"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“If The President Is For It”: After White House Briefing And Asking No Questions, John Cornyn’s Convenient Change Of Heart

In March Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) appeared at an event in Atlanta, and publicly endorsed U.S. intervention in Syria. Then President Obama expressed support for military strikes in Syria, at which point Cornyn reconsidered.

Indeed, in a curious twist, the Texas Republican said this week “many questions are still left unanswered,” which led to a meeting with the president in the White House in which Cornyn asked no questions.

All of which leads us to now.

A Cornyn aide said Thursday that the senator currently opposes the Syria resolution, which will be debated on the Senate floor next week.

“If the vote were held today, Sen. Cornyn would vote no,” said Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cornyn.

The immediate significance of this is that Cornyn is the first leading congressional Republican to express opposition to authorizing the use of force. In the House, the top two GOP leaders — House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — endorsed the resolution earlier this week, while in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is too afraid to say much of anything.

But it’s the larger context of announcements like these that stand out.

Kevin Drum had a gem on this yesterday.

There’s obviously a bit of hypocrisy on both sides in this affair, but I have to say that watching Republican pols and conservative pundits get on their high horses about Syria has been pretty nauseating. These are guys who mostly have never met a war they didn’t like, and until a few months ago were practically baying at the moon to demand that President Obama stop diddling around and get serious about aiding the rebels and taking out the monstrous Bashar al-Assad. But now? Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths as they talk piously about the value of multilateral support; the need to give diplomacy a chance; the perils of regional blowback; the lessons of Iraq; and the fear of escalation if Assad retaliates. You’d think they’d all just returned from a Save the Whales conference in Marin County.

There are some Republicans who are perfectly serious about their desire not to get entangled in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. But most of them couldn’t care less. Obama is for it, so they’re against it. It’s pretty hard to take.

Bill Kristol published an interesting item this morning, urging his party follow the president’s lead on Syria. “The fact is that Obama is the only president we have,” Kristol wrote. “We can’t abdicate our position in the world for the next three years. So Republicans will have to resist the temptation to weaken him when the cost is weakening the country. A party that for at least two generations has held high the banner of American leadership and strength should not cast a vote that obviously risks a damaging erosion of this country’s stature and credibility abroad.”

Now, as a skeptic of U.S. intervention, I’m not at all convinced that restraint in Syria will “weaken the country.” But what’s interesting to me is that Kristol seems to believe congressional Republicans, en masse, can separate their political instincts from their foreign policy worldview.

In recent days, it’s been made abundantly clear that they cannot. Putting aside the merits (or lack thereof) of intervention, most congressional Republicans appear to be approaching this debate the same way they approach every debate — as post-policy partisans who define themselves by their objections to a president they hold in contempt for reasons that are generally incoherent.


By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, September 6, 2013

September 8, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Crossing The Line”: Doing Nothing Lowers The Threshold For Use Of Chemical Weapons Now And In The Future

Early in 1987, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President, decided to clear out scores of Kurdish villages, in order to undermine separatist rebels. He asked Ali Hassan al-Majid, a general and a first cousin, to lead the project. In tape recordings later produced by Iraqi prosecutors, Majid told Baath Party colleagues that the novelty and the terror of chemical weapons would “threaten” the Kurds and “motivate them to surrender.” On April 16th of that year, Iraq became the first nation ever to drop gas bombs on its own citizens; the gassing campaign lasted two years and killed thousands of people. “I will kill them all with chemical weapons!” Majid told his colleagues. “Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them!”

Two weeks ago, on August 21st, a poison-gas attack killed more than fourteen hundred civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria’s capital. President Obama, in fashioning a response, has been burdened by the United States’ recent history with Iraq. The Administration of Ronald Reagan stood by as “Chemical Ali” waged his campaign against the Kurds. Fifteen years later, to justify an invasion of Iraq, the Administration of George W. Bush infamously claimed that Saddam Hussein still possessed chemical and biological arms. It soon became apparent that Saddam had abandoned them. That tragic war has rightly raised the standards of proof that Obama must meet to credibly propose military action in the Middle East, particularly if the casus belli concerns unconventional arms.

The Obama Administration, Britain, and France say there is little doubt that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the recent slaughter, although they concede that the evidence is not airtight. The video imagery of the aftermath is indelible: unbloodied corpses, including toddlers’, in white shrouds; hospital patients choking and drooling. The chances that rebels were responsible seem slim to nonexistent. Yet last Thursday Britain’s Parliament, citing the West’s failures in Iraq, voted to reject an attack on Syria for now, because a majority did not judge the available evidence of Assad’s guilt to be definitive.

