiarity of the spying is that it most likely pointless. What information did American intelligence expect to glean from Merkel's cell phone that would have justified the risks of discovery? What the affair smacks of is a bureaucracy running amok, claiming perks and prerogatives and powers for itself that do not promote national security. Instead, they have harmed it. Merkel herself has termed the snooping a "grave breach."

It's not hard to see why. Germans are becoming increasingly restive with Washington's treament of them as vassals. The cold war is over. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But American intelligence services appear to be more active than ever in spying on our closest allies. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich as well as Merkel have tried to sweep the scandal under the rug in recent months. No longer. Friedrich looks as though he has been taken in by the Americans, at least in the eyes of the German public. The Social Democratic Party, which Merkel hopes to entice into a grand coalition, is taking swipes at her for trying to declare the spying affair over in the past. It clearly isn't. What further revelations might emanate from Snowden?

Whether cooperation between Germany and America will be seriously damaged on intelligence sharing is an open question. But that profound damage has been done to America's image is not. Obama, who entered office as the savior of America's reputation, is harming it as badly as did George W. Bush.

Image: White House Flickr

The Presidency
United States

Is Corporate America Going to War Against the GOP?

The Republican party is becoming too interesting for its own good. While the Democrats savor their victory over the GOP, Republicans themselves are going to war—against each other. A case in point is the growing disaffection of the business community with the Republican party.

It was no accident that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers both warned legislators against crashing through the debt ceiling. The consequences might well have been cataclysmic. In 2008 Lehmann Brothers wasn't seen as critical to the global economy. But when Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson decided to let it go under, investors panicked. When they do, a Great Recession or even a Great Depression results. Confidence is a lot easier to lose than to gain. So a rerun was more than likely this past week. Interest rates would have soared. The value of the dollar would have plummeted. The stock market would have plunged. So would consumer confidence. Around the globe America would have been vilified for tanking the prospects of an economic recovery.

Now corporate America is talking about opposing Tea Party candidates with more moderate ones. This is a fundamental rift over the true identity of the Republican party. William Galston of the Brookings Institution observes supporters of the Tea Party are not outsiders but, rather, form "a dissident reform movement within the party, determined to move it back toward true conservatism after what they see as the apostasies of the Bush years and the outrages of the Obama administration." But now big business wants to stage a counter-reformation—a showdown between what the Dallas Morning News calls limited government, on the one hand, and anti-government conservatives, on the other. It reports that Jim Oberwetter, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the Dallas regional chamber of commerce, says: "When a populist point of view becomes so prominent, people in the business community need to voice their views just as loudly.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is apparently examining which centrist Republican candidates it should support next year. The Wall Street Journal reports,

Hal Sirkin, a senior partner with the Boston Consulting Group, said his conversations with executives in a range of industries suggest widespread frustration with the Republican party. The budget battle "is giving them pause to reconsider everything that they believed" about conservative support for business, he said. Some executives have told him they plan to pull back their support for the party "as a message to say, this is not acceptable. You can't trash the business community," he added.

Actually, you can. But it's a foolish tack to adopt. Until recently, it's been Occupy Wall Street that had enjoyed the patent on bashing corporate America. It would be extraordinarily reckless for the GOP to turn its back on its most powerful and wealthy sponsor. The Republican party has traditionally been the home of business interests. But a fixation with short-term deficit-cutting is threatening to obscure the importance of immediate economic growth. The message of the GOP has been long on Scrooge McDuck and short on Horatio Alger. Which is to say that a Reaganesque message of growth, prosperity and initiative has been notably absent.

What continues to hold the Republican coalition together in the House is speaker John Boehner. For all the complaints from the right about Boehner, it's not clear who could succeed him. Furthermore, the Washington Post notes that Boehner's close relationship with the business community is key:

Ultimately, Boehner had to rely on bipartisan support to avoid a likely default on the debt. But instead of this nail-biting episode causing a split between business lobbyists and their GOP allies, it might have drawn them even closer as they seek to limit the influence of tea party candidates who have little regard for corporate interests. After helping to vault Boehner into the speaker role following the 2010 elections, these lobbyists are eager to keep him in charge of the House.

