Thursday, June 26, 2014

Golf is the Game of Presidents, So Get Over It

Presidents play golf.... Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter (although after his presidency), Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Obama.... Dana Milbank knows this fact, but nonetheless....
On June 14, Sunni rebels threatened Baghdad after seizing much of Iraq — and President Obama fearlessly played a round at the Sunnylands Golf Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

The next day, the militants posted pictures of their mass execution of Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces — and Obama boldly teed off again, at Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s Rancho Mirage estate.

These split-screen scenes were reminiscent of the weekend in March when Russia was about to annex Crimea. Obama played golf both Saturday and Sunday at Key Largo, Fla.’s Ocean Reef resort with former NBA star Alonzo Mourning and former NFL player Ahmad Rashad.

It’s enough to make one wish the president would take up a different pastime — like, say, stamp collecting.

Yes, a president needs down time. And, yes, he can run the country whether he’s in a sand trap or the Situation Room. But Obama’s golf habit needlessly hands his critics a gimme.
Only if reporters like Milbank treat it as a serious accusation, rather than dismissing it as tripe.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, writing in the Wall Street Journal with his daughter Liz, complained: “Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history, and he goes golfing.” House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers gave a TV interview asking Obama to “please come back from the golf course” and find an Iraq solution.
An appropriate response to Rogers might be, "What do you imagine that the President might do to solve Iraq's problems that he is not already doing?" That would go for the Cheneys as well, but the absurdity of the Cheney accusation triggered another memory in Milbank:
I was one of the many who had fun with George W. Bush’s classic tee shot in 2002: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.” But as The Post’s Colby Itkowitz noted, Bush hung up his spikes after the Iraq invasion. (He busied himself with other leisure pursuits, such as clearing brush.)
Bush earned himself the jokes not by playing golf, but by foolishly adding the "Now watch this drive" line to what should have been a serious response to a serious issue. Had Bush stopped before that final sentence, it would have been just another day on the golf course. Don't take it from me -- take it from Milbank:
Don't watch this drive. In his first three years in office, Bush played golf 16 times. But, according to the White House's unofficial statistician, CBS News's Mark Knoller, Bush has not teed off since Oct. 13, 2003. Some muse that Bush was cowed by filmmaker Michael Moore's mocking of Bush's golf habit in "Fahrenheit 9/11" which featured footage of Bush mixing remarks on Middle East violence with a command to "watch this drive." But Bush's golf ban far predates the Moore film and seems to coincide with Bush's discovery of mountain biking -- a better sport for appealing to the common man.
For goodness sake, even Dwight Eisenhower played golf. Woodrow Wilson played golf. Harry Truman didn't play golf at all, so there's no inference to be drawn from his abstention. And really -- the staged brush clearing photo ops on the ranch G.W. sold immediately upon retiring from the White House? Milbank believed that stuff?
As former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, who dubbed the Crawford digs a "ranchette," said in 2004, "Bush is always inviting the media out to take pictures of him clearing brush. In my experience real ranchers spend virtually no time clearing brush. They're usually tending cattle....the cattle you see as part of the photo op aren't even his. They're somebody else's that he rents the land to."
Milbank complains,
The image problem isn’t from leisure activity per se but the type of leisure activity. A majority of Americans now believes that Obama doesn’t understand their problems, and images of him playing golf — perceived, fairly or not, as a rich man’s game — confirms this out-of-touch reputation.
Yet Reagan was a man of the people, and G.W. was a guy you would want to drink a beer with.... Go figure. Maybe Milbank would have the President take up a real "man of the people" hobby, like watercolor portraiture?
This is similar to the problem that dogged Mitt Romney, and now Hillary Clinton. The Post’s Philip Rucker this week noted that influential Democrats are concerned that her “rarefied, cloistered lifestyle could jeopardize the Democratic Party’s historic edge with the middle class.”
Wait... this happened because Hillary Clinton plays too much golf? Because if not, perhaps opportunistic demagogues like Rogers and Cheney aren't sincere in their mention of golf, but are using it as a basis for a criticism that they would be making no matter what the President were doing in his leisure time. Ya think? And as for Mitt Romney, he doesn't play golf, either... so it's actually possible to be perceived as elitist and out-of-touch without playing golf? Who would have thought....

Perhaps this is the real problem....
The game has driven another wedge between the president and White House reporters who, during their turns on pool duty, chronicle with envy his weekly outings with friends and aides.

“Beautiful day for hitting the links,” the Washington Examiner’s Susan Crabtree wrote from Fort Belvoir. “Unfortunately pool is headed to the base rec center for the duration.”

“Looked like a nice place to play golf,” wrote the Houston Chronicle’s Kevin Diaz from the “exclusive” Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, “at least from the maintenance shed where pool spent the day.”
How... moving. It must be tough to have to watch the President from a distance, rather than getting an up-close view as you're handed packaged talking points and photo ops.

Heck, if Iraq is so much more serious than golf, why are reporters following the President to a golf course where they know they won't get a story? Why is Milbank writing a story about those poor, unfortunate reporters? Think of all the shoe leather and column inches they could be devoting to stories on Iraq! I have to ask, though, did Milbank offer similar sympathy to White House reporters when they watched G.W. race off on his mountain bike?

I know that he has columns to write and deadlines to meet, but when his game is on Milbank can do so much better than this.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fantasy of Arming Secular Syrian Dissidents

A consistent argument made by critics of the Obama Administration is that the Administration should have somehow identified, trained and armed secular, western-friendly factions in Syria, and that this would have changed the balance of power in that nation's civil war. The concepts for what the outcome might be seem to vary with the person making the argument, and perhaps also with the time of day. The pure fantasists seem to believe that the western-backed factions could have defeated Assad's government, crushed Islamist factions, and instituted a secular, pro-western government in Syria. A more moderate argument is that these secular factions would have fared so well in battle that they would have forced both the Assad government and the radical factions to the negotiating table where they would hash out an agreement for a new, more inclusive Syrian government, also more friendly to the west. There's also the nebulous argument that boils down to, "I have no idea what would have happened, but we should have done it anyway", or perhaps, "Whatever choice the Obama Administration makes, I'm going to argue that it should have done something else."

