Monday, September 8, 2014


Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher. Via The Guardian.
This is a belated response to commenter dgchicago at Steve's place, who very properly called me out on a post last weekend where I may have let my "Obama is a liberal" fantasy get away with me a little bit on the subjects of Lawrence Summers, Grand Bargains, and Syria.
What is your evidence that Obama never wanted to bomb Syria? Just as with the Grand Bargain and with Summers as Fed Chair, the timeline suggests to me that he was heading in the wrong direction until outside forces prevented it (Republican intransigence in the case of the Bargain, public opinion in the cases of Syria and Summers). You didn't provide any solid evidence to support your claims, not even in the links to past posts. You seem to start from the conclusion that what Obama did is Right and Good, then work backward from there.
Part of it was unclear writing; I didn't mean to suggest that Obama "didn't want" to nominate Summers to the Federal Reserve chair (as should have been clear from my original post)—I just didn't buy the narrative that he cared so much about it that nominating Janet Yellen instead would have been a personal defeat for him.

I certainly didn't mean to deny either that he spent a lot of time talking up the "Grand Bargain" proposals for matching a progressive tax reform for liberals with a regressive entitlement rephorm for conservatives. I can't give any evidence why he would have wanted to do it, but I think he might have hoped to replicate the triumph of the April 2011 budget, where the apparent Democratic concessions (which had made us all scream treason) turned out to be illusory, and Republicans really felt Boehner had been rolled. If that was chess, it was the two-dimensional kind practiced by Teddy Kennedy, and an elementary example of the Fool's Mate.

The problem with the Grand Bargain was that Boehner was determined not to get rolled again (and the Democratic concession of chained CPI was not illusory enough, though it was a lot less than the kind of cut-Social-Security horror we feared). But again there's no reason to accept the narrative that Obama was some kind of corporatist plant determined to break the New Deal; the purpose was always the bargain by which he would trade something for a fairer tax code.  (I would not have said it was a good deal, either, unless persuaded by a higher authority like Krugman, who did not approve.) And in any event, whatever his motivation may have been, he's finally dropped it, seeing he's not going to be able to swing it, in favor of talking like a Democrat:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past.... The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. (Inaugural Address, January 21 2012).
On Syria, though, I think TG is remembering the timeline wrong. It didn't look at the time as if Obama was "heading" in one direction or another, but two or three directions at the same time, as Elizabeth Drew tells it in her new New York Review article (my bold):
The president more than once moved toward greater involvement in Syria while at the same time seeking to make sure that it wouldn’t happen. In 2012 he drew a “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens and then was much criticized when he didn’t follow through after Assad used them.
Unfortunately for the president, such criticism is based on a partial recollection of what happened. After Assad defied him and used chemical weapons, Obama felt pressed to respond. But rather than go ahead with bombing in Syria, with all the risks of getting further drawn into a civil war he was trying to avoid, he took the famous long walk on the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to whom he’s said to feel closer than anyone else he works with—other than, of course, the ever-present Valerie Jarrett—and decided to put the issue to Congress by asking its permission to bomb in Syria.
There’s little reason to doubt that he did this in the knowledge that the permission was unlikely to be forthcoming. But the outcome was more felicitous than that. Obama accepted an offer by the Russians to negotiate the removal of the chemical weapons from Syrian hands. Since the Russians are allied with the Syrian government, Obama’s threat seems to have been more credible to Assad than to his American critics.
Why was he contradicting himself this way?

One leg of an answer is that he just thought attacking Syria was a bad idea: Stupid Shit, in fact. He said so himself quite clearly before the crisis (five months before laying down that original "red line"), at a press conference of March 6 2012 (via Left of the Mark):
With respect to Syria, what’s happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous, and what you’ve seen is the international community mobilize against the Assad regime. …On the other hand, for us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake. …[I]t is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen. But the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn’t been true in the past and it won’t be true now.
But on August 20 (following a timeline compiled by the Arms Control Association), he added that
his calculations on a military response would change significantly if the United States sees “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
And then on December 22 Assad's army may have used chemical weapons and further attacks reported on March 19, April 13, and April 29, all of them disputed (whether they were in fact chemical attacks and whether it was Assad or the rebels who were attacking), in one case starting a fight between the State Department which blamed Assad and the NSC which didn't.

But in May 2013, David Sanger was hearing from his Anonymi that the red line wasn't meant to commit Obama to a particular course of action, and the president had had no thought that it would get him into the kind of situation he was now in:
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.” 
On August 26 Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute was convinced Obama was unwilling to respond militarily and still hoping to avoid it:
Obama’s deep reluctance to engage in Syria is clear to all. This hesitancy is of a piece with his policy to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and his championing of the idea of “nation building at home.” It is not only understandable but, to the millions of Americans who see Syria as a heaven-sent contest between radical Shiites and radical Sunnis, it is wise and appropriate. Defining just how far Obama is willing to go not to act was most likely a key factor in the Syrian CW decision. Assad probably miscalculated – there is a line beyond which even the most reluctant president cannot go. But that’s not the end of the story.
And the next day Politico was saying the same thing in more negative terms, seeing him as "temporizing", and making legalistic excuses for his inaction:
the president’s temporizing was on full display in an interview Friday on CNN, in which he said that “core national interests” of the United States were now at stake in Syria — a term of art in international affairs that often foreshadows military action.
But he quickly backed off, noting the United States’ history of being “mired in very difficult situations … [and] being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it,” Obama continued.
And at last on August 31 he decided suddenly that he needed to ask Congress for permission:
after the British declined to participate in the operation, and Mr. Obama abruptly decided he would seek Congressional support for the strike, many lawmakers were led to suspect that Mr. Obama still was not convinced that intervention was a good idea. (Mazzetti, Worth, and Gordon in the New York Times)
Also, it's known that Obama was secretly working to open up negotiations with Iran even as he was threatening Iran's ally Syria with bombing, and also with Russia. These negotiations led to the plan for Syria to voluntarily get rid of its chemical weapons, thus avoiding any further discussion of a US attack.

Later, in conversation with The New Yorker's David Remnick,
"I am haunted by what’s happened,” he said. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking."
And that is why I think he didn't want to attack. And the other leg? Well, you have to be prepared to do it anyhow, or Assad, and Republicans, won't take you seriously.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment