Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Live Blog of President Obama’s Address on Syria

I live blogged President Obama’s address from the White House on Syria. I offered immediate reaction throughout the speech, and stayed on afterwards to answer a couple of questions. To get a sense of what I’ve said about the Syria situation thus far, see this, this and this.
 

Who Is Making the Case For and Against Action in Syria?

Two different organizations are circulating information on Capitol Hill pertaining to the situation in Syria. The handouts are interesting, though for different reasons.

FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization credited with helping to get the Tea Party movement off the ground, issued a letter last Friday encouraging FreedomWorks’ supporters to contact their members of Congress and “urge them to vote NO on the upcoming Syrian war resolution.” 

In the letter, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe cites the anticipated costs of the operations, but also warns about the “unintended consequences” that could cost far more. While FreedomWorks has typically steered clear of foreign policy issues, the letter explains why they have chosen to get involved this time, by linking back to the organization’s core issues: federal spending, burdensome regulations, and crushing debt. Even if the war in Syria doesn’t end up costing nearly as much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, time spent debating our involvement in yet another Middle Eastern civil war distracts attention from more urgent challenges here at home.  

I had a chance to speak with Kibbe yesterday. The debate in Washington surrounding intervention in Syria, Kibbe explained, reminded him a lot of the late summer in 2008, when a bipartisan coalition in Washington, led by Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, made the case for bailing out the nation’s banks. The leaders called for immediate action to rescue the nation from the economic precipice, but the public wasn’t buying it. Pelosi and Boehner, along with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson, eventually secured passage of TARP, but it generated even more opposition out in the hinterland to the disconnected class here in Washington.

Party leaders have even less power today, Kibbe said. “It is harder to buy votes” because the government is drowning in red ink, and the vote-buying to secure passage of ObamaCare generated a “backlash” that drove out unpopular incumbents. Fear of that same backlash is deterring a few holdovers from that Congress from trading favors in return for casting an unpopular vote for an unnecessary war.

Congress Should Reject War with Syria

President Barack Obama deserves credit for going to Congress on Syria.  Unfortunately, he wants to involve America in another potentially disastrous war in the Middle East.

Equally disturbing, leading members of the political opposition, led by House Speaker John Boehner, back the president’s war, which would undermine America as a constitutional republic.  Congress should say no to yet another unnecessary war.

The end of the Cold War freed Washington policymakers from international restraint.  Hubris conquered the nation’s capital:  “What we say goes,” became America’s watchword.  However, reordering the world turned out to be harder than expected. 

Now, spouting nostrums about international norms and the international community, President Obama is pushing for limited military action against the Syrian government.  However, it’s hard to be half-pregnant when at war.  Committing the nation’s prestige against the Assad regime would sharply increase pressure for more intense involvement.

Some advocate intervention on humanitarian grounds.  Alas, war is not a good humanitarian tool, as Washington discovered in Iraq.  Nor have American policymakers demonstrated much skill in “fixing” foreign nations. 

Civil wars are particularly complicated, as Ronald Reagan discovered in Lebanon.  At least he learned the right lesson and got out. 

The human costs of serious action likely would be high.  Sometimes Washington must risk its citizens’ lives, but it should not intervene militarily unless Americans have something substantial at stake.  There’s nothing moral about ivory tower warriors launching crusades with other people’s lives and money.

Secrecy Is Delegation of Power

With allegations (and denials) of economic espionage and reports of broad access to cell phone data joining last week’s blockbuster revelation that the National Security Agency has worked to undermine encryption, it’s hard to keep up.

But Julian had it right on the jaw-dropping encryption news in his post last week, “NSA’s War on Global Cybersecurity.” A national-security-aimed attack on encryption systems that protect all our communications and data—our financial transactions, privileged communications with attorneys, medical records, and more—is like publishing faulty medical research just to prevent a particular foreign dictator from being cured. It is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It had been looking to me for a while like the U.S. government may be hoarding vulnerabilities and cultivating new attacks rather than contributing to worldwide security by helping to close gaps in vulnerable technologies. And now we have the proof.