Do you recall how last year, John McCain went to Syria and met with various groups that he ostensibly would have had the U.S. arm and back in an effort to defeat the Assad regime? How well did that go, again? Yes, McCain had lots of excuses and regrets over meeting terrorists and kidnappers -- but ISIS appears to view McCain's visit as a propaganda coup. I guess his position is that the U.S. would have done a much better job of identifying western-friendly factions than he did, and would have avoided arming the very factions with which he posed for photos, so as to by now have defeated those factions? Could any part of McCain's Syria policy survive outside of the realm of fantasy?

One thing I don't hear much about is who these secular, pro-western Syrian fighters are, how many there are, how we know that they are truly committed to a more balanced view of the west, why we believe that arming and training them will actually shift the balance in the Syrian civil war, and how they will unite a post-war Syria. Which is to say, the argument for arming these factions is made without addressing any of the relevant concerns. One of the huge concerns held by western nations and Israel is that arms given to factions believed to be friendly to the U.S. could end up in the hands of factions that are hostile to U.S. interests -- just as happened when ISIS fighters went into Iraq and confronted that nation's army. Whatever we make of the incompetence of Iraq's Maliki administration, if the best trained army in the region turns tail and runs from a few thousand ISIS fighters, why are we to believe that the unidentified and as-of-yet untrained Syrian dissident factions would have stood, fought, and defeated ISIS?

The essence of the fantasy is that we could have identified so many pro-western factions, and trained and armed them so effectively, that they would have crushed groups like ISIS. That argument defies logic. ISIS was active in Iraq, under its former name, before essentially withdrawing to Syria following the last outbreak of civil war. Why should we believe that they would remain in Syria and fight to the last man, rather than figuring out that they had much more friendly and more fertile ground for their activities back in Iraq? The position that they would have stayed in Syrian until they were wiped out defies not only basic logic, but the experience of what terrorist organizations do when they face too much pressure in one location. It's reasonable to infer that under that particular fantasy scenario, at best ISIS would have withdrawn to a third country, and at worst they would have gone into Iraq albeit possibly on a different schedule.

Other than as a tool to criticize the Obama Administration, where is the evidence that arming dissident groups. beyond those efforts actually made over the past three years, could have made a difference in Syria or Iraq?

The Fantasy of a Residual Force in Iraq

One of the comments I frequently hear is that the Obama Administration should somehow have convinced the Maliki government to enter into a new status of forced agreement that would have kept a residual U.S. force in place in Iraq for years, perhaps forever, with the express or implied argument that such a residual force would have somehow overcome sectarian tensions within the country and prevented a renewed civil war. Many of those making the argument fail to mention the fact that the withdrawal date that was followed by President Obama was negotiated by President Bush. I appreciate Tom Ricks' position on a residual force, specifically that although he had thought it would have been a good idea at the time, if possible, in retrospect it would have been a costly mistake -- with the present sectarian warfare, U.S. forces would have required significant reinforcement, or would have had to withdraw from combat, with either of those outcomes being worse for the U.S. than leaving the conflict to the incompetent hands of the Iraqi army.

At the time the Obama Administration was attempting to negotiate a new status of forces agreement, the American public didn't want to keep combat troops in Iraq, the Iraqi public didn't want our forces there, and the Maliki government also wanted the U.S. out. The argument that President Obama could have used his powers of persuasion to maintain a significant presence of U.S. troops, despite the opposition of everybody affected by the decision, is an interesting one, but to me it exists only in the realm of fantasy. There's nothing surprising about ethnic tensions in Iraq, nor that the actions of the Maliki government have worsened ethnic tensions.

It's reasonable to infer that if Maliki foresaw this type of breakdown and renewed civil war, to the extent that a U.S. military presence would have prevented the problem he would have wanted U.S. forces to remain. Given his administration's secular favoritism, cronyism, and incompetence in its management of the Iraqi army, it's reasonable to infer that one looming factor in his wanting U.S. combat forces out was that they might delay or prevent the implementation of his plans -- plans to reward his cronies and advance a sectarian form of government. Nothing about Maliki should have been a big surprise by the time U.S. combat forces left Iraq, so where's the evidence that Maliki would have changed his mind, upsetting the Iraqi people and alienating his friends in Iran, had Obama said "pretty please", perhaps "with sugar on top"?

Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the fantasists, I don't believe that the U.S. presence would have delayed civil war forever, or even for more than a couple of years (if that). Why not? Because Iraq experienced a civil war during active U.S. military occupation, with essentially the same parties fighting it out. The war, occupation and "surge" put a band-aid on the civil conflict, covering a festering wound. It would have taken true commitment to the cause for a central government to even partially heal that wound and, if we're honest, the Bush Administration knew from the earliest days of Maliki's governance that the Maliki was not the man for that job.

For some of the advocates of a residual force, such as John McCain, the position seems rooted in traditional wars between nation states. The U.S. is involved in a war and, when the war ends, it leaves a significant military presence in the nation where operations occurred in order to secure that nation from a potentially or overtly hostile neighbor. McCain apparently sees no distinction between wars between nation states and civil wars, despite his own experiences in Vietnam both during and after the war. Suffice to say, there's an enormous difference between maintaining a military force that is supposed to keep a lid on civil unrest and ethnic tensions, and one that sits near a border to intimidate a neighboring nation out of trying to cross that line.

