Skip to content
March 14, 2014 / Sandy Asher


Predictably, neo-conservatives are blaming President Obama’s vacillation and weakness in dealing with Benghazi, Iran, and Syria for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The portrayal of Obama as indecisive dates from the September 11, 2012, attack on Benghazi, a tragic, isolated event carried out by terrorists against a poorly protected embassy. And yet, Obama’s conduct of foreign policy had nothing to do with the Benghazi attack. There are far more than six degrees of separation between presidential responsibility and the conduct of  day-to-day embassy affairs.

Establishing cause and effect relationships where none exist is illogical and dangerous.  According to neo-conservatives, giving peace a chance in Iran was also a timid choice.  Better to ratchet up the sanctions until the Ayatollah “screamed uncle” and gave up all production of weapons-grade uranium. Better to green light Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, maybe even join them in the attack. So what if the American military considered such actions problematic?  Lost in the accusation of timidness is Obama’s role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, using the very sanctions he’s accused of not using sufficiently.

Then there was his refusal to send massive arms to the Syrian rebels, whose most effective fighters are extremists.  And why didn’t he establish a no-fly zone?  Who cares  that most military leaders warned that such a move would be unenforceable?  Cooperating with the Russians to get Syria to agree to destroy its massive supply of chemical/biological weapons apparently counts for nothing – or is just another sign of weakness.

The invasion of Ukraine by those same Russians is the latest fodder for critics who see the move as part of a bolder Putin plan to annex all of eastern and southern Ukraine, and maybe other former Soviet republics as well. No matter that events in Ukraine caught Putin completely by surprise, as attested to by his clumsy, heavy-handed, ad hoc responses. Apparently it’s better to forgo diplomacy and get right to the maximum sanctions while the situation continues to unfold in ways not yet predictable.

The truth is, even had Obama bombed the Syrian airforce to smithereens, Putin would have preceded exactly as he did in Ukraine.  Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev bestowed it as a “gift” to the Ukrainan people.  Kiev, the center of the revolution, exists only as a weak provisional government.  But historical complexity does not enter the mindset of those prone toward acting first and thinking later.

Or perhaps anything that Obama does or doesn’t do is unacceptable?

Obama has said that he and our allies would impose tough sanctions on Russia if it annexes Crimea, just as neo-conservatives suggest.  But this stance is ignored because Obama is also willing to open up a diplomatic door that could lead to more autonomy for Crimea if Russia stops short of annexation.

Given our very poor track record in those places where we did act aggressively – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – Obama has been absolutely right in keeping the United States from jumping headfirst into yet another costly, unpredictable military adventure.

Do his critics remember that after the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the country was “awash in a blood-dimmed tide, with nearly 9,000 killed last year and almost 1,000 killed last month, as Al Qaeda and another jihadist group fight for supremacy. In Falluja, the city where nearly 100 American soldiers died in the fiercest fighting of the war, the black insurgent flag now flies over buildings.” (Maureen Dowd, “History: Get Me Rewrite,” New York Times, February 19, 2014)

Do those critics consider that to date President Hamid Karzai has been unwilling to sign off on a bilateral security agreement to let any American soldiers stay on after December 31, 2014?   In response, Obama has threatened to sign an agreement with a new Afghan government after the April 5 elections. Unfortunately, “of the eleven campaigns for those elections six included at least one candidate on the ticket who was widely viewed as a warlord, with pasts and policies directly at odds with Western attempts to improve human rights.” (Bob Norland, “Warlords With Dark Pasts Battle in Afghan Elections, New York Times, February 26, 2014)

“Act first, think later,” is not a recipe for international success. Nor is refusal to recognize the limits of American power. Nor is making bad analogies, such as the current one linking Crimea and Putin to Hitler and Munich.

Better to err on the side of caution. Better to look long and hard before we leap – again – into the unknown.  Better to have a cautious president who deliberates before he sounds the charge.  It is not feckless to refuse to be reckless.

February 3, 2014 / Sandy Asher


Reposted from Shea Magazine,



By Harvey Asher, Ph.D.

