Kevin Drum - September 2013

Fred Pohl Dies at 93

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 11:37 PM EDT

Sad news today:

Science fiction Grand Master Frederik Pohl has died, aged 93.

Pohl was one of last survivors of Science Fiction's “golden age” of the late 1930s and zearly 1940s, a time when he contributed to and edited pulp fiction magazines. He was also an important figure in the emergence of fandom, founding the “Futurians”.

A contemporary of Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, James Blish and other Sci Fi royalty, Pohl's initial impact as a novelist came in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. The pair penned The Space Merchants, a work considered a classic for its satire depicting a future society run in part by advertising agencies and eerily prescient today in the age of search engine optimisation.

When i09 asked a bunch of folks in 2008 to recommend a science fiction novel that you should read before stepping into the voting booth, my choice was The Merchants' War, Pohl's mid-80s sequel to The Space Merchants. It doesn't quite describe the way politicians are marketed today, but it's close enough to be scary.

Pohl's novels in the 90s and beyond were mostly fairly mediocre, but when he was good he was one of the best. I'm not sure any science fiction writer has ever written three consecutive novels as good as Man Plus, Gateway, and Jem. He'll be missed.

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Down on the Ground, Syrian Policy is Notably Lacking in Virtue

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

Here's a quick trawl through the latest news on Syria:

The White House is blitzing: The lobbying blitz stretched from Capitol Hill, where the administration held its first classified briefing on Syria open to all lawmakers, to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry reached Arab diplomats by phone in an attempt to rally international support for a firm response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Congress is skeptical: Members of Congress from across the political spectrum reacted with deep skepticism Sunday to President Obama's bid for approval of strikes against Syria, with lawmakers raising doubts about whether a vote would succeed.

Israelis are worried: Many here viewed Obama’s last-minute equivocation as the latest evidence of a growing U.S. reluctance to engage aggressively in the Middle East, a worrisome prospect for a nation that relies heavily on its close American ties to intimidate enemies. Vladimir Putin is....Vladimir Putin: Russia dramatically escalated its denunciations of American threats to attack Syrian military targets on Saturday, with President Vladimir Putin saying it would have been “utter nonsense” for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons as the Obama administration alleges.

Republicans are agonizing between their normal hawkishness and their desire to give Obama a black eye: President Barack Obama got a chilly response from Republican lawmakers on his request for support for military action in Syria after alleged chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad....The list of criticisms from Republicans was wide-ranging: The president should act on his own; he doesn’t have a plan; the U.S. military is degraded; the U.S. is war-weary; Mr. Obama has been too tentative; he has leaked too much of his plans already. Presidential hopefuls are more concerned with 2016 than with the Middle East: Some Republicans may oppose the president simply because they are opposed to the president. But that does not constitute a foreign or national security policy. The Republican Party now is divided among those in the neoconservative wing who led the call for invading Iraq and who continue to argue in favor of more robust action in Syria; those in the libertarian wing who want the United States generally to stay out any conflicts; and those in the middle who see a need for U.S. leadership but are tempered by public weariness with war.

Syrian rebels insist that Assad is now emboldened: Opposition activists said they were “deeply disappointed” with the decision. Rebel fighters also have predicted that Assad loyalists would seek to use the delay to escalate attacks on rebel strongholds. The Saudis want America to remain the region's policeman: Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal indirectly acknowledged Sunday that the Arab world remained reliant on the U.S. as the region's policeman of last resort against transgressions by fellow Arab states, as well as the Arab world's top tier of protection against Iran. "There is no capacity in the Arab world to respond to this kind of crisis," Prince Saud said, speaking of Syria. But not everyone in the Arab world agrees: However, some influential members of the league, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria, have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention.

Inspiring, isn't it? Why, it's almost as if the only thing anyone really cares about is their own narrow parochial interest. Enforcing a century-old ban against the use of chemical weapons may sound high-minded in the abstract, but down on the ground there's virtually no one who (a) actually cares about that and (b) would view a U.S. strike through that lens. You're for it because you're a Democrat or a Sunni or an Israeli or a member of the rebel army. You're against it if you're a Republican or a Shiite or an Egyptian or Vladimir Putin. Hardly anyone truly cares about American credibility or international norms or foreign policy doctrines or any of the other usual talking points. They've just chosen sides, that's all.

Regardless of your own personal view on a Syrian strike, you should keep this in mind. Your motivations—either for or against a strike—might be entirely virtuous, but there's very little virtue among the actors whose opinions actually matter. The lesson you think will be sent by either restraint or action is probably not the lesson the rest of the world will take from it.