Last year, President Obama said that he would consider the use of chemical arms during Syria’s civil war a “red line” that, if crossed, would require American action. Last week, the President and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, sounded as though they had decided to strike against Assad. The dilemma they confront is a mercifully rare one. Since the First World War, there have been fewer than a dozen wars or acts of terrorism involving chemical arms. Before Syria, the last such attack occurred in 1995, when Aum Shinrikyo, a millenarian cult, released sarin gas into Tokyo’s subway because its leaders believed that mass killing would catalyze the apocalypse.

It is hard to grasp why any rational person would use chemical weapons, even amid the terrible exigencies of war. Gas weapons cannot be aimed in order to spare children or other noncombatants. They cause fear and prolonged suffering in victims, and cripple some survivors. They can contaminate the environment with poisons that last beyond a war’s end. And, because gases travel unpredictably on the wind, the weapons’ utility on a battlefield is limited.

Yet Saddam saw great value in chemical arms during the nineteen-eighties, and his twisted logic bears examination in the light of Syria’s deteriorating conflict. Saddam first used gas bombs to thwart Iran’s zealous swarms of “human wave” infantry. Chemical terror broke the will of young Iranian volunteers, a lesson that informed Majid’s subsequent Kurdish campaign. The Reagan Administration’s decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam’s aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare.

The consequences of similar passivity in Syria now are unknowable. After more than two years and a hundred thousand deaths, the war has descended into a miasma of kidnappings, executions, and indiscriminate attacks. It would not be surprising if Assad or his henchmen seized upon selective gassings as a way to break the opposition’s will, or to flush rebels from strategic neighborhoods. Obama has said that his aim in Syria is to prevent more gassings, not to overthrow Assad. Since the costs of even a limited Western military intervention in Syria might be very high, in diplomatic standing and in lives, it is reasonable to ask whether the cause of punishing and deterring the use of chemical weapons is worth the risks.

Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands of civilians with conventional weaponry. But chemical warfare is a step beyond. Since the Second World War, governments and armies have gradually forsworn weapons that do not distinguish between soldiers and civilians. These include nuclear, biological, and chemical arms, and also land mines and cluster munitions. The treaties that ban such arms are building blocks in a decades-long campaign by human-rights activists to insist that warfare be subordinated to international law, that soldiers attack only other soldiers, and that generals be held accountable for where they aim their weapons.

International laws and informal warnings of retaliation are designed to dissuade dictators and terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction under any circumstances. A failure to enforce such norms in Syria would likely lower the threshold for chemical use in this and future wars. Obama’s deliberateness about military action in Syria is understandable. The consequences of intervention may be difficult to control; the Syrian opposition is fractured and influenced by jihadi fighters. As Iraq has shown, the public requires transparency, accountability, and democratic deliberation when war crimes become a basis for more war.

In Iraq, starting in 2006, Chemical Ali went on trial for mass murder and other crimes against humanity. The proceedings were undeniably flawed. Yet they put Majid’s murderous arrogance on full display to his countrymen, and guaranteed that the record of his guilt can never be obscured. He was hanged in 2010. The prospect of even such rough justice for Syria’s chemical bombers looks elusive. Yet Obama’s original instincts were sound. There are red lines even in a war as devoid of clarity as Syria’s. The best available evidence is that on August 21st Bashar al-Assad’s forces crossed to the other side.


By: Steve Coll, The New Yorker, September 7, 2013

September 8, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”: On Syria, Republicans Once Again Are Playing “A Rigged Sports Game”

“I am going to support the president’s call for action,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Tuesday, in reference to U.S. policy in Syria. “I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.”

In the 48 hours that followed, most of Boehner’s colleagues from his own party — which is to say, the members he ostensibly leads — announced their intention to ignore the Speaker’s suggestion.

By some measures, this might raise doubts about Boehner’s leadership abilities. The Speaker’s office doesn’t see it that way.

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) office reiterated Friday that it’s President Obama’s responsibility to sway the public on the need to strike Syria and warned that lawmakers will represent their constituents.

“The speaker has consistently said the president has an obligation to make his case for intervention directly to the American people,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. “Members of Congress represent the views of their constituents, and only a president can convince the public that military action is required.”

Let’s put aside, for now, the notion that members of Congress represent the views of their constituents — an assertion that doesn’t seem to apply to how Republicans approach immigration, gun violence, taxes, job creation, entitlements, civil rights, health care, or education.

Instead, let’s try to fully appreciate the rules as they’ve been laid out for the political establishment, because it seems as if the last few days have been devoted to the political establishment and the chattering class planting some goalposts pretty deep.

