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“The Washington Playbook”: If You’re Not Responding Militarily, You’re Not Responding

Richard Cohen has finally gotten around to writing about President Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was the impetus for so much discussion almost a month ago. In doing so, he demonstrates exactly what the President referred to as the “Washington playbook.” As a reminder, here is what Obama said to Goldberg about that.

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

Cohen doesn’t so much champion the Washington playbook as he criticizes Obama for not employing it. For example, here is what he writes on the President’s statement about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

It’s a rule that Obama himself should have followed. He speaks the unspeakable, conceding that eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Crimea are Russia’s for the taking. “Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it,” he told Goldberg.

Ambiguity is not Obama’s forte. Rather than keeping Vladimir Putin guessing — and maybe restrained — he signals the Russian president not to worry. Putin already has Crimea. He’s got eastern Ukraine. Will Moldova be next? Just a matter of time, it seems to me.

The playbook Cohen is working from assumes that the only possible response to Russia is a war. If President Obama isn’t willing to do that in response to Crimea and eastern Ukraine, it’s just a matter of time before Putin goes into Moldova.

What that completely ignores is that there are other possible responses – like economic sanctions that are coordinated with our international partners and the European Union.

Cohen also doesn’t seem to think that President Obama is doing anything about the situation in Syria.

But the Syrian civil war has produced a humanitarian calamity, at least 250,000 dead and an almost unprecedented refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe. Obama acts as though this is a minor matter, just another Middle Eastern dust-up, but the Syrian mess is an example of the slippery slope he does not mention when he mentions the one he wants to avoid. Like, possibly, Moldova, it is the consequence of inaction that may matter more than any action itself.

It seems as though Cohen is unaware of the fact that the U.S. is engaging in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. But even more importantly, Sec. of State John Kerry has been working tirelessly on the multilateral peace negotiations that are seeking an end to the Syrian civil war.

For people like Cohen, if the U.S. isn’t using military intervention to wield it’s way around the globe, it’s not doing anything. That pretty much sums up the Washington playbook that President Obama refuses to implement.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, April 5, 2016

April 7, 2016 Posted by | Foreign Policy, President Obama, Richard Cohen | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Trump And The Myth Of Superiority”: It’s The Lowest Part Of Who We Are, This Need To Find Someone Else To Put Down

There are many reasons to recommend Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” but this is not a book review, so I offer this single, searing paragraph:

“I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

Could there be a more perfect description of that failed human strategy? If we feel good about ourselves only by comparison, we are forever on the hunt, setting our sights on innocent others so that we can stomach who we’ve become.

“So what?” one might ask. If this game of mental gymnastics is an interior job — if we keep our darkest motives to ourselves — what harm comes of this way of thinking?

Well, there’s this: When storing our insecurities, the mind is the worst place to stock the shelves. Eventually, the monster festering and growing in the dark demands its freedom — or, in the case of the Republican presidential race, an audience.

This week Sarah Palin, who refuses to go away, endorsed Donald Trump, who insists he is here to stay. The public response was rapid and, many would say, often hilarious. Satirist Andy Borowitz wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “Palin Endorsement Widens Trump Lead Among Idiots.” The New York Daily News‘ cover headline: “I’M WITH STUPID! Hate minds think alike: Palin endorses Trump.”

A few months ago, I would have snickered along and maybe shared links to this coverage on Facebook, but these past few months of relentless Trump coverage have changed me. To laugh is to play along with this notion of my superiority, and I don’t like that version of myself. I was raised to be better than this.

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — white, working-class males who fear they are on the brink of extinction — are the same Americans who would suffer most if he were the Republican nominee and could continue this farce of a campaign to Election Day. These are the people I come from. I have reached the point where I am more worried for them than embarrassed by their choice of candidate. I’m not proud of either sentiment.

It is perhaps the most depressing fact of this current primary campaign that Donald Trump’s extremism — so much of which swirls around his assertions of superiority — has fueled his momentum. Every speech is one long brag-fest about his fictional superiority, not just to other candidates but also to a growing list of entire groups of people: Mexicans and Muslims, women and black people — and now members of the media, too, who dare to defy his coverage directives. He mocks them, all of them. The more he bellows and belittles, the louder his crowds roar.

