Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Is This What the Next 3 Years Will Look Like?, The Myth of the Democratic Dove
If You Ever Want a Case Study in Poor Leadership...
...figure out how to take a military intervention that had public support eight months ago and turn it into two-to-one opposition in your own party. Claim Presidential authority, then ask for permission but swear that you don't need it, then really need it and beg for it, then probably get denied it. Or try declaring a red line, then waiting to act on it, then signal the enemy that you are going to act on it, then have the military plans leaked so as to let the enemy blunt the effectiveness of such an attack, if it ever happens.
The Obama Administration's handling of the Syrian conflict is pathetic. There is an argument to be made for limited military intervention in Syria - it is clear to me from just the unclassified evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebels, which is atrocious and demands some sort of international response. And intervention on humanitarian grounds has both the support of key allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the potential to begin to improve our tarnished reputation in that part of the world. There are also some strong arguments against intervention - the rebels have Al Qaeda ties which could be destabilizing and against American interests were they to gain power. And nobody seems to have a great answer to the key foreign policy question that should be the first question asked of any proposed military intervention: "and then what?"
On balance, I'm inclined to oppose the intervention as presently proposed. The terms of victory are unclear as are American interests. While humanitarian intervention is laudable, it is insufficient, in my mind, to warrant intervention, unless we want to be involved in about a dozen conflicts around the world all the time. And replacing dictators who are evil but fundamentally rational with unknown leadership that may be less rational may actually be contrary to our security.
But this isn't really about my views on Syrian intervention, an issue which is a close call and over which rational, well-informed people can disagree.
It is about the President's leadership. While I have been critical of the President basically throughout his administration for not plotting political strategy nearly as well as he plots electoral strategy, his second term has brought about changes for the worse in his approach to leadership.
While many might argue that the President should have gotten more done in his first two years when he had large majorities and that he wasn't involved enough in the details of legislation, he did get some big things done. One of his first major acts was signing into law by far the largest economic stimulus in American history - Bill Clinton with similar Democratic majorities couldn't get a stimulus 1/60th the size of the ARRA passed. He also succeeded where every Democratic President since JFK had failed - in passing something close to universal health care - and it is worth noting that all of those Presidents had majorities in both houses of congress for all or part of their terms. On foreign policy, the President was decisive and consistent - a managed exit from Iraq and a surge, followed by a definitive timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan. Sure, he flubbed a few - Gitmo is still open, after all. Cap and trade was a bust. The public option was a no go. But the President fundamentally led and got things done, under very divided circumstances.
I don't know if it is that the players have changed and the B-team is now advising him, but the Syrian conflict is a mess. A firm majority supported intervention in a poll late last year. Then the President asserted his unilateral authority to authorize a strike and spent a bunch of time explaining why he had the authority. This provoked a response from both parties in congress and public support plummeted. Then he abruptly reversed course last week and sought congressional approval, feeling sure no doubt that congress would not ultimately block action. Today, despite support from prominent mainstream GOP leaders such as John Boehner and John McCain, the resolution appears at real risk of not passing. That two thirds of Democrats are opposed to action in polling is reflective of Democrats deep suspicion about military intervention following the debacle in Iraq and the long war in Afghanistan. Many liberals seem sure to oppose the President on this one, particularly in the House. And while he may pull over some neo-con support, the neo-cons are not as strong in the GOP as they once were - for every John McCain there is a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz, libertarian non-interventionists that seem almost sure to oppose the resolution.
This all still could end well - congress may authorize the strike. Our fine military may be able to surgically damage the Syrian governments chemical weapons capabilities. This could work out like the conflict in the former Yugoslavia did, where our airstrikes allowed a dictator to be deposed and peaceful, democratic governments to take hold. But if it does, it will be in spite of Obama's approach, not because of it.
Real leadership would have involved one of two things. First, the President could have gone in alone. The War Powers Act clearly authorizes 60 days of military intervention in the absence of Congressional approval. Certainly long enough for a surgical strike. And if there was a mission beyond that point, Congress may well have agreed to extend a military action that was working.
Or the President could have gone to Congress early. He could have articulated the need to have some limited authorization of air force in the event that the executive branch could certify chemical weapons use. It might well have worked last year, when the American people were largely behind such an intervention.
The in-between and about-face approach chosen instead paints the administration and the country in an uncomfortable box and one with more negative possibilities to our standing in the world than positive ones. It is a shame. The President has over 3 years left in office - he needs to get his act together.
On a related note, many of you may have noted that I have taken an increasingly critical tone of the President as of late. This is not a part of some ideological shift on my part. I'm just calling balls and strikes as I see them. And of late, there have been a lot more strike outs than anything else.
Democratic Doves? Who?
A friend of mine repeated a familiar line that the President was bucking a history of military dovishness by proposing military action in Syria. This is common belief that is completely false.
FDR went into World War II
Truman dropped the atom bomb and got us into Korea
Kennedy stared down nuclear war at the Bay of Pigs
LBJ got us into Vietnam
Clinton went into the former Yugoslavia and bombed weapons factories in Afghanistan
Of all the Democratic Presidents of the modern era, Jimmy Carter is the only one that you could even make a reasonable case as being a dove. In fact, prior to W. Bush, most of our major wars were started in Democratic administrations.
I'm not saying that's a good thing, just that the popular perception about partisan foreign policies is plainly false.
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