Other than dragging the U.S. back into an Iraqi civil war, something few other than perhaps John McCain would actually favor, what would have been the benefit of a residual force? The best case scenario seems to be that the U.S. presence would have delayed the inevitable, but the worst case scenarios that Ricks describes seem far more likely.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Roger Cohen's Fantasy of Air Power and Influence

Come on, Roger -- you know better than this.
There was a moment in the Syrian conflict when decisive military aid to the opposition could have changed Assad’s calculation. President Obama mouthed vague promises of arms and allowed Assad to regroup.
First, you're awfully mealy-mouthed in your claim.... "decisive military aid" (whatever that is) could have (but might not have) changed Assad's "calculation" (presumably not to sue for peace, and broker some sort of imagined, long-term peace deal that made nice with some of the dissident groups, disarmed other factions like ISIS and stabilized his country). The conceit here seems to be that there's a magical point that the U.S. could have caused the warring parties to reach where the opposition factions would not have been quite strong enough to topple Assad, but where he would have been sufficiently weakened to be convinced to give them enough of what they wanted to lay down their arms and unite behind his reformed government. It's an interesting fantasy, but not one I think could have been turned into reality. Assad and his military would not want to relinquish power to their blood enemies, nor would those enemies happily again subject themselves to his rule (or that of his hand-picked successor, if part of the fantasy is that he agrees to step down).

Cohen buys very strongly into the notion that, as a bombing campaign appears to have tipped the balance in the Bosnian conflict, it's a tool that can magically change the balance favorably to U.S. interests in pretty much any conflict. Drop enough bombs from a safe altitude and the facts on the ground inexorably change in your favor. Cohen is apparently unaware of the basic facts of the conflict in Bosnia. That was not a conflict that ended based on air strikes alone, no boots on the ground, but was a conflict that involved a significant deployment of ground forces to cement and maintain the peace. The initial troops were NATO forces, and those troops were eventually replaced by E.U. forces. Where does Cohen believe that the troops will come from to secure a post-bombing peace accord in Syria, even if we assume that the fantasy scenario would be achievable? Is there a single western nation that is interested in committing troops to such a venture?

Further, even during the bombing campaign, it was key that Bosnian and Croatian ground forces were able to go on the offensive. While Cohen seems to believe that various Syrian opposition groups might fill that role, he doesn't identify which ones or how we could be sure that the ones who ended up in the leadership of a theoretical alliance of opposition groups would be the factions we would want to prevail. You don't have to look past what is presently happening in Iraq to recognize that some of the groups operating out of Syria are hostile to U.S. interests, nor what happens when you arm a weak group and a stronger, anti-western faction steamrolls them and takes their U.S.-provided arms. The lesson of Bosnia may be that a western air campaign can help achieve balance between two armed factions fighting on the ground below, but it should be recalled that victory still required the two warring sides on the ground to be roughly equivalent in strength.

More than that, we have a fantasy of finding huge numbers of trustworthy, U.S.-friendly factions that the U.S. can arm, that can be trusted to work together against the government, to hold onto those arms, and to ultimately either so threaten the Assad government as to force it to become more inclusive and progressive (and friendly to the west) or to topple it and impose a more progressive, pro-west government. I'm reminded of G.W. Bush's joke, where he pretended to search for Iraqi WMDs in the Oval Office -- where are we supposed to find these factions, and in those numbers?

And that's not where the silliness ends,
Force in the absence of a sustained political and diplomatic strategy leads nowhere. This has been Obama’s failure in Afghanistan, where the United States never invested much capital in a diplomatic solution involving negotiation with the Taliban; and in Iraq, where the president allowed American forces to withdraw without leveraging the massive U.S. investment there into ensuring that the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki reached out to the Sunnis and Kurds.
What does Cohen believe would happen if the Obama Administration openly declared that it was in negotiations with the Taliban, and hoped to integrate the Taliban into the Iraqi government? Was Cohen asleep during the Bowe Bergdahl foofaraw, in which Republicans couldn't shove themselves before cameras quickly enough to declare that the Taliban is a terrorist organization with which we should have no dealings at all? Did he miss the dire warnings that five Talibani prisoners, having been released, were going to pose a grave and continuing threat to the safety of the United States? Did he miss that, behind the release of Bergdahl, it is inescapable that negotiations did involve the Taliban? We should be able to infer from those facts that, at least at some level, the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban and that the negotiations likely do involve trying to keep it from attempting to destabilize or overthrow the Afghan government, but that it would be ridiculously stupid for the Obama Administration to publicly announce that any such negotiations are occurring.

As for the president "allowing" U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq, Cohen seems to have scrubbed from his memory banks the fact that George W. Bush negotiated the withdrawal date for combat forces, and that the Iraqi government was not willing to enter into a new status of forces agreement with the immunity clauses required by the United States for a continued military presence. What would Cohen have had Obama do? Disregard the concerns of the military, ignore the wishes of the sovereign government of Iraq, and keep the forces in place? I'm also reminded of Tom Ricks' concession that, although he initially wished that the U.S. could have kept forces in Iraq, in hindsight it's a good thing that the U.S. did not as it would presently be in the position of having to massively reinforce that deployment or withdrawing -- neither of which are good outcomes. Cohen seems to disagree -- so he would have us send tens of thousands of combat troops into Iraq to secure the Sunni areas were ISIS operates, even as Iraq's own army chooses to turn and run?
The past months have constituted a low point in American foreign policy: the rampage by the Sunni fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria through wide swathes of Iraq; President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and successful troublemaking in eastern Ukraine; Syria’s descent into ever further horror; China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea; the failure of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Sure, but it's a bit much to imagine that the president could have done much on any of those fronts. The problems in Iraq are borne of the final status of forces agreement, negotiated by G.W. Bush, and the poor governance of the Shiite leadership of Iraq, the leadership of a government that formed and came to power under G.W. Bush. It was entirely predictable that Maliki's actions would eventually create a crisis -- it was much less a question of "if" than "when". As for Putin's actions in Crimea, what use of forced does Cohen imagine would have deterred him? The same sort of chest-thumping machismo that didn't deter Putin from taking military action in Georgia when G.W. Bush was President? Does Cohen believe that the U.S. can credibly threaten China with military reprisals? Does Cohen believe that the "Israeli-Palestinian talks" had any chance of success under Prime Minister Netanyahu, or that there was some magical reason to believe that this was the one time that doing the same thing over and over again would achieve a different outcome? And if it's a show of military force that makes the difference, how did G.W. Bush's "roadmap" work out, back when he was eagerly starting wars in the Middle East?

