Barack Obama looked like about the most isolated man on earth Friday. At his closing news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, an apparently exhausted president lamented that all the world’s good and great — from the U.N. to the pope — were lining up against him, and that it was his lonely lot to prevent international law from “unraveling” over Bashar al-Assad’s flagrant use of chemical weapons. “When there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel,” Obama said. “And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling. And that makes for a more dangerous world.”
But Obama’s words are finding few listeners, either abroad or at home. Domestically it is looking more and more that Obama made a potentially devastating mistake in going to a Congress that has thwarted so many of his plans in the past. His own Democrats, as Obama acknowledged in St. Petersburg, are proving at least as much trouble in supporting a resolution to attack Syria as the Republicans. As of this weekend, the president appeared to be losing the vote tally, at least in the House. If any House vote goes against him and he strikes any way, he could face a renewed and distracting (if ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment drive from the hard right. If, on the other hand, Obama backs down from his pledge to attack Syria, he could easily lose all credibility abroad — and with Iran threatening to violate the nuclear “norm.” “I knew this was going to be a heavy lift,” Obama said Friday, again rather wearily.
Administration officials now realize that the biggest obstacle on the Hill is not so much proving what Assad did it as making clear what they will do about it without dragging a war-weary nation into yet another extended conflict. They are pushing all-out to make the case that the president can deliver a limited but effective strike against Assad.
Perhaps, picking up on the president’s words Friday, they would do better to expand the case dramatically beyond Syria. The issue at stake is no longer just whether Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to get away with breaking an international “norm.” It is also what message the world will be sending to Assad’s next-door neighbor and ally, Iran. If Obama is forced to back down on Syria, Iran will get an enormous boost in confidence that no one will dare thwart its stealthy efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
Despite the election of a supposedly moderate president, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, which the organization’s board of governors will take up in Vienna next week, shows that Tehran has continued to build up its nuclear capabilities.
Obama’s in this difficult fix, of course, only because he is in the unenviable position of being forced to enforce multilateralism unilaterally (except for the French, that is). He is trying to shore up the U.S.-led multilateral global system, one that was badly damaged by his predecessor’s unilateral thrust into Iraq and the global financial crisis that Wall Street precipitated on George W. Bush’s watch, and which is in a state of near-dissolution now. History suggests that without the leadership of a dominant power — in this case the U.S., because there is no one else — autarky reins. If “norms” for use of WMD use go, the global system of open trade and peaceful relations may follow.
Perhaps Obama’s greatest frustration was revealed in the comments he made about the irony of being seen as a warmonger. “I was elected to end wars, not start ‘em,” Obama said. “I spent the last four and a half years to reduce our reliance on military power.” Indeed, before being confronted with Syria’s chemical weapons use, Obama had been leading an effort to effectively de-militarize American foreign policy. He stood against some of his senior advisors in avoiding any involvement in the Syrian civil war, despite cries for humanitarian intervention. In a major speech in May at the National Defense University, the president even indicated that he was downgrading anti-terrorism from a war to a police enforcement action. It’s time to narrow and de-emphasize the global war against al-Qaida, Obama said, the better to focus on “nation-building at home,” his favorite theme. American deployments will go back to the meager presence we had pre-9/11, because, Obama said, “the future of terrorism” will be a smaller-scale “threat that closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”
Now even his own military is lining up against him, writes retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales in The Washington Post. “Go back and look at images of our nation’s most senior soldier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his body language during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Syria,” Scales wrote in an op-ed Friday. “It’s pretty obvious that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Secretary of State John Kerry’s thundering voice and arm-waving redounded in rage against Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, Dempsey was largely (and respectfully) silent. Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders.”
The lonely president has one more chance to win over his country and the world, in a prime-time speech Tuesday night. To give Obama a little bit of company, the White House released a joint statement on Syria signed by 10 allies: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. But the statement fell short of endorsing a military strike, calling only for “a strong international response.”
Sometimes, it’s not so good to be the king, or the president.
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Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:
- Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
- Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
- They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
- One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”
Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”
The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”
At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”