And now he has been joined by Sarah Palin, who resigned her job as Alaska’s governor to pursue her hobby of willfully uninformed trolling in the arena of public discourse. During her endorsement speech for Donald Trump, she made up a new word — “squirmishes” — to describe the complexities of the violence in the Middle East:

“And you quit footing the bill for these nations who are oil-rich. We’re paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries, where they’re fighting each other and yelling ‘Allahu akbar,’ calling jihad on each other’s heads forever and ever. Like I’ve said before, let them duke it out and let Allah sort it out.”

And this, comparing Trump to President Barack Obama: “And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, ‘No, America would apologize as part of the deal,’ as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow, and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’”

Thanks (I think) to The New York Times‘ Michael Barbaro for transcribing those chunks of Palin’s ranting.

Most major news organizations in the country sent out breaking news alerts when she announced that she was endorsing Trump. Think about that, but whatever you do, don’t dwell on it. No good comes of it, I can tell you.

There was a time when too many of us saw Trump’s climb in the polls as so temporary, and evidence of our superiority. Look how stupid those people are, we said, chuckling.
Who’s laughing now?

 

By: Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist; The National Memo, January 21, 2016

January 23, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Primary Debates, Sarah Palin | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Prophet’s Of Doom”: The GOP Debate Was A Master Class In The Republicans’ Apocalyptic Vision

Every presidential campaign is a choice not just between two paths forward, but also two visions of where the country is right now. If things are going well, the incumbent party says, “You’ve never had it so good!” and the opposition says, “Things could be a whole lot better!” If things aren’t going so well, the opposition says “Everything’s terrible,” and the incumbent party says, “Things could be a lot worse, and they will be if those knuckleheads win!” But it’s hard to recall a campaign where the two parties painted such a starkly different picture of the country’s status than this one.

Earlier this week, Barack Obama offered the Democratic version in his State of the Union address. “The United States of America,” he said, “has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half.” And it isn’t just the economy: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” Even if you can argue that those facts are only part of reality, or that they obscure some deeper problems, you can’t say they aren’t facts.

Or maybe you can.

The Republican candidates hoping to replace Obama met for another debate last night (they’ll have one more before the voting starts in Iowa in two weeks), and they described a nation not just in decline, but one whose decline was already complete. They agreed not only that Obama has been a failure and that Hillary Clinton would be a disaster, but that America right now is the lowest of the low, suffering at home and mocked abroad, a dark pit of misery and shame. Here’s just a taste of what they said:

“Our military is a disaster.” — Donald Trump

“We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.” — Chris Christie

“The idea that somehow we’re better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe. The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder.” — Jeb Bush

“In this administration, every weapon system has been gutted, in this administration, the force levels are going down to a level where we can’t even project force.” — Jeb Bush

“We have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electric grid. I mean, just think about a scenario like that. They explode the bomb, we have an electromagnetic pulse. They hit us with a cyberattack simultaneously and dirty bombs. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point? He needs to recognize that those kinds of things are in fact an existential threat to us.” — Ben Carson

“I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show. ObamaCare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry.” — Trump

“Let me tell you, if we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.” — Marco Rubio

“This country is not respected around the world anymore.” — Christie

“You know, we have to stop this because, you know, if we manage to damage ourselves, and we lose the next election, and a progressive gets in there and they get two or three Supreme Court picks, this nation is over as we know it.” — Carson

“This country is changing. It feels different. We feel like we’re being left behind and left out.” — Rubio

“There’s something going on and it’s bad. And I’m saying we have to get to the bottom of it. That’s all I’m saying.” — Trump

Add it all up, and you have the prism through which the Republican candidates will view any event or development that comes along. Job creation looks excellent? Obama must be cooking the books, because everybody knows the economy stinks. Millions of people have gained health coverage? Nope, it’s a disaster. We still spend over $600 billion a year on the military? Nuh-uh, we couldn’t invade the Bahamas if we wanted to.

Consider the incident in the Persian Gulf this week, where a small Navy boat lost power and drifted with a second boat into Iranian waters. What could have been a dangerous international incident was instead resolved in a matter of hours, with the American sailors and their vessels returned to us. But to the Republicans, the fact that the sailors put their hands on their heads when boarded by the Iranians — to repeat, in Iranian waters — meant that not only wasn’t the whole episode a triumph of diplomacy, it was a disaster, a humiliation, a defeat so catastrophic that it might literally have been worth bombing Iran over. As Ted Cruz intoned with every ounce of steely resolve he could muster, “any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America.” If only there had been some more force and fury!