If congressional Republicans ignore President Obama, it’s evidence of Obama failing. If congressional Republicans ignore their own party’s leaders, it’s still evidence of Obama failing.

If the president bypasses Congress to pursue his national security strategy, he’s dictatorial. If he seeks congressional authorization for his national security strategy, he’s weak and undermining the stature of his office.

If lawmakers reject a resolution authorizing force in Syria, Obama will struggle to get anything through Congress for the rest of his term. If lawmakers approve a resolution authorizing force in Syria, Obama will struggle to get anything through Congress for the rest of his term.

If the president uses the military to intervene in Syria, Obama will have undermined the credibility of the United States on the global stage. If the president honors a congressional vote against using the military to intervene in Syria, Obama will have undermined the credibility of the United States on the global stage.

I’m starting to think this game is rigged in a heads-I-win; tails-you-lose sort of way.

For what it’s worth, while the ultimate outcome on Capitol Hill is in doubt, I’m not at all convinced this is a make-or-break moment for Obama’s presidency, and he might as well resign if the votes for his Syria policy don’t materialize. Greg Sargent had a compelling piece on the larger context this morning:

If Congress says No, and Obama announces that he will abide by the vote — arguing that the people have spoken, that democracy and the rule of law will prevail, and that our country will be stronger for it — then it’s very possible that the Dem base will rally behind him…. If Obama heeds Congress, the liberal base — and liberal lawmakers — would likely have Obama’s back. Independents, who have tilted strongly against an attack, might be supportive, too.

And so, several questions for the political science egghead types and anyone else who cares to answer. Do voters really perceive situations like these in the same terms pundits and Congressional lawmakers do, i.e., in terms of what they tell us about presidential strength or weakness? Do voters really expect presidents to bend Congress to their will, or do they see Congress as its own animal and don’t hold presidents accountable for its behavior?

I imagine for many political observers, it’s easy to think of political “wins” and “losses” in a sports context — victories are inherently good and defeats are inherently bad. And if the president goes to Congress seeking authorization for a military strike in Syria, and lawmakers reject the appeal, it would be, by definition, a loss for the president.

But it might simultaneously be a win for democracy that leaves the public with the outcome the American mainstream wants. Voters may well react to news organizations obsessing over “Crushing Presidential Defeat on Capitol Hill,” but I’m not convinced the public would reflexively see it that way.

If Congress balks and the White House honors the vote, most Americans would be pleased, not outraged, right?

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 6, 2013

September 8, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“I Don’t See Anything”: Pulling The Curtain Back On Syria

When I was a law student in 1982, I escaped torts by backpacking through Syria and taking a public bus to Hama, where the government had suppressed a rebellion by massacring some 20,000 people.

The center of Hama was pulverized into a vast field of rubble interspersed with bits of clothing, yet on the fringe of it stood, astonishingly, a tourism office. The two Syrian officials inside, thrilled to see an apparent tourist, weighed me down with leaflets about sightseeing in Hama and its ancient water wheels. After a bit of small talk, I pointed out the window at the moonscape and asked what had happened.

They peered out at the endless gravel pit.

“Huh?” one said nervously. “I don’t see anything.”

It feels to me a bit as if much of the world is reacting the same way today. The scale of the slaughter may be five times that of 1982, but few are interested in facing up to what is unfolding today out our window in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.

As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”

Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.

The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold.

A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.

In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.

Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.

But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?

All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”

So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.

If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.

Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.

“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” Sarah Palin wrote, in a rare comment that liberals might endorse. Her suggestion: “Let Allah sort it out.”

More broadly, pollsters are detecting a rise in isolationism. The proportion of Americans who say that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has been at a historic high in recent years.

A Pew survey this year asked voters to rate 19 government expenses, and the top two choices for budget cuts were “aid to the world’s needy” and the State Department. (In fact, 0.5 percent of the budget goes to the world’s needy, and, until recently, the military had more musicians in its bands than the State Department had diplomats.)

When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?

Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II.

O.K., so I’ve just added fuel to the battle for analogies. For now, the one that has caught on is Iraq in 2003. But considering that no one is contemplating boots on the ground, a more relevant analogy in Iraq may be the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraqi military sites by President Bill Clinton. It lasted a few days, and some say it was a factor in leading Iraq to give up W.M.D. programs; others disagree.

THAT murkiness is not surprising. To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?


By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 7, 2013

September 8, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Finally, Workers Are Fighting Back”: Low-Wage Employers Have Fought Hard to Keep Their Workers Poor

After decades of seeing their incomes shrink, those at the bottom of the economic ladder are starting to band together and fight back — and it’s one of the most important economic stories of our time.

