Opinion

The Great Debate

Making frenemies with Putin

Anyone who ever worried that Barack Obama might not be Made in the USA should take comfort from his quintessentially American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give temporary asylum to Edward Snowden: pouting.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike tend to believe that if other countries don’t act like our “friends,” then they must be our enemies. This attitude creates unrealistic expectations that slow the healing of old injuries, and subverts the potential for a meeting of minds on critical issues — such as Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

It’s a truism that nations have interests, not friends or enemies. This may sound cynical, but interests act as lighthouses on the rocky shores of foreign policy. In a storm, they help governments distinguish between what they must do to survive, and what they might wish to do if seas were calm.

It is deeply in the interest of the United States to engage other countries in umpiring the peace of the world — and thereby make itself less of a target. Russia has an equal interest in helping Syria, its neighbor and ally, out of the messy corner into which President Bashar al-Assad has painted himself. Moscow also needs to contain the regional damage that could otherwise spill into Putin’s backyard. We can and should work together, letting our interests rather than our passions guide us.

History shows that Russia is neither America’s permanent ally nor our permanent enemy. In the 19th century, czarist Russia was the closest thing the United States had to a friend. In the Civil War, it alone of the great powers offered succor to the Union, and shortly afterward Moscow sold Alaska to the United States in preference to Great Britain, which controlled adjacent Canada.

from David Rohde:

For Obama, a contradiction too many

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama's initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

The politics of Syria

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

Obama’s flawed case for a Syria strike

We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

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.

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.

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