Monday, September 16, 2013

Editorial: Breakthrough for Cooler Heads

Can President Obama declare victory and bring the cruise missiles home? After a week and a half of saber rattling by the only President we’ve got, the Russian sponsors of Syria’s dictatorship responded to the ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid an attack by the United States by handing its chemical weapons over to international authorities. And Syria welcomed the initiative, defusing the crisis.

As much as it frustrates conservative talking pointers, President Obama did not make a mistake in calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to account for his military allegedly using chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war, nor did Obama show weakness in deferring to Congress on authorizing a punitive strike against the Syrian government. Obama followed the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to declare war. If Syria reneges on its commitment to put its chemical weapons under international control but Congress still declines to authorize a strike against Syria, it probably will be for the wrong reason — Republicans in the House and Senate simply won’t go along with anything the President proposes — but in calling for Congress to delay the vote to see if the Russian peace initiative succeeds, President Obama wisely put on hold the proposed American attack on Syria, which could have caused more damage than it would solve.

Corporate news media, who were looking forward to a quick air war to fill in the dead space around the Labor Day holiday, were noticeably disappointed when President Obama announced on Aug. 30 that he would consult Congress before launching the attack. For the next week, the corporate pundits were practically taunting Obama to get on with it, charging that if he failed to follow through with the attack it would be seen as a sign of weakness.

As for the predictions that a failure to attack Syria would result in a loss of respect for the United States, enemies of the world’s Last Remaining Superpower must realize that the President still has plenty of cruise missiles, satellite-guided bombs and radar-deflecting stealth bombers which he can order into the air in a New York minute if a belligerent nation actually posed a threat to the US or one of its allies (and all it would take is a call from Ankara to give Obama the cover to launch missiles and bombers at Syria in defense of our NATO ally Turkey).

Neither does a failure to follow through with the attack result in a loss of credibility for President Obama. Some wags called Obama “Bush Lite” when he threatened the action against Syria. They ignored the fact that Obama was proposing a limited air strike on Syria in response to an actual chemical attack, not the threat that was imagined by then-President George W. Bush and his war-mongering advisers, which was only proved false after they invaded and occupied Iraq. Also, Obama held off on the attack, which allowed diplomats to get to work. It was particularly galling to watch former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld, the architect of the preemptive invasion of Iraq, criticizing President Obama’s “lack of leadership” as the “so-called commander in chief.” At least George W. Bush has the sense and/or decency to keep his mouth shut.

Nor would a congressional rejection of Obama’s request for an authorization to attack be a turning point in his relations with Congress. Many Democrats balked at the war vote because they thought it was a bad idea, which their constituents were overwhelmingly opposed to, but they’ll be back with Obama when it comes to his domestic priorities. As Kevin Drum noted at Sept. 9, “Presidents suffer defeats all the time. Obama lost on cap-and-trade. He’s lost on plenty of judicial and executive branch nominations. He couldn’t get agreement for a grand bargain. He lost on gun control. What’s more, Republicans have been opposing him on virtually everything from the day he took office. In what concrete way would a defeat on Syria change this dynamic in even the slightest way?”

If anything, the failure of the world at large to react to the Syrian gas attack questioned the credibility of the United Nations Security Council, which so far has been unable to even debate the issue. But the diplomatic initiative that has gone on while Obama was making his case for intervention bore fruit as Russians called for the Syrian government to turn over its chemical weapons to the control of international authorities. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem quickly welcomed the Russian proposal, acknowledged for the first time that Syria possesses chemical weapons and said Syria was willing to cooperate fully with the UN and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

That could be the best result of this complicated situation. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a dictator, but he runs a secular regime that among other things is protecting Christian minorities who comprise as much as 14% of the population in Syria (3 million out of 22 million), as well as refugees from Iraq, many of whom are Christians and moderate Muslims who were driven out of Iraq by fundamentalist Sunnis and Shi’ites after the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Assad also cooperated with the Bush administration after 9/11. As part of its “extraordinary rendition” program, the Bushies sent Arabs who were suspected of al-Qaeda ties to Syria to be tortured by Assad’s secret police. (At least one, Maher Arar, a Canadian Arab who was arrested at JFK Airport in New York in September 2002 when he was in transit back to Canada, was instead sent to Syria and tortured for 10 months before he was found to be innocent.)

Assad’s opponents include al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists who are fighting Assad in part because his brand of Islam is too moderate for their tastes. They already have been engaging in reprisals against moderate rebel groups, and some rebel groups have been engaging in war crimes of their own, such as summarily executing captured Syrian soldiers. We have no guarantee that the moderate Muslims who Sen. John McCain and other hawks want us to support in the Syrian civil war would win the power struggle after Assad is toppled; we could end up clearing the way for a fundamentalist, al-Qaeda-affiliated government in Damascus, with access to the chemical weapons that Assad has stockpiled. That’s the reason that President Obama, while he will go ahead with arming some of the moderate rebels, is in no hurry to press for regime change. That’s also why he only proposed a limited air attack.

President Obama has agreed to take the proposal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons to the UN Security Council, though Russia is objecting to a French proposal to back up the proposal with the threat of force if Syria fails to comply. Obama and Congress are wise to give the diplomats time to secure those chemical weapons. If Russia is serious about securing the weapons — and Russian President Vladimir Putin also is concerned about Islamic terrorists getting their hands on poison gas — they may be able to get the job done. Good for them. Good for all.

In the meantime, Republicans in Congress are still threatening to take the US government hostage if Obama does not agree to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which will start enrolling customers on the new healthcare exchanges Oct. 1. Maybe Obama should invite the Russians to try to mediate a deal with the GOP jihadists. Unfortunately, we trust Bashir al-Assad to turn over his chemical weapons more than we trust Republican leaders to negotiate in good faith to resolve the federal budget and debt obligations for the coming year.

Assuming that President Obama does not negotiate with the hostage takers to do away with the Affordable Care Act, people who do not get insurance coverage through their job but who live in one of the states where Republican governors aremaking it difficult to find out about the new insurance marketplaces can get the information on the plans and subsidies that are available at — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2013
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