Tag Archives: John Kerry

Morality and Practicality: America’s Syrian Intervention

What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s President Obama makes his case to the American Congress about intervention in Syria, his administration must confront contingencies and plan for unforeseeable challenges. Yet the most pressing question is not what might happen if something goes wrong. Quite the opposite. What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

On 3 September US Secretary of State muddied the waters of intervention, sending what TIME magazine called “mixed messages” against a congressional prohibition on the use of American soldiers in Syria: the feared “boots on the ground” option. In front of Congress, Kerry testified that “in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

There is a real chance that airstrikes, if targeted effectively, could help topple Assad’s government, at the very least providing a much needed morale boost and significant breathing room for the mixed rebel front. Such inputs, when factored into the complexities of war in Syria, may lead to unforeseeable and magnified results. In such an environment of uncertainty, a clear definition of American objectives is needed. Yet such a framework has not been debated adequately.

What does the White House count as a “success” in its proposed intervention plan? Knocking out Assad’s future capability to employ his heinous arsenal, a strategic military objective? Or punishing the Syrian regime, a moral goal? Although subtle, the difference between these two outcomes is important, and has been confused in both Congress and the broader discussion. One can be achieved without extensive military involvement, the other cannot. If the answer lies in a murky middle ground — as it seems to be for now — the implications could be deep.

Discussion of a moral imperative to intervene in response to Assad’s most recent chemical war crime — since when has the killing 100,000 citizens, over two years, not been a war crime? — is dangerous because of this ambiguity. When morality becomes intermingled with strategy the result is a tendency towards escalation, as recent American history in Iraq has shown. And when the phrases “humanitarian intervention” and “protecting American interests” are used in the same breath, there is little doubt that such a co-mingling of objectives has arisen.

Limits become fuzzy when generals and politicians are fueled by lofty and noble principles. What is in the national interest, and what is in the human interest, drift closer together until two become one. True humanists must demand full intervention, the destruction of Assad’s military capability so that he will release his murderous grasp on power: No man who willingly kills 100,000 of his citizens has a right to rule. If humanity is national policy, as Washington’s rhetoric implies, where does the national interest end?

It is in this unsuspectingly ambiguous environment that Kerry’s statements become incredibly pertinent. If the United States goes through with its plans for intervention, it will be faced with the tough task of placing limits on its action. The hybrid policy of morality and military practicality handicaps this process, and could lead to an overstepping of acceptable boundaries. A few more tomahawk missiles in key sites could mean the difference between Assad’s survival or his end. If the latter becomes reality, the feared Syrian power vacuum becomes reality as well and with it serious questions of who controls the regime’s remaining military technologies. If such a possibility comes to pass, Kerry’s intimations may become all too concrete, as the spiral of American “national interest” unwinds.

Before Obama, his cabinet, and the American Congress make any decision regarding intervention in Syria, they must confront their own definitions of success. They need to grapple with their motivations for involvement, and their ultimate objectives. For if they continue to confuse morality with strategy, and work in the middle, the results could be just as Kerry described.


Photo Credit: stephen_medlock

Ohio’s Last Hurrah? Obama’s Electoral Strategy

Who will win the US election? Coming into the final day of the campaign, the lifeblood of political junkies – polling numbers – continues to defy easy categorisation.



If any nationwide trend could be discerned from the mass of information across all 50 states of the Republic, it might be said that Romney edged out in front at one point, but no longer. (As I write this article, the latest news suggests that Obama is now reclaiming the lead).

Even if a majority of Americans decide to vote against him, Obama has maintained the lead in enough of the vaunted “battleground states” to secure victory in the electoral college. This is causing all manner of confusion among poll-watchers. Many of the more respected politicos have reluctantly weighed into the debate with wildly divergent views of the American electorate: do we trust the state numbers which predict an Obama victory, or go with the deadlocked national polls? Conservatives crow about the fall off in early voting among registered Democrats, suggesting that momentum isn’t being conveyed in local surveys. Liberals point to the relatively static nature of Obama’s lead over the last year, and argue that the volatile numbers don’t reflect his underlying advantages.

If Obama is the favourite, it’s due to outlying regions bucking national trends which are weighing him down elsewhere. Curiously, this phenomenon doesn’t simply break down according to past voting habits; rather, it appears to be strikingly unpredictable. Given that Obama won Ohio by just over 2 points and Colorado by more than 6, why has the former remained firmly in his column, whereas the latter is more hostile territory?

To start with, like never before in American politics, voting preferences align with identity – whether it be race, age, or gender – and the most glaring discrepancy lies among minority voters, who favour Obama by an average of nearly three to one. The most decisive shift has come from ethnic Latinos, a movement which will doom the long-term prospects of the Republican party unless it is corrected. But already, in the multiethnic America of 2012, this one-sided nature of non-white support means that while the President might govern over a divided polity, he campaigns from a position of strength. In Ohio, Obama enjoys something approaching 97 per-cent support among African Americans: if this had been replicated in 2004, John Kerry would have seen his 118,000 voting deficit in Ohio turn into a 92,000 surplus. For this reason, despite its long-standing conservatism, North Carolina remains competitive, and Nevada can be wholly written off as a swing state; its lopsided demography puts Obama ahead without much difficulty.

To be sure, white voters constitute a decisive share of the electorate in other states, and they are poised to offset much of Obama’s strength. Indeed, Romney manages to stay competitive in the national polls by chipping away at what are referred to as “aspirational voters”: self-identified moderates increasingly sympathetic to the Democratic party over the last two decades, who nevertheless remain somewhat suspicious of labour unions and redistributive taxation. These voters typically work in newer, start-up industries, and were relatively satisfied with the expansion of credit and rising property prices during the Bush years. The squabbling in Washington over the debt crisis has turned them off politics, and the poor economic outlook confirmed their defection. This explains why Obama is struggling to hold onto 2008 gains like Virginia or Colorado.

