Ted Cruz Casts Himself as Shaw’s Unreasonable Man

Ted Cruz’s daughters watch him reading “Green Eggs & Ham” during his marathon speech

“Politics is the art of the possible.”
Otto von Bismarck

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw

Part of me wants to admire Ted Cruz.

If you believe, as I do, that the current welfare state is unsustainable and Obamacare will make it worse, it follows that at some point there will be a wrenching readjustment.  When that readjustment occurs, we will wish it had happened earlier, when the problem was more manageable.  Cruz and his confederates are trying to make it happen now.

Besides, it’s about time somebody read “Green Eggs & Ham” on the floor of the Senate.

But Cruz doesn’t make himself easy to like.  Surely no other senator has ever become so unpopular among his own party in just nine months in office.  Rep. Peter King described his fellow Republican as “a fraud.”  Sen. John McCain reportedly “hates” the man.  Sen. Bob Corker suggested Cruz is “confused” and, channeling Bismarck. Sen. Tom Coburn said:

“Tactics and strategies ought to be based on what the real world is, and we do not have the political power to do this.”

Cruz has created what right-leaning columnist Kathleen Parker (or her headline writer) describes as “the GOP’s lose-lose proposition“:

Here’s the problem for Republicans, which will not be news to those with a view of the long game. The short game is to stall Obamacare, but to what end ultimately? Until Republicans can seize the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, at which point they can repeal the whole thing?

Skinny chance, that.

More likely, whether the government shuts down or, should Tinker Bell suddenly materialize and persuade Obama to cave and postpone his personal dream act, Republicans will be viewed by a greater majority than previously as having no talent for leadership.

Democrats own Obamacare — they passed it without a single Republican vote, in a series of shady maneuvers and dead-of-night debates, against the clearly expressed will of the American public.  People are supposed to be able to start purchasing health care coverage on the exchanges on Tuesday — good luck with that — and the costs and shortcomings of Obamacare will become more apparent as the rollout lurches along.  This is the very time when the GOP should heed Paul Begala’s advice: “Never interrupt your opponent when he is destroying himself.”  But Cruz & Co. are about to change the subject with a costly government shutdown that will accomplish nothing.

Former Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat-turned-Republican, said just now on CNN (I’m paraphrasing): Republicans win the argument over the substance of Obamacare, but we’re going to lose on the brinksmanship.

Just so.  Shaw may be right that all progress depends on the unreasonable man — but not every unreasonable man creates progress.

(Photo from a Cruz staffer’s Twitter feed)

Syria Crisis Creates Strange Bedfellows in the U.S. and the World

There’s no telling who will pop up next on which side of the Syria debate.  Let’s review the recent state of play:

Barack Obama, who became President in part because of the purity of his opposition to taking military action against a Middle Eastern country, proposed taking military action against a Middle Eastern country. (Twice the Nobel Peace Prize winner has done this!)

Months after bitterly opposing Obama in the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling crises, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of the GOP linked arms with former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of a Syria strike.

In Congress and in the country at large, Republicans — normally the more hawkish party — opposed attacking Syria more lopsidedly than Democrats.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pounced on an off-the-cuff remark by John Kerry to launch a WMD negotiation process that will buy months of time for his Syrian client Bashar al-Assad.  Without the necessary votes in Congress, Obama leapt through the Russian escape hatch.

Putin lectured America in a New York Times op-ed article, prompting stirring defenses of American exceptionalism from both the left and the right.  (My favorite line in the op-ed, from the former KGB colonel who recently signed a law banning gay-rights advocacy in Russia, is the last sentence: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”)

Quick, guess which commentator said this about Obama’s performance in the past week:

He willingly jumped into a bear trap of his own creation. In the process, he has damaged his presidency and weakened the nation’s standing in the world. It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed.

Was it 1) Charles Krauthammer; 2) Newt Gingrich; or 3) Rush Limbaugh?

Ha! Trick question. It was liberal blogger Joe Klein, writing on Time.com.

I don’t know, of course, how the Syria situation is going to play out.  But I do know that a lot of people have been rethinking some of their most basic assumptions.  Maybe some good can come out of that.

Vladimir Putin as Peacemaker?

I’m more inclined to believe in the Tooth Fairy.

I think President Obama played a very bad hand as well as he could with his speech last night.  But that analogy doesn’t quite work, because a bad hand in a card game is a function of chance.  Obama (and Kerry) didn’t get here by chance, they created this situation through their own impulsiveness and lack of message discipline.

The Peacemaker

In a file photo, Putin uses a tranquilizer gun to sedate a tiger. The metaphor writes itself.

Let’s review:

1. The original “red line” comment in August 2012 was an ad lib in response to a question at a news conference. “With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back,” The New York Times reported.

2.  Obama said he would use his authority as commander-in-chief to punish Assad militarily for using chemical weapons.  As public and Congressional opposition mounted, he then abruptly decided in a Friday-evening stroll with his chief of staff to seek authorization from Congress (despite declining to consult Congress before attacking Libya).

