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Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

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Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.


Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]


A Failure of Politics

bigstock-syria-3770337When an American president finding himself slipping between the two stools of ill-considered military because he must “save face” or preserve “credibility,” our history shows that we’re about to make a serious, serious mistake.

From Harry Truman to George W. Bush American presidents have committed the United States military to wars based on every justification imaginable from containing Communism to changing a regime to protecting human rights. Lyndon Johnson, we now know, was afraid of being accused of being soft on Communism, so he doubled down on a failed strategy in Indochina in the 1960’s. Bush launched a war in Iraq in order to bring democracy to that made-to-British-order country and we’re still finding out – ten years on – how that mistake is playing out.

Barack Obama was elected and re-elected in no small part because he said he was determined to end America’s endless wars, but now he finds himself on the cusp of military action that could well define his presidency and jerk the violent Middle East into a wide-open regional war. As political analysts Larry Sabato says, “Syria’s in the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?”

The President stunning mishandling of the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria has its roots once again in the president’s remarkable disdain for the grubby, critical work of politics. He’s backed himself out on a very long limb largely because he’s refused to engage the political institutions that could have both helped shape the U.S. response to a tin-horned dictator fighting for his life, while destroying his country and given the White House the cover it should have to order – or back down from – touching off the Tomahawk missiles.

First, the Administration dismissed going to the United Nations to attempt to rally world support for action against the Syrian regime with the faulty excuse that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would surely veto effective U.N. action. Of course Putin, a guy playing his own game, would continue to defend his Syrian allies, but so what. I would have liked to have seen the impressive new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the noted human rights authority Samantha Power, make the world’s case to the Security Council. The contrast between the moral authority of Power and the United States and the bankrupt cynicism of the Russians, particularly when it would have all been broadcast on Al Jazeera, would have been powerful and important.  The U.N. like the U.S. Congress is politics writ large and Obama and his advisers simply blew this world-class moral authority photo opportunity because the politics apparently looked like a loser. The was miscalculation on an historic scale.

Second, when Obama effectively boxed himself in to eventual military action when he declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would demand a response, he failed to immediately engage Congress, which just happens to be required by the Constitution, but which would also have provided a political safety valve by involving Obama’s Republican critics in a decision with mind-numbing consequences.

Imagine for a moment if Obama would have immediately had the bi-partisan Congressional leadership and the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees to the White House. Even better if he could summon them to Washington from their home state politicking during the August recess. He could have publicly insisted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do its job and conduct hearings on just what the appropriate U.S. response might entail and let the D.C. press know that he was working the phone to talk to guys like Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Tom Foley. He could have had Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in for a visit. In other words, he might have engaged in politics. The failure to do so is nothing short of political malpractice.

For all of his ability to employ soaring rhetoric, Obama has a curiously tin ear when it comes to using the Oval Office as the ultimate power play stage in the world. In a crisis the photo of action can be as important as the action.

Failure to embrace the time-consuming, personal and intense political engagement, both on the world and Washington stage, now finds the increasingly isolated and shrinking Obama presidency left to go it alone. It must drive the far right crazy that the French – the French! – are one of the few countries ready to help the U.S.

The once “special relationship” between London and Washington now sits discarded on the curb of the Middle East. Congressional critics from the left and right are demanding, as they should, that Congress not merely be consulted, but actually approve military action. Obama must recognize now, having failed to engage with the politics of bringing Congress along, that he might well lose a vote on military action, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did. That is a risk he simply should have been prepared to take, and as a Constitutional scholar he must know that the law and history require him to take it.

[Update: President Obama did announced today that he will request Congressional authorization for military action against Syria.]

Assume for a moment that the president had mounted a full-court political press and still lost a vote in Congress authorizing military action. Again – so what? He could look the world – and the American public in the eye – and said, “I tried, but our political system refused to engage.” Ironically, sometimes in politics you win by losing. The president could have positioned his Republican Congressional opponents as the party unwilling to take a moral and military stand against chemical weapons. In such a case he would have driven a deep wedge between the John McCain wing of the GOP and the emerging, neo-isolationist Rand Paul wing.

So, in this summer of our discontent, Obama and the country are in a tough spot. Promising to take action against Syria and failing to do so has consequences. Limited military action, particularly when there is no realistic way to anticipate what will happen the day after the action, has consequences. Failing to bring the politics along with the policy has consequences.

The stark reality of Syria, as well as the larger Middle East, is that American military power has reached its limits. None of what ails the region will be solved by a missile strike – even a limited on – and the cost in American blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq is dismal proof of the folly of U.S. “boots on the ground” in a region where religious, sectarian and tribal fights have been a fixture since before Jesus confronted the Romans. As David Brooks wrote today in the Times, “Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.”

Barack Obama confront this history and his own presidency with his decisions. He has made it all even more difficult by his failing at politics.


Fort Peck

Symbol of American Power

It’s raining in northeastern Montana today. A wet spring following a long winter. The water stands in the wheat and hay fields along U.S. Highway 2 and farmers hereby must wonder when spring will come – if it will come.

