Archive for category US Politics

Liberty!

iberty

On a libertarian-leaning blog, a usually rational and interesting poster made this comment:

It’s all so pointless. We will never convince the majority of people to embrace liberty, instead of looking to government to be Mommy. At least not until government fails so badly that its incompetence is made clearly manifest. And even if that happens, I suspect that the majority of the electorate will look for a man on a white horse, rather than freedom, and the responsibility for their own lives. There’ll always be a cohort that thinks government could do everything for everyone if only the right people were running it. And, it seems, quite a lot of people will listen to them.

Arguing with progressives is pointless, too. It’s like arguing with people in a movie theater who won’t stop texting. It’s a waste of time to say anything to them, because if they had a shred of civility or decency, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you’re a Progressive, I just assume at this point that you’re too abysmally stupid to waste time with on reason or debate.

There are some breathtaking assertions there.   Progressives are abysmally stupid, don’t use reason, have no shred of civility or decency…all because they have a progressive political perspective.   That means, according to this blogger, that progressives refuse to embrace liberty, want government to be mommy, and don’t want to take responsibility for their own lives.

Wow.   If people on the right or libertarian side of the isle really believe that about progressives, no wonder they hate us so!   Any one who knows me or reads my blog knows that I am a firm believer of people taking responsibility for their lives and choices – students hear that mantra from me all the time – your future is up to you, you can’t blame anyone else.   I’m also for  liberty – human liberation from all forms of oppression so we can live as freely as possible – as my primary value.

My biggest critique of government programs is that they can create a psychology of dependency which harms those receiving that aid.  I don’t think the answer is to cut people off – often when children are involved that would be cruel.  But rather right and left should create more effective social welfare programs which are built around community action.  Community organizers should be the hub, and those who can should contribute to building community in order to get aid.

I daresay I’m not abysmally stupid either.  Yet I’d describe myself as a progressive.

partisanship2

Why are we at a point in this country where the political sides can believe such caricatured images of the other side?  I have no doubt that the poster, while perhaps recognizing that he is being a bit over the top and venting, truly believes that progressives oppose freedom and want the government to do everything.

And its not just progressives who get caricatured, the right is often portrayed as heartless, emotion driven nationalists who don’t care about the destruction caused by war, who would love to see the poor suffer, don’t care about pollution in our rivers, or the potential damage caused by global warming.  They just want what they can get, selfishly consuming with no regard for others.  I know lots of conservatives, and that caricature doesn’t fit any of them.

But how to get past this kind of rhetoric?   One way is to think of the concept of freedom.  I submit that both right and left generally have freedom as a primary value.    Neither has it as the only value, otherwise they’d oppose all laws.  For each having a stable and effective community is also important.   So perhaps part of the difference is how they draw that line.   Both might agree that a police force is necessary to maintain order, but they might disagree on health care.

health

From the left:  not having health care denies the poor (nearly 50 million) true freedom because they are more likely to avoid seeking health care and may die or suffer, they are vulnerable to health cost bankruptcies, and their children are less likely to receive quality care, and thus do not have equal opportunity.  Universal health care enhances freedom.

From the right: having guaranteed health care denies the wealthier true freedom by taking their tax dollars, and mandatory insurance does not allow them to opt out.  Universal health care harms freedom.

OK, you know what – there are ways to understand where both sides are coming from.   Yet the two sides usually shout at each other (I think the right shouts and ridicules the left far more than the reverse, but I understand that could be a biased perception) and don’t stop to think that their disagreement is not about core values, but how the system functions.

The left tends to view freedom in two ways: 1) negative freedom or freedom from external; and 2) positive freedom, or the possession of the resources and power to fulfill ones goals.    Poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, structural barriers hindering the capacity to achieve ones goals (racism, etc.) all limit freedom.   Often these limits come from the way society is structured, whereby the wealthy elite achieve more positive freedom at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged.

freedom

The right tends to view liberty as simply not being hindered by laws or external restraint.   Maximum freedom is when external constraint is non-existent.   Because people are not angels, you have to have some laws to prevent overt exploitation, but while the left sees structural exploitation as the problem, the right (or libertarians) tend to focus purely on actual physical violence.  The religious right also sees a role for laws to protect basic traditions and customs.

Again, there are solid arguments for each.  The right has an agent-based view of human relations – society is the result of individual choices that each actor is responsible for.  The left has a structure-based view: society is structured in a way that empowers some and disadvantages others.

