Tag Archives: Jonathan Chait

Justifying the unjustifiable in Syria

Let’s start with the premise that some wars are justifiable. I’m with Jonathan Chait there. But he loses me very shortly thereafter in his piece from Tuesday:

The merits of intervening in Syria strike me as both a closer call and a lower-stakes matter than what we think of as “major wars.” The apparently forthcoming operation has much more modest ends than the intervention in Libya, which I supported and that succeeded in its aim. We will not be toppling a brutal regime or preventing an imminent massacre. The purpose of air strikes is to impose a cost on regimes that deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Essentially every line of this paragraph is inaccurate or incoherent. First, what, exactly, constitutes a “major war?” If a two-year-old civil war with a death toll exceeding 100,000 and displaced totals in the millions doesn’t count as one, then I’m not certain what it would take to persuade Chait of the war’s significance. (Like Mitt Romney’s conception of the upper class as households earning over $250,000 annually, it appears that Chait’s dataset of “major wars” is restricted to ones in which Americans die in sufficiently large numbers.)

I get what he’s trying to say: war may be devastating Syria, but an American intervention would pose little risk to the United States. To illustrate this point, he compares the proposed military action in Syria to that in Libya and concludes that the former actually represents the safer course of action.

This is, of course, absurd. Libya was led by Muammar Qaddafi, an increasingly isolated autocrat whose idiosyncrasies even his authoritarian Arab brothers despised, and they were only too happy to be rid of him. Virtually no one felt threatened, or was even particularly bothered, by what transpired in Libya: only a duped Russia (sign up for the no-fly zone, stay for regime change!) and a coterie of jittery Middle Eastern despots showed much concern. It was quite clear, in the end, that Qaddafi had no real leverage with anyone.

Contrast that with the situation in Syria today. Assad has the support of both Hezbollah and Iran. Oh, and Russia, which has already warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of an intervention in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is standing ready to respond in case of retaliation in the event of an American-led strike in Syria. In short, it is really quite easy to imagine a scenario in which at least six nations (Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the United States — and this doesn’t even include likely NATO partners such as the U.K.) are pulled into an increasingly intractable conflict. Syria is intricately woven into the political fabric of the Middle East in a way that Qaddafi’s Libya could only dream of being.

But Chait doesn’t stop there. He also insists, echoing a persistent journalistic theme that bears little resemblance to reality, that the Libya operation was a success. It is unclear whether he is referring to the prevention of a massacre in Benghazi or regime change itself as barometers of victory. In this failure, however, he is at least joined by the initial proponents of the Libya intervention, none of whom seemed to know the true objective either. In a preemptive rebuttal of his critics, he writes:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.

Again, this is sheer madness. The “narrow, humanitarian goal” to which Libya intervention advocates staked their early justifications was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi by establishing a no-fly zone, and not regime change. Of course, we never had any definitive proof that such a massacre would take place, only the histrionics of a famously melodramatic leader. So was the intervention a success? Only if measured against the presumed alternative of a guaranteed massacre, an event that — by definition — we can never know for certain would have happened in the first place. The goal was far from “unambiguously accomplished.”

What really gets me, though, is this part: “…without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against.” This is a truly astounding declaration. Here is a White House statement from March 22, 2011:

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, issued a statement acknowledging that President Obama would like to see a democratic government in Libya, but explained that the aim of the U.S. military’s intervention there is not to enact regime change.

“We’re clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future,” Rhodes said. “We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”

This “narrow, humanitarian” NATO campaign to prevent a massacre eventually lasted seven months, included nearly 8,000 bombs and missiles, and played a decisive role in the rebels’ eventual capture of Qaddafi — long after he possessed any capacity to massacre anyone.

And yet even this incongruence is hardly the worst aspect of Chait’s argument. That prize is awarded to this sentence: “Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened.”

Exactly. That’s just the point.

And so here we are again, pondering a supposedly limited engagement in Syria. Once again, the White House has explicitly denied that the goal of the (decreasingly hypothetical) intervention in Syria would be regime change. Once again, the objective is muddy: murkier, even, than the Libya strikes — which were at least superficially described, at the outset, as a response to an impending massacre. In Syria, the massacre has already taken place, and Obama has seemingly settled on the phrase “strong signal” (against the use of chemical weapons) as ample justification for a potential military mission.

And, once again, Syria will remain an ugly place with or without external intervention.

Chait concludes thusly:

But I continue to be amazed that some of my younger liberal friends find it so easy to dismiss any weighing of pros and cons by venturing arguments structurally identical to ones that, in a domestic context, they recognize as absurd.

I, in turn, continue to be amazed that Jonathan Chait finds war so casually justifiable. In the first quote I excerpted in this post, he wrote: “Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.”

That’s right: an intervention strikes him as better than doing nothing. That’s only slightly worse than going to war to send a “strong signal.” And yet, “doing nothing at all” isn’t even an option on the table. (For one, the U.S. has already promised to supply the rebels with arms, even if that vow has not necessarily been fulfilled yet.)

Indeed, this is the principal victory that the national security hawks have wrested from their dovish foes in the American political sphere: the idea that ever deciding not to intervene somewhere is a form of cowardice and isolationism. It’s why Rand Paul is consistently portrayed as a hermetic isolationist for the sole crime of opposing thoughtless military adventurism. (He’s rightly portrayed as a “wacko bird” for many other things, however.) And it’s why the decision to go to war is consistently portrayed as a garden-variety policy decision, like raising taxes or modifying vehicle emissions standards.

But it’s not. John Adams once said that “great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” After a string of them — initiated via flawed reasoning and later feted for their imaginary victories — it appears that war remorse, like John Adams, is history.

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The power of the bully pulpit

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Obama’s (non-)use of the bully pulpit in pressing his agenda, especially in the wake of his administration’s embarrassing defeat on gun control. Maureen Dowd kicked things off on Sunday:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

That got the ball rolling. Yesterday, The New York Times Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker reported on the same theme:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska — to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

The trip will also reinforce for Mr. Begich and his colleagues a truth about Mr. Obama: After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?

But Jonathan Chait isn’t having any of it:

During Bill Clinton’s first two terms, a Democratic senator from a red state (Richard Shelby of Alabama) defected on key votes. Clinton tried the “ruthless” approach of punishing Shelby by denying him these sorts of discretionary executive branch perks — first limiting his tickets to a ceremony honoring the Alabama football team, then threatening to move some NASA jobs out of his state. The tactic was universally seen to have backfired.

Did it really backfire? Probably not. Shelby voted the way he did because he assessed his own beliefs and interests. But that is the beauty of ignoring structural factors for stories about people: You can always tell a new one. If the president was nice, he should have been mean. If he was mean, he should have been nice. (Unless he prevailed, in which case his shrewd politicking saved the day!)

Obama faces a House controlled by far-right Republicans, and a Senate majority not sufficient to break what has become a routine supermajority requirement. And note that despite his national majority, Obama carried only 48 percent of House districts and 52 percent of the states, short of the threshold for passing laws in either chamber, which suggests that even a perfect effort to apply his popularity to any given issue is insufficient to pass a law.

Chait has a point. But I think there are two questions at play here simultaneously. One relates to Obama’s seeming unwillingness to get his hands dirty and shake some senators down, LBJ-style. The other is essentially a structural problem: when the vast majority of Americans support a legislative measure and it fails to succeed, one must ask whether our system is designed correctly for modern governance.

The answer to that question is almost assuredly no. The very fact that many news organizations now refer to votes that fail to obtain a supermajority in the same way they report on ones that don’t even receive a simple majority — as if the two scenarios equally demonstrate the bill’s unpopularity — is proof that the grinding inefficiency of Congress has permeated all aspects of our political activity. Broken institutions are so commonplace we don’t even notice them anymore.

This part is not Obama’s fault. But ironically enough, what the president’s team excelled at during his presidential campaign — setting the tone of the conversation early and defining his opponent before he had a chance to introduce himself to the broader public — his administration has abjectly failed at now. Virtually every major proposal Obama has introduced since he took office has been exaggerated, demonized, castigated, and lied about incessantly — only now and then provoking long-overdue and (by that point) completely ineffective responses in defense. So there is something to the bully pulpit theory. But it has less to do with what Obama should do today, now that gun control has lost anyway, and more to do with what he should have done years ago.

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The bombing backlash, and a false equivalence

Mm, not so much.

Jonathan Chait recaps the checkered performance of the media and the public in the Boston marathon bombing story:

In polarized America, both the reds and the blues have legitimate reason to fear that a tragedy will unleash an overly broad backlash. Liberals recall the false blame heaped on Muslim terrorists after Oklahoma City, and the real blame of 9/11 transforming into a fever of Bush-worship and jingoism. Conservatives recall mainstream reporters rushing to blame them, falsely, for shootings in Aurora and Tucson. It is also true that many Americans are eager, in senseless and fearful situations, for confirmation that the particular evil on display is the brand that conforms to their particular worldview. On Monday, there was comfort for some in the idea that the bombing was an act of tea-party loonies looking to exploit tax day. Among that same cohort was relief when the first pictures of the Tsarnaevs were released: The suspects were white, not Arab—maybe they were just another set of crazed teens with access to firearms. All week, nearly everyone was in a frenzy to profile, even those who should have known better.