Between 1973 and 2011, the top 10 percent of American households saw their inflation-adjusted incomes rise by almost $100,000, while the bottom 90 percent – the vast majority of us –actually saw their incomes drop by $4,425 per year, according to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty (XLS). During that time, pensions largely disappeared, and the costs of health care and education shot through the roof.

Today, we’re seeing those at the bottom of the economic pile — the 35 million Americans who make $10.55 per hour or less, representing more than a quarter of our workforce – starting to band together and fight back.

Low-wage workers are demanding a living wage (defined as the minimum required to cover basic necessities) and the ability to bargain collectively. Brief strikes by fast-food workers seeking $15 an hour, a campaign that’s brought together traditional labor unions with local community groups, are spreading across the country – last week, walk-outs reportedly occurred in 60 cities.

“The way that this movement has intertwined itself with community organizing has really helped it spread like wildfire,” says Greg Basta, deputy director of New York Communities for Change. “People are realizing that these low-wage jobs, at companies like McDonald’s, are doing serious damage to their community and to their local economy,” he said.

This week, Wal-mart workers and their supporters with the group Our Wal-mart are planning walk-outs in 15 cities, to protest the retail giant’s retaliation against workers who participated in last November’s Black Friday strikes.

But it’s not just companies like Wal-mart and McDonald’s paying their employees too little. According to a study by Demos, the federal government, indirectly, is the nation’s largest low-wage employer.  A coalition called Good Jobs Nation began a campaign earlier this year urging President Obama to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a living wage. With the stroke of a pen, Obama could lift the living standards of two million American workers.

These campaigns are filling a gap left by Congress, which hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage fast enough to keep up with the cost of living. Poverty wages represent a type of “market failure.” Like selling widgets for less than what it costs to make them, low-wage workers are selling their labor for less than what it costs to cover the basic necessities of life, which is why taxpayers end up subsidizing the profits of low-wage employers with various public benefits. “In today’s economy, the math simply doesn’t make sense,” says Basta. “If you’re paying workers between $10,000 and $18,000 a year, it’s impossible to live in a place like New York City without receiving public assistance.”

Greg Basta explains that before the fast-food workers campaign got underway, “people who were working low-wage jobs didn’t even think about the possibility of organizing or fighting for higher wages. They bought into the mentality that they’re not worthy of fighting back. They bought into the mainstream mentality that their jobs just aren’t ‘good jobs.’ And to see the evolution of these workers from being really fearful to now saying, ‘we’re fighting because this is the right thing to do’ – that transformation I’ve seen on the ground in the past year and a half is the most moving thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

There’s no particular reason why millions of service workers should be paid poverty wages. With the exception of occupations that require rare skills or lots of education, there’s often a loose correlation between what people are paid and how much value they offer to society.

For instance, manufacturing jobs pay decent wages, but not because operating machines in a factory requires some special magic. Over 10 percent of manufacturing workers were covered by a union contract last year, compared with around seven percent of private sector workers overall. And fewer than five percent of food preparation and serving related professions belonged to a union in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Throughout American labor history, people working what society viewed as inherently crappy jobs fought hard to make them decent jobs with a modicum of human dignity.

In the last century, the meatpacking industry provides a good case study. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shocked the public when it exposed meatpacking as a dangerous, disgusting occupation that paid slave wages. Workers organized throughout the 1920s and 1930s – often facing violent retaliation – and in 1943, they formed the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), based in Chicago, where the country’s biggest livestock yards were located.

The occupation got safer. And for a few decades mid-century, it paid more or less the same as a good manufacturing job. But in the 1970s and 1980s, as corporate union-busting accelerated dramatically, meat processors moved their operations closer to cattle and swine lots as the industry shifted transport from rail to truck. Far from its original urban base, and with new high-speed cutting machines making the industry less labor-intensive, the UPWA had a harder time organizing, and the union was gradually decimated. Today meat processing is once again an industry that relies heavily on low-wage, migrant labor. According to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, it’s also the most dangerous manufacturing job in America.

Now, another group of low-wage workers who often toil in uncomfortable, under-regulated workplaces are fighting for some basic human dignity. Whether they succeed or fail is just as important for the middle class as it is for the working poor. Not only do rising wages at the bottom exert upward pressure on the earnings of people higher up on the ladder, but poverty and inequality also give rise to a host of social disorders that affect us all. Cheap fast-food ultimately comes with high hidden costs.


By: Joshua Holland, Moyers and Company, September 4, 2013

September 8, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: