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Obama’s political capital and the slippery slope of Syria

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | September 4, 2013

Even if the President musters enough votes to strike Syria, at what political cost? Any president has a limited amount of political capital to mobilize support for his agenda, in Congress and, more fundamentally, with the American people. This is especially true of a president in his second term of office. Which makes President Obama’s campaign to strike Syria all the more mystifying.

President Obama’s domestic agenda is already precarious: implementing the Affordable Care Act, ensuring the Dodd-Frank Act adequately constrains Wall Street, raising the minimum wage, saving Social Security and Medicare from the Republican right as well as deficit hawks in the Democratic Party, ending the sequester and reviving programs critical to America’s poor, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and, above all, crafting a strong recovery.

Time and again we have seen domestic agendas succumb to military adventures abroad — both because the military-industrial-congressional complex drains money that might otherwise be used for domestic goals, and because the public’s attention is diverted from urgent problems at home to exigencies elsewhere around the globe.

It would be one thing if a strike on Syria was critical to America’s future, or even the future of the Middle East. But it is not. In fact, a strike on Syria may well cause more havoc in that tinder-box region of the world by unleashing still more hatred for America, the West, and for Israel, and more recruits to terrorism. Strikes are never surgical; civilians are inevitably killed. Moreover, the anti-Assad forces have shown themselves to be every bit as ruthless as Assad, with closer ties to terrorist networks.

Using chemical weapons against one’s own innocent civilians is a crime against humanity, to be sure, but the United States cannot be the world’s only policeman. The U.N. Security Council won’t support us, we can’t muster NATO, Great Britain and Germany will not join us. Dictatorial regimes are doing horrendous things to their people in many places around the world. It would be folly for us to believe we could stop it all.

Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are now arguing that a failure to act against Syria will embolden enemies of Israel like Iran and Hezbollah, and send a signal to Iran that the United States would tolerate the fielding of a nuclear device. This is almost the same sort of specious argument — America’s credibility at stake, and if we don’t act we embolden our enemies and the enemies of our allies — used by George W. Bush to justify toppling Saddam Hussein, and, decades before that, by Lyndon Johnson to justify a tragic war in Vietnam.

It has proven to be a slippery slope: Once we take military action, any subsequent failure to follow up or prevent gains by the other side is seen as an even larger sign of our weakness, further emboldening our enemies.

Hopefully, Congress will see the wisdom of averting this slope.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “Obama’s political capital and the slippery slope of Syria

  1. Prof. Reich, excellent interview in the new edition of CALIFORNIA Magazine; no one can explain the facts of life we need to know better than you.

    I look forward to your movie, but I still think you and your Berkeley Blog colleagues should have a regular TV show (something like Voice of Berkeley) to educate the public on the facts of life that we must know to prevent destruction of the American Way of Life by the oligarchs who control Washington and America today.

    We have the same types of political, social and economic problems that Ancient Greece had, but we refuse to heed the lessons of history, so Berkeley needs to Wake Up America, and the World, before it is too late for all of us. As you and your colleagues know better than I, the stakes are very much higher because the entire human race is at risk this time.

  2. The term “national interest” seems to apply only to foreign affairs and to making the Middle East safe for Israel. “National interest” should also apply to domestic affairs – for example a good education for the masses and rebuilding the middle class. On the contrary the use of “national interest” applied to internal affairs would likely be denounced as “nationalism” so rigid and formulaic have language and thought become in our time.

    Incidentally I think that the loss of democracy and the current political torpor of the citizenry began with a Republican end run around the constitutional guarantees against political crime by the use of the War on Drugs to achieve massive incarceration without having to resort to passing explicit political-crimes laws.

    Also the high cost of education and the suppression of upward mobility show a remarkable coincidence with the loss of democracy and citizens’ political quietude even in a time of expected political unrest due to two wars and the Great Recession. The high cost of education and the state mentoring of university administrators to deal with politically restive students were of course tools in the Russian Tsar’s toolkit.

    I think that it is to your credit, Professor Reich, that you left the Clinton administration before he signed the repeal of Glass-Steagal. I enjoyed your appearance on Democracy Now. An honest media does not exist at this time. Douglas Holtz-Eakin is the media’s darling economist. Paul Krugman has appeared a few times but in a forum in which he cannot shine – Charlie Rose paired him with Jay Gatsby, i. e. Morning Joe.

    MSNBC is a totally phony network with a carnival set-up of Republicans so that the anchors can ridicule them. How many progressives does MSNBC have on? Most Americans viewers would not know who Bernie Sanders is and would likely identify Barack Obama as the only progressive they know.

  3. Prof. Reich, you are Berkeley’s best spokesperson on solutions to the world’s most critical political, judicial, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual problems that must be resolved with great urgency.

    How about creating your own TV show, similar to William F. Buckley’s?

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