Even leaving aside the fact that Cohen's imagined outcome of a bombing campaign is fantastical, the notion that all of these events can be pinned on Obama because he didn't bomb Syria is absurd. One could make a similar list of bad events under G.W. Bush -- North Korea and Pakistan going nuclear, the abject failure of his Israel-Palestine peace initiative, the catastrophic failure of his policies in Libya, China's actions in the South China Sea to assert sovereignty over those waters (no, they're not new), Putin carving territories out of Georgia.... Should we mention the incompetence that led Iraq into civil war, or the failure to stabilize Afghanistan? The list goes on.

Fundamentally, Cohen seems to have lost track both of history and of the limits of what happens when you apply force (particularly when you do so in a half-hearted manner, such as "Let's do airstrikes and see what happens, but make abundantly clear we're never going to have boots on the ground") in parts of the world -- in this case, parts of the world that are not exactly sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy interests. He falls into a long line of armchair commentators who seem to believe that people on the ground don't mind being bombed, as long as those bombs are delivered by the U.S. Air Force or NATO. Were he to pay better attention to his history, it's difficult to believe that he would have written that column.

Friday, June 13, 2014

David Brooks Plays His Part... Badly

David Brooks has "earned" the reputation of being a moderate Republican by taking the latest Republican talking points, removing their most wild-eyed elements, then adding his own modest spin to them before regurgitating them into a column. But today he plays the role of stenographer,
American troops left in 2011. President Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.
Brooks should consult Daniel Larison, as not only is Larison a better thinker than Brooks, he is prolific. Odds are Larison will have shared several insights about this type of claim while Brooks is still polishing the words of his biweekly column. Case in point,
Many of the most common reactions to the recent gains made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been badly mistaken. Complaints that the U.S. “failed” to retain a residual force in Iraq conveniently ignore that the Iraqi government and people were against allowing this, so that was never a realistic option. They also overlook that a continued U.S. military presence would likely not have been able to prevent ISIS’ recent territorial gains, but would almost certainly have provoked a new insurgency that targeted American soldiers. It is extremely doubtful that a small U.S. force would have given Washington any meaningful leverage to force Maliki to change the way that he governs. Maliki was already governing in a sectarian and semi-authoritarian manner when the U.S. had a major military presence in the country, so it seems clear that retaining a smaller presence would have had no effect on him and his allies. It is even more doubtful that the U.S. would use this leverage if it had it.

This is the trouble with trying to condition future aid on improvements in Maliki’s behavior: when push comes to shove, the U.S. usually refuses to cut off aid because it doesn’t want to “abandon” its client. We trick ourselves into thinking that propping up the client is extremely important to us, which is somehow supposed to justify his abuses and our endless enabling of them. The client knows this and continues to behave however he pleases. Lynch points out that Maliki will probably agree to all sorts of concessions now in order to acquire the aid he seeks, but will forget all about this once the immediate crisis is over....
Of course, Brooks' "solution" is to ignore all of that and to pretend that we can somehow magically support Maliki and thereby end the conflict and sustain a united Iraq.... so Brooks' ideal would be for Maliki, the U.S., and the ayatollahs of Iran to work hand-in-hand to preserve Iraq's union. What could possibly go wrong....
It is not too late to help Syrian moderates.
By doing what, David? And please -- specifically identify they Syrian moderates that, with additional backing, not only have a chance of victory in the Syrian civil war but of creating and sustaining a regime that isn't overtly hostile to the United States, and follow up by explaining exactly what "help" we would be offering. Please explain why we won't see the same sort of catastrophe we're witnessing in Iraq, where Iraq's soldiers have scurried away and left their U.S.-supplied munitions for factions that are hostile to U.S. interests. But really, there's no chance of your doing any of that, is there. You're just regurgitating a Republican talking point.

And Iraq?
In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government could empower regional governments, acknowledging the nation’s diversity. Maliki could re-professionalize the Army. The Constitution could impose term limits on prime ministers.
There are two ways to interpret that proposal. The first is as a pipe dream -- the notion that all the u.S. has to do is offer some unspecified form of "help" to Maliki and he'll magically inspire his army to turn back around and fight the factions from which it just fled, thereafter maintaining peace and security within the context of a much more inclusive, reformed national government. The second is that the U.S. will help broker a de facto partitioning of Iraq into semi-autonomous Sunni and Shiite zones, while supporting a decades-long process of trying to turn Iraq into a reasonably stable nation with a reasonably competent government and military -- thats not exactly the sort of proposal one makes with the thought of bringing an immediate end to a civil war.

It's funny how in repeating the attack point against President Obama that he should have left more troops in Iraq, something that would at best have forestalled this type of uprising, Brooks simultaneously rules out having U.S. forces go back into Iraq to put down the uprising. Brooks is smart enough to recognize that the President's decision was in fact correct under the circumstances. He may even be smart enough to recognize that our wish to maintain Iraq as a unified nation doesn't amount to a hill of beans if the Iraqis don't share that goal. But he's pretty clearly anticipating that his readers won't be smart enough to notice the contradiction inherent to his attack on the President.

Like Michael Gerson, Brooks is suddenly fond of the word "stupid"... perhaps because they're transcribing the same talking points?
The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.
But again, that particular attack line has already been refuted by Larison. Brooks can complain that withdrawal was "stupid", but don't look to him to explain how any other option was either better or available. Also, don't think too hard about his suggestion that we could magically solve this crisis if only we had the U.S. forces present in Iraq that he explicitly does not want to send back to Iraq.