Right now, Boehner may be able to broker an uneasy truce between the two sides whose mutual hostility has become undisguised. But guerrilla warfare and sniping between the two sides is sure to reemerge as the 2014 election begins to loom large. This is good for the media and bad for the party because it means that the GOP will likely remain a fascinating subject of observation.

Image: Flickr/Eric Molina. CC BY 2.0.

The Presidency

What Would Reagan Do?

The GOP is not in trouble. It is in crisis. At a moment when Grover Norquist is assailing Ted Cruz and others—“It’d be a good idea if they stopped referring to other Republicans as Hitler appeasers because they opposed the strategy they put forward which failed. I think if you make a mistake as big as what they did, you owe your fellow senators and congressmen a big apology—and your constituents, as well, because nothing they did advanced the cause of repealing or dismantling Obamacare.”—when House speaker John Boehner is barely allowed to speak for himself, when moderates are denouncing conservatives even as conservatives denounce moderation, when Republicans are performing autopsies on their own party, it is time to look back at the one president who was able not only to unite the GOP but also create a new governing coalition. That would be Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Reagan's political odyssey offers a number of lessons for Republicans. The first lesson is to remember that Reagan himself was a Johnny-come-lately to the GOP. He was a defector from the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan may have turned against the welfare state, but he never lost the sense of optimism that FDR embodied. Reagan may have decried what he called "welfare queens," but he never lost his belief that America could, and would, do better, that self-initiative and enterprise were the keys to American prosperity. Contrast that with the current fixation with the deficit. The Republican party has become the party of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover economics. Where is the manifesto outlining how to restore economic growth? Which, by the way, is the least painful way to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Another lesson that Reagan offers is a basic political one: mock but don't shout at your opponents. Reagan commanded the art of litotes. His most devastating line against Jimmy Carter in the 1979 presidential debates came when he just sadly shook his head and said, "There you go again." You could almost audibly hear the air leak out of Carter's presidential balloon. And think about Reagan's most famous speech—the one known as "The Speech," among conservatives. It came in October 1964 when Reagan spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater's doomed candidacy for the Oval office. Goldwater had made a number of strident statements about the elderly and social security during the campaign that played right into Lyndon B. Johnson's hands. Reagan, by contrast, was both playful and earnest. In his address, he joked, "The problem with out liberal friends isn’t that they are ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

At the same time, Reagan made it clear that he saw a brighter American future ahead. He wasn't a grumpy conservative, complaining about the decadence and decline of western civilization. Instead, he was something of a revolutionary. He told Americans they had a choice and that what they chose would matter. He announced, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Needless to say, it took Reagan almost two decades to achieve his vision, but today few doubt his achievements.

As president, Reagan accomplished a lot. He was firm at the outset—firing the air traffic controllers—but he could also be conciliatory in dealing with Congress and the Soviet Union. As Chris Matthews shows in his new book, Tip and the Gipper, the two Irishmen, House speaker Tip O'Neill and Reagan, overcame their differences to hammer out deals. Of course there was a different wrinkle. Reagan wanted to work closely with Congress, a trait that President Obama has not demonstrated. No, Reagan was not perfect—he pursued the Iran-Contra initiative, which sought to perform an end-run around Congress, and, in essence, contradicted his claim that he would never negotiate with terrorists (though his dealings suggest a greater penchant for realpolitik than some of his neoconservative admirers are wont to admit). It was also the case that Reagan showed great wisdom in abandoning his Cold War rhetoric and reaching an accommodation with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the standoff between the two superpowers even as he was denounced for pursuing appeasement policies by the neoconservatives and hard right.

Who in the GOP might be poised to take up the Reagan mantle? The most likely candidate is Senator Rand Paul. Like Reagan, Paul has been displaying shrewd political instincts. He said little during the recent debt crisis, leaving it to Senator Ted Cruz to go on the political hustings and cater to the faithful. Paul, by contrast, kept his powder dry. He wants to appear as a reasonable presidential aspirant—conservative but possessed of sound judgment. Paul also has the ability to forge a new coalition between libertarians and the GOP. Like Reagan, he could broaden the base of the GOP without crippling it. In addition, Paul has been hewing to a realist foreign policy, much as did Reagan. He is repudiating isolationism and neoconservatism, as his February speech at the Heritage Foundation indicated. Finally, Paul, like Reagan, is often underestimated by his political adversaries. Paul's prudence suggests that he, more than anyone else, could help ensure that the obituaries being written for the once-powerful GOP forged by Reagan turn out to be premature.

