Slouching to Damascus with No Debate
This Administration has never been noted for making a case to the American people on important policy issues. In fiscal matters it relies on a limited number of neo-liberal advisers for policy input, then the President likes to go it alone with Republican leaders. On foreign policy and military matters (which is largely the same thing for this Administration), the President likes no outside interference, content to hear from political and military stars (formerly Clinton, Gates and Petraeus). This produced the policy approach he will be forever remembered for, the Drone Assassination Program, which he probably sees as a compromise between multilateralism and military action. And we know that this President is obsessed with seeing good policy as the result of compromising “extreme” positions.
But for policy formation, the President doesn’t like even to pretend anyone outside his circle has influence. One of the reasons that John McCain remains the angry gnat flying irregularly around the President’s head is that Obama has not seen fit to pretend to take advice from his one-time adversary. Not that he has any objection to Republican policy or even world-view. In fact, he does not seem to like anyone to get very far to his right on use of force. He is fortunate that the Republican Party has no coherent policy position on foreign affairs. (This was best shown when Newt Gingrich several times in a few weeks took diametrically alternating positions on use of force in Libya until the right wing media outlets converged on one tactical position in opposition to the President.) Perhaps I should say we are lucky that the Republican Party has no coherent policy views, because the President appears to have no difficulty siddling up to whatever practices they adopt, despite his campaign positions. He has in fact gone further than the last Administration even when it was under full sway of Dick Cheney in areas like punishing (sometimes vindictively) leaks, spying on Americans, use of assassination (including against American citizens), use of weapons that endanger civilians, and so forth.
What is perhaps more troubling is the President’s penchant for using force without any debate, without any notification and largely without any scrutiny. The former law professor is adept at relying on legal opinions to justify doing what a common sense understanding of the Constitution would prohibit him from doing. Granted the opinions are more clever than those of John Yoo, but in his defense, Yoo was not really trying, because he worked in an Administration which reeked of arrogance and entitlement. Of course, this Administration sometimes comes close, for example, claiming that the War Powers Resolution did not cover the Administration’s use of Tomahak Cruise Missiles in Libya, because using over 100 was not sufficient “hostilities” to be covered by the Resolution and because, in any event, after 60 days American forces were turned over to NATO leadership. Perhaps this Administration too has a whiff of arrogance.
Of course the fact that the Administration violated the law in this case with essentially no repercussions (the Republican-led House voted a reprimand; the President was re-elected) lead to more initiatives shrouded in secrecy, covered with deception and misdirection and without the scrutiny of our elected representatives. Perhaps the Administration simply thinks there would be no point. The Democrats have entirely given up their responsibility in this respect (there is not a William Fulbright among them), and the Republican’s idea of oversight is attempted scandal-mongering. The fact remains, however, this Administration has gone as far as any in furthering the powers of the Imperial Presidency.
That’s why this week’s New York Times article by C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt (“Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.,” March 24, 2013) is so unsettling. The article illustrates a common way this Administration tests reaction to revealing secret information. Unnamed administration officials speak without attribution to favored reporters and reveal one or two facts about a secret operation. The reports report the quotations matter-of-factly, because after all they are favored reporters and don’t want to lose access to the source of information. The New York Times has acted as source for unattributed “facts” that would bolster the powers that be for a long time. One need only mention the name Judith Miller remind readers how much water The New York Times is willing to carry, in a non-partisan manner, provided its for the then-existing Administration. Unnamed executive officials have used the Times in various ways. The Bush Administration used Miller to spread false information concerning Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Miller, it should be noted, was a willing mouth-piece for convicted bank fraudster Ahmed Chalabi long before she became the retainer for “unnamed” Bush Administration officials (who would use her own reports to bolster their own false claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.)
This Administration, at least in this case, uses the Times differently. Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently told CNN that “I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used” by the Syrian government against opposition forces. Republicans have been taunting the Administration with failing to intervene on behalf of the opposition. They know that the Administration is not going to take the chance of engaging in another Middle East war, particularly with Russian and China backing the Syrian government. Secret information of weapons of mass destruction is a go-to strategy of Republicans, and the policy is consistent with Saudi Arabia’s goals, so naturally the GOP instinctively wants to further it. So in the Times article the unnamed “American officials” want to show that they have helped Saudi Arabia provide lethal aid to the opposition, despite the President’s public face that only “humanitarian aid” has been provided. This President cannot abide the thought that he failed to anticipate and satisfy Republican objections to a policy. And in this case, once again, the Administration has done exactly what the Bush Administration (at least when it was under the full sway of Dick Cheney) would have done: support the clients of Saudi Arabia.
Of course the last time America went down this course of arming the clients of Saudi Arabia, we armed the Afghan mujahideen, and that turned out well didn’t it?
The Administration hasn’t revealed that it has gone all in with its operation, but the sheer amount of weapons is enough to worry. The revelation is that secret U.S. operatives have helped Arab governments shop for arms and have arranged for shipments. One conservative estimate of the amount of arms has it at 3,500 tons of military equipment (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Imagine, if you will, what 3½ billion tons of weapons amounts to. It amounts to a total many times larger than what we airlifted to the mujahideen in the 1980s.
The second function of the disclosure is to broach the truth of its policies to the American people. If this brief pulling of the veil back produces a firestorm of opposition, the Administration will deny it, huff about unauthorized leaks by those with an ax to grind and then cover the whole thing up. If as is more likely, no one pays attention to foreign policy wonkery in The New York Times, then later when people realize what has happened or if, as is unlikely given the wisdom of following Saudi Arabia once again, something very badly goes wrong, the Administration will be able to say that it had disclosed it to the American people and no one objected.
However this comes out, you should at least agree that this Administration has followed the last Administration’s course in foreign policy-making: in complete disregard of check-and-balances and with an arrogance that even LBJ’s people would not have thought possible. Barack Obama and his advisors have decided that they are better off playing tit-for-tat with Republican point men on foreign policy than in leveling with the American people. Maybe they are right in their short-term thinking that this whole issue can be kicked down the road and any blowback will come once they are gone. However, the immediate issue turns out, it cannot be good for the health of American democracy that this “liberal” has decided to make policy with cards held so closely to the vest. But then, this Administration is liberal only in the fevered minds of Republicans.