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“Insincere Symbolism”: The Stakes In What Happens Next Are Not Necessarily Greater Than The Lives Immediately Affected

Regardless of one’s position on a hypothetical U.S. military strike on Syria, it’s rather important to recognize that a lot of the highfalutin talk about Obama setting some terrible or wonderful precedent–or about the acceptance or rejection of his position by Congress or this or that subset of the international community determining the ultimate fate of his presidency–disguises some very petty motives and/or very fixed loyalties and antipathies. Kevin Drum nails it today:

[I]t’s almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there’s virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You’re for it because you’re a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You’re against it if you’re a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They’ve just chosen sides, that’s all.

Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations—either for or against a strike—might be entirely virtuous, but there’s very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.

I’d go further and say that those who have “chosen sides” for “parochial interests” have every reason to inflate their own motives into great matters of philosophy, law, geopolitics and morality. It’s all the more reason to stand guard against claims that the stakes in what happens next are much greater than the lives immediately affected–which ought to be more than high enough to ensure grave reflection.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Editor, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 2, 2013

September 5, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mitch McConnell’s Muddle”: Leadership Just Isn’t An Option

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has found himself in an awkward position. He’s an unpopular incumbent facing a credible Republican primary challenger and a credible Democratic opponent. His own campaign staff doesn’t really like him, either.

No matter which direction McConnell tries to lead his caucus, the Kentucky Republican risks alienating some key constituency’s support, so he’s left to just bite his tongue, doing nothing.

Last month, for example, when much of his caucus was at odds over a government-shutdown strategy, Senate Republicans needed some leadership. McConnell went out of his way to steer clear of the fight.

This month, Senate Republicans are at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, and once more, McConnell doesn’t want to talk about it.

Only one of the top five members of the bipartisan congressional hierarchy still sits on the fence about launching a punitive strike against Syria: Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

The Kentucky Republican emerged from the White House on Monday as the only member of the bicameral leadership group still uncommitted to voting in favor of legislation authorizing military action.

McConnell looks to be taking as much time as he can. He’s weighing his political considerations back home, where an isolationist stance would provide clear short-term benefit, against the pressures of his leadership role at the Capitol, where he’s spent almost three decades as a Republican voice for a hawkish defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy.

This is the point at which congressional leaders try to, you know, lead. But McConnell, now afraid of his own shadow, is struggling to figure out which course will cause him the least amount of trouble. So as literally every other congressional leader takes a side — in this case, in support of using force in Syria — the Senate’s top Republican is left to effectively declare, “I’ll get back to you some other time.”

Perhaps McConnell is waiting to announce a position late on a Friday afternoon when he assumes it’ll make less news? More to the point, perhaps “Senate Minority Leader” is the wrong title for a lawmaker who feels so trapped, leadership isn’t really an option?

Sean Sullivan walked through some of the troubles weighing on McConnell.

For starters, McConnell is facing reelection in 2014 and a primary challenger who has said that the United States should not get involved in Syria. If he argues the opposite view, McConnell would immediately fuel debate and elevate the issue in the campaign.

What’s more, fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has come out in full force against military intervention. If McConnell had come out of the meeting Tuesday as supportive of Obama’s plan, he would instantly be triggering a story about discord over Syria within the Kentucky GOP delegation. And he would risk alienating Paul’s supporters. (Paul has endorsed McConnell’s bid for reelection.)

Third, there is some disagreement among Senate Republicans about which stance the United States should take with Syria, and the fault lines are complex.

No wonder McConnell is struggling. It’s getting to the point that he no longer remembers his positions on key issues.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 4, 2013

September 5, 2013 Posted by | Politics, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Stark Raving Mad”: When Unhinged GOP Conspiracy Theories Become Self-Defeating

Remember Rep. Joe Wilson (R)? The right-wing South Carolinian has been in the U.S. House for nearly 12 years, and apparently has distinguished himself exactly once: he shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on health care policy.

Apparently, though, Wilson is still on Capitol Hill, and piped up during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting today with a question on Syria for Secretary of State John Kerry. Watch on YouTube

For those who can’t watch clips online, note that Wilson, with a halting cadence, very carefully read a question that someone on his staff apparently prepared for him:

“With the president’s red line, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration or the upcoming debt limit vote? Again, why was there no call for a military response four months ago when the president’s red line was crossed?”

Now, I can appreciate a wild-eyed conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but even by House GOP standards, this is just stark raving mad. First, the “scandals” Wilson believes in don’t exist; things are going fairly well for the Affordable Care Act; and sequestration was Republicans’ fault.

Second, think about the point Wilson is trying to make with his deeply silly question: the White House was, the theory goes, overwhelmed in April by scandals and policy fiascoes. To “divert attention” to all of these terrible problems, President Obama did … nothing.