The Presidency

Is It Time To Abolish Congress?

It's always been hard for me to avoid the sneaking suspicion that it would be nice if Congress went out of business, a sentiment that has probably been harbored by more than a few Americans over the decades as they listen to the bombast emanating from the purlieus of the Capitol. Mark Twain, an acidulous observer of the Gilded Age that our own mirrors, observed, "Suppose you were a member of Congress and suppose you were an idiot; but I repeat myself." For the most part it does things that are idiotic. It's a place where people get to do things that are bad with impunity, a frat house for baby boomers. They get to spend money they don't have, pass laws that they more or less exempt themselves from, enjoy staffs that tell them how wonderful they are, and lecture the rest of us about how patriotic and upstanding they are, and so on. Apparently last night both Democratic and Republican legislators were even hitting the sauce heavily.

Well, why not? America definitely has a bit of the Titanic feel to it these days. If President Obama and Congress can't reach agreement in the next few weeks, then America's standing and reputation are going to take a severe hit around the world with both severe national security and economic implications. A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal editorial page referred to the idea of a government shutdown as a "kamikaze" mission. Whatever historical analogy you choose, things look increasingly perilous. Right now, the Capitol, you could say, is not that capital.

For weeks the action, or inaction, has been in Congress. The standoff over funding the government has not been between the evanescent President Obama and the House Republicans. Instead, it has been between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner. If this were a tennis match, then Reid would receive points for smashing back the serves that Boehner has half-heartedly lobbed at him and for relegating Obama to the bleachers. Throughout, Boehner's sepulchral smile has suggested his own lack of confidence in the political line he is representing. Indeed, the latter has not been doing a very good job of selling the shutdown he helped engineer, stalking off last night after curtly answering two questions from reporters.

Reid and other Democrats sidelined Obama. They were convinced that he would be too conciliatory in any negotiations. Meanwhile Boehner, whose heart was never in the shutdown, saw his troops maintain their discipline about as effectively as the Democrats did in the Senate. Now it is up to public pressure, including Wall Street and the business community, to try and force a way out of the impasse. WIth the debt-ceiling crisis looming, the stakes could hardly be higher. A failure to raise the debt ceiling to pay for bills that Congress has already contracted could lead to a worldwide recession or worse.

For many pundits the real existential crisis resides in the GOP itself. Michael Gerson says that "conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality." Riven by a battle between its Tea Party and establishment wings, the GOP is in turmoil. And Boehner shows no signs of possessing the political aptitude to reach some kind of truce. The Wall Street Journal has it right:

Some Republicans think they are sure to hold the House in 2014 no matter what happens because of gerrymandering, but even those levees won't hold if there's a wave of revulsion against the GOP. Marginal seats still matter for controlling Congress. The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule.

So Boehner's real fear must be that the GOP is inadvertently resuscitating Obama's presidency by giving him an enemy to fight against. The commander-in-chief has not been very commanding these days. But that could change. It was the Soviet propagandist Georgi Arbatov who announced at the end of the Cold War, "we are going to do the worst thing we can do to you. We are going to take your enemy away from you." He had a point. For the coldly practical path for the GOP to have followed would be the one outlined by George F. Will:

Arithmetic, not moral failings, makes Republicans unable to overturn Obama’s vetoes. So after scoring some points, Republicans should vote, more in sorrow than in anger, to fund the government (at sequester levels, a significant victory) and to increase the debt ceiling. Having forced Democrats to dramatize their perverse priorities, Republicans can turn to completing the neutering of this presidency by winning six Senate seats.