The Danger of Providing Arms to Civil War Combatants

David Ignatius shares an update about the situation in Iraq,
ISIS forces have swept south along Highway 1 from Mosul, swelling their ranks by liberating 2,000 to 3,000 jihadist fighters from a prison in Nineveh province. The jihadists have captured so much U.S.-made equipment that it’s reportedly hard to distinguish friend from foe along the chaotic highway south.
Those who argue that we should throw powerful weapons to the "least worst" of the Syrian rebel factions had best keep in mind how quickly those arms can end up in the wrong hands.

Ignatius closes with an odd accusation,
Restitching the fabric of Iraq and Syria may be Mission Impossible. But with its focus on counterterrorism and weapons supplies, the Obama administration seems to have decided to treat the region simply as a shooting gallery.
As opposed to... doing what? Perhaps he's alluding to what had seemed to be a rhetorical question,
Can [the United States and its allies] convene a regional peace conference — which would seek to reconcile Sunni and Shiite forces and their key backers, Saudi Arabia and Iran — in some new security architecture?
Can they convene such a conference? I have every reason to believe that they can find a nice conference center, a printer who can engrave some attractive invitations, and a decent caterer. But the real question is, would such a conference accomplish anything? I suspect that, even at his most optimistic, Ignatius would admit that the odds of any material progress are vanishingly small.

Michael Gerson Plays His Part

I'll grant, when Gerson plays the part of a Republican shill he does so with far more dignity than Marc Thiessen, the rabid self-caricature who later filled Gerson's former role as G.W. Bush's chief speechwriter. Alas, I damn him with faint praise. What you rarely see from Gerson is any reflection on the Bush Administration's endless series of colossal blunders, and how they contributed to the continuing mess in the Middle East. Instead, per the latest memo, the index finger is extended to be wagged at President Obama.

In Gerson's latest column he scolds the President, in essence, for not finding a way to fix the mess in the Middle East. And why not? After all the President has has six years to fix a mess that was more than a century in the making, six years to put G.W. Bush's Humpty Dumpty mess back together again. Facts? Gerson doesn't need to concern himself too much with the facts and their well-known liberal bias.

Gerson gets started by stating the obvious,
For an American president, the world is a banquet of frustrations. But the collapse of much of the Middle East into civil war, sectarian conflict, war crimes and terrorist-exploited chaos should rank higher on the list.
Gerson proceeds to criticize the President for concluding that it would not be a wise move to intercede in Syria's civil war, characterizing the President's position as one of risk aversion. It has apparently never occurred to Gerson that staying out of a military conflict carries its own set of risks. Gerson lectures,
Because the United States refused to coordinate an effort to arm the responsible opposition in Syria, there has been no pressure for the regime to engage in serious peace negotiations. Bashar al-Assad has found barrel bombs more effective. In Geneva talks last November, American officials were left with no plan except to (pathetically) hope for Russian and Iranian diplomatic favors, which never came. Countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states, left leaderless in the region, have often funneled support to radicals. The United States has supplied weapons to the Iraqi government to fight militants in western Iraq while (incoherently) refusing to arm people fighting the same enemy 100 miles to the west in Syria. Now a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict, threaten to destroy the Iraqi government, along with the remnants of U.S. credibility in the region.
Oh yes, the "responsible opposition parties".... that would apparently be the ones who are not winning. It remains unclear how people like Gerson expected that the U.S. (or any other nation) could identify and support enough factions that we would want to win the Syrian civil war such that they could take and hold the country. Frankly, the idea sounds like an opium dream. Perhaps Gerson should read his own newspaper, such that he might have at least some understanding of the complexity of trying to arm opposition groups while keeping western arms out of the hands of factions hostile to the west. One would think that Gerson would be able to look at the performance of the U.S.-trained, U.S.-armed Iraqi army, which turned tail and fled at the first sight of ISIS, and recognize that things aren't as simple as air dropping weapons into the hands of factions that we hope are neither hostile to the west nor likely to engage in brutal reprisals if they gain control over territory held by the the Assad regime or other armed factions.

Also, did it occur to Gerson that if "a few thousand militants, with roots in the Syrian conflict" threaten the post-war government of Iraq, the problems with that government quite obviously run deep? A few thousand militants who collectively are unable to topple the Assad regime are able to battle so effectively in Iraq that its army drops its weapons and runs away?
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.
If Iraqis won't fight for the unity of their own country, who does Gerson believe should fight the battles? Also, isn't this an important reminder of the complexity of the situation in Syria? What amount of U.S.-provided munitions just fell into the hands of those few hundred ISIS fighters?

Gerson carries on,
The mere containment of Syrian chaos would have required a more activist U.S. policy — coordinating Middle Eastern and European powers to create a balance of forces on the ground that might have encouraged a power-sharing agreement among less horrible regime elements and less horrible opposition groups. Some variant is still Syria’s best (but fading) hope.
The less horrible groups, presumably, being the ones who aren't explicitly promising bloody vengeance the moment they take power? And power-sharing... how well has that worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan following the two longest wars in U.S. history, both wrought by Gerson's former lord and master? In what fantasy world does Gerson live, where upon defeating Assad and the, well, more horrible groups, rival factions will join hands and unite Syria as opposed to battling amongst themselves for control of the nation? Is he truly comfortable with allowing the Assad regime's chemical weapons arsenal to fall into the hands of those "less horrible" factions?

As for doing something more than arming "less horrible" factions, there was the possibility of launching air strikes against Syria. But Gerson has apparently forgotten that his own political party opposed any such military action. Had the President ignored the Republican nay vote and proceeded to bomb Syria, would Gerson dispute that his party would have been screeching for Obama's impeachment? Did Gerson somehow overlook the words of Ted Cruz, published in Gerson's own paper?

