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.
Just because you should do something doesn't mean you ought to.
That might sum up one way of thinking about whether the United States should bomb Syria in response to the horrific chemical weapons attack presumably launched by regime forces against civilians earlier this month. The assault, which led to the deaths of 1,400 Syrians, including children, was a dramatic step over President Barack Obama's "red line" and prompted the administration to move toward a punitive strike that would be designed not to affect the ongoing balance of power in the continuing Syrian civil war but to deter President Bashar al-Assad and his military forces from further use of chemical weapons. Immediately, a trans-Atlantic debate ensued over whether such military action would be appropriate, effective, and wise. And this afternoon—as the White House released a four-page unclassified assessment declaring that Assad regime officials "were witting of and directed the attack on August 21"—Secretary of State John Kerry made a public statement presenting the case for a limited attack.
In the face of public opinion overwhelmingly opposed to US military action in Syria, Kerry argued that the United States had a humanitarian obligation to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons and a duty to preserve America's credibility and that of the civilized world:
It matters to our security and the security of our allies. It matters to Israel. It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus. It matters to all of them where the Syrian chemical weapons are—and if unchecked they can cause even greater death and destruction to those friends. And it matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries, whose policy has challenged these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say.
Killing people—no doubt, some civilians would perish in a limited strike—to demonstrate credibility and toughness is not the most high-minded of arguments. Should innocents die because Obama (perhaps in a misguided move) drew a line in the sand? But there is some merit to the contention that a tyrant should not be permitted to deploy unconventional weapons with impunity.
A few days ago, I asked David Kay, the former UN weapons inspector who led the search for the nonexistent WMD in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, why he supported an attack on Assad in response to the chemical weapon massacre. He noted:
It is a terror weapon of extraordinary power…I believe if Assad gets away with showing other regimes how they can use CW to gain the upper hand in a conflict…[it] is something we should not want. Imagine if the Libyan rebellion had not occurred first, but were to be about to start. In this interconnected world we should want to maintain a ban on the use of weapons that can have large and sudden impacts. To kill 100,000 has taken Assad more than a year…Unless we now take action the wrong lesson is likely to have been learned.
It is hard to watch the videos of the victims of the chemical weapons attack and shrug. But all actions have their costs—even justifiable actions. And the question here is this: Can Obama mount a limited, targeted, and effective strike that will indeed deter Assad without drawing the United States deeper into the ongoing civil war, causing unacceptable unintended consequences (say, a high number of civilian casualties), and/or further inflaming conflicts within the region? That's a tall order. Perhaps he and his military aides can devise such an assault and thread this needle. But Kerry, who took no questions after delivering his statement, neglected to discuss various options. Which was natural, for the administration understandably has no desire to telegraph the specifics of what apparently now is an inevitable strike (with or without any explicit approval from Congress, which is hardly rushing to vote on the matter).
In his tough-worded statement, Kerry, the onetime anti-war activist, resorted to a familiar rhetorical device. "What is the risk of doing nothing?" he asked. (George W. Bush repeatedly used similar language in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.) Yet decrying doing nothing does not justify a specific action. The Hippocratic Oath counsels: First, do no harm. A military strike would do some harm. Will the gain outweigh the harm? Obama is often adept at working through complicated calculations. But in war—and in the Middle East—intelligent calculations can look rather different after the fact.
The drums of war are beating, as various news reports state that President Barack Obama and his European allies are close to launching some sort of military attack against Syria. But one question is how big the bang will be. The White House has signaled that whatever comes will be strictly a punitive strike in retaliation for the Assad regime's presumed use of chemical weapons against civilians. It will not be an action aimed at toppling Bashar al-Assad or changing the overall strategic dynamic of the ongoing civil war in Syria. The supposed goal is to deter Assad from resorting to chemical weapons again. Foreign policy experts disagree—of course—on whether any assault of this nature would achieve that end, and such an action could have unintended consequences (say, a host of dead civilians) that might render it not a clear-cut success. But the band of neocons that led the United States into the Iraq War have quickly moved to seize on the administration's inclination to mount a punitive strike in order to draw the nation further into the conflict in Syria.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Initiative—which was started by Bill Kristol, Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, and other hawkish-minded policy wonks—sent a letter to Obama, urging him to slam Assad in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria: "At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons."
But the letter—which was signed by Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, Ellen Bork, Eliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, Joseph Lieberman, Clifford May, Joshua Muravchik, Danielle Pletka, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Kristol, Kagan, Senor, and dozens of others—demands that Obama go further. It calls on the president to provide "vetted moderate elements of Syria's armed opposition" with the military support necessary to strike regime units armed with chemical weapons. That is, the neocons and their allies have CW-ized their pre-existing demand for the United States to arm the rebels.
And there's more: "The United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad's chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime's airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants." Plus, Obama should not only aid the rebels to thwart additional chemical weapons attacks; he should arm "moderate elements" of the opposition so that they can "prevail against" the Assad regime and the rebel factions affiliated with Al Qaeda or other Islamic extremists. In other words, get in whole hog.