So far, there are few signs that the Will doctrine is going to prove palatable to House Republicans. But now that the shutdown has actually taken place, the pressure will increase persistently like a deep-sea diver gradually descending into the depths. Perhaps the crisis will force a reckoning. For the good news is that the twin crises confronting the U.S. could be resolved by a grand budget deal. Boehner and Obama already came close once. Both sides know what is needed. And both have been resisting it. A measly two-month continuing resolution is not the appropriate forum for a battle over the direction of a superpower. If they can reach a deal, Congress would doubtless refuse to abolish itself as part of it. But maybe lawmakers could give everyone a break by going on a long vacation.

The Presidency
United States

Obama's Iran Problem

Is President Obama pursuing a foolish policy aimed at appeasing an unappeasable Iran? Or is his outreach a sensible move that signals he is moving, as John B. Judis, puts it in the New Republic, towards realpolitik?

Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal is scoffing at Obama's speech at the United Nations yesterday. Obama sounded a cautious note: "The roadblocks may prove to be too great but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”  But the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's refusal to meet with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly meeting sent the Journal into transports of rage. It was nothing less than "an expression of lordly contempt for what Iranian leaders consider to be an overager suitor from an unworthy nation." At the same time, opposition to Obama's more concessive tack is also manifesting itself on Capitol Hill, where Senator Marco Rubio headed a group of Republican legislators--one that included Roy Blunt, Pat Roberts and Ted Cruz--who stated in a September 24 letter, "we are...troubled by reports that you might be considering offering a new proposal that would leave the door open to a nculear Iran, perhaps allowing Iran to preserve part of its nuclear weapons program." It continues, "Given this record and the risks, Iran must not be allowed to retain any enrichment or processing capabilities." Any? This is a prescription for war since it precludes a diplomatic approach--no Iranian government would give up in toto the right to enrichment.

Yet Iran does appear to be shifting its approach. The big reason is that sanctions, which skeptics claim never really bite, do seem to biting deep in Iran, throwing the country's economy into a tailspin. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that the moment has arrived for Iran to demonstrate "heroic flexibility" when it comes to treating with other nations. That is a marked change from the bluff and bombast that has characterized Tehran's statements in recent years. Iranians, legendary for their bargaining skills, have promised little and delivered nothing during prolonged negotiations over their nuclear program, which dates back to the rule of the Shah. But now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has indicated that Iran should employ "heroic flexibility" in its dealings with the West. But heroism is not really what's needed. Rather, it is seriousness of intent, something that Iran has not hitherto displayed, leaving the field open, in the West at least, to neoconservative voices calling for everything from bombing Iran to regime change.

It is hard to avoid the sense that a shift is taking place in the Middle East. It started with the Syrian imbroglio, when Russia offered up a deal on chemical weapons that rescued Obama from what would have been a disastrous defeat in Congress. Now Iran, which is heavily involved in the fighting in Syria, and which wishes to protect Hezbollah at all costs, is taking a more conciliatory approach that is unnerving leaders like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Until recently, he could count on the atrabilious comments of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stoke apprehensions about Iran's plans. Still, Netanyahu's caution is not unwarranted: it would be a mistake to personalize Iran policy around one man--Rouhani--who could end up being the Dmitri Medvedev of Tehran. Initially seen as a sign of hope, then tossed aside by larger, more potent political forces.

Obama himself appears to be signaling a change, too. He may extol American exceptionalism, but his talk at the United Nations lacked any real paeans to idealism. He noted that America will work with regimes who may not meet the highest "international expectations"--a euphemism for undemocratic--when "core interests" coincide. And he stressed the limitations of American power to reshape, willy-nilly, the Middle East. He said,

The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries. The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion. Indeed, as the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed, the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own.

John Judis sees this a potential landmark in Obama foreign policy, noting that the president's statement about working together when possible with distasteful regimes "represents a return to Obama’s earlier diplomacy and a repudiation of the idealism and interventionism of the last few years." Judis has a point. All along Obama has sounded this note. What emerges most conspicuously from his administration's foreign policy is that it really has not had a clear and distinct one, but, rather, a variety of policies, several of which have flirted with disaster. He was for Morsi, then against him. He tried to work with Putin, then soured on him. Now he's back to working with the Russian leader. He wanted to bomb Syria, then he went to Congress. And so on.