There’s just one problem with this analysis: the consequences of misidentification are disproportionately stacked on one “side.” After the Oklahoma City bombing, the arrest and eventual execution of Timothy McVeigh had relatively little impact on American foreign and domestic policy. Sure, security was beefed up around federal buildings and other areas of interest, and President Bill Clinton attempted to leverage the attack into increased government powers, but life mostly went on.

Even after Aurora and Tucson, no one was rushing to strip conservatives of their legal rights, to surveil them more intensely, or anything else of the sort. Even if the killers had been conservatives, the most that liberals could’ve achieved is to point out (quite fairly) that conservatives can be just as extremist and violent as liberals (or liberals’ perceived “allies:” more on that in a moment).

Take, for example, the Norwegian massacre in 2011. Much of the American media rushed to broaden the scope of the gruesome attack, speculating immediately that the perpetrator was Muslim and, in so doing, implicating an entire religion. When it turned out he was a Christian conservative extremist instead, the cacophony of media bloodlust and anti-Muslim vitriol dwindled to mere whispers, the target of public anger was narrowed to a single man, and familiar defenses were trotted out: he was a lone madman, he didn’t represent any group other than himself, etc. These are, of course, sentiments not afforded Muslims and Arabs very often by these same publications.

There are, in other words, very light societal consequences for terrorism committed by ideological neighbors of the American conservative spectrum. But how quickly the tables turn when the suspect is a Muslim. (This is, in itself, an irony: nothing about fundamentalist Islam is remotely linkable to conventional liberalism, whereas fundamentalist Christianity is a crucial element within American conservatism. Islamic fundamentalism is, in fact, a much closer cousin of its Christian counterpart than it is of American progressivism.)

When the suspect is a Muslim, the consequences tend to be far greater and the overreactions more severe. September 11th, via a combination of mass hysteria, presidential incompetence, and public geopolitical ignorance, became a clear example of the catastrophe that can be unleashed on people-groups even in countries completely unrelated to the attacks.

A similarly frenzied dynamic is already enveloping the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, in some quarters. None other than U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham began publicly advocating the denial of basic rights to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev yesterday (a plea that was eventually successful, using a controversial “public safety” measure):

Indeed, Graham, joined by Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, as well as Representative Peter King, released a statement imperiously deeming Tsarnaev a “good candidate for enemy combatant status” and concluding:

We hope the Obama Administration will consider the enemy combatant option because it is allowed by national security statutes and U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

We continue to face threats from radical Islamists in small cells and large groups throughout the world. They have, as their primary focus, killing as many Americans as possible, preferably within the United States. We must never lose sight of this fact and act appropriately within our laws and values.

Even seemingly unrelated public policy issues are coming under fire as a “result” of the Boston Marathon bombing. See this piece from today, for example:

Opponents of immigration reform — the most promising priority of Obama’s second term remaining after the defeat of gun control — are already using the attack to try to slow progress on a bipartisan Senate bill.

More broadly, the attack is raising questions about how the administration should deal with 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured Friday after an exhaustive manhunt in Boston, and concerns over whether the FBI was too complacent in letting his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev out of its sight after interviewing him in 2011.

So yes, it is true that, once the initial shock of the tragedy itself has been absorbed, both liberals and conservatives begin wincing at the possible fallout depending on who committed the crime. But as we have learned well over the years, public policy changes most when the suspect is part of a group used as a favorite conservative punching bag (in this case, Muslims). When the suspect is in any way connected to conservatism, the consequences are virtually nonexistent.

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The politics of The Dark Knight Rises, or How Liberals Rule Hollywood

Prolific writer-philosopher Slavoj Žižek pontificates on what The Dark Knight Rises means to say about “radical” movements such as Occupy Wall Street:

…It is all too simple to claim that there is no violent potential in [Occupy Wall Street] and similar movements – there IS a violence at work in every authentic emancipatory process: the problem with the film is that it wrongly translated this violence into murderous terror…

Is, then, this all? Should the film just be flatly rejected by those who are engaged in radical emancipatory struggles? Things are more ambiguous, and one has to read the film in the way one has to interpret a Chinese political poem: absences and surprising presences count.  Recall the old French story about a wife who complains that her husband’s best friend is making illicit sexual advances towards her: it takes some time till the surprised friend gets the point – in this twisted way, she is inviting him to seduce her… It is like the Freudian unconscious which knows no negation: what matters is not a negative judgment on something, but the mere fact that this something is mentioned – in The Dark Knight Rises,people’s power IS HERE, staged as an Event, in a key step forward from the usual Batman opponents (criminal mega-capitalists, gangsters and terrorists).