Wilson’s conspiracy theory would at least have internal consistency if Obama had bombed Syria at the time, giving conservatives an opportunity to say the military offensive was timed to be a distraction from domestic difficulties. But Wilson doesn’t even have that — he’s saying Obama didn’t intervene in Syria in April to “divert attention” from made-up controversies, suggesting the Congressman doesn’t even understand the words of the conspiracy theory someone wrote for him to repeat during the hearing.

Alas, Wilson wasn’t alone.

Sahil Kapur reported on a related conspiracy theory from another South Carolina Republican.

Secretary of State John Kerry erupted at Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) after the congressman charged that the Obama administration cannot be trusted to carry out an attack on Syria due to mistakes made in Benghazi and controversies involving the IRS and NSA programs.

“I cannot discuss the possibility of the U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war without talking about Benghazi,” Duncan said, questioning Kerry at a Wednesday hearing.

“The administration has a serious credibility issue with the American people, due to the unanswered questions surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi almost a year ago. When you factor in the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the AP and James Rosen issues, Fast and Furious and NSA spying programs, the bottom line is that there is a need for accountability and trust-building from the administration,” he said. “The American people deserve answers about Benghazi before we move forward in Syria’s civil war.”

Kerry dismissed Duncan’s garbage rhetoric out of hand.

If the right-wing lawmaker’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Duncan is fond of conspiracy theories about the IRS and firearms; he believes conspiracy theories involving the Census Bureau; and he pushed Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories surrounding the Boston Marathon Bombing in April. He’s also a birther.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 4, 2013

September 5, 2013 Posted by | Conspiracy Theories, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Alternate Media Universe”: The GOP’s Delusional Far-Right Twitter Bubble Explains Their Misinformed, Kooky Thinking

New York magazine’s Dan Amira takes a look at what accounts members of Congress follow on Twitter, and the results are … depressing. Both sides mainly follow the worst of the awful Beltway media. Pundits obsessed with trivialities and conflict and personalities beat out commentators and reporters who understand policy or political science. So Mike Allen wins! Well, the Hill actually wins, beating out Politico, C-SPAN and its smarter, but more expensive, primary competitor Roll Call. But Allen wins in the list of individual media personalities with the largest followings among members of Congress. That top 10 is pretty much depressing from start to finish, though at least Jake Tapper beats Joe Scarborough.

It’s pretty easy to over-interpret these findings. Few members of Congress have any involvement at all in their Twitter feeds — some of them may not know they have Twitter feeds — so what we’re seeing here are the accounts followed by, most likely, junior staffers. They follow Chuck Todd because, you know, they have to. If they miss some dumb thing Chuck Todd says that people start talking about they will get in trouble.

But when the most-followed lists are separated by party affiliation, interesting trends emerge. Republicans are more in lockstep in their following habits. 71 percent of Democrats follow the White House, the most-followed account for the Dems. Seventy-two percent of Republicans follow Eric Cantor, the seventh most followed account for the GOP. (John Boehner is the most-followed, with 88.7 percent of Republican members.) The Heritage Foundation has more elected Republican followers — 70.4 percent of members — than any actual media outlet or reporter. Even Politico. Even the Wall Street Journal. There’s no comparable organization in the top 20 for the Democrats.

On the pundit list, Mike Allen is at the top of both parties’ lists, proof that bipartisanship is alive and awful in Washington, but only 48.8 percent of Democrats follow Allen, compared to 57.7 percent of Republicans — proof that Democrats remain, as ever, the slight lesser of two evils. The rest of the pundit lists serve as a small window into the root of congressional paralysis and dysfunction.

The two lists have only a few names in common. After Allen, the rest of the GOP top five is all Fox reporters and commentators (including two former Bush administration officials), and the rest of the Democratic top five is Maddow, Chuck Todd, Ezra Klein and Jake Tapper — a plurality for MSNBC if you count Ezra, but not a unanimous win. The only outright conservative on the Democratic list is Joe Scarborough. Conservatives would likely argue (incorrectly but whatever) that Joe Scarborough is also a token liberal on the Republican list.

The most left-wing people on the Democratic list are easily MSNBC hosts Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. (And maybe Krugman.) The GOP list has Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, Erick Erickson, Fred Barnes and Michelle Malkin. And, well, if you want to know why Republicans are so nuts, let’s look at the fact that nearly half (46 percent) of the Republican congressional delegation follows Michelle Malkin.

If you’re following Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin because you think they are worthwhile voices or useful sources of information, you’re a terribly misinformed far-right kook. If you’re following them because you have to keep on top of whatever Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin are screeching about today, because you know that your constituents consider them worthwhile voices or useful sources of information, that’s just as bad. Because whether the Republican Party is full of true-believing kooks or merely people forced to act like true believing kooks in order to keep their seats, the result is the same: a party that can’t be negotiated with because it exists in an alternate media universe with its own history and set of facts.