The fact is that neither extreme view can be correct.   No one can deny that structure matters – it takes a lot more effort to make it out of rural poverty or a ghetto to be successful than it does from a wealthy suburban family.   Even though its possible for both, one is more likely to be successful than the other.   But it is possible for both – structure doesn’t determine everything, one can make choices to rise from poverty to become successful.

So reality is somewhere in the middle – and that means that disagreements on the nature of freedom are legitimate, one doesn’t have to dismiss the other side as opposing liberty.    It’s too bad that as a society we’re more likely to ridicule the other side and caricature them than actually discuss these issues.   Because frankly, the US is facing numerous problems and neither side has the power to simply implement their “solution.”   We either sink or swim together.

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Yes, it’s Climate Change!

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

Lake Michigan frozen in Chicago

If you’re on Facebook you’ve no doubt read the posts about how cold it is.   When a reporter in Bangor threw a cup of hot coffee in the air it crystallized and blew away.   Another in Minneapolis did the same with a pot of boiling water!   It’s not just the cold.   Having grown up in South Dakota and lived a long time in Minnesota, I’m no stranger to minus 35 degrees (NOT including wind chill).   Rather it’s the duration and wide spread scope of this cold weather.

As NPR explains, this is because we are experiencing a polar vortex.    Usually a low pressure cell with extremely cold air sits atop the north pole all winter.   Minnesota will get the occasional minus 40 degree weather because at times bits of it come south.   Due to the way continents and climates interact, the coasts stay mild as the middle grows intensely cold.   Since moving to Maine I’d many times see my friends back in Minnesota experiencing minus 35 while here we didn’t go below 10 above.

That’s still the case.   While we’ve been going below zero in the single digits in Maine the temperatures have remained frigid all over the northern plains.   The cold here is more intense than usual.

vortex

The polar vortex comes from a larger piece of that low pressure cell moving south, and bringing with it more cold war than we’re used to.  And as Time explains, this could be real evidence of global warming.   The reason is that the warm gulf stream has helped keep cold air caged up north, allowing milder air to reign through most of the US.   That’s why when I moved from Minnesota to Maine I was moving to a distinctly warmer climate.   A lot of Arctic ice has been lost in past decades due to global warming, cooling down the north Atlantic.

Think of it like big ice cubes breaking off and melting in warmer water.   While with ocean currents and depths it will take awhile, eventually that can cool the ocean enough to impact the jet stream.   If that’s what’s happening, it may well be that we’re getting yet another real indicator not only of the reality of global warming (which only a few holdouts deny), but that its impact may be multifaceted in unexpected ways.

polar2

For us in the Northeastern US (and probably everywhere between Montana and Poland) global warming may mean colder winters.   So how is that global warming?   When the cold air leaves the polar regions, they warm up.  This has been a warm winter in the Arctic, and usually frigid places in Alaska have had mild temperatures.   Polar warming seems to defy expectations, but the impact of cooling oceans on the jet streams and climate patterns suggests a hard to predict but likely destabilizing climate change.

It could also mean warmer summers, altering the nature of local climates and forcing changes in just about every aspect of life.  Few scientists doubt global warming, or that human green house gas production is a major factor causing it – the evidence is overwhelming.  A few ideology-driven political types try to deny it, and hopefully karma will give them what they deserve for endangering future generations far more than would be the case if we acted to clean up our energy usage.

But the reality is that humans live in denial, and it won’t be until it’s too late to stop the disaster that people realize we were warned and did very little.   Something like the polar vortex shows that the consequences of global warming may be very unexpected and vary from place to place.   But it’s here – and expect the headlines to get more dramatic and worse in coming years.

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End the Filibuster!

Obama Appeals Court Nominee Patricia Millett

Obama Appeals Court Nominee Patricia Millett

It is dangerous to play with tradition.   The Senate and House function on a set of time honored traditions and unwritten rules of the game. The filibuster is one of those traditions.   However, the poisonous partisanship in Washington, unprecedented obstruction by Republicans in the Senate, and the danger of creating eternal gridlock means its time for a change.

Senate rules adopted in 1806 created the potential for a filibuster by eliminating the ability to move the previous question.   The idea was that Senators should have as long to speak as needed before a vote.   The idea this would be used for obstruction was not considered.  In 1837 the first filibuster was used, but it remained rare until into the 20th Century.

