Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Martin Bashir and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank this week about why the GOP is in a state of anarchy as they threaten a government shutdown unless Obamacare is defunded. Watch here:
Washington's version of Groundhog Day is approaching. In the coming days and weeks, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans will again have to resolve dust-ups over spending legislation for the federal government (to avert a government shutdown) and the debt ceiling (to avoid a possible financial crisis). And to make this process more tortuous, conservative GOPers are insisting that the repeal of Obamacare be part of the mix, with House Republicans scheduled to vote this week on a bill to continue funding the government that withholds money for the health care law. On Monday, Obama all but dared the tea-party-driven Rs to shutter the government over Obamacare and took a hard line on the debt ceiling, declaring, "I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations…Let's stop the threats. Let's stop the political posturing. Let's keep our government open." But given the passions within the Grand Old Party, it could be tough for Obama to navigate the latest iteration of the Washington's never-ending budget fight—especially since this time around, he may have to do so without his secret weapon: Mitch McConnell.
Wait a minute, you say. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader who has been the drum major in the GOP's parade of obstructionism? The guy who famously quipped in 2010, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president"? Somehow he is key to Obama surviving the perilous course ahead? Well, in the past three years, McConnell has been a central player in cooking up with the White House those crafty compromises that resolved a string of budget and tax showdowns precipitated by House Republican recalcitrance. Yet nowadays, McConnell may be unable to reprise his show-saving role.
In a prime-time speech on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama made a forceful case for a possible strike against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. He reiterated the argument that the United States has both a humanitarian obligation to respond to the horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians, and a national security interest in preventing Assad from using such weapons again and signaling to other tyrants that such attacks will not be tolerated. The president tried to deploy both emotion (referring to the dreadful images from the August 21 chemical weapon attack near Damascus) and logic (contending that an assault would lessen the odds of future attacks, limit the possibility that chemical weapons fall into the hands of extremists, and prevent US troops from facing chemical weapons in conflicts down the road). He tried to respond to the main reservations raised by lawmakers and voters. (Should the United States be the world's policeman? No, but no one else can respond to this particular attack now.) The news of the night was that he asked Congress to put off any vote on a resolution authorizing him to launch a limited strike against Syria so that the United States could pursue the deal proposed by Russia that would place Assad's chemical weapons under international control. And Obama announced he was sending Kerry to negotiate with the Russian foreign minister. Still, the speech was aimed at bolstering support on Capitol Hill and within the public for military action against Syria, if diplomacy fails. Obama summed up his case:
Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
There's no telling whether this speech will win over skeptical citizens and legislators. But with a diplomatic resolution possible—though by no means a given—and a showdown in Congress postponed, perhaps Obama did not have to.
Members of the Free Syrian Army chatting in front of a T-72 tank parked in a secret location close to al-Rami village.
In search of popular and congressional support for a limited and narrow strike on Syria, President Barack Obama has contended that the aim of military action would be to punish Bashar al-Assad's regime for its presumed use of chemical weapons and deter it from the further use of such horrific arms. The possible Russia-brokered deal that has emerged in the face of Obama's threatened attack—Syria submitting its chemical weapons to international control—could prevent a US assault on Syria and yield Obama a diplomatic victory. But he would have to settle for an incomplete win. Assad would presumably not be able to launch another massive chemical weapons attack, but the Syrian dictator would not be truly punished for his military's use of chemical weapons.
Under the no-details-yet arrangement being pursued by Washington, Moscow, and the United Nations, Assad would presumably give up control of his chemical weapons stock. How that happens remains to be seen. Will he hand over these arms to the UN or another international agency for destruction? Will he allow inspectors to monitor and guard his storage facilities? Will he truly honor the agreement and not stash some chemical weapons in a hiding place? But any regimen would certainly make it difficult, if not impossible, for Assad to once again use chemical weapons against his foes. Moreover, Vladimir Putin and Russia would now be on the hook, essentially guarantors that Assad would not again resort to such arms. And given that Russia is Assad's No. 1 sponsor, Assad could not afford to tick off Moscow. So no matter how imperfect the international control system might be, there will be plenty of incentive for Assad to keep his hands off chemical weapons—and for Russia to lean on him. (Of course, in extreme circumstances—say, a situation in which the survival of the regime is at stake—Assad and his Russian pals might rejigger their calculations.) Consequently, a deal would likely achieve what Obama has sought: deterring Assad from further chemical weapons attacks.
Yet the accord in the works has no punitive aspect. Assad will not be held accountable for the August 21 attack near Damascus that killed 1400 civilians, including many children. And he will be able to continue slaughtering others with conventional means. Will other tyrants get the message that using chemical weapons will not be accepted by the international community?
Still, the possible unintended consequences of a punitive strike on Syria remain: civilian casualties, shifting the balance of power in favor of Al Qaeda-connected rebels, and creating more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. Is punishing Assad worth potentially destabilizing the country further? (A collapse of the Syrian regime could lead to a WMD free-for-all there.) If this deal solidifies—and that's a good-sized if—Obama might have to accept deterrence as the net gain. Afterward, he can focus on the tougher challenge of resolving the Syrian conflict and bringing Assad to justice.
Here's why President Barack Obama is in a jam: He cannot obtain support for a military strike against Syria within Congress and the public at large by simply saying "trust me," and he cannot (at least with the public) provide a full explanation of the costs and benefits of this military action.
On Tuesday night, Obama will deliver an Oval Office speech to try to sway the American public to support the assault (unless somehow the Russia-brokered deal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control comes together), and he and his aides keep emphasizing that the attack will be limited, narrow, and tailored—"unbelievably small," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it. But the task at hand remains a difficult one. The strike would have to achieve a very particular aim (punishing Bashar al-Assad and deterring his regime from the further use of chemical weapons) without yielding a variety of negative consequences, including causing excessive civilian casualties, changing the balance of power on the ground to the benefit of opposition forces aligned with Al Qaeda, triggering counterattacks against US or Israeli targets, and/or prompting more chaos and conflict in Syria and the region. And for a war-weary public, it is not easy to sort out the odds of success and failure without access to the best information the administration possesses.