A Wee Lesson in Political Scumbaggery

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 10:51 AM EDT

Here's a story for you to read today:

Fallout from report on O.C. city officials' salaries still rankles

This story is purely local. It has nothing to do with Labor Day. It has no particular partisan valence. It has a boring headline. There's no real policy lesson to be learned from it. It's merely a story of local politicians being petty and vindictive because someone has annoyed them. It is politics in a nutshell. Read it.

The Syria Vote Looks Likely to Provoke Plenty of Republican Fireworks

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 3:42 PM EDT

Republican senators explain what it will take to win their votes for air strikes against Syria:

“We need to have a strategy and a plan,” [John] McCain said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “In our view, the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of what we tell the American people.”

....Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said Congress should vote against a strike on Syria unless it receives convincing assurance that the U.S. will not be drawn into an all-out military conflict there. “My constituents are war weary,” he said. “They don’t want to see us involved in this.”

Translation: McCain will vote in favor only if there's a plan in place that pretty much guarantees escalation of U.S. involvement. Chambliss will vote in favor only if there's a plan in place that pretty much guarantees there won't be any further escalation.

I can't wait to see the text of the actual resolution that Congress eventually votes on. I predict maximum weaseliness—which, I admit, will be sort of amusing to watch considering the endless neocon bellowing for the past couple of years about Obama's wimpiness in the Middle East. Now we'll get to see if Republicans are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

Here's Why Obama's Syria Muddle Is So Disappointing

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 2:07 PM EDT

The history of presidential warmaking has always been complex and fraught, and it's been even more so in the post-Vietnam era governed by the War Powers Act of 1973. No president has ever acknowledged that the Act is binding on the executive, and despite both the Constitution's explicit grant of warmaking powers to Congress and the WPA's equally explicit requirement of congressional approval for extended military action, until recently presidents of both parties have sought congressional approval for military force only grudgingly if at all. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada without asking for congressional authorization. George Bush Sr. eventually sought approval for the Gulf War, but did so only under intense pressure and with troops already massed and ready. However, he didn't bother with Congress at all before he sent troops to either Panama or Somalia. Likewise, Bill Clinton sent troops to Haiti despite explicit congressional opposition, and later insisted that he didn't need congressional authorization for the war in Kosovo—after which Congress famously dithered for months, refusing to either support or oppose the air strikes cleanly. And this doesn't even count fuzzier operations like Reagan's covert wars in Afghanistan and Latin America.

In 2001, though, things changed. Despite his famously broad views of executive power, George Bush Jr. did seek congressional authorization for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And when Obama was asked in 2007 about the possibility of bombing Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons program, he was unequivocal about the president's authority as commander-in-chief:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation....History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

This is why I've been so disappointed in President Obama's use of military force. It's not that his use of the military has been self-evidently stupid. There was arguably a genuine humanitarian crisis in Libya that could be addressed at fairly low cost, and Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels is arguably a red line that the international community really should react to sharply.1 Nor is it because I'm really all that worried about escalation. I'm a little worried about it, but the truth is that Obama has generally shown pretty good sense here. He finished up George Bush's exit from Iraq on schedule; he kept U.S. involvement in Libya modest; and even after committing himself to escalation in Afghanistan he's shown himself equally committed to disengaging there on his original timetable instead of continually insisting that "one more year" will make all the difference.

Nor, in this case, is it because Obama has handled Syria poorly—although he has. As I said the other day, Greg Djerejian's rant about the Obama team's all-too-public mishandling of practically every facet of this operation is mostly fair. At the same time, "There's always a lot more messiness to these things than we think there should be, and often more messiness than we remember about similar episodes in the past." Obama may have screwed this up, but previous presidents have done much the same.

So it's not that either. The real reason I'm disappointed is that Obama had a chance to set a new precedent in foreign policy and didn't take it. Whatever else we liberals might think about George Bush's military acumen, he left office having explicitly asked Congress to authorize both of his major military actions before he undertook them. If Obama had acknowledged the War Powers Act as good law, acknowledged Congress's constitutional role in warmaking, and then voluntarily asked Congress for authorization of his proposed military operations in both Libya and Syria without being pressured into it, there's a good chance that future presidents would feel bound to do the same. This is the way norms become settled, and this is a norm that would have truly changed Washington DC for the better.

But he didn't do that, despite his apparent belief in 2007 that it was the right thing to do. It was a missed chance, and a disappointing one. I had hoped for better.

1For a variety of reasons, I'm not personally persuaded of this. But it's not self-evidently stupid.