 The latest economic data show workers’ wages and salaries growing at the lowest rate relative to corporate profits in U.S. history.  Yet in “America’s Inequality Problem,” a January 20, 2014, column for The New York Times, David Brooks says, “. . . raising the minimum wage may not be an effective way to help those least well-off.”  He cites a study by Professors Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser that found no evidence that increases in the minimum wage had any effects on the poverty rate.

That may not be quite right.  Also in January, USA Today mentioned an unspecified study that determined that just over 11% of those officially classified as poor and 42% of those occupying the next rung on the poverty scale would benefit if the minimum wage rose from the current $7.25 to $9.50.  While not solving all problems related to poverty, raising the minimum wage would at least make many poor Americans less poor.

Brooks’s point is that “ . . . we should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.”  Rather, emphasis should be on single motherhood and high school dropout rates, as they most correlate with lack of social mobility.

Right.  Let’s focus on changing things that would take lots of time – assuming we even knew how to begin – and lots of money, difficult to come by in these times of large deficits.  Let’s not do the simple thing we can do.

One good thing about running in circles:  at least we look like we care.

It would be more honest to flat-out write off “the 47%” dependent upon government handouts, as did Governor Romney in his presidential run, than to maintain this pretense of being in their corner, all worried about their most pressing concerns, while sidelining the issue of gross income inequalities.  We certainly don’t want “a class conscious style of politics” brought on by ever-widening income disparities.

And maybe if we keep on running in circles, that particular mulberry bush will just die of neglect?

In his article “More Imperfect Unions” (New York Times, January 26, 2014), Ross Douthat, unlike Brooks, offers a few words on the negative role Bain-like capitalism played in creating the current lopsided distribution of wealth.   But he doesn’t mention raising the minimum wage as a tool for righting this situation.  Like Brooks, he sees the undercutting of the two-parent family as the main cause of poverty, specifically, liberals’ “permissive attitudes towards sex and the 1970s era revolutions in divorce and abortion law.”

Hence, after a quick nod to the economics of poverty, Douhat shifts to a critique of liberal values that led the poor astray. Easy access to abortion allowed women the physical choice as to whether to go through with birth, he explains, and, therefore, “made marriage and child support the choice of the man.” No-fault divorce laws gave reasons to delay marriage and not to risk investing in a venture “that could be unilaterally dissolved.”

Douthat’s recommendations: wage subsidies to employers to hire underemployed workers, “modest” (unspecified) limits on unilateral divorce, and a second trimester ban on abortions.  In other words, he winds up pitching the conservative family values agenda without so much as another glance at inequitable distribution of wealth.

Just keep running.

In actual fact, the reasons for the 50% divorce rates in this country transcend class.  For one thing, many middle and upper class women earn enough so that they don’t have to stay in bad marriages.  And it’s puzzling why Douthat thinks further restrictions on abortion would help the poor climb out of poverty. Wouldn’t it be more productive to advocate easy access to abortion?  Better yet, more information, such as that provided by Planned Parenthood, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

In any case, while awaiting the implementation of bold plans to resuscitate family values, why not raise the minimum wage?  At the very least, such a step would not worsen the situation.  Arguments that a higher minimum wage would lead to job cuts are not borne out by the results of previous hikes.  In terms of purchasing power, the minimum wage reached its highest level in 1968, when, converted into today’s dollars, it equaled $10.55 an hour, more than is currently being proposed.  Yet the unemployment rate in 1968 was 3.6%.

Raising the minimum wage is not a panacea for reducing poverty.  But it would help many to be less impoverished, and that is a good thing.  Instead, the weasels continue to race “round and round the mulberry bush” with variations on the blame-the-victim-and-blame-the-liberals theme that do not deal with the economics of poverty.

What sort of monkey would think “’twas all in fun”?