Gerson continues,
Outside the administration, the unsentimental have sometimes argued that it is not a bad outcome for Assad’s forces and the Sunni Islamists to kill each other in a stalemate. Apart from being immoral — content with the slaughter of civilians — this also turns out to be stupid. It is only a stalemate until new battle-hardened extremists are produced who unravel neighboring countries or board planes to destinations unknown.
Perhaps, along with a host of other Republicans, Ted Cruz is among the "unsentimental"? Actually, that's probably a reasonable characterization of Cruz. But Gerson is largely hollow manning. Some have taken the position that a long-term stalemate may be the outcome most consistent with U.S. interests, a conclusion consistent with Cruz's arguments, but they typically have acknowledged the human cost:
Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

Non-Sunni Syrians can expect only social exclusion or even outright massacre if the rebels win, while the nonfundamentalist Sunni majority would face renewed political oppression if Mr. Assad wins. And if the rebels win, moderate Sunnis would be politically marginalized under fundamentalist rulers, who would also impose draconian prohibitions.
Were Gerson to read that type of analysis, rather than huffing about its lack of sentimentality, he might recognize that there's no solution to the crisis in Syria that isn't going to result in large-scale oppression and suffering.

Gerson, quick to accuse his imagined opponents of being "stupid", has also apparently not noticed that the deaths and displacement of civilians that trouble him are occurring within the context of a Syrian civil war. Does he believe that western munitions have magical features that prevent them from killing civilians? Does he believe that when western powers back a civil war, civilian deaths cease, only armed combatants are killed, and no one becomes a refugee? Civilian suffering was significant under Assad, it is significant under civil war, it would remain significant under Gerson's escalated civil war, and it will continue even if the "less horrible" factions prevail. Why does Gerson pretend -- and he has to know that his position is a pretense -- that there's a good alternative? Probably for the same reason he pretends that those "less horrible" Syrian factions won't harm a hair on a civilian head if given western arms or control of the nation. It's an argument of convenience, offered for political purposes.

Gerson suggests,
After years of defining staying out of the Middle East as success, this may now involve saving the Iraqi government, actively coordinating support to the Syrian opposition and bolstering state institutions in Lebanon and other highly stressed countries.
Concluding, "President Obama has shown no appetite or aptitude for this role — but refusing it now would be a massive failure." Let's step back in history to 2001, when Gerson's former employer became President. Iraq was subject to a no fly zone, but was contained under Saddam Hussein and entirely hostile to al-Qaeda. Syria had recently come under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who had not yet established himself as a tyrant in the model of his father. Egypt remained reasonably stable under Mubarek. Lebanon was a mess, but the mess was largely contained by Syrian occupation and the threat of another Israeli incursion or invasion. Under G.W.'s watch, Syria's penchant for oppression and torture was viewed as a virtue, and Syria was enlisted as a partner for the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects. Bush opposed the Syria Accountability Act. His invasion of Iraq, championed by Gerson, bogged the nation down in a long, extraordinarily expensive war. It was as a result of that war, and under G.W.'s watch, that Maliki government was formed, a government that eight years later cannot inspire the nation's armed forces to defend its cities. It's a shame nobody in the Bush Administration had the necessary stroke of genius, back in early 2001, to consider trying to press Assad into being a more progressive leader or, in the alternative, "actively coordinating support to the Syrian opposition", while "bolstering state institutions in Lebanon and other highly stressed countries". Sure, the Middle East of 2001 was a carton of fragile eggs, any one of which could be easily broken with consequences potentially spilling over into its neighbors. But after Bush made a hobby of tossing those eggs into the air and hitting them with a tennis racket, I again assert that the word for Gerson's finger-wagging at Obama is "chutzpah". Gerson's term, "massive failure", seems like a fair assessment of Bush's policy.

I don't particularly care for the argument that the hawkish elements of our society, people like Gerson who can't seem to even recall recent history, should send their kids off to fight the wars for which they openly yearn -- their kids should not suffer for their parents' hawkishness. But it's never a surprise to see that somebody like Gerson was never interested in pursuing a military career himself, and that it's other people's children whom he would eagerly dispatch to fight yet another war in the Middle East.

But the worst part of this sort of column is that it's generic. There's a single basic column with a number of blanks to be filled in with whatever President Obama does or does not do, a tepid suggestion that things might be better had something different been done -- but always short on specifics about what should have been done and why it would have resulted in a better outcome -- and a standard set of attacks that Obama's choices did not miraculously fix all that's wrong with the region or world. It's an astonishingly lazy form of analysis, and it speaks poorly of Fred Hiatt and his editorial pages that he is so happy to run this type of column. When you're dealing with a region where your typical choice is trying to figure out which of a number of bad solutions will be the least damaging, it's irresponsible to suggest that there are easy answers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why Stop at Biting Off Your Nose?

In one of those "Polls don't tell you everything" moments, as by now pretty much everybody has heard, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race to a guy who appears to be wholly unqualified for public office by any objective standard -- but who happens to be a reactionary Tea Partier. A column in the New Yorker observes that, until now, the Republican establishment had been doing a good job at having their preferred candidates beat Tea Party challengers,
Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, tweeted gleefully, “Eric Cantor losing. So much for the R’s “tea party doesn’t control us” narrative.” He added, “That vomiting sound you hear is wise R’s who just realized what the ‘16 nominee will have to say & do to get thru primary.”

But this might be taking the argument too far. Clearly, the Tea Party hasn’t gone away, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. In most big primary contests around the country, the G.O.P. establishment candidates have won, and those from Tea Party have been routed.
It does appear that when the Republicans carefully select candidates for open seats where they will face Tea Party challengers, and carefully support incumbents likely to face strong Tea Party challenges, they have developed a pretty good skill set for defeating challengers in key districts. The lesson here seems to be that you can't trust the polls, and had best apply that type of energy and skill set to every race in which you don't want a Tea Party challenger to potentially score an upset victory -- or be prepared for some surprising upsets.

