Monday, April 10, 2017

Cruising the Web

One thing that should be clear from the events in Syria this past week is that the myth that President Obama had some sort of diplomatic coup by agreeing with Russia to get rid of Assad's chemical weapons was a total fraud.

Even a former Obama official acknowledges that they knew that Assad hadn't gotten rid of all his chemical weapons.
A former Obama official acknowledged Sunday that the U.S. "always knew" an agreement with Syrian President Bashar Assad did not clear all chemical weapons out of Syria, despite the fact that the administration touted the deal as an unequivocal success at the time.

"We always knew we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their declaration," Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, told the New York Times.

John Kerry, then Obama's secretary of state, and Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, had both touted a 2013 agreement with Russia, Syria and the U.S. that was designed to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons stockpile. Kerry said in 2014 that they deal had resulted in Syria purging "100 percent" of its chemical agents.
Oh, Susan Rice and John Kerry misled the American public. Color me shocked, shocked. Remember that this deal was proclaimed as one of Obama's diplomatic successes.
In an interview with National Public Radio on January 16, Susan Rice, then the White House national security adviser, was unequivocal:

“I think the President [Obama] stated the U.S. view, which is the use of chemical weapons is not something we’re prepared to allow to persist, and we didn’t. We managed to accomplish that goal far more thoroughly than we could have by some limited strikes against chemical targets by getting the entirety of the declared stockpile removed.” The residents of Khan Sheikhoun beg to differ.
There was public information since the 2014 declaration by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that Syria's chemical weapons had been removed. that they still retained their weapons.
In February 2016, James R. Clapper, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Syria had not declared its entire chemical weapons program to inspectors. International monitors continued to receive reports of smaller chemical attacks throughout 2016.

On Jan. 12, in the closing days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Treasury department unveiled sanctions against Syrian military, security and research officials accused of being connected to Syria’s chemical weapons program or with chemical attacks in recent years.
But the Obama administration wanted to downplay any evidence that Assad was violating the deal. Probably there was residual embarrassment about his vainglorious claim that the use of chemical weapons, which Assad had clearly used, had crossed a "red line." And Obama didn't want anything that would let critics have another argument against the Iran deal.

The result was the attack using sarin gas last week. I've never been convinced that killing people with chemical weapons should be so much more worthy of an American response than killing with conventional weapons. Assad has been massacring civilians for years. Why are these deaths more worthy of world outrage? Assad is still carrying on brutal attacks. Are these victims less sympathetic because they were attacked with conventional weapons?
But Saturday brought fresh reminders that a single U.S. attack would hardly dissuade Assad from his brutal campaign to crush a six-year rebellion that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Residents in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun, where at least 86 people had been killed in the sarin attack, reported that Syrian warplanes had returned and dropped new conventional bombs.
Very likely, Assad wanted to demonstrate that he wasn't cowed by Trump's missile strikes. Who knows where all this will ene dup.

Though, as Matthew Continetti writes, the attack on Assad's air field does expose Obama's straw men. First it exposed how limp Obama's agreement with Russia to destroy Assad's chemical weapons was. But there was another straw-man argument that Obama repeatedly deployed that has been exposed.
The second casualty of the U.S. strike was the absurd Obama line that the only alternatives available to a president are inaction on one hand and a massive ground invasion and occupation on the other. Obama and the architects of his echo chamber would slam any advocate of military measures as a bloodthirsty warmonger ready to repeat the worst mistakes of the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the reality has always been that there are a range of intermediary steps America can take to pursue her objectives and enforce the standards of Western civilization. The destruction of al-Shayrat is an example of coercive diplomacy similar to the airstrikes President Reagan deployed against Muammar Qaddafi and President Clinton deployed against Slobodan Milosevic. The immediate aim is punitive, to deter the further use of nerve gas against civilians.
More people should be asking why Obama didn't take a similar action against Assad.

I don't know if Trump has thought everything through about what to do now or if it's possible to remove Assad without the sort of American involvement that Trump repeatedly derided during the campaign. I can't even say if that should be an American objective. But if the goal was to stop him from using chemical weapons on civilians, ask yourself which action - a paper agreement that Assad has repeatedly violated or the destruction of one of his air bases would be more effective. Continetti points to another straw-man argument that has been destroyed.
Which brings us to the final straw man Trump lit on fire. When President Obama punted on Syria in 2013, he claimed there was no international support for limited intervention. True, David Cameron lost a vote in Parliament on the matter. But the actual powers Obama didn’t want to offend were Iran and Russia. He worried they would scuttle the Iran nuclear deal as payback. The loss of American credibility, the confidence of allies, and Syrian civilians were all factored into the cost of an Iranian promise not to test a bomb for 10 years.