January 13, 2014 / Sandy Asher


Dear friends,

For some reason — probably having to do with the new Sandy Asher website at — the email about Harvey’s last post, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD — arrived in your mailbox with a by-line crediting me for its content.  That by-line doesn’t even appear in the draft version or the on-line version, so I don’t know how to get rid of it.  (Advice welcome.)  At any rate, it’s Harvey’s essay!  I administer the blog and my website, but he’s the historian. 

Sorry for the confusion!

Sandy (and Harvey, of course)

January 13, 2014 / Sandy Asher


Reposted from Shea Magazine,

Things That Matter, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer’s latest series of essays, for the most part previously published in the Washington Post, soared to the top of best seller lists in 2013.  The collection’s popularity rides on his record of being stylistically engaging, sometimes humorous, and seemingly compassionate, logical, and objective.  For many admirers like conservative blogger Tom Tillison, now Senior Writer/Editor at BizPac, Krauthammer is “arguably the sharpest conservative mind in politics today.”

Sharp he is, but more is involved than intellect.  Krauthammer is quite clever in presenting himself as thoughtful and objective.  He’s willing to criticize positions taken by other conservatives – Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck among them – who are given to high emotion, ideological rigidity, and mean-spiritedness.  But in the end, Krauthammer turns out to be a wizard creating illusions of wisdom from behind a curtain of questionable premises and inconclusive facts.

Among the columns included in this latest book is a 1990 essay, “The Real Message of Creationism,” in which Krauthammer acknowledges that creationism “which presents Genesis as literally true, is not science,” and that the teaching of creationism “has no part in the science curriculum of any serious country.” Having thrown a sop to advocates of the scientific method, he then changes course, condoning the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the state science curriculum.  This decision, he explains, was based not on ignorance, but on resentment at the absence of religious values in the schools.  Hence, creationist lobbyists are understandable in seeking a ban on evolution because they are using that approach as a back door to restoring religion to its rightful place in the curriculum.

Krauthammer concludes that “a healthy country would teach its students about both evolution and the Ten Commandments.”  One could almost allow him that, but then comes the clincher:  Values eroded in the first place, he opines, because secularists used biology as a back door to inculcating their anti-American values, specifically by deceptively pushing for sex education classes.  In the blink of an eye Krauthammer has moved from rejecting creationism as bad science to empathizing with Kansas anti-evolutionists for waging the good fight against the forces of darkness.   The ends justify the means, and, anyway, nyah-nyah-nyah, they cheated first!

Another example of Krauthammer’s sleight of hand can be seen in “Decline Is a Choice,” a column that first appeared in 2009.  Again, first comes the nod to those critical of capitalism as a distribution system:  “There’s much to be said for the decency and relative equality of social democracy.”  Then it’s down to business.  The cost of some sort of social democracy — that is, greater focus on the needs of the poor — is too dear, he insists, because we live in a Hobbesian state of nature, a world of continual war and violence.  Social democratic programs, however desirable they may be, exact too high a price “on our primacy in space, on missile defense, on energy security, and on our military capacities and future power projection.”  Moreover, “at a time when hundreds of billions of dollars are being lavished on stimulus and other appropriations in an endless array of domestic programs, the defense budget is practically frozen.”

And so, by an act of legerdemain, Krauthammer shows us the needs of the poor and then makes them disappear.  Military expenditures must not be curtailed if we wish to preserve our benign hegemon which keeps the international community stable. An expanded domestic agenda is not a “peace dividend”; in a world without peace, it is “a retreat dividend.”  And “if we choose the life of ease [his phrase, apparently, for greater economic equality], who stands guard for us?”

 In short, poverty is lamentable, but the poor simply have to be sacrificed to keep us safe.

Krauthammer is not without compassion, though.  One of his essays laments the genetic ruin of border collies and another celebrates the miraculous resurrection of the baseball career of Rick Ankiel, the failed pitcher who reinvented himself as a successful outfielder.