There’s always an incentive for the opposition party to paint the current president’s record in the worst possible light. You can’t convince voters to make a change if they don’t agree that there are problems that require fixing. But Republicans have taken that natural impulse and, like so many things in this campaign, turned it up to 11. It isn’t enough to say you’ll increase military spending; you have to say that “our military is a disaster.” It isn’t enough to say we face serious foreign policy challenges; you have to say “the world has been torn asunder.” It isn’t enough to say that electing the other party’s candidate would be bad; you have to say that if we do, “there may be no turning back for America.”

Perhaps the Republican candidates have hit on the right formula, and whichever prophet of doom wins the nomination will ride this apocalyptic vision all the way to the White House. But they shouldn’t be surprised if the voters end up saying, “Gee, things don’t seem quite that bad.”

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Week, January 15, 2016

January 16, 2016 Posted by | Economic Recovery, GOP Primary Debates, State of the Union | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Obama Makes His Case; ‘Freedom Is More Powerful Than Fear’”: Our Success Won’t Depend On Tough Talk, Abandoning Our Values, Or Giving Into Fear

President Obama’s Oval Office address on the terrorist threat treated the American public like grown-ups. His critics hated it.

It’s true that for many of the most engaged observers, last night’s remarks broke little new policy ground, but Beltway pundits and Republican presidential candidates probably weren’t the intended audience. Rather, Obama was speaking to a broad American mainstream, which includes folks who may be asking questions like, “Why aren’t we going after ISIS?” and “Do we have a strategy to deal with the threat?”

You and I may know the answers to those questions, but the president directed his message to those who don’t necessarily follow public affairs closely.

“Here’s what I want you to know: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.”

The four-part plan includes familiar tenets: a continued military offensive against ISIS targets; training and equipment support to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting on the ground; strengthening an international coalition; and pursuing a political resolution to the Syrian war.

It’s a detail that goes largely overlooked, but many of the leading Republican presidential candidates have sketched out their plans for U.S. policy towards ISIS – and they look awfully similar to what Obama presented last night. Change some of the rhetoric – add more chest-thumping bravado – and take out some of the president’s calls for preventing gun violence, and the simple truth is that the Obama administration’s plan is largely indistinguishable from many GOP plans.

But presenting this policy vision wasn’t the sole point of the Oval Office address.

The president challenged Congress to limit suspected terrorists’ access to guns and to authorize the military offensive against ISIS that began nearly a year and a half ago. He challenged Muslim leaders to “continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

And he challenged Americans of every stripe not to give into fear and embrace discriminatory attitudes. Obama made the appeal on principle, but just as importantly, he made clear that respect for diversity can be part of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. “It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently,” the president explained. “Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL…. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

Broadly speaking, this apparently wasn’t what the right and many pundits wanted to hear. It seems Obama’s critics see a president with a steady hand, showing grace under fire, and it leaves them unsatisfied. The president’s detractors demand more righteous fury, and less calm, resilient leadership.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan added over night that the question is now “whether common sense and an awareness of limits still have a place in American politics.” If some of the initial reactions last night are any indication, the answer may prove to be discouraging.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | American People, Fearmongering, GOP Presidential Candidates, ISIS | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Republicans Have No Sense Of Recent History”: President Obama’s Critics Demand He Be More Like George W. Bush

Today President Obama made another public statement about how his administration is trying to take down ISIS, and I can promise you one thing: his critics will not be satisfied. That’s because a new question has emerged, one that anyone with any sense of recent history ought to be shocked to hear: Why can’t Barack Obama be more like George W. Bush?

Here’s part of what Obama said today:

Let me remind the American people of what our coalition of some 65 nations is doing to destroy these terrorists and defeat their ideology. So far our military and our partners have conducted more than 8,000 airstrikes on ISIL strongholds and equipment. Those airstrikes along with the efforts of our partners on the ground have taken out key leaders, have taken back territory from ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. We continue to work to choke off their financing and their supply lines, and counter their recruiting and their messaging…So we’re stepping up the pressure on ISIL where it lives, and we will not let up, adjusting our tactics when necessary, until they are beaten…

The bottom line is this: I want the American people to know, entering the holidays, that the combined resources of our military, our intelligence, and our homeland security agencies are on the case. They’re vigilant, relentless, and effective…While the threat of terrorism is a troubling reality of our age, we are both equipped to prevent attacks and we are resilient in the face of those who would try to do us harm. And that’s something we can all be thankful for.