3.  As it became clear that the authorization effort  would lose badly in the Republican House and might lose in the Democratic Senate, John Kerry floated a nonsensical hypothetical about how Assad could avoid an attack by turning over all of his chemical weapons to the “international community.”  In the next sentence, he noted (correctly) that this “obviously” will not happen.

4. But former KGB operative Putin recognized an opportunity when he saw it.  Putin remembers, even if Obama does not, how adeptly a dictator can string out a UN search for weapons of mass destruction (cf: Hussein, Saddam, 1991-1998 and 2002-2003).  So Putin paused in his review of Edward Snowden’s hard drive long enough to throw a lifeline to his Syrian ally and offer to develop a plan for chemical disarmament.

5. This allowed Obama to save face by asking Congress to postpone a vote he knew he would lose, “while we pursue this diplomatic path.” It’s a path on which Putin and Assad will lead Obama in circles.

Max Boot at Commentary did a good job of laying out the patchwork nature of the speech, then asked:

What, one wonders, was the point of the speech? Was it simply that the White House had already booked the TV time and wanted to carry on regardless of the facts? Or does Obama imagine that his stern words will cow Assad into compliance even as it is obvious that opposition in Congress will not allow air strikes?

The former comes closer to the mark, but I think he carried on with the already-scheduled speech because of the facts, not regardless of them.  The fact is that canceling the speech would have reinforced the impression of utter disarray.  Giving the speech was an opportunity to look presidential, which he did pretty effectively.  It was an opportunity to emphasize the horror of chemical weapons, which he did very effectively.  He may have moved the needle on public opinion by an “unbelievably small” amount (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

But he may also have set one more trap for himself.

If diplomacy fails, he’s painted himself in a corner” by laying out the moral case for punishing Assad, said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading advocate of punishing Assad militarily. “The leader of the free world can’t say all these things and at the end of the day do nothing.”

(2008 photo of Putin from premier.gov.ru, via Wikipedia)

About That Newfound Respect for John Kerry: Never Mind

It seems like just yesterday when I was praising our Secretary of State for his role in the Syria controversy.  Let me check… actually, it was the day before yesterday.

Throughout many hours of congressional testimony last week, John Kerry stayed relentlessly on message and forcefully laid out the administration’s case for intervening in Syria. He was good.  Even though I’ve cast three presidential votes against him and his boss, I found myself oddly kinda proud of him.

Then, in a spasmodic eruption of staggering incompetence, Kerry stumbled his way onto a path that will likely lead to months of further indecision.  In response to a question yesterday about whether there was anything Assad could do to to avoid American military action, Kerry fled the confines of message discipline and ad libbed:

“Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

Even as he said the words, he must have begun to realize the trap he was setting for himself, because he started walking the idea back in the very next sentence:

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Too late.  Russia jumped into the opening almost immediately, and Syria signed on today.  But Kerry had another arrow in his quiver of incompetence, and later in the day he let it fly.  Talking in London but aiming to reassure the audience back home, Kerry said any American airstrike would be “unbelievably small.”  That should clear up any remaining illusions Assad might have about facing danger from the United States.

Now that we’ve entered a process started by our own Secretary of State, the administration has no choice but to let the game play out.  There’ll be some sort of proposal from the Russians, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they have only our best interests at heart *cough* Snowden *cough*.  Assad will stretch the negotiations out, then eventually let some UN inspectors visit a site where the regime will hand over a few barrels and say, “there you go! That’s our chemical weapon stockpile.”  Writing at Commentary magazine, Max Boot describes the hurdles inspectors will face when they seek to broaden their search:

It is hard to know how such a deal could be implemented or enforced. It is one thing for inspectors to travel to Libya in 2003 to make sure that Gaddafi was giving up his entire WMD program. Libya then was a peaceful if despotic place. It is quite another thing to do so now in Syria where violence is commonplace–in fact UN inspectors looking for evidence of chemical-weapons use have already been shot at. How on earth could international inspectors possibly roam Syria in the middle of a civil war to confirm that Assad has no more chemical weapons left?

The task is daunting, indeed nearly impossible, in no small part because of our lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of his arsenal. The New York Times reports: “A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Mr. Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.”

As I write this Tuesday afternoon, I’m sure President Obama’s speechwriters are desperately trying to figure out what he can say in his televised address this evening to make sense out of this mess.  Good luck, Mr. President.  Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry is back testifying in Congress again.  Stay tuned.

(Screen grab from State Department video of Kerry in London yesterday)


Syria Debate Prompts a Newfound Respect for John Kerry. Yes, John Kerry.

I’m still glad John Kerry didn’t become President, but I’m starting to like him as Secretary of State.

