Kevin Drum

Does Congress Ever Turn Down a Request for War?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

Plenty of people think Congress should be called back into session to conduct a vote on the bombing campaign in Syria. John Boehner disagrees:

Boehner’s office deferred to the White House when asked about the issue.

“As the Speaker has said, he thinks it would be good for the country to have a new authorization for the use of military force covering our actions against ISIL, but traditionally such an authorization is requested and written by the commander-in-chief — and President Obama has not done that,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said via email.

One of these days Boehner is going to have to make up his mind whether President Obama does too much or too little. It's getting a little hard to keep up with him.

But this raises a question. Has Congress ever turned down a president who asked for authorization to use military force? Sure, there was Ford's last-ditch aid request for Vietnam in 1975, but that was for the end of a war, not the start of one. Anything else? Do the fights over funding for the contras count? I feel like I'm going to be embarrassed when someone points out some famous congressional refusal that I've forgotten about, but I sure can't dredge anything up.

Obviously Obama has philosophical reasons for insisting that he can go to war on his own, and he also has political reasons for not forcing fellow Democrats to take a tough vote. But does he have even the slightest chance of Congress actually turning him down?

UPDATE: OK, I'm already embarrassed. I guess you could count the non-vote on Syria last year, couldn't you? After all, Obama did ask for permission to bomb Syria, and Congress did let it die without any real debate. On the other hand, I'd say that Obama mostly asked for authorization in the hopes of being turned down. He didn't exactly put on a full-court press, did he?

Any other examples?

UPDATE 2: There have been a few other suggestions. (1) Congressional hindrance of FDR before Pearl Harbor. That was a mixed bag, and anyway, I guess I was thinking of more recent (postwar) history. (2) Kosovo and Libya. Interesting cases, but more of a muddle than an outright loss for the president. Congress approved some funding bills and denied others.

Still, there's enough here to suggest that presidents often have to fight with Congress over military action. Especially Democratic presidents.

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The Rich Have Always Been Obnoxious and Entitled

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 10:40 AM EDT

I'm not sure what's going on with David Brooks. It's something, obviously, but I can't put my finger on it. In any case, he thinks we should all cheer up because America's cities are safer and more interesting than ever; poverty is down; and our global enemies are mostly just a "bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks." Despite this, there was a lot of "despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling" floating around this summer. We have a leadership crisis:

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite....Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

I've never understood people who talk this way. I mean, sure, I'd very much agree that rich parents should avoid giving their teenage kids Ferraris for Christmas. But does anyone seriously think this is anything new? Stories of young swells out on the town are as old as stories of young swells. How many Victorian novels turn on the plot device of a young heir borrowing against his expectations and blowing it all on gambling and grand tours? Does the ruling class of Dickens seem like a group of people striking a blow for social cohesion? (Other than by main force, that is.) And by the time the Gilded Age rolled around, things weren't much different in America. We just hadn't had centuries to perfect quite the same easy tone of entitlement and snottiness.

The excesses of the rich are indeed unseemly. I'm perfectly happy to see Brooks try to shame this behavior away. But pretending that it was different in the past? Get real.

State Department: Iraqi Ground Troops Not Going To Be Ready Any Time Soon

| Wed Sep. 24, 2014 12:53 AM EDT

From a New York Times piece about today's bombing campaign against ISIS targets in eastern Syria:

In Iraq, American advisers need to train the 26 Iraqi brigades that the Pentagon says are still intact and loyal to the government and help the Iraqis establish new national guard units, which would have the primary responsibility for defending Sunni-dominated provinces and would be recruited largely from Iraqi tribes.

A senior State Department official said that the new Iraqi government had a plan to establish the national guard units but acknowledged that doing so would not be easy. “It is not going to be soon,” said the official, who could not be identified under the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters.

If ground troops are the only way to destroy ISIS—and they are—it's easy to see why Pentagon officials are talking about this campaign taking "years." Assuming it can be done at all, it will take at least that long to recruit and train the national guard units that are critical to success. That's a long war.

I admit that my blogging today about the ISIS campaign has been a little bit cavalier. This is because it's hard to take any of the operational details very seriously. We're getting a bit of pro forma support from some Arab countries, and while this is useful from a PR standpoint it's really not meaningful from a military standpoint. We're pretty much alone out there. And details aside, this means that we're going to spend years on an aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria while we desperately try once again to figure out how to succeed at a training mission that we've already failed at in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And we're going to do it all by ourselves. I'd sure like to know what we're going to be doing differently this time around that makes us think we finally have it right.