Launching into a recent column entitled “Massacre at Newtown,” Krauthammer tells us he supported the 1994 Congressional ban on assault weapons. Then comes the switcheroo. Turns out that unless “you are prepared to confiscate all existing firearms, disarm the citizenry, and repeal the Second Amendment, it’s almost impossible to craft a law that will be effective.” He explains that the problem with gun control is not just NRA opposition.  Equally, if not more, at fault are groups like the ACLU whose objections to censorship legitimized glamorized violence in the world of entertainment.  Hence, the NRA and the entertainment industry bear similar responsibility for gun violence.

But has anyone ever been shot by a movie?

Throughout his essays, Krauthammer repeatedly misinterprets facts or clings to falsities despite clear evidence to the contrary. Just a few more brief examples:

             * George W. Bush allowed only 22 lines of existing stem cells, many of them contaminated, to be used in research, yet Krauthammer considers Bush to be a generous promoter of federal funding for stem cell research, a conclusion at odds with the judgment of all experts in the field.

              * Despite later revelations that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Krauthammer continues to believe in the wisdo m of the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam, who, in his words, held “the threat of mass death on a scale never before seen in the hands of a madman.”

* “Whatever their misgivings about the cost and wisdom of these wars (Iraq and Afghanistan),” he asserts, “the American people know how deep and authentic is the American devotion to liberty.”  Well, sure, but should devotion to liberty trump all costs and wisdom?

 I don’t think Krauthammer is being cynical in putting forth his arguments.  I think he believes he sees all sides clearly and draws the “right” conclusions.  (Pun intended.)  And although the Wizard of Oz was eventually revealed to be a small man behind a curtain, he was still the one and only Wizard of Oz.  By the same token, in no way are my observations meant to challenge Charles Krauthammer’s title as “the sharpest conservative mind in politics today.”

 Consider the competition.


October 10, 2013 / Sandy Asher


Government shutdowns, contrary to popular perception, are not rare occurrences.  Between 1976 and 1996, the United States government partially shut down 16 times.

The 1996 shutdown lasted 27 days.  It followed President Clinton’s vetoing of a Republican budget that called for substantial cuts to social programs, including Medicare and food stamps.  Confrontations among politicians at that time exhibited the same fierce, bruising partisanship, acrimony, and rancor now in evidence.  In the end, Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress, blinked and accepted Clinton’s budget proposal to end the federal deficit in seven years. They are in a weaker position this time around because they do not control the Senate.  It’s likely they will blink again, but less likely they will publicly acknowledge doing so.

It makes sense to regard the current shutdown as a continuation of its 1996 predecessor.  At that time, Republicans attacked the Democratic incumbent for epitomizing all that was wrong with the morally bankrupt left-leaning boomer generation. Enemies depicted Clinton as a profligate big spender on wasteful social programs that created America’s dependence on large government at the cost of staggering, initiative-stifling deficits. They succeeded in killing Clinton’s plans for massive reform of health care insurance.

Emboldened by sweeping gains in the midterm elections of 1994, Republicans signed onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” that called for a balanced budget/tax limitation amendment.  Poor showings in the 1998 mid-term elections – Republicans lost seats in the House and gained none in the Senate – led to the resignation of Gingrich, first from his speakership, and later from the House itself.

Somehow, this lesson was lost on Republicans. They underestimated Clinton who in 1995 surprised them and liberal Democrats by calling for a middle class tax cut and a balanced budget within ten years, while speaking out against violent television content and calling for tough police responses to crime. Thus he blunted the Gingrich offensive, and by achieving a fiscal surplus in 1998 won over business leaders and investors.  Nor was he damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that irked Congressional Republicans more than it did the American public, which took a more permissive attitude.

The same kind of personal hostility has carried over to Obama, in part because he is a black man. His American birth, despite impeccable confirming evidence, has been challenged by Republicans, most vociferously by Donald Trump.  It was not just Obamacare but his entire domestic legislative agenda that was deemed extremely leftist, if not downright socialist, from the start.

