Opinion

The Great Debate

Syria: What happened to diplomacy?

There is a bizarre quality to the U.S. public debate about bombing Syria. Much time and effort has been spent analyzing President Barack Obama’s decision to finally call for a vote in Congress: whether this was a wise choice; what the repercussions of an attack may be; the (il)legality of acting without a United Nations Security Council mandate; the moral case for bombing, and the strategic case for restraint.

But almost no attention has been paid to a fundamental question: Have all other options been exhausted?

Obama has presented the American public with a false binary choice: taking military action or doing nothing.

It is perhaps the sign of our times that diplomacy is not even being talked about as an option, though Obama’s 2008 platform included restoring diplomacy as a central tool of American statecraft.

If the key concern is humanitarian — putting an end to the senseless slaughter of Syrian civilians — rather than U.S. credibility — ensuring the enforcement of the president’s “red line” — much more should have been done earlier to press all sides of the conflict to agree to a cease-fire.

Common ground for Obama and Putin is offshore

Low expectations surround the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg on September 5-6.

President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel the pre-G20 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin means the big photo op will likely be the two leaders awkwardly trying to avoid each other. The other headline-making issues in U.S.-Russian relations — Syria, nuclear weapons reduction, missile defense — also appear off the table now. There is one timely matter, however, that resonates with Washington, Moscow, and the entire G20 — the continuing fight against offshore tax havens.

The Cyprus financial collapse in March focused world attention on the outsized role played by offshore banking zones in international tax avoidance and money laundering. Though Russian depositors were the primary victims here, Moscow appeared indifferent to this unprecedented expropriation by Cyprus of the assets of Russian citizens. Putin proved unwilling to help those he viewed as tax-evading oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats — as well as a few legitimate businesses.

Putin has made the fight against offshore tax havens a key plank of his foreign policy. Other world leaders — including British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francoise Hollande — have also issued strong statements criticizing sophisticated legal strategies that allow companies to skirt the domestic treasury, depriving the state of critical revenues in this time of economic recession.

from David Rohde:

Has Iraq shackled American power?

In an extraordinary series of disclosures this week, Obama administration officials said that the United States will launch only cruise missile strikes in Syria. The attacks will last roughly two or three days. And the administration’s goal will be to punish President Bashar al-Assad, not remove him from power.

But those clear efforts to placate opponents of military action appear to be failing. Warnings of “another Iraq” are fueling opposition to the use of force on both sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration’s contradictory record on secrecy is coming back to haunt it.

In Washington on Wednesday, one-third of the members of Congress asked that they be allowed to vote on any use of American force. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron's effort to gain support in Parliament for strikes failed, despite the release of an intelligence assessment which said Assad had used chemical weapons fourteen times since 2012.

Obama on King, but in a passive voice

It was a sermon — of sorts.

President Barack Obama’s address at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday only rarely echoed the cadence — the preacher’s rhythm — of the speech he was there to commemorate, and could not match its moral force. But this was a sermon all the same.

It was, to be precise, an exhortation against economic inequality — a fitting message on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and certainly in keeping with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

But the real measure of yesterday’s speech is not whether it was as powerful as King’s — will any speech ever be? — but whether it was the most effective speech Obama could have given on this stage, at this moment in time.

Fighting discrimination, as inequality grows

I grew up in the segregated South. I tell students the story of how, as a young boy, I went with my mother to Bloomberg’s Department Store on High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia. There was a stack of doilies on the ladies’ hat counter and I asked my mother what they were for. She explained that a black woman had to put a doily on her head before trying on a hat, because a white woman would not purchase a hat that had been on a black woman’s head.

My students think I am making all this up. They refuse to believe such things were true. It is too absurd, they insist.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” While the problem of discrimination has not been fully resolved, the country has made great progress since King spoke in 1963, which was before passage of the Civil Rights Act.

King’s legacy in the Age of Obama

When President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he will inevitably be compared to Martin Luther King Jr., whose oration that day framed the moral purpose of the civil rights movement.

But there are huge differences between the prophetic icon and the political prodigy that reveal the competing and, at times, conflicting demands of the vocations they embraced. If we fail to understand the difference between the two, we will never appreciate the arc of their social aspiration — or fairly measure King and Obama’s achievements.

Forty-five years after he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, King has become a global icon rivaled by few Americans. His outsized legend eclipsed the life he lived and overcame his enemies’ efforts to erase him from memory. King made a comeback in death from the bitter defeats near the end of his life, as the challenge of black militants made him seem increasingly out of touch. He has now leapfrogged virtually every other contender to be viewed as the greatest black American. Only Obama has come close to King’s popularity. But the preacher’s bloodstained sacrifice lifts him above the historic pull of presidential swagger.

NSA: Listening to everyone — except oversight

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

For 35 years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been the judicial equivalent of a stellar black hole — everything goes in but nothing is allowed to escape.

Last week, however, for the first time since its creation, the Obama administration declassified and made public large portions of an 85-page top-secret ruling by the court that had been the subject of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The surveillance court was created in 1978, designed to act as a safeguard to protect the public from the National Security Agency’s ever-expanding eavesdropping capabilities, and its long history of widespread illegal spying. For three decades leading up to 1975, for example, the agency had been secretly reading, without a warrant, millions of telegrams to and from Americans as they passed over the wires of Western Union and other telegraph companies — the Internet of the day. That was supposed to come to a halt with the creation of the court.

The Case Against Natural Gas Exports

President Barack Obama has made middle-class jobs and natural gas two of his top second-term policy objectives. Both could be undermined if his Department of Energy (DOE) continues to approve gas industry applications for exporting American gas.

There is already a move in Congress to remove DOE’s authority, so approvals can move even faster, and the oil and gas industry has thrown all its lobbying muscle behind this effort to steamroll through the permission process.

Natural gas, the cleanest of the hydrocarbon-based fuels, has long been a primary choice for heating and power generation, as well as an essential raw material, or “feedstock,” for a vast range of chemistry-based products, including every kind of plastic, synthetic cloth and high-tech composite materials. When gas supplies came under pressure in the late 1990s, the chemical industry — and most other energy-dependent U.S. heavy manufacturers — were hard hit.

Rebuilding America’s high-wage economy

Good for President Barack Obama for emphasizing the need to restore America’s middle class. However, the actual proposals in his new summer offensive would not go very far toward that worthy goal.

America is moving, at an accelerating pace, toward an economy with tens of millions of poorly paid service jobs at one end, and a relatively small number of astronomically compensated financial jobs at the other. In between the fast food workers, who demonstrated this week for a living wage, and the hedge fund billionaires is a new creative class heavily based on the Internet. But the web entrepreneurs are too narrow a segment on which to rebuild a broad middle class.

For a quarter-century after World War Two, America was a far more equal society — with jobs that paid a “family wage” on a single paycheck. One question dividing economists now is whether the more equal, high-wage economy of the postwar era is irrevocably gone with the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Or whether a service economy can become an egalitarian one with a different set of policies.

Time for Senate compromise on judicial nominees

All eyes were on the Senate last week as Democrats and Republicans reached an agreement to move forward on confirming certain stalled executive branch nominees. This new spirit of compromise was heralded, but before we begin celebrating, it is worth noting that judges were not part of the deal.

Federal trial and appellate courts have alarmingly high vacancy rates, each hovering at 10 percent. In the D.C. Circuit, which is often the final word on everything from environmental regulations to consumer protection rules, three of 11 seats remain vacant. In the trial courts, which resolve the vast majority of federal cases, the average number of vacancies has stayed above 60 for five straight years — the only time that this has happened in more than two decades. Nationwide, there are currently 85 federal judgeships that need to be filled.

One key reason vacancy levels are so high is obstruction in the Senate. Senators have used the filibuster and other procedural mechanisms to slow down the confirmation of even noncontroversial nominees, who were usually confirmed, eventually, with overwhelming approval.

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