Quote of the Day: Marco Rubio Thinks US Troops Would Have Intimidated Nouri al-Maliki

| Tue Sep. 23, 2014 6:54 PM EDT

From Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), explaining why he'd keep a big slug of troops somewhere in the Middle East if he were president:

If the U.S. had had a presence [in Iraq], we would have had more leverage over how Maliki conducted his affairs, you would have had a more stable region, but also a place where you could conduct operations against other threats in the region.

This kind of stuff is crazy. We had troops in Iraq for a decade. During that time, which spanned two different US presidents, we had virtually no success at getting Nouri al-Maliki to form an inclusive government that didn't gratuitously piss off Sunnis as a routine element of policy. Hell, Maliki didn't even take advantage of the Sunni Awakening, which was the best opportunity ever likely to come along to forge a Sunni-Shia alliance, to change his stripes. If that didn't do the trick, along with a hundred thousand American troops and near-daily calls with President Bush, what possible hope is there that a small residual force would have had any leverage at all?

This is the kind of thing that drives me batty. I get that Republicans want to criticize Obama. That's pretty much the job description of the opposition party. I also get that the default Republican response to any national security initiative from President Obama is a reflexive "Do more." That's how they keep their hawkish reputation intact. But this kind of thing just flatly makes no sense. Does Rubio really believe this nonsense, or does he just spout it on Fox News because he figures it sounds plausible?

The Heartwarming Story of Arab Support for Our Bombing Campaign

| Tue Sep. 23, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

Speaking of things to remain skeptical of, the very top of the list certainly has to include the news that our staunch allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan participated in yesterday's airstrikes in Syria:

A U.S. official said that all five Arab countries were believed to have joined U.S. warplanes, although it is still unclear how many countries dropped bombs during the operation. The official asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive operational details.

Dempsey said that the first Arab government told U.S. officials that it would participate in attacks on Syria “within the last 72 hours” and that once that occurred, the other four soon promised to participate. He would not identify which country was the first to back the U.S. airstrikes.

....There are still major questions about how committed governments in the region are to helping the U.S. and Iraq, whose government is dominated by Shia Arabs, against the well-armed militants, who have claimed large areas of eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq over the last year.

Here's the nickel version: After months of bellyaching about America's commitment to fighting ISIS, one single Arab country finally agreed to help out. Only then did anyone else also agree to pitch in. But the extent of their involvement can't be revealed because it's a "sensitive operational detail."

Can you guess just how extensive that involvement is? Or do you need a hint?

We're Bombing Syria, Just Like Obama Said He Would

| Tue Sep. 23, 2014 10:23 AM EDT

The front page is dominated almost entirely this morning by the news that we're bombing ISIS militants in Syria. I confess that this doesn't strike me as worthy of quite such breathless coverage. Two weeks ago President Obama said he was going to bomb Syria, and now he's doing it. Did anyone expect him not to follow through on this?

But of course I get it. Bombs are headline generators whether they're expected or not. After reading all the reports, though, Dan Drezner is pessimistic:

I said last week that I’d start making point predictions here. So, here goes: I’m 70 percent certain that there will be no fundamental change in the Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq for the rest of this calendar year.

That's probably a good bet. This isn't because aerial campaigns have no value. Of course they do. It's because in most cases they have limited value unless they're used in support of ground troops with a well-defined mission. And so far, there's no well-defined mission and no one is committing ground troops to the fight. Presumably the new Iraqi government will send in troops eventually, and then we'll see whether our commitment of air resources was worthwhile. Until then we just won't know.

As an aside, for the next few months I'd treat virtually every announcement from either ISIS or the Pentagon with extreme skepticism. Some of what they say may be true and some may not, but there's really no way to know which is which. We can parse all this stuff til the cows come home, but that won't change our fundamental ignorance. Don't take anything at face value no matter where it comes from.

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Who's Going to Pay For the Latest Iraq War?

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan wonders why fiscal conservatives aren't asking some searching questions about the cost of the ISIS campaign:

The ISIS campaign is utterly amorphous and open-ended at this point — exactly the kind of potentially crippling government program Republicans usually want to slash. It could last more than three years (and that’s what they’re saying at the outset); the cost is estimated by some to be around $15 billion a year, but no one really knows. The last phase of the same war cost, when all was said and done, something close to $1.5 trillion – and our current travails prove that this was one government program that clearly failed to achieve its core original objectives, and vastly exceeded its original projected costs.

If this were a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure project for the homeland, we’d be having hearing after hearing on how ineffective and crony-ridden it is; there would be government reports on its cost-benefit balance; there would be calls to end it tout court. But a massive government program that can be seen as a form of welfare dependency for the actual countries — Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kurdistan — facing the crisis gets almost no scrutiny at all.

