State of the Union

Why the Syria Debate Matters

As the Obama administration moves toward a dramatic political solution in Syria, Robert Merry detects an inflection point in American politics, the public forcing a “major new direction in American foreign policy”:

In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.

To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.

It’s unclear what it will take for the “foreign-policy reawakening” to fully penetrate Washington, where many congressmen are openly relieved that a vote on the use of force in Syria has been postponed due to diplomatic breakthroughs (“For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend”). Moreover, Joshua Keating notes that the public has been in a “multilateralist mood” for quite some time.

In some ways this administration has transitioned away from unpopular full-scale interventionism by simply downplaying any prospect of American involvement as “unbelievably small.” In Libya, the scope of intervention was repeatedly minimized–the administration dodged a mostly apathetic Congress, claiming it was not involved in “hostilities”–while the president largely avoided even talking about America’s role and obligations in that country. But while some dinged the Syria address last week as unnecessary, it’s notable that the political moment now requires some overt grappling with the decision to commit force and a straightforward argument from national interests.

The Syria debate has revealed a certain prudence and realism among the American public. Perhaps the last-minute shift to real, creative diplomacy in this case will activate some fresh strategic thinking among the foreign policy elite. A major new direction indeed.

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Syria: Let’s Just Not Do This…

President Obama will not order strikes on Syria if Congress rejects the use of force, according to an adviser—and he will address the country on Tuesday evening to make the case. Politico notes that while if the vote happened today the administration would “lose big,” many Democrats in Congress will likely move to “yes” next week:

High-level congressional sources believe there is some time — but not much — for Obama, Boehner and Pelosi to turn things around. But any vote to authorize an attack on Syria will be extraordinarily close, according to people in both parties with direct knowledge of the political dynamics in the House Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus.

The Fix and ThinkProgress have the latest whip counts. And Mother Jones has a great running guide to the debate here. Meanwhile, Wired is tracking votes vis-à-vis political contributions from the defense industry.

As constituents (and even some unlikely neoconservatives), continue to express opposition and AIPAC goes “all out,” next week’s debate will be revealing. Congress is now more popular than intervention in the Syrian civil war—House Republicans might boost those numbers if they skip the incoherent rants about Benghazi and opportunism-flaunting to ask earnest questions about America’s long-term interests and role in brutal protracted civil wars in the Middle East.

Peggy Noonan, who seems to be somewhat confused about what is actually happening in Syria (“A strong, broad strike opens the possibility of civil war”), reflects on a watershed moment for democratic accountability in foreign-policy making:

There is something going on here, a new distance between Washington and America that the Syria debate has forced into focus. The Syria debate isn’t, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That’s not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.

I’ve been thinking of the “wise men,” the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. “Ban the Bomb!” “Get Castro Out of Cuba.” In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn’t seem to have even basic confidence in Washington’s higher wisdom.

In related updates, Robert Costa checks in on Rand Paul:

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Clarifying the War Powers Resolution

Before President Obama announced that he would in fact be requesting Congressional authorization for military action in Syria, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren made a succinct case for deliberation on KPCC, joining many of her colleagues actively seeking to do their jobs (LISTEN here). Lofgren, a Democrat, even posted the text of the War Powers Resolution on her website.

David Cole, who also clears up arguments about the WPR’s putative loopholes, has more:

It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as “humanitarian intervention,” on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign’s territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress’s assent.

If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won’t be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua’s civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a “police action,” fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president.

The decision to intervene in Syria is, by all accounts, a difficult one. It is far from clear that it will do any good, and there is substantial risk that it will do harm. Polls show many Americans are against intervention. Iran has threatened to respond by attacking Israel. Assad may well have concluded that drawing in US forces will make him more popular, not less so, given attitudes toward the US in his country and the region. And it’s not clear that the forces currently fighting Assad would offer a less violent future for Syria if he is removed. President Obama, recognizing the risk of going it alone, has dispatched his emissaries to drum up support around the globe. But in view of the many risks involved, he would do well to seek support from Congress as well. That’s the red line the Framers drew, and the president should respect it.

Mother Jones helpfully breaks down where segments of Congress, including Republican non-interventionists and Democratic “doves” like Lofgren, stand on the use of force in Syria. The Washington Post is keeping track of vote counts here.

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The Obamacon’s Dilemma

In 2008, a few prominent conservatives hoped that Barack Obama might upend entrenched baby boomer attitudes and partisan dogmas. Aghast at the Bush administration’s financial and military recklessness, 20 percent of self-described conservatives voted for the “most liberal member of the Senate.”

After four years, President Obama’s case for re-election seems more a defense of the status quo than the call for change that propelled him into office: massive (though slightly smaller) deficits, a frail economy, Congressional dysfunction, and drift to war with Iran. The Bush-Obama status quo has amounted to the propping up of unsustainable entitlement programs and permanent, almost casual interventionism, accompanied by the decay of civil liberties and the growth of executive power. To this Obama has contributed a few unwelcome innovations, such as enhanced drone strikes and the HHS mandate, and some innocuous proposals: half-measures such as tax breaks for manufacturing and hiring more teachers.