But while it might be expected that a lagging economic recovery would depress Obama’s white vote across the rest of the country, his lead is resilient in those industrial pockets which benefited from some of his administration’s more heavy-handed interventionism. In particular, the goodwill over his rescue of the American auto industry has filtered down through the chain of suppliers in Ohio’s industrial sector; he may have lost the high-technology suburbs with his talk of stagnating middle class and the need for higher taxation, but the manufacturing heartland in Ohio and Iowa is representative of a mid-western strain in American politics which responds well to issues like job security. Throughout the budget battles of 2011, Obama held back from hammering away at the Republicans over the worsening level of income inequality in American society, in large part because he feared losing upscale supporters from his coalition. But his electoral map can take the hit, and since the beginning of the year, the Obama campaign team has waged its side of the ad war on the basis of Romney’s work at Bain Capital, cutting jobs in local businesses, as well as his opposition to the auto rescue.

It now appears that Romney was mortally wounded from this onslaught, hence his desperate attempt to claiming that American car manufacturers are haemorrhaging jobs to China. Despite this, he has proven unable to reverse that first, damaging impression; some wavering white voters were reassured after his superior performance in the first debate, but the rot has well and truly set in throughout the mid-west. Obama saved many of their jobs, and they will reward him for it.

If Obama wins, it will be in large part because his strong numbers in the face of strong disillusionment among ordinary white voters. But this suggests that any coalition of his will not last beyond the moment; the remnants of the industrial belt and such a high degree of minority voters are unlikely to be united behind any Democratic Party candidate ever again. Moreover, the political agenda in Washington will inevitably turn after the economy begins to grow at a rate that is self-sustaining; once it does, “aspirational” voters will again be up for grabs.

As a result, the future of American politics should be found in the more affluent suburbs of Colorado, Arizona and Virginia. That was what Obama aimed for in 2008, and he’ll likely shift his agenda in that direction over the course of his second term. So, here’s a tip: if the Democrats are pinning their hopes on Ohio in another four years, they’re on track to lose. But this time, they might just get away with it.


Photo credit: DonkeyHotey


Romney & Iran: Continuity Or Change?

Symmetry exists between Romney and Obama on the issue of military involvement: both are committed potential military solutions within the Islamic Republic.



In the Washington Post earlier this month, former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerryweighed in on the Republican nomination race, responding to a foreign policy piece written by Mitt Romney a few days earlier. Kerry described Romney’s policy on Iran as both ‘inaccurate’ and ‘aggressive’, and accused him of imagining problems with the President Obama’s current policy that do not really exist in order to generate support from the Republican base.

Romney’s campaign trail rhetoric thus far confirms that he is making every effort to appeal to core Republican voters by distancing himself from the current President. The enthusiasm he expressed last year for an ‘American Century’, combined with his readiness to accuse Obama of ‘apologising for America’, suggests a considerable renascence of exceptionalist Republicanism. Indeed, in the article to which Kerry was responding, Romney compared himself to former Republican President Ronald Reagan, promising to revive a Cold War-style foreign policy of ‘peace through strength’.

More interestingly, the article reiterates a number of Romney’s core policy aims surrounding Iran. Romney says that he ‘will press for ever-tightening sanctions’ against Iran, supporting the statement on his website that he will implement ‘a fifth round of sanctions targeted at the financial resources that underpin the Iranian regime.’ As Kerry points out, this declaration seems to brush aside the previous four rounds of sanctions, which have restricted Iran’s finances and nuclear programme, banned its arms exports, implemented cargo inspections and prevented the country from buying heavy weaponry and military vehicles. All this, in addition to the European Union’s oil embargo on Iran announced in January this year, suggests that Romney’s sanction pledge represents an intensification of current US policy, rather than the kind of change Romney claims to want. Romney’s website goes so far as to praise the current President ‘for pushing for a fourth round of international sanctions on Iran early in his term’ despite the Republican frontrunner himself commenting early in March this year that Obama ‘has failed to put into place crippling sanctions against Iran.’ These conflicting statements suggest that Romney’s policies on Iran depend greatly on which crowd he is speaking to.

There are areas in which Romney is more consistent with his criticism of Obama’s policy, however. In a debate last year, Romney said that the President’s ‘greatest failing from a foreign policy stand point’ has been his failure to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions, adding: ‘If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.’ More specifically, Romney’s website says that Obama should have supported popular opposition within Iran in 2009, labelling his restraint as ‘a disgraceful abdication of American moral authority.’ The current President has remained reluctant over the issue of internal opposition to the regime in Iran, responding to renewed protest in early 2011 by saying: ‘Each country is different, each country has its own traditions, and America can’t dictate what happens in these societies.’ However, commentators, including as the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, have suggested that this reluctance underpins Obama’s argument that the legitimacy of regime change relies on the independent, internal desire for change, rather than the external influences of the United States.

Romney has also accused Obama of failing ‘to communicate that military options are on the table,’ explaining in his Washington Post article that he ‘will buttress my diplomacy with a military option that will persuade the ayatollahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.’ However, in a recent interview for the Atlantic magazine, President Obama said that US policy in Iran includes political, economic and diplomatic elements, but also ‘a military component’, adding that ‘as President of the United States, I don’t bluff.’ These examples demonstrate a considerable degree of symmetry between Romney and Obama on the issue of military involvement, with both individuals committed to diplomatic and potential military solutions to the problems of Iran.

Given his commitment to sanctions and his fusion of diplomacy with military action, it appears that Mitt Romney is by no means advocating a shift away from the current administration’s policy, no matter how much distance he attempts to put between himself and the President.