Kevin Drum - 2013

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.

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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.

Obama Asks Congress to Approve Syria Strike

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

Here's the latest on Syria:

President Obama stunned the capital and paused his march to war on Saturday by asking Congress to give him authorization before he launches a limited military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.

In a hastily organized appearance in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he had decided that the United States should use force but would wait for a vote from lawmakers, who are not due to return to town for more than a week. Mr. Obama said he believed he has authority to act on his own but did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.

Good for him. He only did it under pressure, but at least he did it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also forces Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibilities, something they should spend more time doing and less time constantly squawking about.

As for whether or not Obama will go ahead with an attack even if Congress rejects it, I can hardly imagine he would. Am I wrong about that? Is there even the slightest chance he'd go ahead even if Congress votes against it?

POSTSCRIPT: Not that they will. I predict he'll get at least 60 percent approval. As an aside, Obama will be out of town for most of next week. Given the middle-school temperament of much of Congress, that might actually make approval easier to get.

How to Make a Risk-Free Fortune on Wall Street

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 10:40 AM EDT

Redline Trading Solutions recently allowed Berkeley professor Terrence Hendershott to conduct a study with its high-speed trading technology, which gave him access to stock prices a few milliseconds before everyone else. This meant that Hendershott knew, before he bought the stock, which way the price would move a fraction of a second later. As you might expect, this is a risk-free license to mint money:

According to his study, in one day (May 9), playing one stock (Apple), Hendershott walked away with almost $377,000 in theoretical profits by picking off quotes on various exchanges that were fractions of a second out of date. Extrapolate that number to reflect the thousands of stocks trading electronically in the U.S., and it's clear that high-frequency traders are making billions of dollars a year on a simple quirk in the electronic stock market.

One way or another, that money is coming out of your retirement account. Think of it like the old movie The Sting. High-speed traders already know who has won the horse race when your mutual fund manager lays his bet. You're guaranteed to come out a loser. You're losing in small increments, but every mickle makes a muckle — especially in a tough market.

"It's clear to us these guys are just raping, pillaging, and plundering the market," as Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of agency brokerage Themis Trading put it.

Click the link for more details, along with a simple and interesting idea for putting an end to this. In practice, stock markets are never going to be fair to every participant, but at the very least, their rules are supposed to make them theoretically fair to all comers. High-speed trading makes a mockery of this.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 30 August 2013

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Happy last weekday of August! It's been a little warm around here this week, and Domino knows what that means. It means you stretch out your body as much as you possibly can and dissipate as much heat as possible. So that's what she's doing.

The Fed's Job Just Got a Lot Easier

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 2:42 PM EDT

Speaking of inflation, Josh Mitchell reports that it's still low, continuing to trend even lower, and that this could "complicate" the Fed's decision-making next month:

Both overall prices and core prices (excluding food and energy) rose a tepid 0.1% in July....From a year earlier, overall prices rose 1.4% while core prices rose just 1.2%....That’s well below the Fed’s target of 2% inflation.

....The central bank, in a statement after its July meeting, acknowledged its concerns about inflation remaining low. The Federal Open Market Committee said inflation “persistently below its 2% objective could pose risks to economic performance, but it anticipates that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term.”

You know, there are some things that really are complicated. The Middle East is complicated. Education policy is complicated. Quantum mechanics is complicated. But low inflation? That should make the Fed's job less complicated. It means they don't have to worry about whether stimulative monetary policy will send us into an inflationary spiral, which in turn means that boosting economic growth and reducing unemployment are the only things they have to think about right now. That should make their job easier, not harder.

Repeat After Me: Always Adjust for Inflation. Always Adjust for Inflation.

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Lydia DePillis shows us the chart on the right, which comes from a recent study of the effect of corporate mergers on the price of beer, and says this:

This looks like a scary graph of beer price increases. The researchers determined, though, that the rise is largely not attributable to consolidation in the industry; there may be other factors at play.

Urk! What this really shows is the result of inflation. I've overlaid in red the CPI for food and beverages since 2007, and beer prices match it exactly. The economists who wrote the study may have used nominal prices in their chart instead of real prices because that's what they needed as input for their statistical manipulations, but this is a classic case of why you have to watch out for this kind of thing. What the researchers say they found is that the merger of Miller and Coors produced a 2 percent increase in prices that was offset by a 2 percent decrease in transportation costs, but that has nothing to do with the increase you see in the chart. That's all inflation.

President Obama's Epically Botched Syria Policy

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 12:30 PM EDT

A couple of years ago Greg Djerejian sort of semi-quit blogging and he pretty much fell off my radar screen. But he still blogs. He just does it infrequently and I haven't noticed it. But back in the day, there was no one better for firing off a memorable foreign policy rant when he had finally had enough and wasn't going to take it anymore. Today, via Patrick Appel, it turns out that Djerejian has had quite enough of President Obama's Syria policy:

The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won't even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display.

....The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment....If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue....In short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.

This past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.

That's a righteous rant. Is it fair? Probably not entirely. 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.

Nonetheless, it seems mostly fair to me. It's pretty plain that Obama has boxed himself in; is conflicted about what to do; has made that conflictedness all too public; has no real long-term strategy in mind; and flatly failed to realize that there would be any real opposition to intervening in Syria. Lack of strategic vision aside (America was firing a "shot across the bow"? Seriously?), it's the last point that's most mind-boggling. Obama seemingly didn't realize that the American public wasn't on board; Congress wasn't on board; our allies weren't all on board; and even his own administration wasn't entirely on board. I'm not quite sure how a professional politician could have botched this so epically, but he did.

Obama never should have set a red line in Syria in the first place, and once he did he should simply have found a way to weasel out of it. It's not that hard. Sure, the forever-hawks would have squealed, but they were going to squeal about anything short of Iraq 2.0 no matter what. So who cares what they think?

As near as I can tell, after five years Obama has been entirely captured by the national security establishment. It's a damn shame. The elite consensus on overseas intervention—and national security more broadly—desperately needed to be challenged after a decade of the Bush/Cheney administration, but after a few nods in the right direction during his early days, he's mostly just caved in to it. What a wasted opportunity.

POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, Congress hasn't exactly covered itself in glory on Syria either. As usual, most members want to retain their freedom to criticize whatever happens while desperately trying to avoid taking any actual responsibility for U.S. military action. It's pathetic.