After 12 Senators used their capacity to stop the Senate from voting on a bill by continuing debate (in 1917, to allow President Wilson to arm merchant ships), the Senate created a cloture rule, allowing 2/3 of those voting to end debate.   This still meant that a group could stop consideration of a bill, but it would have to have a broader base of support.

More importantly, a filibuster meant that a Senator or group of Senators had to keep talking; debate literally had to continue.  Once Senators stopped speaking on the floor, debate was over and a vote could be taken.   Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.   Usually filibusters ended on their own without invoking cloture.   When Senators filibustered the 1964 Voting Rights Act a cloture vote was held for only the second time since 1927.  Simply, the tradition of the filibuster is that it was rare and required Senators be present and continue talking.

The filibuster is rare by tradition; the current use is recent and dangerous

The filibuster is rare by tradition; the current use is recent and dangerous

By 1979 the rules had changed to allow 60 Senators to invoke cloture, but not requiring speakers to remain continuously on the Senate floor.  Unfortunately, both parties found this an easier to way to try to obstruct votes they didn’t like and the use of filibuster increased dramatically.   Mitch McConnell once infamously said it is the “rule of the Senate” that you need 60 votes to make a law.

Both parties abused the filibuster.  In a battle over judicial nominees Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatened the “nuclear option” of simply making cloture a majority vote and ending the filibuster.   Vice President Cheney was ready to sit in as President of the Senate (a role the VP officially has) and rule that the filibuster cannot be used for judicial nominees.  Senators wary of changing rules and traditions avoided that via compromise.

Trent Lott and Dick Cheney threatened to eliminate the filibuster when the Democrats abused it.

Trent Lott and Dick Cheney threatened to eliminate the filibuster when the Democrats abused it.

In that case, the Democrats were abusing the filibuster and turning it into a tool to obstruct.  But the use of obstruction has grown to unprecedented proportions with McConnell (R-KY) as Senate minority leader.   It no longer is a rare and dramatic way to try to prevent a vote on something very emotional or controversial (a method that in the past usually failed) but has become a defacto rule that says without 60 votes nothing at all controversial can pass.

More importantly, it is being used to block the President from undertaking his constitutional authority to make appointments, including again to the judiciary.

Mitch McConnell once filibustered his own motion!

Mitch McConnell once filibustered his own motion!

Patricia Miller is one of three appointments to the DC Court of Appeals to fill vacancies.  Right now there are 8 Judges on the Court, four chosen by each party.  The Republicans fear that if President Obama names all three, the Court might rule in a more liberal fashion.   But that’s life – the President gets to choose the nominees and the Senate approves.   It’s directly from the Constitution.

Looking for a rationale for their clearly political motive to obstruct, they claim the Court does not have enough work for 11, or even 9 Justices.  But the court was just as “under worked” when they argued passionately to put President Bush’s nominees on the court.    Simply, the filibuster and current cloture rules have to go.

If the Republicans are allowed to abuse the filibuster in this way, to make it require 60 votes for anything to pass, and to use it to block Presidential appointments, the Democrats will do likewise.   They have in the past.    The current rule is a cause of dysfunction.

Though it will limit the Democrats at some point in the future, Reid must be bold enough to change the cloture rule now

Though it will limit the Democrats at some point in the future, Reid must be bold enough to change the cloture rule now

The only solution:  end the filibuster by making cloture a majority vote in the Senate.   That way everything gets voted on and a minority can’t cause gridlock to appease their base or stop the majority from passing controversial bills.   That way a President can execute his authority to make appointments without having well qualified choices denied due to politics.  Patricia Millett is very well qualified with strong bipartisan credentials.

The country right now needs to have a functional Washington.   The abuse of the filibuster in recent years by both parties has morphed it into something that is new and dangerous, not part of the Senate traditions.   So either go back to forcing Senators to keep talking until they run out of energy or desire, or adopt a new cloture rule requiring a simply majority vote.

 

 

 

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Weimar America?

“We’re not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) – the Rodney Dangerfield of the GOP

In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history.   “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis.  While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.

We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.

But Weimar America?  The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich.   The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag.  That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern.  That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable.    For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree.    Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.

That won’t happen here.   Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability.    Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible.   Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm.   That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things.  We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.  I think now it’s a lot about pride.”  Dennis Ross (R-Fl)

Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean.   They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country.   “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant.  They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category.  Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war.   Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center.   The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance.   The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.