Obama’s 2012 victory included Democratic gains in both the House and Senate, in spite of non-stop criticism of Obamacare, already passed into law in 2010.  Republicans were unwilling to deem his decisive victory (by more than 4,000,000 votes) as any kind of mandate for the Affordable Health Care Act. The House passed more than 30 resolutions calling for its complete repudiation, all of which died in the Senate. As justification for their intransigence, House members selectively interpreted polls showing the majority of Americans did not support Obamacare, while ignoring those that showed even larger majorities did not believe the implementation of Obamacare justified shutting down the government.

Hostility to the man and the program led them to ignore or obfuscate the fact that Obamacare strongly resembles plans suggested by the conservative Heritage Foundation that called for the purchase of policies from private insurers, and were implemented (reasonably well) by a certain Republican governor of Massachusetts.  Republican demands to attach the defunding or delay of Obamacare as a condition for approving a budget rested less on its cost (in actuality the program was designed to be self-funding) than on fear that its possible success would be a major victory for a Democratic president and an imagined Big Brother America.

Unlike the crisis of 1996, the present situation has the added burden of simultaneously dealing with the budget and the issue of raising the debt ceiling due to expire on October 16th.  Virtually all economists agree that the consequences of the country’s failure to pay its financial obligations would be catastrophic both domestically and internationally.  Even Speaker Boehner, who thus far has refused to allow a House vote on a clean budget bill, says he will not allow a credit default.  On the other hand, Senator Tom Coburn asserted, “I would dispel the rumor that…if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will default on our debt.”

Most critics argue that a small group of radical Republicans – Ted Cruz (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), and others – are responsible for the Republican strategy of refusing to pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling unless Obama abolishes, delays, or significantly alters his health insurance program. The scenario indicates that these zealots have been able to overcome the moderate wing of the party and force them to go along with a strategy of holding the government hostage unless it makes major concessions on health care.

This assessment has validity, but it is not the whole story. Obstructionism antedates the coming into law of Obamacare.  Senator Mitch McConnell, supposedly less extreme than Tea Party leaders, proclaimed the party’s most important objective was to do anything possible to prevent Obama’s reelection.  The 2012 Republican Party Platform, agreed to by all Republican members of both houses of Congress, stated, rather inelegantly, “In our view the entire act before us is invalid in its entirety.”  It is hardly likely that the party platform was exclusively drafted by radical Republicans.

The defunding strategy emerged shortly after Obama began his second term, when a loose-knit group of political activists and organizations, including former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III (who resigned because of his role in the Iran-Contra plots) and Americans for Prosperity, sponsored a “blueprint to defunding Obamacare.”  (Shirley Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire, “A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Making,” New York Times, October 5, 2013.)  This influential group worked closely with Tea Party representatives to target “lukewarm” conservatives and bring them onto the team, while also working against the reelection of moderates who refused to play ball with them.

The distinction between radical and moderate Republicans right now is blurred, and more one of tone than substance.  Even centrists, such as PA Representative Pat Meehan, who urged Speaker Boehner to allow a vote on a clean budget, stopped short of being willing to work with Democrats on procedural maneuvers to require a clean spending bill.  Moderates’ inaction and retirements have made it easier for the party’s radical wing to create the poisonous political atmosphere now prevailing and to implement the strategy of rendering the federal government irrelevant.  (For more on the shifts, see Nate Silver, “Moderate Republicans Fall Away in Senate,” Five Thirty Eight, New York Times, May 8, 2012.)  Too many moderates stood on the sidelines while extremists initiated the modus operandi of “just say no” to everything Obama requested.

That said, the most likely scenario is that Republicans will eventually agree to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. These “concessions” will be part of a broader deal that will also end sequestration (automatic spending cuts in categories of federal outlays) in return for Obama’s “concessions” on long term changes to Social Security, Medicare, and the tax code, and, maybe, on taxing medical devices. The sad thing is, Republicans would have gotten the same give-backs even if they had not employed the strategy of brinksmanship.  Once again, that is not the lesson they will draw.