There is a strong conservative case against Obama, but Mitt Romney has not made it. If Obama now represents the status quo, Romney offers nothing better than a promise to restore the radical policies that created the current conditions. As Daniel Larison notes, Romney is more likely to start a war with Iran by his own admission. It is revealing that his most prominent national security adviser is not a foreign policy wonk but a former Bush PR operative. At a time when the rich have seen unprecedented financial gains, the GOP nominee’s policies remain highly skewed to the wealthy, with special attention to the financial and defense industries. Amazingly, he seems to embrace the worst aspects of the Bush administration at a time when most Americans (rightly) blame Bush’s policies for our deep economic woes.

To the extent that Obama still offers a brake on the reckless forces of plutocracy and war (the Sheldon Adelson approach), which Romney plainly intends to restore, the conservative is left with no true alternative. In fact, the president’s re-election depends on a consensus around hard truths, the acknowledgment that immediately after the economic crisis, maybe we didn’t “deserve” to have the best years ever. Obama’s re-election, in a landscape hostile to any incumbent, would signify a certain reckoning, some actual grappling with the complexity of the crisis at hand, and a realization that neither Republican flag-waving nor sloganeering for “hope and change” are substitutes for hard choices. In this sense, the re-election of Obama might represent a surprising and mature moment in American politics.

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TAC Digest: August 28

Today on, Jim Antle reflected on Ron Paul’s legacy (Kelley Vlahos’s take here, Daniel Larison’s here), William Lind challenged the conventional wisdom on Syria, and Scott Galupo called out the GOP’s cynical strategy on Medicare.

Scott McConnell held out hope that Romney’s “inner realist” would suddenly appear, Larison poured cold water, and Rod Dreher contemplated the media elite.

RNC updates here and here.

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TAC Digest: August 27

Today on, Michael Dougherty imagined the GOP ticket that might have been, Scott Galupo downplayed the Romney-Ryan bump, and Samuel Goldman reflected on the politics of accents. Scott McConnell and Wick Allison complicated the Times‘s take on Republican factions.

Jordan Bloom and Michael Tracey reacted to Ron Paul’s farewell, Daniel Larison took issue with the GOP’s epistemic closure on foreign policy, and Rod Dreher braced for Isaac. James Pinkerton traced the school choice revolution, Mike Lofgren marveled at American plutocracy, and Philip Giraldi wondered if a ban on cell phone use while driving would have an impact.

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Week in Review: August 20-24

Illustration by Michael Hogue

This week on, Daniel McCarthy delineated where intellectual conservatism went wrong, Scott Galupo wondered how a President Romney would frame his 2013 stimulus, and Scott McConnell homed in on the widening fissure between social conservatives and the GOP establishment. Jim Antle considered a maturing Tea Party, McCarthy excoriated Todd Akin’s redefinition of rape, and Michael Brendan Dougherty endorsed the conservative case for breaking up the banks. Robert P. Murphy argued that Paul Ryan’s ‘draconian’ budget is vastly overrated, Noah Millman chided Mediscaring on both sides, and elaborated on Obama’s small-”c” conservatism.

Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Samuel Goldman took issue with the NYPD’s utterly ineffective, Muslim-targeting ‘Demographic Unit,’ and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq. Daniel Larison poured cold water on fears of future Chinese hegemony, and noted that Niall Ferguson seems to know even less about foreign policy than he does about the OMB’s report on Obamacare. Larison also discussed the illegality of a preemptive attack on Iran.

Goldman reviewed Chris Hayes’s new book on meritocratic elites, Rod Dreher lamented the conservative failure to make great art, and Ron Unz remembered Alexander Cockburn.

Subscribe now for access to the digital edition of our September issue (Kindle version here).

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TAC Digest: August 23

Today on, Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Ron Unz remembered Alexander Cockburn, and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq.

Rod Dreher studied Appalachia, Daniel Larison eviscerated Paul Ryan on China and Russia, Scott Galupo took on Rick Warren’s “covenant of civility,” and Philip Giraldi worried about the consequences of cyberwarfare. Help Rod pick the cover of his forthcoming book “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” here.

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Do Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise the Poor?

In the second installment of the “Good Fight” series, Glenn Loury and Mark Kleiman address the voter ID question:

Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law was upheld today. Dave Weigel, who covered the trial, has more:

I saw the petitioners (against the law) give a strong case, focusing on the difficulty of getting hundreds of thousands of voters sorted out before a November election. The state based its argument on the 2008 Crawford case, arguing that you couldn’t possibly strike down a law just because some voters would be inconvenienced — voting is inconvenient! What does the state’s win mean, effectively? The ACLU will eventually take its case to the state Supreme Court, which (due to a scandal surrounding one member) is split 3-3, Democratic and Republican members. If the court splits on this law, the Simpson decision is reaffirmed.

Samuel Goldman recently noted that the “practical impact of these laws … is likely to be more limited than either advocates or critics believe.”

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Is Marriage Equality the Civil Rights Movement of Our Age?

Over the years The American Conservative has made occasional appearances on the “diavlog” site Bloggingheads (see Michael Brendan DoughertyNoah MillmanRod Dreher, and Daniel McCarthy). The site’s new series “The Good Fight” convenes thinkers from right and left for conversations about politics and ideas. TAC will be taking part, and in the spirit of civil yet spirited discourse, we’ll highlight segments from the series over the next several months.

In the debut installment, Daniel Foster and Amy Sullivan put the campaign for marriage equality in perspective:

On that note, Dan McCarthy recently explained why the right can’t win the gay marriage fight (Dreher’s response here). Millman’s Burkean case for gay marriage here.

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