The BNSF railroad parallels the highway in this out-of-the-way corner of Montana and both crisscross the Milk River as it meanders to join the big Missouri. In this area just south of the Canadian border, the highway and the railway connect small and shrinking places with distinctly European names – Glasgow, Zurich, Malta and Havre.

This is the Montana Hi-Line, once the pioneering route of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The railroad baron, “the empire builder,” Hill was an advocate of dry land farming and he built his Great Northern west from St. Paul to Seattle, in part, to compete with the rival Northern Pacific, but also to create a transportation route for European immigrants who hoped to fine a bit of agricultural heaven in dry land Montana – hence the names of those glamorous sounding towns along the Hi-Line.

There may be almost too much water this year, but it isn’t always so. Many of the early-day “honyockers, “the immigrant homesteaders who bought into Hill’s railroad marketing, didn’t make it. You can still see the evidence in widely scattered farms that once must have seemed like heaven, that is until the water ran out, the rain didn’t come and the grass gave up. 

When Franklin Roosevelt’s special train rolled along the Hi-Line in August of 1934, it was drought the folks in northeastern Montana were talking about.  Unlike this wet year, the problems in the 1930’s were too much debt and too little water. Roosevelt knew what to do. One farmer in North Dakota yelled at the president: “You gave us beer,” a reference to the end of prohibition, “now give us water.” He did.

With the stroke of a pen, thanks to the powers granted him by creation of the Public Works Administration, FDR authorized the construction of massive Fort Peck Dam. It was the biggest earthern dam in the world when it was completed in 1940. It’s still one of the largest in the world. If you could stretch out the lake shore in a straight line it would reach from northeastern Montana to Atlanta. It’s a very big pond.

FDR came to the Hi-Line in ’34 to see the huge dam under construction. Roosevelt sung the praises of water development in the 1930’s, but was largely motivated to create Fort Peck as a tool to fight unemployment and that worked, too. By the time construction on the dam was in high gear as many as 10,500 workers crawled over the ground south of Glasgow, pushing and hauling thousands of tons of dirt and rock to raise the dam high above the river. It’s estimated more than 50,ooo people worked on the project at one time or another.

The speed with which Fort Peck took shape – work was underway less than two weeks after Roosevelt issued his OK – was also helped by the absense of any requirement for an environmental impact statement (EIS). There was no Endangered Species Act in 1934 and no environmental group stood by to sue to stop the dam. It was a very different time.

Locals recall that folks in northeastern Montana felt it was a patriotic duty to support the construction project, even those who owned the land that is now at the bottom of Fort Peck Lake. This was the era of big dam construction. FDR stopped on his way to Montana to look at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington on the upper Columbia, which was also under construction, as was Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia..

It seems almost inconceivable today that any of thse big dams, let alone three at once,  could be constructed. They likely wouldn’t pencil out in a cost-benefit analysis, the EIS would take years and cost millions, the Congressional hearings would drag on forever, the money would be difficult (or impossible) to appropriate and those most impacted could instantly put up a Facebook page to protest. It is a very different time.

The fine and talented folks at the Wheeler Center at Montana State University are hosting a conference on the cost of water in northeastern Montana today and tomorrow. They may well conclude that water is priceless, but also too cheap. We take it for granted in the United States, while much of the rest of the world struggles to get enough to get by on a daily basis.

It’s a good time to think about the cost of water. Drought isn’t gripping the throat of the Great Plains this year, instead folks are fleeing the rising river system as far south as Memphis.

Hard to believe looking at the map, but the water backing up behind Fort Peck in this rugged corner of Montana is all part of the hydrology of a river system that drains most of the United States and give life to crops, floats a barge, supports a water skier and, yes, once in a while floods a farmer’s field and drenches a town. Water, it seems, only becomes important when there’s too much or not enough.

Franklin Roosevelt came to Montana more than 70 years ago to make the water stretch and we’re still working on that idea. FDR was determined to “exploit” the resource. He talked about a project to benefit “the whole Nation” and Fort Peck on the upper Missouri is a testament to that vision. Fork Peck simply became the New Deal in Montana. The construction of the dam was envisioned as helpful to flood control and navigation far downstream – Memphis may disagree – and, of course, the president wanted to use this early day “stimulus funding” to whack at the nasty unemployment rate. Hardly anyone disagreed.

Today the Corps of Engineer’s managers at Fort Peck use several fingers to tick off their responsibilities – flood control, navigation, irrigation, recreation, power generation, water quality and fish and wildlife conservation. We still want to make the water stretch.

Long ago the age of building big dams was declared dead, never to rise again. Given the enormous cost and the often unattractive tradeoffs involved in backing up a mighty river its hard to argue that the big dam era is long past and should remain so. Still, standing in the bowels of the big Montana dam this morning and listening to the massive turbines hum – they turn at exactly 167 revolutions per minute – one cannot help but reflect on a simplier time when it was part of America’s claim to greatness that we could build such things.

The Missouri in northeastern Montana is running full tilt this May and they are shooting water down the Fort Peck spillway for the first time since 1997.  That mighty, precious water may just be the most valuable thing on this blue planet. Years ago harnessing it behind a massive earthen dam was a symbol of American power. Being smart enough to use that water wisely in the 21st Century is a test of whether we know how to use that kind of power today.