A case can be made that any administration's approach to foreign affairs is bound to have erratic qualities, but Obama has not conveyed the sense that he is really that interested in directing the American ship of state in what are turbulent waters. Rather he has sought to dry dock it; but tumult and upheaval abroad have kept him at sea. Now it is pivotal for him to demonstrate that he can achieve a UN Security Council resolution on Syria with Russian approval. His approaches to Syria and Iran will demonstrate whether he has grasped the importance of diplomacy and leadership or whether he is simply running out the clock on his own presidency.

The Presidency
United States

Merkel's Triumph

"Mother knows best" seems to be Germany's current motto. Angela Merkel, who won a third term as chancellor on Sunday, is known as "Mutti," or mommy in Germany. In a time of economic prosperity and psychic unease over Europe, Germans clung to her skirt. She easily persuaded what amounts to an infantilized electorate that she can keep it swaddled in prosperity and comfort. But the greatest test of her political skills is before her.

In traveling across Germany over the past week on a trip sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, it quickly became clear to me that Germans have rarely been more skittish about losing what they have earned over the past decades. At a rally in Frankfurt the Left party's fiery leader Sarah Wagenknecht, who apparently emulates Rosa Luxemberg's hairstyle, delivered a tirade against capitalism and social injustice, but that doesn't really make a huge dent with the electorate. It's too old school. The Left party's share of the vote dropped, from 11.9 percent in 2009 to 8.3 percent. The Green party didn't score very well in this federal election, either. It dropped from 10.7 percent in 2009 to 8.1 percent. It became enmeshed in a pedophilia scandal, dating back to its founding years in the early 1980s when party leader Juergen Trittin apparently signed off on some flyers touting the virtues of taking an agnostic stance about "uncoerced" sex between adults and children. Meanwhile, the Free Democratic Party suffered a cataclysmic loss, dropping to 4.8 percent, below the minimum 5 percent barrier for entry into the Bundestag.

So the small parties, more or less took it on the chin. One didn't. It was the Alternative For Germany, which scored 4.9 percent, coming within a whisker of entering parliament. This was a more than respectable result for a party that barely existed a few months ago. The AFD consists of disaffected Germans who view the Euro with grave msigivings. Until now, Germany had been something of an anomaly in Europe, the only major country where an anti-Euro party had not taken flight. No longer. The AFD mirrors the Austrian Freedom Party, which also espouses classical liberal economics, coupled with an anti-immigrant stance. In American terms, the AFD represents Germany's version of a Tea Party movement—a grass roots movement that detests elites. In Germany's case, the elites have, by and large, uniformly backed the Euro. Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wryly referred to those skeptical about Europe, both in the economics section of his newspaper and at the Bundesbank, as "Euro-Taliban."

The AFD will likely achieve its greatest success in the upcoming European elections. It can campaign against Brussels in Brussels. For now, Germans chose consolidation in this election. A grand coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats looms. Or, if the socialists balk, or, if Merkel proves somewhat more adventurous, one with the Green party, which would allow the Christian Democrats to present themselves as progressive and openminded, key themes in modern Germany. But the Christian Democratic base might revolt. It is the grand coalition that appears to be what many Germans want—consensus, reassurance, "no experiments," as Konrad Adeanuer once put it. But in decapitating the liberal Free Democrats, who espouse lower taxes and civil liberties, perhaps Merkel succeeded all to well. Germans have two votes in the election. Traditionally, they have split their votes, giving one to a candidate and another to a party. But this time the Christian Democrats urged their followers not to split the ticket. Whether the Free Democrats, plagued by factionalism and a weak leadership, can ever recover is an open question. The best that the elderly Rainer Bruderele, one of the party's leaders, could do in a commercial was to complacently smear a thick dollop of butter on a slice of bread to suggest that the party would safeguard bourgeois comforts and prosperity. The voters, as Lorentz Maroldt observed in Der Tagesspiegel, responded by snatching away the butter from the Free Democrats in the election. It is disconsolatory to think that the liberal tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, and embodied in the twentieth by figures such as Theodor Heuss, Walter Scheel, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has reached its terminus. Only an honest look by the party at its failures, which must include a purge of the inept leaders that brought it to its current impasse, can open a new path for future success for the Free Democrats.

Now the Alternative For Germany may form a true conservative opposition to Merkel's party, lambasting it for kowtowing to Europe. Still, it is Merkel's hour. She has persistently been underestimated by many in her own party—and it is very much her party now. She has polished off one rival after another and reinvented the Christian Democrats in her own image, much to the distress of the more conservative party wing. It continued with her latest campaign for office. Her campaign manager Lutz Meyer explained at a dinner on Friday that she had hired him, a former Social Democratic campaign adviser, to renew her brand and to emphasize her feminine qualities. Her entire campaign consisted of softening her message and image, of suggesting to Germans that she could provide the security and comfort they desire. Now Merkel is at the zenith of her power. Not only Germany, but also the rest of Europe will be watching to see how she approaches the monetary crisis that continues to plague the continent. She will have to prove that mother really does know best.

Image: Flickr/Armin Kübelbeck. CC BY-SA 3.0.

European Union

Obama's Divided Syria Speech

Does President Obama want to go to war in Syria for Sasha and Malia? In his address last night, Obama repeatedly invoked the gassing of hundreds of children in Syria to make the case for military action. He indicated that countenancing the Syrian regime’s deployment of chemical weapons on August 21 would mean that Americans eventually might become the target of such attacks. 

And he made the moral case for action. Obama was, in effect, admonishing Americans for their reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of religious and ethnic animosities that has transformed Syria from a repressive dictatorship into a country with violent factions trying to turn it back into a unified and repressive dictatorship. "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?" Obama said. At the same time, he acknowledged that America cannot serve as the "world's policeman." Just a neighborhood watch committee?

And so Obama's speech had a distinctly schizophrenic quality. The first half or so sounded like a call to arms. The other half not so much. Instead, it grudgingly accepted that maybe diplomacy is the way to go. Whether Obama wants to admit it or not, Russian president Vladimir Putin has offered him an out from political self-destruction. Obama may owe the rest of his presidency, which was headed for a cataclysmic defeat, not in Syria, where America could basically have bombed with impunity, but in Congress, where the president keeps succeeding in adding to his roster of adversaries, to Putin. This time it wasn't simply many Republican conservatives who were about to repudiate Obama; it was also the antiwar Democratic base that he emerged from when he originally denounced the Iraq war as a “dumb idea.”

What Obama’s speech exemplified, then, are the contradictions in his own administration over the past few weeks when it comes to Syria. Secretary John Kerry has been freelancing, coming up with the idea of Syria handing over its chemical weapons cache, which Moscow seized upon, in an off-hand remark. Obama, too, has been improvising—he blindsided Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel in coming up with the notion of going to Congress for a Syria resolution. Obama would do well to think about a reset of his own foreign policy team.

If Obama manages to get a deal, he could pull off a foreign and domestic success. But he would have to seek a far more cooperative relationship with Russia, which holds the key to the Syria conflict. He can’t, in other words, treat Russia as he does Congress—like a pesky nuisance that he condescends to speak to once in awhile. A new era of détente, based on common interests in stability abroad, needs to be inaugurated. Russia has no more interest in Islamic radicals obtaining chemical weapons than does America.

No doubt a fresh diplomatic initiative will attract the ire of the neoconservative wing of the GOP and inevitably expose Obama to charges of appeasement. Big deal. As opinion polls indicate, Obama’s time-out is what the public, weary of incessant wars in the Middle East, wants. International norms don’t have a domestic constituency. Americans are not willing to go to war for the Fletcher School.

In indicating that he will maintain America’s current military posture in the region, Obama made it clear that the threat of force will remain. It’s a credible one. Congress clearly has little appetite for voting, and a vote will probably never take place. America should bring the world together to condemn and penalize Syria for this action,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Markley (D-OR) declared. “Such an effort, however, is best pursued through international negotiation and diplomacy.” Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to agree: “Our best course of action is to pause.”

If diplomacy is ineffective, then Obama will likely order a military strike and call it a day. To a degree that his detractors and supporters may both have underestimated, he is emotionally committed to the idea of the nonproliferation and abolition of weapons of mass destruction. It was underscored when Obama said, “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”

But Obama’s commitment to a red-line in Syria almost redlined him. He knows that if diplomacy does fail, it could result in the failure of his own presidency.

The Presidency
United States

Barack W. Bush: Unilateral War In Syria

Barack W. Bush. Joe Cheney. Here they come. Girded for a war that the British took one look at and bailed out on before it even began. Announcing that they are prepared to go it alone. Who said that unilateralism went away with George W. Bush?

Obama said acting unilaterally was a bad thing when he campaigned for office in 2008. That was then. Obama, who has followed in Bush's footsteps on national security surveillance measures, as the Washington Post's extensive revelations about the reach of government spy agencies show today, is about to go to war again.

Vice-president Joe Biden sounds like Cheney redivivus when he declares that there is "no doubt" that Bashar al-Assad authorized the use of weapons of mass destruction. All that's missing is a reference to yellow cake or the claim that this enterprise will be a cake walk. Meanwhile, the White House is engaging in magisterial Bush-speak, invoking the defense of the homeland: "The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests in the United States of America," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Well, yes. But this dodges the real question, which is: Will he be protecting America's national security interests by attacking Syria? Or will he undermine them?

The strongest case for launching an attack centers on American crediblity and international norms. The shadow of the 1936 Italian invasion of Abyssinia when Mussolini employed chemical weapons and the League of Nations proved toothless looms large here. Writing in the Financial Times, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations,  says that strikes against airfields and a promise to supply moderate opposition forces would be a punitive response that "sends the message that use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated and will be costly for the regime." But the Obama administration is simply asserting that it has the authority to embark on one and that Americans should trust its asseverations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. As Obama put it, "we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable."

Both Democratic and Republican legislators remain skeptical. As the Los Angeles Times observes, "Lawmakers have become increasingly vocal on the need for congressional authorization of military action, and more than 160 House lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have signed letters demanding a vote in Congress." Maybe Obama can't make the case because he doesn't wholly believe it in himself. Obama himself has clearly been reluctant to embroil the United States in the Syrian conflict.

Thus his own plan for intervention seems quite limited--no no-fly-zone, no troops on the ground. It is more, you could say, about what it is not than about what it is. Which has frustrated the liberal hawks and neocons. Charles Krauthammer, for example, says that Obama is being shamed into war and needs to do more: "If Obama is planning a message-sending three-day attack, preceded by leaks telling the Syrians to move their important military assets to safety, better that he do nothing. Why run the considerable risk if nothing important is changed?"

In 2002 Obama called Iraq a "dumb war." Is this one any smarter?

The Presidency
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The Neocon March on Damascus

Here we go again. As Americans prepare to march on Washington, Washington is preparing to march on Damascus. As part of the buildup to war, a chorus of liberal hawks and neoconservatives has issued a new manifesto in—where else?—the Weekly Standard calling upon President Obama to engage in regime change in Syria. Just as they demanded military action to topple Saddam Hussein, so they now are insisting upon the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Yet if anything might be calculated to give Obama pause before he embarks upon a bombing campaign, it should be this truculent letter, whose signatories include Fouad Ajami, Elliott Abrams, Paul Berman, Eliot A. Cohen, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Bernard-Henri Levy, Tim Palwenty, James Traub, Eric Edelman, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier. (At Politico, Dylan Byers astutely notes that the presence of Wieseltier and Peretz should come as no surprise because, "Wieseltier et al. aren't emissaries from the 'new' New Republic, they're stalwarts of the Old Republic. Wieseltier served on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and Peretz led the magazine's call for military intervention there (he still thinks it was a good idea)." So there you go. The very same crew, by and large, that declared that Iraq could be transformed into a blossoming democracy in 2003. Now it wants to duplicate its roaring success.

Well, not exactly. For one thing, the letter never mentions the term "democracy." So it isn't fair to say that the signatories have remained totally immune to the cataclysmic events they triggered in 2003. Instead, their missive suggests that the "world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass destruction—is now watching to see how you respond." It further suggests "direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime." And it minutes that America should "train, and arm moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country."