Yep. The only problem with Sullivan's post is the headline: "Does The GOP Really Give A Shit About The Debt?" Surely that's not a serious question? Of course they don't. They care about cutting taxes on the rich and cutting spending on the poor. The deficit is a convenient cudgel for advancing that agenda, but as Sullivan says, "it is hard to resist the conclusion, after the last few weeks, that it’s all a self-serving charade."

Indeed it is. And not just after the last few weeks. After all, if they did care, they'd be demanding that we raise taxes to fund the cost of our latest military adventure. Right?

It's Time For Kansas to Rejoin the Real World

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 1:27 PM EDT

The Republican governor of Kansas has pauperized his state in order to fund tax cuts for the rich, while the Republican Secretary of State is busily trying to game the midterm ballot to ensure the reelection of the current Republican senior senator. I'd think this was a parody from the Onion if I didn't know it was for real. I sure hope the good folks of Kansas finally manage to come to their senses this November.

Everyone Please Calm Down About the White House Jumper

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 12:19 PM EDT

In response to the fence-jumper who got inside the White House before being apprehended, the Secret Service is considering the possibility of creating a larger "buffer zone" around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

One proposal is to keep people off the sidewalks around the White House fence and create several yards of additional barrier around the compound’s perimeter. Another is to screen visitors as far as a block away from the entrance gates.

Petula Dvorak is outraged:

Now the Secret Service — which hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory the past few years — wants us to pay for its mistake, to once again intrude on more public space and make suspects out of millions of visitors, residents and office workers who come near the White House every day. To further encroach on the country’s most important values: our openness and our freedom.

The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation’s most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the feeling of hostility, fear and paranoia that already pervades the heart of our nation.

Dvorak speaks for me, and I hope she speaks for plenty of others too. This crap has just got to stop. We simply can't continue this endless series of insane overreactions every time something bad happens. Sometimes an incident is just an incident. In this case, the Secret Service needs to examine its procedures and probably tighten up a thing or two. That's it.

This is a case where no-drama Obama really needs to step in. For God's sake, let's dial down the drama on this whole affair. It's nowhere near as big a deal as it's being played up to be.

Obamacare Isn't Perfect, But That's No Reason to Give Up On It

| Mon Sep. 22, 2014 11:57 AM EDT

A few days ago I noted that health insurance companies were starting to price certain drugs at higher rates. Not just certain brands of drugs, but entire classes of drugs. This is being done in an apparent attempt to discourage patients with certain conditions from applying for insurance. Better to have some other insurance company pick up the cost of their expensive illness.

The reason this is happening is that Obamacare prohibits insurance companies from turning away customers with pre-existing conditions. So instead they need to find cleverer ways of making sure they're someone else's problem. David Henderson comments:

I predict that none of this will cause Kevin Drum to reconsider his pre-existing view that pricing for pre-existing conditions should be illegal.

Quite right. When it comes to Obamacare, there are two kinds of people. Henderson is the first kind. Whenever they hear about a problem, their invariable response is that this proves Obamacare is a hopeless mess and needs to be abandoned.

I'm the second kind. When I hear about a problem, my response is that we need to try to fix it. This is because I believe everyone should have access to decent health care at a reasonable price, and one way or another, we need to figure out how to provide it. We don't give up just because it's hard.

For what it's worth, this particular problem is not something that's taken any of us by surprise. Capitalism has a well-known capacity for motivating people to find clever ways to make money, and Obamacare supporters were all keenly aware that insurance companies would try to game the rules to maximize their profits. It was one of those things that required constant vigilance. Unfortunately, that never happened because it turned out that Republicans in Congress are so uncompromisingly opposed to Obamacare that they've prevented problems of any kind from being addressed, apparently in the hope that someday these problems will grow serious enough that the public will turn against the whole thing.

I guess you can decide for yourself if you consider that a praiseworthy response to a law you don't like. I consider it loathsome myself. As for my pre-existing view about pre-existing conditions, that's easily explained. I supported Obamacare as a good first step, but if I had my way the whole edifice would get torn down and replaced with a sensible national health care plan of the kind used by virtually every other civilized country on the planet. This is because health care of the kind that civilized people desire simply isn't a good that can be efficiently provided by the free market, for reasons that are fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the literature. Nor is this just an academic point. Half a century of experience shows us that national health care works better on nearly every measure than our Rube Goldberg system. It's not perfect, because nothing ever is. But it would be a big step forward.