Every sign from the White House indicates that the president does not want the United States to become a major participant in the Syrian conflict, let alone a key player in what could become a three-way civil war. It remains to be seen how Obama can thread the needle with a punitive strike that achieves its punitive goal but that does not lead to deeper US involvement in the war. But for the neocons and others—also signing the letter were Leon Wieseltier, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Tim Pawlenty—this is a moment to exploit. They want to turn a punitive strike into a commitment for war, and they have redeployed an argument from a decade ago: "The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond."
Here's the full letter:
August 27, 2013
The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has once again violated your red line, using chemical weapons to kill as many as 1,400 people in the suburbs of Damascus. You have said that large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria would implicate "core national interests," including "making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region." The world—including Iran, North Korea, and other potential aggressors who seek or possess weapons of mass of destruction—is now watching to see how you respond.
We urge you to respond decisively by imposing meaningful consequences on the Assad regime. At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship's military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.
Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.
Left unanswered, the Assad regime's mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America's red lines are only empty threats. It is a dangerous and destabilizing message that will surely come to haunt us—one that will certainly embolden Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability despite your repeated warnings that doing so is unacceptable. It is therefore time for the United States to take meaningful and decisive actions to stem the Assad regime’s relentless aggression, and help shape and influence the foundations for the post-Assad Syria that you have said is inevitable.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington—the 50th anniversary of which is being commemorated this week—marked a high point in US history. It was a soaring moment in which the the soul of the civil rights movement was bared to the nation, as King bravely recognized the daunting obstacles to progress but expressed unbound optimism that justice would ultimately reign. There was, though, a dark side to the event, for it triggered an ugly and brutal reaction within one of the most powerful offices of the land. In response to King's address, J. Edgar Hoover, the omnipotent FBI director, intensified the bureau's clandestine war against the heroic civil rights leader.
For years, Hoover had been worried—or obsessed—by King, viewing him as a profound threat to national security. Hoover feared that the communist conspiracy he was committed to smashing (whether it was a real danger or not) was the hidden hand behind the civil rights movement and was using it to subvert American society. He was fixated on Stanley Levison, an adviser to King who years earlier had been involved with the Communist Party, and in 1962 the FBI director convinced Attorney General Robert Kennedy to authorize tapping the business phone and office of Levison, who often spoke to King. Then Hoover, as Tim Weiner puts it in his masterful history of the FBI, Enemies, began to "bombard" President John Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, and leading members of Congress with "raw intelligence reports about King, Levison, the civil rights movement, and Communist subversion." Hoover's priority mission was to discredit King among the highest officials of the US government. Though King scaled back his contacts with Levison—after both RFK and JFK warned King about associating with communists—Hoover kept firing off memos, Weiner notes, "accusing King of a leading role in the Communist conspiracy against America."
The August 1963 march, which captured the imagination of many Americans, further unhinged Hoover and his senior aides. The day after the speech, William Sullivan, a top Hoover aide, noted in a memo, "In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech…We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security." Six weeks later, pressured by Hoover, Bobby Kennedy authorized full electronic surveillance of King. FBI agents placed bugs in King's hotel rooms; they tapped his phones; they bugged his private apartment in Atlanta. The surveillance collected conversations about the civil rights movement's strategies and tactics—and also the sounds of sexual activity. Hoover was enraged by the intelligence about King's private activities. At one point, according to Weiner's book, while discussing the matter with an aide, an irate Hoover banged a glass-topped desk with his fist and shattered it.
Hoover did not let up. A little more than a year after the march, after King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Hoover told a group of reporters that King was "the most notorious liar in the country." But the FBI's war on King was uglier than name-calling. Weiner writes:
[William Sullivan] had a package of the King sex tapes prepared by the FBI's lab technicians, wrote an accompanying poison-pen letter, and sent both to King's home. His wife opened the package.
"King, look into your heart," the letter read. The American people soon would "know you for what you are—an evil, abnormal beast…There is only one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."
The president [Lyndon Johnson] knew Hoover had taped King's sexual assignations. Hoover was using the information in an attempt to disgrace King at the White House, in Congress, and in his own home.
Worse, it seems the FBI was trying to encourage King to kill himself.
Hoover kept feeding Johnson (who'd become president after JFK's 1963 assassination) intelligence suggesting King was a commie stooge. In 1967, when the FBI mounted an operation to disrupt, discredit, and neutralize so-called "black hate" groups, it focused on King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as Hoover publicly blamed King for inciting African Americans to riot. The following year, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray, who subsequently evaded an FBI manhunt, to be captured two months later by Scotland Yard in England.
As the March on Washington is remembered five decades later, it should be noted that King's successes occurred in the face of direct and underhanded opposition from forces within the US government, most of all Hoover, who did not hesitate to abuse his power and use sleazy and legally questionable means to mount his vendetta against King.
Today, the FBI's headquarters in downtown Washington is officially called the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, named after the paranoid chief who hounded King and did all he could to thwart the civil rights movement. In recent years, critics have proposed erasing Hoover's name, but the headquarters has not been de-Hoovered. Late last year, it was reported that the FBI offices, which have come into disrepair, might soon be torn down, with a new HQ constructed elsewhere in the Washington area. If so, it would be fitting that Hoover be hauled off with the rubble. After all, there's a good reason why Americans today remember and celebrate the words and actions of King, and why Hoover's foul and un-American campaign against King remains in the shadows of history.
As Mother Jones revealed last week, Groundswell, the hush-hush right-wing strategy group partly led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, wanted to hype the Benghazi tragedy into a full-fledged scandal for the Obama administration, as part of its "30 front war" on the president and progressives. A secret audio tape of one of Groundswell's weekly meetings shows that prominent members of the group pressed House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chair of the House oversight committee, to expand the Benghazi investigation and make this supposed scandal a top-priority for congressional Republicans. This recording indicates Groundswell's mission extends beyond message coordination to scandal-stoking.
The tape has been posted at Crooks and Liars, a progressive web site, and it captured the first 20 minutes of Groundswell's May 8 meeting. (The site does not say how the recording was obtained.) The meeting opened with a prayer ("Father, we thank you for the opportunity to gather here as free Americans"), and a roll call was taken. Among those present were former GOP Rep. Allen West, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, and Ginni Thomas. Catherine Engelbrecht, a founder of True the Vote, led the meeting, and the first order of business was a report on the Benghazi controversy from Boykin and Gaffney.
The pair reported on meetings they had held the previous night with Boehner and Issa. The two Groundswellers had encouraged the lawmakers to set up a special committee to investigate the attacks on the US facilities in Benghazi. Boykin, according to the recording, noted that Boehner had said he wanted the process "to play out" first, apparently meaning that he wasn't yet ready to step up the GOP Benghazi campaign. Boehner, Boykin recounted, had expressed the concern that were he to create such a committee, the media would cover it as a political stunt designed to bring down Obama.
Boykin, a retired general and Christian fundamentalist who caused a dust-up in 2003 when he gave a speech (while still on active duty) saying that his god was "a real god" and Allah was an "idol," told the Groundswellers that he expected the Benghazi matter to blossom into a full-blown scandal: "We've got an ugly baby here and it's going to get uglier." He maintained that "we're going to find...a huge deception."
Gaffney, a birther who has been booted out of several conservative outfits for his fiercely anti-Islam views and who has accused Obama of "submission to Islam," added, "I'm somewhat encouraged that they're taking this thing very much to heart and we really impressed upon [Boehner] that there's a lot of restiveness on the part of folks like us, and some of their donors as a matter of fact, about what's happening here." In other words, Boykin and Gaffney were issuing something of a warning to Boehner and Issa: Go hard on Benghazi or risk losing financial and grassroots support.
After the two were done, Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, counseled fellow Groundswellers on how they should handle the Benghazi controversy. Don't mention impeachment of Hillary Clinton, he cautioned, for that would only politicize the issue and "hurt the goal" of establishing a special congressional committee. Then Engelbrecht added, "I think they have all the notes on Benghazi. Let's move ahead."
As of yet, Boykin, Gaffney, and the other Groundswellers have not gotten the special Benghazi committee they wanted. But the recording shows that Groundswell has access to the top leaders of the GOP, and its reps are not reluctant to pressure those pols.
Poor Mitt Romney. He seems unable to come to terms with one of the most significant episodes in his public life: the 47 percent video that undercut his chance of becoming president of the United States.
Sunday's Washington Postfeatured an article adapted from reporter Dan Balz's new 2012 campaign book, Collision 2012, and the excerpt focused on Romney's take on why he entered the race and why he lost. Toward the end of the article, which was based on a series of interviews Balz conducted with Romney, the twice-failed Republican presidential candidate was forced to confront his 47-percent remarks, and he just couldn't do so forthrightly.
First, Romney blamed his initial botched response to the video—his bungled, impromptu press conference the night Mother Jones released the video—on a misperception of what was on the video:
[Romney] was in California and said at first he couldn't get a look at the video. His advisers were pushing him to respond as quickly as he could. "As I understood it, and as they described it to me, not having heard it, it was saying, 'Look, the Democrats have 47 percent, we’ve got 45 percent, my job is to get the people in the middle, and I've got to get the people in the middle,'" he said. "And I thought, 'Well, that’s a reasonable thing.'... It's not a topic I talk about in public, but there's nothing wrong with it. They've got a bloc of voters, we've got a bloc of voters, I've got to get the ones in the middle. And I thought that that would be how it would be perceived—as a candidate talking about the process of focusing on the people in the middle who can either vote Republican or Democrat. As it turned out, down the road, it became perceived as being something very different."
Whoa. He first thought the video only showed him stating the obvious? That Obama had his voters, Romney had his supporters, and the small percentage in between was up for grabs? Well, that would have hardly caused a fuss. But here's what doesn't track: When the video was posted, an article accompanied the video with a transcript of what Romney had said. Anyone with a smart phone could access the video and the transcript of his remarks, in which he stated:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax..."[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."