Bob Schwartz

Tag: John Kerry

We Are at War with ISIL but Not at War with ISIS

We are at war with ISIL, the White House has just announced. But only yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said we are not at war with ISIS.

As mentioned previously there seems to be some confusion about what to call this entity: ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State.

And that explains it. President Obama is talking about one enemy. John Kerry is talking about another. That is, we are at war with one but not the other.

Seriously, not being able to decide on what to call an enemy is not unimportant. But it pales beside not being clear, within the administration, about whether this is war. And then trying to reconcile it by saying that whether you call it war or not is splitting semantic and legal hairs.

The White House would have been better off pleading confusion about which names the President and the Secretary of State were using.

There is something deeper in this talk about war. The explanation by the White House is that it is just like the “war” against al-Qaeda. There is no mention of the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, or other quasi-metaphorical wars. It isn’t that we haven’t had military conflicts with non-state actors. And Obama was clear in his big speech about the maybe-war: “ISIL is certainly not a state.” It’s just that whenever we do have stateless enemies, things get very confused and confusing.

If you don’t believe me, read our history. Or just watch and wait.

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

John Kerry: A Teeny, Tiny, Unbelievably Small Strike

Cruise Missile
Secretary of State John Kerry says the strike against Syria would be “unbelievably small” (“teeny, tiny” is inferred).

The job of Secretary of State is unbelievably big. More than just the nation’s chief diplomat, the secretary is in the line of presidential succession, following the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate. Six American Presidents have served in the office, along with two of the most famous Chief Justices—John Jay and John Marshall—and an army of legendary figures, including Daniel Webster twice.

Throughout the Syria crisis so far, John Kerry has had some trouble when he speaks. His appearance before Congressional committees has been widely viewed as underwhelming. His comparing Assad to Hitler, talking about a “Munich moment,” was mostly ignored. And now he is trying to minimize attacking targets in Syria as “unbelievably small.” It isn’t clear that this is a diplomatic term of art. Hopefully, it is not a military term of art. If it is artful anywhere, it might find its place in a casual conversation between friends.

John Kerry has already been getting a pass from the media on past statements, no doubt out of respect for his no longer being a politician. So what he might have said as a Senator and presidential candidate may be out of bounds. Such as

“If you don’t believe…Saddam Hussein is a threat with nuclear weapons, then you shouldn’t vote for me.” February 11, 2003

The real dilemma is how to downplay the nature of the strike while maximizing its claimed ability to achieve either the stated aim to deter further chemical warfare or, as some would like it, to change the balance of power in the civil war. This is less like squaring the circle and more like rounding the tesseract (a four-dimensional cube).

Whatever the rhetorical trick that is being tried, it is not working. Or at least talking about a teeny, tiny, unbelievably small strike isn’t.

John Kerry’s Munich Moment: Is Political Reporting Too Polite?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Hunter S. Thompson

About a week ago, President Obama said that if Syria’s Bashar Assad was not stopped from using chemical weapons, we might find those same weapons used against America. When asked about this days later, a presidential spokesman ignored the question. This weekend Secretary of State John Kerry said that the decision to stop Assad’s use of the weapons was a “Munich moment.” Meaning: Just as the Munich Agreement of 1938 condoned Hitler’s occupation of Czech territory, emboldening and enabling his vision of global conquest, so would our failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons further his insidious master plan.

Experts who have bothered to talk about the prospect of these chemical weapons being used against America have dismissed it out of hand. As for the “Munich moment,” that requires a bit more nuance. Nobody claims, at least not yet, that Assad has any extra-territorial plans or delusions of regional grandeur. His plan seems to be simply to punish any Syrians who stand in the way of him and his family fiercely holding on to power. Garden variety despotry; Assad is no Hitler. If “Munich” means appeasing his inhumanity, that is also silly. The bulk of Assad’s inhumanity is also garden variety: guns, bombs, etc. Nothing that Obama has proposed is intended to take care of that.

The region really did have a Munich moment in 1990. Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. A thirty-four nation coalition, led by the U.S., pushed him back to his own borders. Both the history of the Gulf War and its aftermath—including the decision by Bush 1 to go no further and the decision by Bush 2 to finish the job—are beyond the scope of this note. This is just to say that if you want to know what a Munich moment looks like, that was it.

The authenticity and civility of our political life are always in question. We ask whether politicians and their supporters are speaking truth, saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and saying it all in a way that is reasonably respectful and polite. That’s a lot to ask of them, and our expectations are right now pretty low. It’s also a lot to ask of political pundits and commentators. Unconstrained by the limitations of office or election, some of them, left to right, go wherever their opinions take them. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

Then there are political journalists. This is where things get tricky. Calling a political statement a lie or stupid, or calling a politician a liar or stupid, is supposed to fail the professional standard on a few scores. It supposedly puts a journalist’s objectivity in question; that sort of discourse is best left to political minions and commentators. And if not carefully couched or softened, it can come off as inappropriately impolite and uncivil, another professional faux pas.

We should all miss Hunter S. Thompson right about now. His suicide in 2005 left a gap in political journalism that hasn’t been filled and probably never will be. He didn’t begin as a political reporter. He came up as a writer during the time of the so-called “new journalism” in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et al), when the lines between the factual, the personal and the expressive broke down. By his own admission, Thompson was crazy, formally or informally; he was also a stunningly talented observer and writer. When he hit the political beat, it was right place, right time, right writer. If politics was an exercise in duplicity, venality and near-insanity, it needed a professional journalist just as insane. The collection of his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 presidential election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, is not just on another planet from the classic campaign coverage up to then; it is in another solar system.