These are lofty goals. Obama, for a variety of reasons, including his notorious "red line" statement, is in something of a pickle of his own making, and probably has little choice but respond to Assad's defiance. But given the tangled nature of the ethnic and religious conflicts in Syria, the confidence of what the Weekly Standard deems "experts"—the same kind of experts who got America into Vietnam, incidentally, and whom Daniel Patrick Moynihan more colorfully and accurately dubbed "warrior intellectuals"—exude in this letter may perhaps stir some lingering doubts about the efficacy of their prescriptions, particularly when considering that the last ministrations they offered essentially left their most recent patient—Iraq—in a state of prostration and life support for almost a decade. But the anfractuosities of Islam and nationalism have never particularly seemed to worry these experts whose faith in their expertise, you could say, remains pretty unruffled, at least if this letter is anything to go by.

If democracy is no longer their lodestar—or if they are too cautious to proclaim it openly—then what is left? The remnants of their doctrine reside in the raw exercise of American power. Both the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the paper's columnist Bret Stephens make it crystal clear that the chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by Assad and his goons simply form a convenient casus belli for a wider engagement. The Journal says, "The real problem isn't the chemical weapons. It is the leader who has used them, Bashar Assad." Scarcely to be outdone, Stephens writes, "What's at stake now is the future of civilization, and whether the word still has any meaning." The Assads, he says, should be polished off, the consequences for their behavior "inescapably fatal." Condign punishment, in other words, is in order.

Well. It is certainly true that the Middle East would be a better place without the Assads. Or would it? The old order represented by the wily Hafez al-Assad, who would have been mortified by the bungling of his children, is crumbling. But the vexed problem in Syria is that no one—not the Obama administration, not the neocon and liberal-hawk "experts"—really knows what would ensue were America successfully to overthrow the regime. The bellicose rantings of Stephens are redolent of Orwell's remark that intellectuals like to fancy themselves with the "whip-hand" on history, meting out punishment to the guilty and setting wrong aright. The road to Damascus could indeed prove a revelation to America's foreign-policy intellectuals, but not necessarily one that would prove a very pleasant experience.

The Presidency
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Britain's Shameful Detention of Greenwald's Partner

If you weren't familiar with Schedule 7, you probably are by now. This capacious provision, passed as part of a Terrorism Act 2000, apparently permits British authorities to detain terrorism suspects for up to nine hours without recourse to a lawyer or much of anything else, which is what Scotland Yard did with Glenn Greenwald's partner David Michael Miranda, who was flying from Germany to Brazil via Heathrow airport. There he was invigilated for the full nine hours by, among others, one agent 203654. Afterwards his electronic devices were seized. They even purloined his game consoles. Does anyone really believe that Miranda was engaged in what the act defines as the proper grounds for detaining a suspect, namely, the "instigation or propagation" of terrorism?

Not a bit of it. This provision is being blatantly misused. The message is clear: Under the pretense of stopping terrorism, the British government is itself attempting to terrorize Greenwald and his associates. By no stretch of the imagination can what Greenwald, a prominent defender and abettor of Edward Snowden, is doing be construed as constituting terrorist activities. American and British authorities may resent his activities, but they fall well within the boundaries of dissent from orthodoxy. If journalists—Miranda's flights were being paid by the Guardian newspaper—are subject, willy-nilly, to interrogation by British authorities if they happen to find themselves at Heathrow, then the traditional liberties that England has prized for centuries have gone by the boards. After this episode, the Union Jack should be fluttering at half-mast.

Greenwald has it right:

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It’s bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It’s worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic.

The question has to be this: what are the British and American governments so frightened about? It's possible that this is an act of simple petulance, an attempt to initimidate Greenwald. If so, it could not be more foolish. It is bound to elicit even more sympathy and notoriety for Greenwald and his partner. But it is also possible that the United Kingdom and United States are going to up the ante when it comes to harrassing anyone who attempts to warn about the the sway of the intelligence services, a kind of warning shot to others. This episode, it must be said, is entirely consistent with the draconian policies that President Obama has sanctioned when it comes to civil liberties, whether it is targeting leakers in the U.S. government or targeting Fox News' James Rosen. As for the British, they should reflect upon a noble birthright that are in danger of squandering, perhaps to placate a remorseless American government. It was the great nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macaulay who observed,

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.

With the detention of David Miranda, the UK took a fateful step toward a meddling government that tells its subjects what they may read and say.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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April 24, 2014