Well, the rapprochement with Iran, if it ever existed, is over. In recent weeks President Trump has met with the leaders of our traditional Sunni allies: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. He has signed off on aid to Saudi in its war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. He has approved weapons to Bahrain, which is worried about Iranian influence over its Shiite population. America is heavily involved in Iraq and Syria. And now, by striking Assad, President Trump has targeted Iran’s most prominent servant.

Where things go from here is anyone’s guess. One of the reasons I urged Congress not to support Obama’s airstrikes in 2013 was worry not only over the president’s ambivalence but also possible escalation. Presidential ambivalence is gone, but my worry remains. I do think that this operation was about the best one could hope for: the message and objective was clear, the focus limited, the force overwhelming, support broad and deep. Assad may think twice before using these deadly agents again. Russia may be more inclined to replace him with one of his generals. But it is still worth thinking through possible responses if Assad crosses one of President Trump’s many lines again. Whatever the future holds, we do know this: President Trump’s foreign policy will look nothing like President Obama’s.

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This is how media bias is done. Politico has a story "Trump maintained pageantry as Syria strikes unfolded" juxtaposing his meeting with the Chinese president while the missile strike was taking place. Of course, if Obama had done the same thing, it would have been touted as a sign of how cool Obama is in a tense situation. But notice the word choice in the Politico story.
In public, the president was part of a polished scene. In private, there was frantic planning.
"Frantic"? There is nothing in the story to indicate that the planning was any more frantic than any other military action. It might be different that the strikes were carried out while a major world leader was visiting, but that could also have been regarded as a bit of serendipity since the two leaders could discuss the attacks and it might have given a needed clarity to talks on North Korea. Here is another loaded word choice.
The president told his Chinese guests about the club and strutted across the patio with his entourage around 7, drawing applause and stares as they passed the villas, the large pool and the smaller tubs.
For a straight news story, "strutted" is a loaded verb choice. Would the story have been different if the verb had been "walked"? Of course, but that wouldn't have achieved the message that the author wanted to portray.

Another Politico story had a much more positive take on the Syria strike by quoting Obama advisers who were cheering the attack.
Whether it represents a new strategic approach to the world or merely a snap political decision to act decisively where Obama would not, Washington foreign policy hands—in both parties—were widespread in praising Trump for doing what they believed Obama should have done many years ago. Though there were notable exceptions on both the left and the right, the praise from much of the American national security establishment was so lavish in the immediate aftermath of the bombing that at times you could be forgiven for wondering: Did Donald Trump just join the hawkish Beltway mob that Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes so dismissively called The Blob?

....Many of the most head-snapping comments I heard came from Obama’s own top advisers, who had long pushed him to confront Assad more aggressively and viewed his 2013 refusal to take military action against Syria after drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons use as a major American foreign policy debacle. There’s no love lost for Trump in this group, whose members found themselves in the uncomfortable position of cheering a leader they still both loathe and fear.

“Our administration never would have gotten this done in 48 hours,” one former senior official of the Obama administration told me. “It’s a complete indictment of Obama.”

“I feel like finally we have done the right thing,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Obama’s first-term chief of policy planning at the State Department and long publicly urged a more forceful response to Assad’s horrific attacks on civilians during the six years of war that have wracked Syria, told me. “The years of hypocrisy just hurt us all. It undermined the U.S., it undermined the world order.”

Slaughter, now the head of the New America Foundation and a major backer of Trump’s defeated opponent Hillary Clinton last November, tweeted, “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of atrocities.” I later asked her if it was awkward to be cheering for Trump now. “I’m just glad to see it,” she said. “It was the right thing.”

While I would prefer that Trump would go to Congress for authorization for any further military actions in Syria, there are precedents from Democratic presidents for not doing so.
More likely, the Trump legal team will turn to more recent precedents, such as the 1999 air campaigns against Yugoslavia (for which there was no congressional authorization or even a UN Resolution of support) or the 2011 air campaign against Libya (for which there was no congressional authorization and which was said not to trigger the War Powers Resolution because of a sophistic argument that the multi-month air war against Gaddafi's regime did not rise to the level of "hostilities" as understood by the law.) Both precedents justify the president's use of force as necessary to sustain "important national interests." And, indeed, this is precisely where the administration appears to be headed with Trump saying last night that it was a "vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons" and that Syria's use of chemical weapons "deepens" the refugee crisis and the region's destabilization.
It would be salutary if there were a new authorization and we didn't keep relying on rather flimsy precedents.
Resting on broad and undefined arguments about "the national interest," the war-making precedents of 1999 and 2011 have become a virtual license to engage in hostilities whenever and wherever a president decides. Members of Congress should care as much about the grounds on which President Trump justifies the use of his power as commander-in-chief as for what ends he uses that power.