Thompson had a special relationship with Richard Nixon. He ended up respecting and applauding Nixon’s brilliant mind as an expert football strategist, but otherwise Thompson despised him. He wrote a 1994 obituary of Nixon.  In it he continues the case for that untempered loathing, but in this excerpt also explains why it is an appropriate attitude for a journalist:

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It’s not that we don’t have good and great political journalists working today; we may have more than ever. And it’s not that there aren’t plenty of partisans pointing out gaps in someone else’s facts and reasoning.

It’s just that an amazing amount of stuff gets said and seems to get by far too unchallenged or challenged too narrowly or politely. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republican party produced a nominating spectacle that is widely characterized as a circus or a clown car. But at the time, journalists were unwilling to even hint at how ridiculous some of it was, as the party of Lincoln earnestly considered nominating Herman Cain or Donald Trump as their standard bearer.

Sure we need objectivity, maybe now more than ever in a social media enriched/poisoned environment. What we shouldn’t do is confuse objectivity with comity and politeness. If Hunter Thompson was shockingly blunt—and so much fun to read—it was to wake people up from the soporific effect of treating truth and lies, intelligence and stupidity, as rhetorical equivalents, in the name of objectivity, politeness and respect. In the name of keeping the peace. That would be the media Munich moment.

Update: Rereading this post, I have to add that the closest we come to Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” political journalism is The Daily Show on Comedy Central. This revelation came watching the first few days of Jon Stewart’s return after his summer away, coming back to a grim and arguably ridiculous political crisis. The Daily Show’s trick is to protest (too much) that it is a “fake” news show, which gives it total license to completely get its facts straight while speaking truth to absurdity. And when, as this week, vicious jokes aren’t quite enough, Stewart vents his frustration directly and straight, no humor. Oh, to see what The Daily Show would have made of the Nixon Years.

Why Do Some Republicans and Democrats Hate Voting?

Profiles in Courage
With the news that some Republican Senators (including presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio)  plan to filibuster new gun control legislation, thus avoiding any votes on the proposed restrictions, it is now clear: Some current Republicans—and some Democrats—hate voting.

The evidence is mounting. During the 2012 elections, there were numerous instances of Republican legislatures and officials adding voter requirements, reducing voting hours, etc., which made it more difficult or frustrating to vote. The intent was to suppress Democratic votes; the evidence of that might be considered circumstantial, except that Republican strategists, arrogantly or stupidly, told us that it was their intention.

As was pointed out during the election, voter suppression has a long and inglorious history in America. Suppression of black voting was an art form in the South, though nominally the party lines were seemingly different. At the depth of Jim Crow, the South was Democratic. (In modern terms, though, these were DINOs—Democrats in Name Only. These Southern Democrats were different, and after living for a while as Dixiecrats, they underwent political reassignment surgery and became Republicans.)

The latest manifestation of this antipathy to voting is in the U.S. Senate, legendary and self-proclaimed “greatest deliberative body in the world.” (Be respectful; stop laughing.) Filibusters are an integral part of the Senate. When a Senator or group of them wanted to prevent a vote, he or they would have to hold the floor, and talk until they dropped or had to use the bathroom, or until the bill’s proponents gave up—as seen in the movies, most famously Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and as seen in the attempts to block civil rights legislation in the 1960s. That all changed with a new Senate rule, promulgated a few years ago by Democratic Senators, allowing Senators to block a vote by simply saying that there would be no vote. There is no vote unless 60 Senators agree. And no Senator—setting aside Rand Paul’s recent talking filibuster stunt—needs to even stand up and talk, or even appear on the floor at all.

To understand why it is so important not to vote, we have the cautionary tale of some high profile Democrats. Congressional votes are not just a problem at the next election; they can come back to haunt you years later. In 1996, many Democrats voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, signed it. DOMA came before the Supreme Court this week, which served as an uncomfortable reminder to those Democrats that times—and the party line—have changed. The briefs in the case included a mea culpa from some of those legislators, and just last week, Hillary Clinton released a strangely dark and dour video confessing her evolution on the question of marriage equality (Bill had previously apologized).

Even worse problems dogged Democrats who in 2003 enthusiastically voted for the Iraq War. Besides John Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” election year explanation, the war’s anniversary last week left some of them in a “what was I thinking?” mode.

What they were thinking during the Iraq War vote, and during the DOMA vote, was: I am a person of conscience, but that conscience will do no good if I lose this seat, so I have to ask just how this will play back home. The answer for both DOMA and the Iraq War, under the circumstances of the moment, was: not very favorably.

The lesson for some: Whether it is voting at the polls or voting in the Senate, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and sometimes less is more, and sometimes less voting is just better.

In the case of the ballot box, trying to suppress voting is un-American. In the case of standing up and being counted in the Senate, not voting is a dereliction of duty since, as a Senator, that’s your job.

On the other hand, those who fight and run away live to fight another day. That’s how the saying goes. The primary part of that, though, is that you at least fight in the first place. If all you do is run away by, say, not voting, it’s all about survival, and not about conscience and accountability. You may win an election, you may even get to be President. But if you’re thinking about being in the next volume of Profiles in Courage, don’t bother looking for your name.