You could almost hear Obama’s critics rolling their eyes and saying, “Boo-ring! Where’s the anger, the outrage, the Churchillian resolve?” In recent days, Obama has been getting a lot of criticism in the media not just for the fact that he hasn’t yet vanquished ISIS, but for the quality of his emoting when he talks about terrorism. To cite only one example, here’s what Peggy Noonan said in her critique of Obama’s response to the Paris attacks:

Finally, continued travels through the country show me that people continue to miss Ronald Reagan’s strength and certitude…What people hunger for now from their leaders is an air of shown and felt confidence: I can do this. We can do it.

Who will provide that? Where will it come from? Isn’t it part of what we need in the next president?

There’s been a lot more like this. Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with critiquing the president’s performance qua performance. One of his jobs is to be a communicator, to guide the public through complex and troubling events. But the essence of the current criticism seems to be that Obama needs to do more of what George W. Bush did: tough talk, oversimplifying the challenges we face, and fooling us into thinking that this is all going to be over soon.

Which is curious, to say the least. In the wake of September 11, the news media were flooded with stories about what an extraordinary leader — how masterful and glorious and just short of god-like — Bush had become. All pretense of objectivity was cast aside as reporters rushed to assure us that the previously callow man was transformed by events into precisely the leader all Americans needed. As Newsweek described him in December 2001, “He has been a model of unblinking, eyes-on-the-prize decisiveness…He has been eloquent in public, commanding in private…Where does this optimism, the defiant confidence, come from?…He feels destined to win — and to serve.” That’s the kind of hard-hitting journalism we saw from the liberal media in those days.

But as we would soon find out, standing atop a pile of rubble and promising vengeance made people feel very good in the moment, but weren’t a substitute for taking wise actions. Bush got us into two wars whose effects we’re still feeling, with nearly seven thousand American service-members dead, a couple of trillion dollars spent, and our goals in both Iraq and Afghanistan still unfulfilled over a decade later.

So you might think that experience would help contextualize what’s happening right now. Of all the things you can criticize Obama for, it seems odd to focus on his unwillingness to pretend that ISIS is a simple problem that can be easily dispatched with enough resolve.

That, however, is exactly what the candidates say. But if you’re been looking for a realistic plan to deal with ISIS from them, you’ll likely be disappointed. What most of the Republicans have offered is a mix of things the administration is already doing (such as work with our allies in the region!). This includes Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t offered much beyond Obama’s plan, except perhaps for more air strikes and a “no fly” zone.

Meanwhile, some Republican candidates have offered things that have zero relationship to this particular conflict (increase the military budget!), or notions so vaguely worded as to be essentially meaningless (put pressure on Iran!), and utterly unrealistic fantasies. In this last category you find things like Marco Rubio saying: “I would build a multinational coalition of countries willing to send troops into Iraq and Syria to aid local forces on the ground.”

Well, that sounds nice. Who’s in this coalition willing to send their troops into Syria’s civil war? Why haven’t they done it up until now? Is it because they’re just waiting for a leader of Marco Rubio’s stature to ask?

To be fair, multiple candidates have advocated a greater role for U.S. troops — forward air controllers, more special forces troops, the establishment of “safe zones.” But they haven’t grappled with one of the central problems: obliterating ISIS on our own, or even with the limited help our allies are willing to give, would require a large troop presence, essentially another invasion, and then we’d have to stay there indefinitely to secure the peace, probably watching while that invasion creates a whole new generation of anti-American terrorists. In other words, we’d be doing the Iraq War all over again. And it worked out so well the first time.

That’s the thought that has plainly restrained Obama, both in what he’s willing to do in the Middle East and in his willingness to act triumphal about it. You can say his performance on this topic hasn’t reached the emotional heights you’d like. But you can’t say he doesn’t have good reason for being restrained by that thought.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributer, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, November 25, 2015

November 26, 2015 Posted by | George W Bush, ISIS, National Security, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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