Short term, the Tea Party and its financiers (the Koch brothers and others) will continue to influence a small number of House and Senate elections.  Longer term, demographics – the browning of America – will work against them.  American history indicates that groups or movements dominated by ideology, either on the right or the left, have short shelf lives.  Alienating tactics will not win over sufficient numbers of libertarians and independents to give the movement a stable, majority status.   The pendulum swings, but Americans have always tended toward the center.

Neither Ted Cruz nor his clones will get the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.  They have angered too many Republicans through personal attacks, and more importantly, the GOP knows the extremists can’t win.  If this prediction is wrong, and an extremist does become the Republican nominee, look for an outcome similar to the 1964 Barry Goldwater bid – a Democratic Party landslide.

Unless Republicans chart a different course, one that offers positive appeal rather than mere repudiation of the other party’s programs, they will remain stuck in the wilderness of presidential politics.  Sadly, until that time comes – and it will, if for no other reason than they want your vote – the  American people will continue to bear the burdens of  intransigence.

September 10, 2013 / Sandy Asher



There are many thoughtful arguments for not going into Syria, but they are not beyond challenge.

Military actions, even the best ones, often do not go according to plan.  True, but some limited military operations do achieve their objective. Witness the successful one to take out Osama bin Laden, despite the breakdown of one of the choppers used in the operation.

The defining line for the Obama administration is use of chemical weapons.  Why is this more objectionable than chopping off limbs with machetes, systemic rape, and shooting protestors? The Geneva Protocols of 1925, signed by nearly all nations, including Syria, banned the use (but not the manufacture) of chemical and biological weapons.  Death by gassing has long been universally considered particularly gruesome and loathsome. The same sentiment persisted in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention ratified by 189 states – not Syria – that banned the use, manufacture, and transfer of chemical weapons in the aftermath of a chemical bombardment on the Iraqi city of Halabja that killed between 3200 and 5000 people and wounded thousands more.

 It is foolish to act in Syria to maintain the credibility of Obama because he drew a red line warning the Syrians of consequences if the regime used chemical weapons.  He has also drawn a red line on Iran possessing nuclear weapons. Why should Teheran believe him if he reneges on his pledge to punish Assad for using chemical weapons?

Faulty intelligence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Questionable intelligence is not the issue in the Syrian case.  Few, other than Assad himself, would deny its government possesses massive stockpiles of chemical weapons and has used them against its own people.

The second invasion of Iraq was followed by mission creep that led to a ten year civil war, the death of thousands of American soldiers and many more Iraqis, and a still uncertain final outcome that is sure to be disappointing.  President Obama understands the difficulties of creating multi-ethnic democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan and has clearly stated he has no intentions of attempting to do so in Syria. The operation calls for short duration targeted strikes against some poison gas delivery systems, and a promise of no boots on the ground under all circumstances.  It is not, as Thomas Friedman’s article asserts, the “Same War, Different Country. (New York Times, September 7, 2013).  Surprisingly little attention has been given to a different analogy that may be more appropriate to the current situation:  appeasement. The failure to respond to Hitler’s pre-WWII aggression led him to up the ante.

We can shame Assad into changing his behavior.  The historical record overflows with tyrants who changed only when faced with serious consequences for bad behavior.  Persuasion, diplomacy, pleas, and shaming don’t work with dictators whose unshakeable objective is to stay in power no matter the costs and consequences.

Instead of a military response, we should lobby the U.N. to set up an International Criminal Tribunal for Syria as it did earlier for Rwanda and Serbia and to start proceedings against Bashar al-Assad and his thugocracy for crimes against humanity.  Let’s do it, but the process take years.

Arming the rebels is preferable to aerial assaults.  We cannot just arm “the good rebels” and guarantee arms will not also fall into the hands of the bad guys, including Islamic extremists and pro-Jihadi fighters.

There is little strategic rationale in bombing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.  There is no way of limiting their delivery systems either.  Obama’s proposal does not call for bombing chemical stockpiles, which would be disastrous. Taking out some delivery systems does limit future usage.

A military attack likely would strengthen the Syrian regime.  Does this mean rebels would rally around Assad?  Or that Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds would forget the ancient grievances among them and rush to defend “their country?”  Come on.

Even the president admits his proposed mission will not change the outcome of the civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives and created over two million refugees, so why bother?  This is not about whether or not to interfere in a civil war.  It’s about demonstrating the consequences of using chemical weapons.  Only the United States is in a position to take a stand against what a vast majority of the world’s population regards as reprehensible, immoral, and unethical conduct.

American action may lead to retaliation by Syria and its allies, including direct attacks on Israel, as well as reverberations in other Middle East states where American interests risk becoming the targets of those who already resent American presence in the region.  All of these things have already occurred before this situation arose.  Benghazi-like attacks and terrorist threats that led to the recent closing of nineteen US embassies and consulates will continue whatever we do or do not do in Syria.  Inaction will not increase our security or our popularity in the Middle East.  It is very unlikely Syria will go after Israel if the US strikes.  Following Israeli bombing of suspected Syrian nuclear sites in 2007 and 2011, the Assad regime did nothing.  Assad has enough on his hands without taking on external confrontations.

The president can’t declare war without Congressional approval.  There has been no Congressional declaration of war since 1941.  Yet plenty of presidents have undertaken military actions without such approval.  Recent interventions include Lebanon, Grenada, Haiti, Somalia, and Zaire, to name but a few. The 1999 bombings in the Balkans were ordered by President Clinton without Congressional, UN, or public approval, but they did bring Serbia to the negotiating table.

Only 35% of the public supports US military action in Syria.  That’s according to the latest poll as of this writing. Public opinion is fickle. A Washington Post poll on September 20, 2012, found 63% of Americans favored involving the United States military if Syria used chemical weapons. How the operation ultimately fares can lead quickly to another major change in public sentiment.

U.S. attacks against a sovereign nation without provocation or the endorsement of the United Nations is a violation of international law. So is the use of chemical weapons. Threatened vetoes by Russia and China, themselves past violators of the U.N. prohibition of non-defensive wars, have rendered the Security Council helpless in the Syrian situation.  Despite the considerable good it does, the U.N. cannot act without the support of its most powerful members, even when they’re dead wrong.

Past deceptions and lies like those about the North Vietnamese navy firing on the destroyer Maddox or Iraqi soldiers killing incubated Kuwaiti babies render suspect everything our government tells us. A healthy dose of skepticism is warranted, but that’s different from a cynicism that rejects as untruthful all government reports to the point of immobilizing us from acting when we need to.

Like those who oppose military action, both President Obama and those who support his stand would prefer not to go into Syria.  This may now be a possibility.  Whatever their arguments for or against intervention, no one predicted – or even considered – that Syria might agree to destroy its chemical weapons to ward off targeted attacks against them. As the discussion moves forward, let it not proceed on the basis of false, incomplete, or ideologically-driven information.

June 17, 2013 / Sandy Asher


Reposted from Shea Magazine, . . .

In his recent address on foreign policy, published in the New York Times on May 23, President Obama announced that fundamental changes were called for in the assumptions that have kept the United States at war for more than a decade, during which time 7,000 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice and we have “spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.” The policy he follows in the current Syrian bloodbath, where more than 70,000 people have been killed, mostly by government forces, will test whether the president’s words are matched by his actions.

In his speech, Obama rejected an outlook dating from the Vietnam War, one which he more or less followed during his first administration. According to international affairs expert William Pfaaf, (The Irony of Manifest Destiny, 2010), this outlook featured an “inveterate American policy of direct intervention in the internal affairs of small non-Western countries, usually mistakenly believed to be victims of some global menace aimed at the U.S., countries incapable of looking after their own affairs or forging their own identities.”

In the Vietnam conflict (part civil war and part North Vietnamese invasion), the global enemy was worldwide communism, supposedly bent on limitless expansion and directed by Russia and China acting in collusion through its Viet Cong and North Vietnamese proxies. According to the containment argument, if not confronted in Southeast Asia, communist forces would reach our shores in the near future.

