Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Obama Is Not My Boyfriend

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

About 8 years ago, when the Bush Administration’s Reign of Error was in it’s prime, and I couldn’t believe that Republicans continued to support the man, I made a promise to myself: If a Democrat were ever to occupy the White House I wouldn’t reflexively defend him if he didn’t deserve it.

I’ve done my best to keep that promise and if you asked me what I think of this president over the past 5 years,  I would always try to give my real opinion, good or bad. Still, I’m well aware that I’ve been… let’s just say, “not as vocal” in pointing out the flaws of this president as I was of the last one. So let’s consider this my late attempt live up to the spirit of my promise as well as the promise itself.

Liberals, it’s time to admit it: Obama is not a very good president.

Of course, the usual caveats still apply. Despite all his failings, he’s still not any worse that George W Bush…and I have no regrets that John McCain didn’t win in 2008… or that Mitt Romney didn’t unseat him in 2012, both of which would have been disasters of epic proportions. But the relevant measuring stick wasn’t supposed to be “better than Bush” it was supposed to be “a transformational president,” or at least, “a  good president.” For the most part, Obama has been neither.

I feel a little bad for piling on him when he’s down, but he’s down for a reason.

Hard to tell where to start, but let’s start with his “signature achievement,” Obamacare. Despite snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, his HHS department launched a website that wasn’t ready to be launched, and it almost tanked his most lasting accomplishment. There’s just no excuse for that and it just comes down to bad management. Effective managers may not know all the details of what is happening in each department, but they clearly communicate the importance of big policies and hold people accountable for their results. Too often, Obama has done neither.

Similar deal at the VA. When Obama ran for president, he made a point of talking about how the Bush Administration didn’t keep faith with veterans. He claimed (sometimes with good evidence) that they sent them to war and then neglected to take care of them when they came home. Obama’s VA took on a lot, adding coverage for veterans who suffered from conditions related to Agent Orange exposure and relaxing the rules on PTSD claims, but the VA was unable to keep up. Instead of improving wait times as he had promised, the problem got significantly worse. By 2012, pending claims had exploded to almost 900,000, with over 550,000 of those claims over 4 months old. Responses were hobbled by an antiquated computer system that prevented the Defense Department from communicating with the VA.

Again, the problems predated Obama, but at some time, he needs to take responsibility for the system and there are few things more sacred than meeting obligations to our veterans.   I don’t expect Obama to single-handedly solve all the problems at the VA, but he once again showed ineffective management and no sense of urgency. It took a major scandal regarding lies about wait times at the VA and weeks of negative coverage before Obama acted to fire Shinseki and begin to really deal with this issue.

On foreign policy, Obama starts with a simple premise. He only wants to engage in military action in order to protect America. He thinks that foreign intervention has made us less safe instead of more safe and wants to avoid unnecessary military conflict.

The problem is that the world can’t be neatly split into what keeps us safe and what has nothing to do with us. Look at Syria: It’s a civil war between Assad and the Sunni rebels. Assad is a terrible actor.  He gets support from Iran and he helps fund Iranian proxies like Hezbollah who are attacking Israel and destabilizing Lebanon. But the most effective rebels fighting against Assad are Sunni militants with ties to Al Qaeda. The only thing worse than having Assad in power in Syria is having Sunni militants allied with Al Qaeda. So Obama stays out…and now we have ISIS (the people who were so maniacally evil that they were kicked out of Al Qaeda) occupying large swaths of Syria AND Iraq. I’m not going for Hillary’s argument that supporting the small moderate rebel force would have prevented the rise of ISIS, but it’s hard to argue that not being involved made us more safe.

Don’t do stupid shit” is a great start, but it’s no substitute for a strategic vision. Obama has had a fair number of experienced people in his administration: Bob Gates, David Petreaus, Jim Jones, Leon Panetta. He also has some political types that have a lot of foreign policy experience: Biden, Kerry, Hillary, Hagel… What he lacks is Grand Strategy person. Nixon had Kissinger, Carter had Brzezinski, George HW Bush had Scowcroft, GW had a lot of Grand Strategy people (Cheney, Wolfowitz…) almost all of them with terrible ideas. Where is Obama’s Scowcroft? Obama seems to think that he doesn’t need a Grand Strategy guy because he’s the Kissinger, but the proof is in the pudding, and so far, it’s been weak sauce as far as a strategic vision.

I don’t typically cite the Wall Street Journal’s Op Ed page, but this Kimberly Strasssel article has some merit. Even when he has had experienced Foreign Policy hands in his administration, he relies more on a coterie of sycophants on his National Security Council to advise him. Both Jim Jones and Gates complained about how much the White House Staff were involved in foreign policy discussions. Tom Donnilan? The guy’s a hack. Ben Rhodes? He’s not much more than a kid who used to write speeches for Obama. Rice? She might be smart, but she’s no Scowcroft. She’s not even a Condi.

Also, there have been a lot of cases where Obama ignored the overwhelming opinion of his advisers. Hillary, Gates and Panetta all wanted to arm the rebels in Syria. Kerry made a strong case in preparation for air strikes against Syria before Obama decided to ask the Tea Party for permission. I understand that strong leaders sometimes resist the advice of their advisors, but it’s hard to make a case at this point that Obama was right in ignoring the counsel of his foreign policy team with regards to arming the Syrian opposition.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that Obama seems at times to have given up on his job. He’s like a man who is so disappointed that the world didn’t meet his expectations that he has given up trying to make a difference. It reminds me of Bush in his last year, but Obama’s not even done with half his second term.

I could go on, but I probably don’t need to.  If liberals continue to defend Obama when he doesn’t deserve it, then we’re no better than Republicans who continued to defend Bush while he was so obviously driving the country into a ditch. I continue to root for this president to live up to the high expectations I had for him and I’ll continue to defend him when he is unfairly criticized. But we can’t ignore the reality in front of our faces. The country deserves better than that.