Among the joys of elevating the Tea Party as a core constituency, not only that you have to cater to their politics in a manner that can turn off independent and swing voters, it's that they don't seem at all likely to forget that their power is at the primary level. Cantor's defeat is going to re-energize them. These challenges are going to continue.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Social Secuirty and Medicare -- The Sky is Still Falling

Frank Bruni has penned an entirely banal editorial, echoing those of years and decades past, about how unfair it is that Americans are "saddling" the next generation with the cost of Social Security and Medicare. Bruni pitches people over the age of forty against the "Millennials", but it seems like only yesterday that poor Gen. X was going to be forced to support the Baby Boomers.

For Bruni, Bob Kerrey proves to be a veritable fount of platitudes,
This subject haunts him more and more. “If we’re trying to figure out how to advance the next generation’s future, we need to be spending more on the next generation, and we’re spending it on yesterday’s generation,” said Kerrey, 70. “I am not the future. My 12-year-old son is. But if you look at the spending, you’d think I’m the future.”
So the argument is that we need to spend more supporting children? No, of course not.
Kerrey is referring mostly to Social Security and Medicare, which, along with Medicaid, are the so-called entitlements that claim a larger and larger share of the federal budget.

He’s fixated on those sorts of numbers: According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid totaled 6.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 1990. By 2010, they were 10 percent. And by 2038, such spending may represent 14.3 percent. It’s hard to see how that leaves much money for discretionary spending on infrastructure, on education, on research, on a range of investments that safeguard or improve the America that today’s young people will inherit.
Of course, by 2020 such spending may not represent 14.3 percent, but that's always beside the point in this type of editorial

If the problem is that we need to shift those numbers, let's consider what has happened when the President has proposed Reagan-style adjustments to FICA taxes and benefits. The Republicans have obstructed those efforts, and have even demagogued against the President as trying to cut Medicare benefits for seniors. The politics seem to be irrelevant for Bruni, but it's reasonable to infer both that one of the two political parties has no interest in reforms that will help to preserve Social Security and Medicare over the long-term, and that very same party is too craven to be honest with its supporters about its goals. And that's why haven't we moved forward on the obvious solution, which Obama has at times attempted to pursue despite strong opposition to benefits reductions from within his party. How does Bruni see it?
That unwillingness [to look at budgetary math] includes the predictable pushback from many members of Congress, from voters and from various advocacy groups when proposals are made to limit the growth of Social Security by, say, fiddling with cost-of-living adjustments.
Well, yeah, but it does bear mentioning that when one party was ready to forge ahead with reforms, the other party refused to cooperate.

Bruni continues with a complaint that we're already making cuts,
Talk to physicians and other scientists who have long depended on research grants from the National Institutes of Health to keep the United States at the forefront of invention and innovation and they’ll tell you how thoroughly that spigot has closed over the last 10 years. They’re defeated, despondent.
Would Bruni have us believe that those doctors were focusing their full effort on childhood illnesses? Of course not. But if not, how does he reconcile his complaints about spending cuts with his complaint that we're spending too much money on the medical needs of older Americans?

Bruni offers another tired complaint,
The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822. Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the institute, told me that while data for subsequent years hadn’t been analyzed yet, it wouldn’t show a significant change in that gap.
Sure, if you include Social Security and Medicare, we spend a lot more money on older Americans than we do on kids. But Social Security is a program that you pay for over your working years, and for the average participant the return on the investment is not particularly impressive. Similarly, Medicare is supported by people over their working lives and it's reasonable for people who have spent their lifetimes paying into the system to receive its benefits when they retire.

Would Bruni complain that the money in his 401K plan is not clawed back for the benefit of younger workers? That the long-term care insurance he paid for ends up paying for his long-term care? One would expect not. While an argument can be made about whether workers should pay more or whether the payout is too high (or too low), there's no equivalence between Medicare and Social Security payments, which workers have paid for, and government funding for kids.

As for Bruni's general complaints about how his peers talk about millennials,

Sure, some people make a habit of complaining about "kids these days", but such has it always been. Bye Bye Birdie came to stage in 1960. here's a memory from 1967:

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Facts Make the Tea Party Veer to the Political Left on Spending?

This isn't new, but I just came across it.
In fact, a sophisticated poll covering 31 budget items as well as revenue sources conducted around the 2010 elections found that, even then, Republican, Democratic and independent voters all agreed on much higher taxes and much deeper defense cuts as the most striking elements of how the budget should be crafted....

...[S]upport for government spending has varied somewhat cyclically since the[ 1964 election], but only within a relatively narrow range, as recorded by the gold standard of public opinion research, the General Social Survey [data archives here].

The GSS asks about more than two dozen specific problems or program areas, asking if the amount we’re spending is “too little,” “too much” or “about right.” Not only do most Americans think we’re spending too little in almost every area — most conservatives also think the same. Indeed — hold onto your hats — even most conservative Republicans feel that way as well....

The researchers also found broad agreement across party lines. Their first report noted, “Among a total of 31 areas, on average Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed on 22 areas — that is, all three groups agreed on whether to cut, increase or maintain funding. In 9 other areas there was dissensus.” That’s not to say there weren’t differences. Republicans cut much less from defense — $55.6 billion for core defense (versus $109.4 billion) — and much less overall — $100.7 billion (versus $146 billion) — than Americans as a whole. But even so, the position of Republican respondents overall was still dramatically to the left of the political conservation in Washington....