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Laure Kipness, the Northwestern professor who has been exposing how crazy American campuses have become as they shed due process rights in order to conduct kangaroo courts of any male accused of sexual improprieties, has published a new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. In this excerpt in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she exposes the modern witch trials that an accused professor endured because he showed bad judgment in having an affair with a graduate student, not something that is forbidden in the rules at Northwestern. Apparently, adult women are to be treated as equals in all matters except when it comes to making their own choices as to romantic partners.
Yes, Ludlow was guilty — though not of what the university charged him with. His crime was thinking that women over the age of consent have sexual agency, which has lately become a heretical view on campus, despite once being a crucial feminist position. Of course the community had to expel him. That’s what you do with heretics.

Still, the history of purification rituals is a pretty squalid one. Heading down this path once again requires a lot of historical amnesia from everyone involved. That college campuses should be where history goes to be forgotten is depressing on all levels, not least when it comes to the future of higher education — and freedoms of every stripe.

Philip K. Howard, the author of The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, explains how difficult it has become in America to build major infrastructure projects just as both Trump and Democrats claim they want to do.
What's missing is pretty basic: No one has the authority to say Go. Although supposedly in charge of the executive branch, Trump finds himself in a kind of mosh pit of overlapping statutory responsibilities and inconsistent legal mandates.

Approval processes can take a decade or longer. Environmental reviews, meant to highlight important choices, obscure them in thousands of pages of mind-numbing detail.

For projects that survive this gantlet, the delay dramatically increases costs. Uncertainties over time and cost keep many projects on the sidelines.

Governing shouldn't be this hard. Traffic bottlenecks, overflowing wastewater, rickety power grids, and crumbling dams desperately need to be fixed. All that's needed are responsible officials to give permits and allocate funding.
Remember Barack Obama telling us that "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected." Well, the reason is that Congress has been busy writing laws to make it so very difficult to get started on any such projects.
For 50 years, under Democratic and Republican control alike, Congress has piled up law after law, many with absolute mandates to protect endangered species, preserve historic structures, guarantee access to the disabled and scores of other well-meaning goals.

The accretion of statutes is matched 10:1, more or less, by agency regulations written to implement Congress's mandates. All these laws give enforcement power to 18 or so separate federal agencies — sometimes all on the same project. To top it off, almost anyone can sue based on alleged failure to comply with any of the countless requirements.

It's amazing anything gets built.
Howard details all the regulations required for one project that everyone agrees would be a wonderful project. We need Congress to cut down on the regulations so that jobs can get done.
Every time you're in a traffic jam — starting, say, this afternoon — think about Congress. It created a paralytic regulatory structure that prevents fixing infrastructure. Now it also refuses to help pay for it. Only Congress can cut these bureaucratic knots, raise funds, and get America moving again.



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There was, apparently, a backroom effort to put together a new bipartisan "Gang" to save the filibuster. John McCain was actively trying to bring Democrat and Republican senators together to work out some sort of deal whereby they wouldn't filibuster Gorsuch and the Republicans would pull the plug on the filibuster. Needless to say it was a total failure. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware had a proposal that demonstrates by its very nature why all this failed.
The second-term senator circulated a proposal calling on senators in both parties to admit they’d abused the Senate rules to the detriment of the institution — and commit to not do so again in the future. It was designed to be painful and cathartic: Republicans would express regret for blocking Merrick Garland last year; Democrats would do the same for a 2013 rules change that set the stage for this year’s nuclear option....

“They had a hard time trusting that we wouldn’t just filibuster the next nominee,” Coons said hours after giving up on a deal. “We had a hard time trusting that they wouldn't just break the rules on the next nominee.”
Chuck Schumer had his own lame proposal for Senators Collins, Murkowski, McCain, and Corker who opposed killing the filibuster that served as a tails I win, heads you lose sort of proposal.
At the heart of the turmoil sat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He sought to make a deal with the holdouts. If they joined all 48 Democrats and voted against the nuclear option, he would allow Gorsuch to be confirmed.

Then, if Trump picked a second nominee, one who might vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the three Republicans and the Democrats could use the filibuster to block the nominee's confirmation. Or something like that. The precise terms of a deal are unclear. But "there was no deal that could be made that wasn't a bad deal," McConnell says.

Though it created anxiety in the Gorsuch camp, the proposed deal went nowhere. Actually it never materialized at all. The offer to let Gorsuch sail through was unconvincing since he was likely to be confirmed with or without Schumer's help.

There was too much of a push by liberal activists for the Democrats to filibuster Gorsuch whom they insisted as portraying as an unreasonable extremist. And Republican moderates couldn't accept that that Gorsuch was such an extremist worthy of blocking. If the Democrats would block him, they'd block any Republican nominee. Perhaps they finally figured out that the filibuster was a tool that the Democrats would use, but Republicans hadn't used. If being on the extreme ideologically was a criteria, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor would have been filibustered by the Republicans. Even Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito weren't filibustered even though both of them garnered fewer than 60 votes contrary to Schumer's lie that there had always been a 60-vote requirement.

There was a concerted effort to make sure that the three Republicans, Collins, Murkowski, and Corker, who might have hesitated voting for the nuclear option, didn't give in at the last moment. It certainly helped that Gorsuch was such a quality nominee.
At one point, it was feared that Collins and Murkowski were lost, even though they admired Gorsuch. Murkowski "really liked Gorsuch and never expressed" any qualms, a pro-confirmation lobbyist said. Collins was "iffy all along." So the efforts to persuade the two senators to back the nuclear option—thus guaranteeing Gorsuch would wind up on the court—continued. In the end, they weren't lost.

The pro-Gorsuch campaign emphasized his popularity among legal experts, GOP politicians, and the Republican grassroots—practically everyone except mean-spirited Democrats and left-wing crazies. This allowed Republicans to dismiss the charge that Gorsuch is a cold-hearted right-wing extremist as outrageous.
Gorsuch's confirmation is the result of Senator McConnell's efforts. First he took the initiative on his own to announce right after Justice Scalia's death that there would be no hearings and no vote on an Obama nominee before the election and then he kept his caucus together. The empty Supreme Court seat most probably convinced a lot of reluctant Republicans to vote for Trump. And with Trump's victory, McConnell's gamble paid off. Trump came through with a fine nomination. And the Democrats were reduced to making up ridiculous allegations against Gorsuch that convinced moderate Republicans that there was no nominee that Democrats would let through.

I get why Democrats are so upset about Merrick Garland. I'd be upset too in their shoes. But that doesn't mean that Gorsuch is an unworthy or "illegitimate" nominee as some are now claiming.
Rather than scrapping tradition, the end of the judicial filibuster restores a longstanding tradition of not using it against nominees for judgeships. That tradition was tossed out in 2003 when Democrats began filibustering Republican nominees. That was new.
Then the Democrats used the Reid option to get rid of the judicial filibuster for Obama's nominees. Both Reid and Tim Kaine publicly stated that they would nuke the filibuster if Clinton won the election and the Democrats retook the Senate. They didn't get that chance. Perhaps, McConnell's actions after Scalia's death made that possible.

Ilya Shapiro writes in CNN to summarize what the impact of the end of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations means.
The exercise of the "nuclear option" returns Senate procedures to what they were 15 years ago. The filibuster was simply not employed for partisan purposes against a nominee who had majority support before Harry Reid started filibustering George W. Bush's lower-court nominees in 2003. (Infamously, the Senate denied Miguel Estrada an up-or-down vote seven times to prevent Bush from later having the opportunity to elevate the first Hispanic justice.) Reid used the "nuclear option" to eliminate that sort of filibuster a decade later, so perhaps this week's action should be called "thermonuclear." A Senate majority will still be able to stall a nomination made by a president of the opposing party—we could see more Merrick Garlands—but a Senate minority will lack that power....

By filibustering the milquetoast Gorsuch despite the high probability and repeatedly expressed intention of the Republicans to go nuclear, the Democrats have destroyed any leverage they had over the next nominee. Should there be another vacancy under President Trump while the GOP controls the Senate, there will be zero incentive for the President to moderate his choice. It's not at all clear that Republican senators such as Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other "institutionalists" would've gone along with a "nuclear option" to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a nominee more controversial than Gorsuch. But now they won't face that dilemma.
It's that last point that makes me think that the choice by the Democrats to filibuster Gorsuch was such a tactical mistake. Are they really better off now? Or did they just underestimate McConnell's ability to hold the Republicans together?

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