Shane Harris’s excellent Foreign Policy article today looks at NSA administrator General Keith Alexander, calling him “The Cowboy of the NSA.” Fast and loose with the law, his folksy demeanor has allowed him to downplay the significance of his efforts. Meanwhile, Alexander and his “mad scientist” advisor James Heath have done anything they want—and lobbied for it adroitly—awash in taxpayer money. Harris reports:

When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

And:

“He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it,” [a] retired officer says. “He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn’t need it. It’s just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do.” The Information Operations Center, as it was called, was underused and spent too much money, says the retired officer. “It’s a center in search of a customer.”

I find myself nonplussed by the glib reaction of some conservatives to this wanton bureaucratic behavior. Cracking the encryption systems that protect us all cannot be waved off as “the task we’ve given the NSA.” So I offer this framework for thinking about the NSA and its behavior: Secrecy is a delegation of power from elected officials to unaccountable bureaucrats.

This is not to deny that there is some need for secrecy sometimes, but, at the scope we’ve seen, secrecy has the same, and worse, effects as other delegations of power that conservatives and libertarians object to.

The Political Class Regarding Syria

The good people at C-SPAN Radio re-air the five Sunday morning news programs in the afternoon, and then the roundtable discussions again on Monday morning. I missed the programs yesterday, but caught the roundtables this morning. The results were illuminating, if not actually surprising. At a time when Americans oppose military action in Syria by wide margins, the views of the political class appearing on the Sunday shows tilted decisively in the other direction: Washington wants air strikes; many here want more than that. If Congress ultimately votes to grant President Obama approval to attack Syria, it will be obvious who the members are listening to: their cocktail party and green room friends, not their constituents back home.  

By my quick calculation, 81 percent (9 of 11) of the morning show panelists or hosts clearly favored military action, while only 2 of 11 were clearly opposed. Washington’s pro-intervention bias is even more apparent when one counts those participants who appeared to lean yes (9); while only one leaned no (1). Few came out and said, “I support,” or “I don’t support,” so I’ve tried to infer from what they did say. And 6 of the 27 people appearing on the shows didn’t hint sufficiently one way or the other. I did not consider what these individuals might have said or written elsewhere. I’m going solely on the basis of what they said on yesterday’s programs. One can check my admittedly subjective coding below.* If you disagree, send me an email.

Newt Gingrich, one of the new hosts of CNN’s relaunched “Crossfire,” made the best succinct case in opposition to strikes from the perspective of the American people: “A) I don’t understand why it’s our problem, B) I doubt very much that we can fix it, and C) the guys who are against Assad strike me as about as sick as Assad is.”

The case for intervention boiled down to chemical weapons are bad, and, in the words of Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday, “We are not the world’s policeman,” but “now we have to act as a fireman because the world is on fire.”

I expect better from the Obama administration officials who will try to convince the American people–or, failing that, members of Congress–to go along. The White House’s full-court press started yesterday, and will build to a crescendo this week, highlighted perhaps by the president’s prime-time speech tomorrow evening. (I’ll be live blogging, check back here). In the meantime, various lobbies are pushing for intervention, but a few, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action on the right, are lobbying against. FreedomWorks’ foray into foreign policy is particularly noteworthy, because the organization has typically avoided such fights. FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe explained that the organization had been “overwhelmed” with requests for help in rallying opposition to strikes. Linking this position to the group’s traditional focus on fiscal matters, Kibbe said that even limited military action could have serious consequences for the U.S. economy.

This is one of the most contentious fights that I’ve seen in recent years, and it is all the more interesting because it does not break down neatly along partisan lines. Among the 18 morning show advocates for intervention (yes or lean yes), nearly half (8) traditionally support Republican candidates and causes.

In short, if Obama gets his way, he’ll have Republicans in Washington to thank. And nearly everyone here will have ignored the public’s wishes.


* In favor of military action, 9 (David Axelrod, Donna Brazile, Jane Harman, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Bill Kristol, Danielle Pletka, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Juan Williams); lean yes, 9 (Candy Crowley, Stephanie Cutter, David Frum, Ana Navarro, Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Greta Van Susteren, Chuck Todd); opposed, 2 (Newt Gingrich, Katrina vanden Heuval); lean no, 1 (Van Jones). No clear opinion, 6 (David Gregory, Brit Hume, Howard Kurtz, David Sanger, Chris Wallace, Bob Woodward).

 

Even Proponents of War with Syria Should Question the Intelligence Sources

Contrary to the Orwellian reasoning of Secretary of State John Kerry, launching missile strikes on a foreign country does constitute war. Opponents of a U.S. attack on Syria argue that Syria does not pose a credible security threat to the United States, and the bulk of the evidence supports their conclusion. And for foreign policy realists, the absence of such a threat is sufficient to reject military action.

But many war advocates contend that even if the Assad government does not directly threaten America’s security, the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians is an outrage that warrants a U.S.-led punitive response. Those who take that position should at least ask hard questions about the source and reliability of the intelligence information.

Specifically, they should insist on knowing how much of the information was gathered directly by U.S. intelligence agencies and how much was obligingly provided by third parties who have their own policy agendas and ulterior motives. That is an extremely important consideration. Countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the principal sponsors of the insurgents seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad’s government. Although Israel is more ambivalent about the Syrian rebels, Israeli loathing of the Assad family goes back more than four decades and Israeli leaders want to see Washington take an even more active military role in the Middle East. Information that such sources provide is hardly unbiased and should be assessed with caution.

That is doubly true of any intelligence that the Syrian rebels provide. Not only does that faction have an obvious, massive incentive to have Washington intervene militarily against Assad’s forces, but the insurgents have already been caught peddling bogus atrocity stories. The most notorious example was the attempt to use nearly decade-old photos of slaughtered civilians in the Iraq war as “evidence” of Syrian army abuses. Given that track record, alleged intelligence from rebel sources should have virtually no credibility.

Obama administration officials are insistent that information about the Assad regime being responsible for chemical attacks is indisputable, and that this case is nothing like the fiasco of the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war. But of course, we were told that the Iraq intelligence was rock-solid at the time, so that assurance is less than compelling. Moreover, it is important to remember that most of the phony evidence of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was supplied by Iraqi exiles, specifically the notorious (and aptly named) source “Curveball” that the Iraqi National Congress produced. We must be doubly careful not to be manipulated in that fashion again.

The time to ask rigorous questions is before the missiles start flying. It is small comfort to know after the fact that we entered the Iraq war based on erroneous information. Given that precedent, it would be shameful to be fooled in the same way with regard to Syria.

As Congress Prepares for Vote, Syria’s Inflation Hits 257%

As prospects of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria hang in limbo, the foreign exchange black market for the Syrian pound (SYP) has become increasingly volatile. In countries with troubled currencies, such as Syria, black-market exchange rates provide a reliable gauge of economic expectations. Judging by the erratic performance of the black-market Syrian pound/U.S. dollar (USD) exchange rate, the Syrian people’s expectations have been on quite the roller coaster ride, as the U.S. Congress prepares for what will likely be a very close vote on a Use of Force resolution.

  • Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial call for military intervention in Syria, on August 26th, the SYP experienced a one-day drop of 24%—reflecting Syrians’ heightened fears of U.S. military conflict.  
  • On August 29th, two events occurred that reversed this slide. In Damascus, the Syrian government renewed its attempts to crack down on black-market currency trading. And, over 4,000 miles away in London, the British Parliament voted down a motion authorizing military action in Syria. In consequence, the SYP rebounded by a whopping 26% over the course of two days.
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s consideration of a use of force resolution seems to have once again raised Syrians’ expectations of a U.S. military strike, as it set the SYP on another slide. Since September 3rd, the pound has lost 10% of its value.

For some perspective on how the West’s march to war has affected Syria’s currency, and ultimately inflation, let’s take a look at how things have changed over the course of the past month: On August 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate was 205, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 191%. As of September 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate sits at 250, yielding an implied annual inflation rate for Syria of 257%.

For more on the Syrian pound, see the Troubled Currencies Project.