[Tea Party members were] more conservative than Republicans overall, but they still come across as wild-eyed socialists compared to their D.C. representatives:
Those who described themselves as “very sympathetic” to the Tea Party (14% of the full sample), as would be expected, raised taxes and revenues less than Republicans in general, and less than Democrats and independents. Even so, on average, Tea Party sympathizers found a quite substantial $188.2 billion in additional revenues to reduce the deficit ($105.2 billion in individual income taxes).
This sort of information makes it more understandable why the Republicans have proved to be such poor fiscal stewards when they hold power. They demagogue about taxation and spending, but prioritize budget increases in areas such as military spending and revenue reduction via tax policy that favors the wealthy and corporations. When it comes to actual budget cuts, they can read the polls as well as anybody else. In specific regard to Medicare and Social Security,
Combining GSS data from 2000 to 2012, and asking about Social Security and spending on “improving and protecting the nation’s health” (GSS’s closest match with Medicare), liberal Democrats thought we were spending “too little” rather than “too much” on one or both by a margin of 87.1 percent to 2.4 percent — a ratio of over 36-to-1. But all other groups of Americans held the same view, even conservative Republicans — just not by the same overwhelming amount. They “only” thought we were spending “too little” rather than “too much” by a margin of 59.2 percent to 13.1 percent — a ratio of 4.5-to-1. With figures like that — all well to the left of Democrats in D.C. — it’s no wonder that conservatives in Congress always talk about “saving” Social Security and Medicare, and forever try to get Democrats to take the lead in proposing actual cuts.
The Republicans are not willing to lose the next election by savaging domestic spending in a manner necessary to even make up for their spending increases and tax cuts, let alone make cuts dramatic enough to put the budget into balance or to create a surplus and spend down the debt. Instead, when they take power, we get Dick Cheney-type comments that "deficits don't matter". Instead, if you want a balanced budget, they offer the worst of both worlds -- tax policies that reduce revenue and spending policies that increase the overall budget, resulting in a significant increase in the nation's debt.

David Ignatius States the Obvious

Which is to say, Ignatius has penned an editorial entitled, Claims of U.S. weakness and retreat of U.S. power are unfounded. That shouldn't be a surprise given the author, but it seems increasingly rare to see basic common sense on foreign policy issues from the Washington Post's editorial crew.

Ignatius has some criticisms for the President, but they invite criticism of their own:
I agree that [President] Obama’s foreign policy has not been as firm, especially in dealing with Syria and Russia, as it should have been. As a result, the United States has suffered some reputational damage.
It's reasonable to infer from Ignatius' statement that he believes that the U.S. should have taken military action in Syria. The problem is that, as Ignatius recently told us, there are no good ways to intervene in Syria. It's an odd sort of criticism, that the President should have boldly taken a different path that might have had negative results, perhaps worsening the situation. Truly, if Ignatius believes that there is an appropriate, stronger line to take with Syria, he should explicitly describe the intervention that he favors. Further, if his concern is truly with "global security", Ignatius should explain why he omits reference to Libya where the U.S. did intervene militarily to topple a despot, but where a consequence of that intervention has been the creation of a great deal of regional turmoil -- and also stands as an object lesson as to what could happen if Bashar al-Assad is toppled without the involvement of a very large western occupation force ready to impose and hold the peace.

It's also not clear why Ignatius believes that being more "firm" with Russia would do anything to change Russia's policies or Putin's behavior. Does he believe that Russians will somehow eject Putin from power if they perceive that President Obama is unhappy with him? I would expect not, given that it's obvious that the President is unhappy with him yet his domestic popularity has improved. I think Daniel Larison makes an apt observation:
When U.S. Russia policy prioritized working with Russia on matters of common interest, relations with Moscow measurably improved and the U.S. made some modest gains on a few issues. When Washington returned to its old habits of agitating over internal Russian affairs and seeking to overthrow Russian clients, relations went into rapid decline. Since then, U.S. punitive measures have contributed to the intensifying Sino-Russian cooperation....
Again I'm left wondering, what "firm" measures does Ignatius believe would change Russian behavior, and on what basis?

Ignatius made an argument toward the end of his editorial that I wish he would clarify:
The worriers [about weakness] get one big thing right. A strong, forward-leaning United States is essential for global security.
There are many regions in the world where the people don't enjoy much security, and many more where ethnic minorities are mistreated. Is Ignatius lobbying for U.S. military intervention that is truly aimed at "global security", or is he conflating "global security" with "the advancement of U.S. foreign policy interests"? The latter seems more consistent with the editorial position of the Washington Post, which under the leadership of Fred Hiatt reliably supports military adventurism in the name of muscular foreign policy. But there is a huge difference between that and actually working to achieve "global security", even if human rights violations are sometimes offered as a justification for intervention in a nation or region that, in the mind of the editorial board, affects U.S. foreign policy interests.

When looking for the prior link to Daniel Larison, I noticed that he has also written about this argument. Larison argues that many of those who make that argument about "America’s indispensability... are routinely wrong about specific issues":
Ignatius’ review of the [book, "Taking on the World" and its authors'] constant alarmism reminds us of something else that should be only too familiar to those of us that have observed or participated in foreign policy debates. No matter how often such people are profoundly wrong about important events and the appropriate way that the U.S. should respond to them, they continue to be relied on as authorities and guides in subsequent debates. Alarmists are never held accountable for their alarmism, at least not as long as they subscribe to the prevailing consensus view about what the U.S. role in the world should be. If you can get “one big thing right,” you need never worry about being right ever again. Then again, the alarmists are just taking their belief in American “indispensability” to its predictable conclusion: if a “strong, forward-leaning” U.S. is “essential” to global security, frequently panicking about potential “retreat” and “weakness” becomes a major part of maintaining that role.
Larison sees the tendency to perceive a constant need for U.S. intervention to address perceived threats around the globe results in the notion that non-intervention is treated as a failure of American strength, character and endurance, and creates an all-or-nothing foreign policy in which leaders are not trusted to determine which threats are serious such that, even in relation to minor threats, doing nothing becomes unthinkable. Larison argues that the "false belief in American indispensability breeds intense anxiety about security and causes people to imagine dangers that don’t even exist", resulting in U.S. involvement in "disastrous and unnecessary conflicts". I think the sort of argument Ignatius is implicitly making, "I don't know what we should do, and every choice is bad, but we must appear strong or, at a minimum, we risk reputational damage".

Ignatius sees Obama's actions as a retreat from military action, and also as consistent with history,
...[A] retreat to lick the nation’s wounds is fairly common after wars — and rarely does lasting damage.
But it apparently does not occur to him that strong military action in Syria, or attempting to escalate tension with Russia to the point that Putin might be cowed, are both ideas fraught with peril. That is, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.