Republican Schizophrenia on Middle East Policy

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Here’s a Jon Stewart riff from a couple of weeks ago on the hypocrisy of Republicans using the death of the Ambassador in Libya as a reason to attack Obama’s foreign policy.

Republican critiques of Middle East policy are actually more complex than just the usual Republican hypocrisy in that they get to the heart of a real rift in the Republican party on Middle East Policy. On the one hand, you have what we might want call the “The Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans–the people who believe that the solution to almost every problem is military force and the threat of military force. These people want to play a version of Cold War era global chess with the Middle East, supporting our dictator friends and deposing the others. They don’t give a shit about democratization and many of them believe that the Arabs can’t handle the freedom. On the other hand, we have the neo-cons, who think that the key to our security in the Abab world lies in allowing these countries to democratize. The theory here is that democracy and freedom lead to economic growth, and economic growth leads to stability, and stability leads to less terrorism which leads to our security. Whether that is actually true is the central question of the Middle East for the next few decades and a topic for another day.

The problem with Republicans under Obama is that they are so mixed up that they constantly shift from one pole to another. This is what allows Republicans who scoffed at Democratic arguments that we should get rid of George W. Bush when he invaded the wrong country, Al Qaeda rushed in and fanned the flames of a sectarian war and 100,000 people died, but have the temerity to say that Obama’s Middle East policy is a failure because of an attack on our embassy and protests across the Middle East. A few weeks ago, my conservative uncle, who was an ardent Bush supporter eight years ago, actually tried to make the argument that Obama should be voted out because “the Middle East is in flames” and people are protesting against our embassies after Obama said that everyting would be better after he was elected. I pointed out that he is suffering from the same short term memory that so many of his fellow Republicans seem to be experiencing these days.

Another example of Republican schizophrenia on Middle East Policy can be seen in contradictory Republican messages messages on Libya and Syria. In Libya, we had a very constrained but effective tactical role in overthrowing a historic enemy of the United States which was accomplished with no American casualties. We now have an emerging, albeit fragile democracy in the country, but also the presence of some militant groups that have yet to be dealt with and unarmed, one of which attacked our embassy a few weeks ago. So you hear from the “Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans like Ben Stein, who wrote that

It’s amazing that Qaddafi kept saying that the people fighting against him were al Qaeda and we kept helping them — and sure enough, they turned out to be al Qaeda. And Qaddafi, who had become our friend — although a cruel and vile man — was killed by the rebels so now Libya is in large measure in the hands of al Qaeda. 

Too many factual innacuracies to go into detail on (the government isn’t Al Qaeda, the rebels are), but this is a main point of the AOUF Republicans: we deposed Qadaffi and empowered Al Qaeda. Well that’s a reasonable enough argument, but it’s slightly less credible coming from the same people whose response was basically “shut the fuck up” when the exact same argument was made about the War in Iraq (the main difference being tens of thousands of American soldiers wounded, thousands of US soldiers killed, our eye off the Osama bin Laden ball and over a trillion dollars added to the federal debt). 

Similarly, AOUF Republicans blame the Obama administration for the emergence of the Egyptian Brotherhood, but it’s not clear what the alternative was for them. Encourage the government to fire on the protestors? Take sides with our traditional ally when the writing was on the wall that he would ultimately be deposed by his own people?

On Syria, the Republicans have the luxury of an almost diametrically opposed argument to wield against Obama: he isn’t doing enough to help overthrow the Assad regime, even though it’s not clear who would take Assad’s place and there is ample documentation that Al Qaeda are among the groups backing the Sunni insurgency in a conflict that breaks down largely on sectarian lines.

Look, these are tough calls, but that’s partly the point. It’s tough to sit back and watch a government slaughter it’s people, but it’s also probably not wise to help overthrow one government when you don’t know what kind of government is most likely to replace it. Fortunately for the Republicans, they can complain no matter what happens: if we continue to support the Syrians revels with only words, then we’re not doing enough and Obama is showing American weakness. If we enable them to take power and the government that everges is even slightly more Islamic than it is today, then Obama’s foreign policy is a failure because he allowed “radical muslim extremists” to take power.

In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do about it but laugh. 

Arab Spring Spreads Across the Middle East

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Juan Cole on the protests spreading across the Middle East:

Friday saw major protests in Syria, Jordan and Yemen, along with continued fighting in Libya. The Arab Spring has not breathed its last gasp, but rather seems to be getting a second wind. Protesters are crossing red lines set by governments and risking being shot. They know that movements are watered with the blood of martyrs. One of the major protests, in Deraa, Syria, on Friday was actually a funeral procession. But the Baathist regime created dozens more martyrs in response to being challenged. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have admitted he is outgoing, though he is bargaining with the crowds about the timing and circumstances.

Government Forces Fire on Demonstrators as Syrian Protests Spread

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Syrian Troops opened fire on demonstrators today as tens of thousands turned out in the city of Dara’a and smaller demonstrations broke out in other cities throughout Syria.

Meanwhile, In Damascus, tens of thousands took to the street in support of Bashar-Al Asad’s government as a smaller group supported the protest movements.

Reports indicated that as many as 20 protestors were killed by security forces in Dara’a, with fatal shootings in other areas of the country as well.

The protests are the most serious challenge to the 4o year rule of the Assad family since 1982, when Hafez-Al Asad, the father of current Syrian leader Bashar-Al Asad, massacred at least 10,000 protesters in the city of Hamma in 1982.

Fouad Ajami: Demise of the Dictators

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Great article from Fouad Ajami on the history and context of the current tumult in the Middle East.