Fifty-five thousand American deaths, a soaring national debt, the Cambodian genocide, and the communist victory subsequently cautioned the United States, at least for a little while, against large scale military intervention in what were mostly nationalist-xenophobic, ethnic and religious conflicts that posed no direct danger to our national security.

That changed after 9/11, when the Bush administration launched what he called the “war on terror.” “Terror” and “terrorism” do not exist as historical entities, but only as qualities attached to human acts. The labeling matters. Putting the focus on an amorphous, ill-defined quality distracted from a more doable objective of going after specific groups and individuals that sought to kill Americans, everywhere and anywhere, by all means possible.

The war on terror also lumped together al-Qaida and the Taliban, implying, falsely, the two were one and the same. Al- Qaida’s original goal was to get revenge for American support of a detested Saudi Arabian monarchy, which sponsored an unacceptable Wahabi interpretation of the Koran. No coincidence that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. On the other hand, the Taliban, which the U.S. initially supported after Russia invaded Afghanistan, sought to impose its own ultra conservative reading of that holy book on its own country, Afghanistan.

Lastly, Bush’s grand vision ignored differentiations among 1.5 billion Muslims spread out over thirty countries, from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa’s Atlantic Coast to the Balkans, Turkey, and Indonesia, of whom only 20% are Arabs. Moreover, most Muslims are not, per se, anti-American; when they are, it’s usually in response to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the “collateral damage” that has befallen ordinary people.

A very small number of extremists have sought retribution by indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians, as in the train bombings in England and Spain, for the deaths and destruction in their own countries by American armed forces and allies. Such tactics came about because these groups were too small in number to win a battlefield conflict. They rationalized their conduct by pointing to the death of innocents in their own homelands as justification. (So did Timothy McVeigh, who cited the FBI assault against the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas, when he blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, causing the second largest number of Americans (168) to perish from an act of domestic terror.)

The Bush team also assumed American democratic values would be universally welcomed by all who lived under cruel and despotic regimes. In a Foreign Affairs article written in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that “democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest,” and that “the democratization of Iraq and the democratization of the Middle East are linked.” This insistence on “nation building” in countries about whose histories and culture we were ignorant and dismissive was considered arrogant and condescending by their people.

In his speech, Obama called for the United States to shift its emphasis from focusing on a depleted al-Qaida to going after more localized threats so as to prevent attacks like those in Benghazi, the oil facilities in Algeria, or carried out by radicalized individuals, such as the shooter at Fort Hood who killed thirteen servicemen, and the Boston bombers, some of whom have been American citizens. Essentially he called for the reimplementation of the pre – 9/11 strategy of a “series of targeted efforts to dismantle networks of violent extremists that target America (Pfaff),” an approach in which counter-terrorism is handled primarily by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The shift would keep the USA from being drawn into wars it does not need to fight, like those in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

What Obama could not say because of the likely disastrous political consequences was that the end games in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out badly and very badly: continued sectarian violence in semi-democratic Iraq, and war lord domination outside of Kabul, where an America-supported pervasively corrupt leadership holds sway. Such naked honesty would instigate a vast outpouring of public anger, and lead to an endless series of investigation as to what went wrong and who was responsible.

Obama is under considerable pressure to arm the rebels in Syria as their situation worsens on the battlefield, many of whom belong to unsavory groups and share in common only a desire to topple Bashar al-Assad. Senator John McCain has called for arming them and establishing no-fly zones. Others have urged putting boots on the ground, predicting that a “decisive rebel victory in Syria would constitute a major setback for Iran, since Syria…has always been Iran’s most reliable pathway to its proxy, Hezbollah.” (Ray Takeyh, May 27th, editorial, New York Times.) Most recently, Bill Clinton has come out in support of McCain’s position.

As of this writing, Obama has not given his support for either proposal. Lessons were learned from our Vietnam intervention. And forgotten. Iraq and Afghanistan have provided costly reminders. Do we need yet another wake-up call? No, but the pressure on Obama indicates we may be about to get one.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 147 other followers