Hayes and Maddow, to take the two left-most voices on the Democratic list, are both quite genuinely left-wing, especially for the mainstream national political press, but they are also both reasonable people who are generous — sometimes excessively generous! — to opposing points of views. Hannity invited a notorious anti-Semite on his show as part of his years-long campaign to push the most absurd Obama conspiracies imaginable and Malkin wrote a book defending Japanese internment during World War II. These two both regularly fear-monger over the imagined specter of widespread black mob violence. It’s not just that these two have toxic beliefs and live in feverish fantasy lands, though they do, it’s that taking these two seriously is a dumb thing to do in a country that just elected Obama twice, while also voting for Democrats for Congress in greater numbers than for Republicans. They’re … not quite in touch with the actual mood of the country now, to say nothing of where it’s heading. That may be hard to grasp in the right-wing media bubble, especially for people representing districts made up primarily of angry white people, but it’s true.

As ridiculous as the right-wing pundits are, though, it’s the 70 percent of Republicans following Heritage that is actually more worrying. Heritage has joined the rest of the conservative movement in shifting from pursuing politically achievable conservative policy goals to always advocating for the most conservative course of action even when that course involves apocalyptic consequences and is also impossible. So if you want to know how exactly House Republicans managed to convince themselves that they’ll be able to repeal Obamacare if they just want to bad enough, well, it jibes with everything they hear in their wonderful little self-contained world.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, September 4, 2013

September 5, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“For Most, There’s Been No Shared Sacrifice”: Syria And The Myth That Americans Are “War Weary”

Perhaps the most misleading phrase in the debate over Syria is “war weary.” Americans, say commentators and politicians across the political spectrum, are exhausted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with sideshows in Libya and Yemen. Now Syria? Where does it stop? Americans must be weary.

Of exactly what?

The truth is that for most Americans, the constant combat has imposed no burdens, required no sacrifices and involved no disruptions. True, the money spent has been substantial. From 2001 to 2012, reckons the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with related operations cost $1.4 trillion. Although that’s a lot even by Washington standards, it pales next to all federal spending and the economy’s total production. From 2001 to 2012, federal spending totaled $33.3 trillion; the wars were 4 percent of that. Over the same period, the American economy produced $163 trillion of goods and services. War spending equaled nine-tenths of 1 percent of that.

As important, no special tax was ever imposed to pay war costs. They were simply added to budget deficits, so that few, if any, Americans suffered a loss of income. It’s doubtful that much other government spending was crowded out by the wars.

The largest cost, of course, involves Americans killed and those who suffered life-altering wounds, both physical and mental. As of Sept. 3, the Pentagon counted 4,489 deaths connected to the war in Iraq and 2,266 connected to the war in Afghanistan, including some U.S. civilians. To these numbers must be added thousands more with serious injuries. Through September 2011, according to the CBO, 740,000 veterans from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had received treatment from the Veterans Health Administration. In a study of veterans treated from 2004 to 2009, the CBO found that 21 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, 2 percent with traumatic brain injury and another 5 percent with both.

The pain, suffering, sorrow and anguish of these and other losses are borne by a tiny sliver of Americans: those who joined the volunteer military, plus their families and close friends. There was no draft. There was no shared sacrifice, as there was in World War II, Korea and (to a lesser extent) even Vietnam. Those who have made the sacrifices have a right to feel “weary.” For the rest of us, it’s a self-indulgence.

What many Americans seem to mean by “weary” is “frustrated.” They’re frustrated and disillusioned that so much fighting over so many years has not brought the clear-cut psychological and strategic benefits of “victory.” For others, the lesson is more stark: These foreign military forays were a waste and, in many respects, have done more harm than good. One way or another, there’s a widespread impatience with our engagements when patience is often required for success.

If it is to be useful, the debate over Syria must broach larger issues. The United States cannot be the world’s policeman. It cannot rectify every wrong or redress every atrocity. It cannot impose the “American way of life” and values on diverse peoples who have their own ways of life and values. But the United States isn’t Monaco. Since World War II, we have assumed a sizable responsibility for the international order. We have done this not so much out of idealism as out of self-interest. The large lesson of that war was that American absence from the global stage ultimately contributed to a global tragedy from which we could not remain aloof.

This lesson endures. But it lacks a firm footing in public opinion. Members of the World War II generation have largely died. Their experience is now an abstraction. The new applications of an old doctrine often suffer from carelessness and expedience — sometimes too much eagerness, sometimes too little. We do have overriding interests in a stable global order. To state an obvious case: It cannot be in our interests (or the world’s) for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Whatever we do in Syria must spring from a sober calculation of national interest so that it commands broad public support. The worst outcome would be a retreat justified by nothing more than an exaggerated and artificial sense of “war weariness.”


By: Robert Samuelson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 4, 2013

September 5, 2013 Posted by | Syria, War | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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