And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust).  OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride.   Being ‘disrespected.’   Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.

As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work.   That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm.   Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.

So the ball’s in Boehner’s court.   He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote.   He understands the consequences.   While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out.   Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.”   Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it.  This has to end sooner rather than later.

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Why Obama Must Not Negotiate

obama

House Republicans are miffed that the President refuses to negotiate with them about the government shut down.   “He’s willing to talk with Iran, why not us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned.   Yet the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to negotiate.  For the good of the political process, for the sake of future Presidents Republican and Democratic, and for the country, the President must remain resolute.

The Republicans are trying to gut or delay the Affordable Care Act, and using a threat to shut down the government as a means of doing so.  That is, a group of people do not like a law that was passed a few years ago, and are threatening the entire country’s economy and well being in order to try to stop that law.   That’s not how you do it.

In a Democratic Republic, if you don’t like a law you make the case to the public.   You get your people elected, and then you change or rescind the law.   You do it through a constitutional process whereby the House and Senate vote, confer, and then pass a bill.  The President can sign or veto it.  Congress can override the veto if they have the votes.

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney's failed Presidential bid

Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a key component of Romney’s failed Presidential bid

In this case, the 2012 election had Obamacare as a main component of the campaign.   Candidate Romney vowed to rescind or at least dramatically alter the act if elected, the President vowed to maintain it.   The votes were counted and the President won by a large margin.  The Democrats gained seats in the Senate.   And though Republicans took the majority in the House, more votes for the House went to Democrats than Republicans.

If it becomes possible for a minority to get their way and undercut laws simply by threatening to shut down the government, a horrible precedent will be set.   Rather than letting the democratic process operate, dangerous and destructive games of chicken will become common place.   Today it may be the GOP and the Affordable Care Act, but sometime in the future the Democrats might threaten to do the same to stop changes in Social Security.

It’s even worse than that.   If the Speaker of the House allowed a free vote on conscience, the government shutdown would be averted.  A number of Republicans disagree with the extremist approach being taken.  But they are being silenced by a large minority, which has not only stymied the legislative process, but put the world economy at risk.

Whatever one’s view on Obamacare, there should be agreement that blackmail and threats to the very fabric of our country are not the way to oppose it.   A case in point: on October 1, the first day that exchanges were up to sell insurance for Obamacare, lots of glitches and problems arose.  The GOP could use that in their favor to argue against Obamacare.  Instead those stories were under the radar as everyone focused on the shutdown.

I’m not saying the glitches are truly a reason to oppose Obamacare, only that the GOP should be focusing on substance to make their case before the 2014 election rather than playing Russian roulette with the economy and the jobs of nearly a million federal workers.

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Every parent learns that giving into bad behavior means it will become more frequent

Today is a gorgeous day in Maine, and one of the most beautiful parks in the US, Acadia National Park, is closed thanks to the fact Congress can’t do its job.   When a young child wants to watch TV and a parent says no, often the child throws a tantrum.   If the parent gives in, then the child learns that tantrums work, and will more frequently and more vigor go ballistic to get his way.  If the parent holds firm and there are negative consequences for the tantrum, the child soon learns that tantrums don’t work and it’s better to follow the rules.

The tea party wing of the GOP is throwing a collective tantrum.  To give in would assure that shutdowns, crises and other threats to our stability become more frequent – the tactic will have worked.   The President cannot let that happen.

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Fear and the Tea Party

“If there is a price to be paid for this, we will recover from a government shutdown, whether it’s a day, a week or two weeks … something will get resolved, we’ll recover from that as a country.  It’s a temporary inconvenience for a lot of people. But if Obamacare is ever implemented, we will never recover from that as a nation. We can never be a free people again.”  – Rep. Steve King (R – Iowa)

Steve King (R-Iowa) - definitely not to be confused with Maine's Stephen King!

Steve King (R-Iowa) – definitely not to be confused with Maine’s Stephen King!

Hyperbole is common in politics, but “we can never be a free people again”?   Really?

Every other industrialized state has a national health care system of some sort.   A few have single payer systems run by the government, but most have some kind of mixed system.   A comparison of diverse systems shows strengths and weaknesses of each, but the bottom line is that making sure everyone gets health care does not endanger freedom.  Quite the opposite!

When in the US you have 50 million uninsured, high levels of medical cost induced bankruptcy, and many poor not getting care because they fear collection agencies, we have a problem.    Add to that the fact that health care costs nearly 18% of GDP (compared to 8-10% in most other industrialized states – about 13% in Switzerland) it’s obvious that something has to be done.

The US health care system compares poorly with many others

The US health care system compares poorly with many others, but is by far the most expensive

So we have real problems with health care in America.   We pay more, don’t get more, and leave many people uncovered and scared to access care.    Now, perhaps Obamacare isn’t the best plan, but this radical “hostage taking” approach supported by tea party folk like Senators Cruz, and Lee and a variety of people in Congress makes no sense.

Instead of making their case to the public and hoping to get a Republican majority in the Senate and perhaps a Republican President in 2016, they’re acting like terrorists threatening to shut down the government and have the country go into default if they don’t get their way to stop or delay ‘Obamacare.’   That only makes sense if they fear that once implemented the system will work well and the public will like it.   Otherwise, they’d be smarter to let it fail on its own and then say “I told you so.”   At that point they could reform it or gut it, they’d have the political winds at their backs.   Their biggest fear seems to be that maybe it’ll work and become popular!

Or maybe it isn’t rational.   King’s quote seems over the top; wild rhetoric is usually a sign of emotion.   I believe that within the tea party and among people like Rep. King there is an ideological world view that says that America is becoming something different than what it was and what they think it “should be.”

Tea party support has dipped to 22%, a new low. Most Americans do not share that vision.

Tea party support has dipped to 22%. Most Americans do not share that vision.

So what should it be?   The tea party seems to have a romantic view of the 1980s.  Reagan was President, whites were the clear majority, social conservatism was on the rise, and the US was the dominant world power.   That is the world they knew and felt comfortable within.  Now, the world is strange.  A black man named Barack Hussein Obama is President.   The US fiasco in Iraq has shown the limits of American power in a post-Cold War multi-polar world.  The financial collapse of 2008, built on 30 years of growing debt and government deregulation destroyed the myth that somehow America’s economy was stronger than others in the West.   Gay marriage and changing social mores often shock them – as does the fact that changing demographics means minorities have a much stronger voice in the politics of the country.

It’s not just America that’s changed, but the world is changing.  Globalization is weakening sovereignty and creating interdependencies at a rapid pace.   The information revolution caused by the internet makes borders less relevant and democratizes knowledge, making old political practices obsolete.   The spread of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity of terrorists to deliver deadly blows undermines old military tactics.  Indeed, warfare of the future will likely be fundamentally different than in the past, military power isn’t what it used to be.

The tea party represents those who fear this new world.   That explains King’s hyperbole.  Fear.   The changes taking place threaten the core of what he’s used to, and thus he’s afraid his values will be in jeopardy.   He can’t truly believe Obama care will mean we can never be a free people, it’s part of a response to what they consider a broader assault on what they think America should be.

Fear also explains the antipathy towards Obama.   He represents and incarnates all that they see going wrong with the US.   A black man with a foreign sounding name, inexplicably getting elected to two terms, leading the country down a scary “socialist” path.    Obama is an establishment Democrat – the left wing of the Democratic party is upset with his centrism.  His health care plan was a compromise, less obtrusive than Nixon’s plan back in the early seventies.   There is nothing new or radical about Obama – except that he’s President in changing times, and the changes scare them.

Ironically, the changes they fear will be hastened if they shut down government or cause America to default.   That will further weaken and divide the polity, and despite their belief that they represent “real America,” their views are increasingly on the margin and will not shape the future.   But right now they have enough people in Congress to try to take the economy hostage and do real damage.   Hopefully Republican leaders like Boehner will have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to them.  Those most hurt by the tea party are conservatives trying to establish a vision of what conservatism must be about in these changing times.

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Obama Critics Are Misguided

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things.   Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.”   And they criticize Obama?

A few points about the Syria case so far.  The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear:   1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.

The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking.   They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act.   Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle.   That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq.   We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened.   The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.

However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before.   The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.

McCain's not happy with the new GOP isolationists (Paul and McCain)

McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain

The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation.   Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years.   At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War.   McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests.   That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US.  They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based.   The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.

Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed.   President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans.   They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War.  The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past.  McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it.   The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US.  To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it's a win

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it’s a win

Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault.  Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy.   McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now.   They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.

Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be.  It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.

Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government.    He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism.   He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era.   The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.

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