Here we get the first clue – the prospect of the OWS movement taking power and establishing people’s democracy on Manhattan is so patently absurd, so utterly non-realist, that one cannot but raise the question: WHY DOES THEN A MAJOR HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER DREAM ABOUT IT, WHY DOES IT EVOKE THIS SPECTER? Why even dream about OWS exploding into a violent takeover? The obvious answer (to smudge OWS with accusations that it harbors a terrorist-totalitarian potential) is not enough to account for the strange attraction exerted by prospect of “people’s power.” No wonder the proper functioning of this power remains blank, absent: no details are given about how this people’s power functions, what the mobilized people are doing (remember that Bane tells the people they can do what they want – he is not imposing on them his own order).

This is why external critique of the film (“its depiction of the OWS reign is a ridiculous caricature”) is not enough – the critique has to be immanent, it has to locate within the film itself a multitude signs which point towards the authentic Event. (Recall, for example, that Bane is not just a brutal terrorist, but a person of deep love and sacrifice.) In short, pure ideology isn’t possible, Bane’s authenticity HAS to leave trace in the film’s texture. This is why the film deserves a close reading: the Event – the “people’s republic of Gotham City”, dictatorship of the proletariat on Manhattan – is immanent to the film, it is its absent center.

Meanwhile, over at New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait zooms out on how the film industry’s leftist politics translates itself into cultural clout as well:

By now, conservatives have almost completely stopped complaining about Hollywood, even as the provocations have intensified. What passes for a right-wing movie these days is The Dark Knight Rises, which submits the rather modest premise that, irritating though the rich may be, actually killing them and taking all their stuff might be excessive. In the course of a generation we have come from a world in which the gentle liberalism of Murphy Brown incited furious right-wing denunciations to one in which the only visible political controversy surrounding Girls—a show that’s basically a 30-minute-long Dan Quayle aneurysm—was its lack of racial diversity…

This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.

More on same-sex marriage and Romney’s high school “pranks”

I’m having trouble embedding Daily Show videos, so just take a look at this link to see Jon Stewart saying pretty much exactly what I’d mentioned — but in a much funnier and more sarcastic way —  about how far we’ve come in our national conversation.

Secondly, it turns out that the military did not spontaneously combust or cease to exist or explode into a million pieces due to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after all:

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2012 – A new report shows the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law is being implemented successfully in the military, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said during a news conference today.

The repeal of the law banning gay and lesbian people from open military service took effect Sept. 20, 2011. The secretary said he received the report on repeal implementation yesterday, and it shows repeal is going “very well” and according to the department’s plans.

“It’s not impacting on morale. It’s not impacting on unit cohesion. It is not impacting on readiness,” he said.

Panetta said he credits military leaders for effective repeal planning.

“Very frankly, my view is that the military has kind of moved beyond it,” he said. “It’s become part and parcel of what they’ve accepted within the military.”

During the same conference, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has not seen “any negative effect on good order and discipline” resulting from the repeal.

In response to a reporter’s question of what the military had been afraid of in allowing open service, the chairman said, “We didn’t know.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Chait at New York expresses some caution (which is different than entirely ignoring it) as to Mitt Romney’s bullying high-school self:

The best way to assess a candidate is not to plumb his youth for clues to his character but to look at his positions and public record. The problem is that this is a harder exercise with Romney than almost any other national politician. He has had to run in such divergent atmospheres, and has thus had to present himself in such wildly different ways at different times, that his record becomes almost useless. There is hardly a stance Romney has taken that he has not negated at one point or another. This makes the fraught task of trying to pin down his true character more urgent, though not any easier.

My cautious, provisional take is that this portrait of the youthful Romney does suggest a man who grew up taking for granted the comforts of wealth and prestige. I don’t blame him for accepting the anti-gay assumptions of his era. The story does give the sense of a man who lacks a natural sense of compassion for the weak. His prankery seems to have invariably singled out the vulnerable — the gay classmate, the nearly blind teacher, the nervous day student racing back to campus. It’s entirely possible to grow out of that youthful mentality — to learn to step out of your own perspective, to develop an appreciation for the difficulties faced by those not born with Romney’s many blessings. I’m just not sure he ever has.