I’ve been riveted by the Congressional hearings on Syria this week.  (One of the few advantages of being underemployed — I work part-time again, evenings, at a supermarket — is that I’m often free during business hours.)  Again and again I’ve been impressed by the eloquence and clarity of the man who once said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Here’s my favorite passage, from testimony Sept. 4 at the House Foreign Affairs Committee (my emphasis throughout):

Iran, I guarantee you, is hoping that we look the other way.  And surely they will interpret America’s unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction [pause] as an unwillingness to act against weapons of mass destruction. … North Korea is hoping for ambivalence from the Congress. They’re all listening for our silence.  So the authorization that President Obama seeks is distinctly and clearly in our national interest.

When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama launched his third war, in Libya, I was astonished and skeptical.  It took quite a while to sort out how I felt about it — I started out lukewarmly opposed, then eventually became optimistic about a positive outcome (long before Benghazi).

Syria is different.  From the moment I heard of Obama’s plan to attack Assad’s regime over the use of chemical weapons, it felt like the right thing to do — to the extent that I was initially dismayed when he seemed to be punting to Congress.  But after writing my first post on the topic, I was surprised by the vehemence of the opposition by some Republican lawmakers, and by many in the public.  Maybe I needed to think more about this.

To road-test my initial impression, I read a lot of commentary and watched the hearings.  I’m more convinced than ever about the need to punish Assad.  I think, and hope, that Obama will strike under his authority as commander-in-chief even if Congress refuses to approve.

Why?  Well, Kerry (and his speechwriters) can say it better than I can.  I never thought I would say this, but on this topic, I’m with John Kerry.

From the Senate testimony on Sept. 3:

As confidently as we know what happened in Damascus, my friends, on August 21st, we know that Assad would read our stepping away or our silence as an invitation to use those weapons with impunity. And in creating impunity, we would be creating opportunity — the opportunity for other dictators and/or terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. …

So this is a vote for accountability. Norms and laws that keep the civilized world civil mean nothing if they’re not enforced. …

This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience could afford the cost of silence. We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past; now, we must stand up and act. And we must protect our security, protect our values and lead the world with conviction that is clear about our responsibility. …

Doesn’t this make the United States the policeman of the world? No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for. And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn’t help lead that effort, then shame on us. Then we’re not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interest.

Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again and they — and the world says, why didn’t the United States act? History is full of opportunity, of moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference.

And from the House testimony, my second-favorite passage:

No country has liberated as much land or fought as many battles as the United States of America and turned around and given it back to the people who live there and who can own it and run it. We are the indispensable nation. This is because of who we are and what we have achieved. And we should be proud of it. And we have a great tradition to try to live up to in terms of trying to help people to see a peaceful road, not a road of jihadism.

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama demonstrated that either he didn’t believe in American exceptionalism, or he just didn’t know (at that time) what the term meant. It’s great to hear a senior member of his administration assert America’s duty to lead in a clear voice.

(Screen grab from State Department video of Kerry testifying in the House.)

On Reflection, I’m Surprisingly OK With Where Obama Is on Syria

When President Obama changed course abruptly on Saturday and announced that instead of attacking Assad’s regime in Syria, he would “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.  Here we go again, trying to have it both ways.  It’s reminiscent of announcing a surge in Afghanistan, then simultaneously announcing a date certain for beginning to draw down the extra troops.

Conservative pundits whose national security opinions I generally respect jumped on Obama with both feet.  Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz breached the magazine’s normal practice of not publishing new material on the Jewish Sabbath, with a blog post headlined “Obama’s Bizarre Syria Policy.”  The next day, Peter Wehner weighed in with a blander headline, but stated high in his post that “President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.” They both make a strong case, which you can read for yourselves.

Other pundits opined that the delay would give Assad time to hide his chemical weapons; that it made Obama look ridiculous to decide we should strike Syria, but delay it until Congress returns from vacation; and asked why does the commander-in-chief think he needs Congressional approval for limited military action in Syria, but did not feel the same way in Libya?

All reasonable arguments.  But then military leaders declared that the delay is not a significant tactical setback.  Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said:

Many of Assad’s assets we’d like to target are “fixed installations” he can’t move; the amount of intelligence and surveillance assets being devoted to the region should make it difficult for him to move matériel out of sight; and Assad’s current position, engulfed in a civil war, means he can’t exactly be moving military units, such as rockets or artillery, as he wishes.

Obama can be criticized for being indecisive, which is not what you want in a commander-in-chief.  But stubborn persistence also can be taken too far.  President George W. Bush — whose decision to overthrow Saddam I supported then and support to this day — has to answer for staying with a failed strategy in Iraq for years after it was clear a change was needed.

I think faster action on Syria might well have been preferable for the immediate tactical situation.  But if Obama succeeds in getting Congressional approval — a big if, but not impossible — it may be worth it in the long run to have an intervention supported by Democrats as well as Republicans.

Despite Obama’s wishful declaration that “this war, like all wars, must end,” the war against Islamic extremism will certainly outlast his presidency — and it may outlive all of us.  Future presidents will also have to wrestle with how to make war against Middle Eastern terrorists and despots, and I’m thankful that Obama is helping to build a bipartisan history of asserting America’s strength.

(Syrian flag from Wikipedia)