Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More Smart Than Wise

In a largely generic conversation last September, Rush Limbaugh maintained

He thinks he's the smartest person in the room; he's deceiving himself by thinking he's the smartest person in the room. Hasn't that always been something I've said about him? But here again is the assumption: "Oh, he's smart! Oh, oh, oh, Charlie! Oh! He has high abilities. He's bright, obviously bright, Charlie!" Where's the evidence? Would somebody show me the evidence of this? 

Speaking broadly last May, Limbaugh remarked

Well, I think the root of that is that depending on who's doing the categorization here, the fact of the matter is that the smartest people in the room usually aren't the smartest people in the room.  Mrs. Clinton is nowhere near the smartest woman in the world.  And I don't think Obama is particularly smart or competent.  But the conventional wisdom is just the opposite, that those two are the smartest.

As he moved on to Syria, Rush snarked "Man, what a smart guy. I understood everything he was trying to say, didn't you? Man, and that's rare, folks, that I have been in the presence of such smartness and such brilliance. I mean, he really, really, really handed it to Bush there! Did you hear that?"

Rush Limbaugh is demonstrably wrong- whether wise or not, Barack Obama is the smartest man in the room... figuratively, literally, and otherwise.

Back in December, 2007, when we still believed Barack Obama might bring about the change we can believe in, the presidential candidate was asked

In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites -- a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)

Senator Obama responded

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

The question centered on use of American military force in the absence of an imminent threat to the nation and the takeaway was comforting to a nation tiring of war.  Obama conceded "the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military strike" in many circumstances, and he seemed to emphasize the importance of military action being "authorized and supported by the Legislative branch."

The music was impressive, and dovish.   The lyrics, however, belied the music.   From the daily briefing of Presidential press secretary Jay Carney on August 27:

Q    In 2007, the Boston Globe asked candidates running for president to answer a series of written questions, and one was in the context of Iran:  Does the President have the constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use of force authorization from Congress?  Candidate Obama said, "The President does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." Does the President still agree with that? 

MR. CARNEY:  Absolutely.  But you're also trying to get me to engage in a discussion about a decision that has --

Q    But it's not a hypothetical anymore. 

MR. CARNEY:  It is a hypothetical, Ed.

Q    You have to admit the military option has been on the table for a year, a year and a half.

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.

Q    Now it's not about hypotheticals.  We are maybe within days, if not hours, of the President making a decision, correct?

MR. CARNEY:  It is correct that the President is working with his national security team reviewing the options available to him to respond to the clear violation of an international norm by the Syrian regime with the use of, on a significant scale, chemical weapons against innocent civilians, A. 
B, as I made clear, it is clearly in the United States' national security interests that that norm be maintained because the consequences of that standard dissolving are enormous and very detrimental to the interest of the United States and very detrimental to the international community, to our allies and partners in the region, and to the world at large.

Q    But you're saying that's the standard today.  But I'm saying the standard in 2007 to candidate Obama was an actual or imminent threat to the nation.  Do you believe that exists right now, an actual imminent threat to the United States?

MR. CARNEY:  I believe that absolutely allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security interests. 

Q    Not just to our allies in the region, but to the United States?

MR. CARNEY:  Correct. 

Noting Carney's explanation, Alex Altman and Zeke Miller of Time write "The White House also argues that the atrocities allegedly committed by the Syrian regime met the 'imminent threat' test Obama set forth in 2007. Allowing Syria to violate international standards prohibiting the use of chemical weapons would pose future threats to the U.S."

Actually, no. Carney sidestepped the issue of an imminent threat by specifying "a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security interests."  The President's position, therefore, actually is consistent with his inference in 2007 that the President can act unilaterally if the action were to "involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."  He did not say an actual and imminent threat, but an actual or imminent threat, and Obama can legitimately (though not necessarily justifiably) argue that use by the Syrian regime of a chemical weapon presents an "actual threat" to the U.S.A. or its "national security interests."

But though Obama averted by careful use of words in 2007 the threat that action taken in 2013 would contradict his earlier advice, the air strike apparently planned by the White House is far less clever.   In a widely-distributed study dated July 31, Chris Harner, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, suggested the feasibility of the strategy the Administration appears ready to undertake.  However, The Cable, a blog at, notes

"Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions," he said. "The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain and I don't think we have the stomach to deploy enough punitive action that would serve as a deterrent."

He also doubted the effectiveness of taking out Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. "If we start picking off chemical weapons targets in Syria, the logical response is if any weapons are left in the warehouses, he's going to start dispersing them among his forces if he hasn't already," he continued. "So you're too late to the fight."

It's not clear, moreover that the President is undertaking action pursuant to what he believes are the nation's national security interests.   The Los Angeles Times reports

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

"They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic," he said.

Great! Now we're bombing another country so no one makes fun of President Obama.  And we probably know who would be first in line to do that.  On August 23, Senator John McCain, responding to reports of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, remarked on CNN

We know he's already done that, and there has been absolute proof he's already done that. So it should have surprised no one if he does it again in far greater impact...

He will do it again because we have given him,instead of a red line,we've given him a green light and to do that and many other atrocities committed.

The previous day, McCain had warned "our friends and enemies alike, both in the Middle East and across the world, are questioning whether America has the will and the capacity to do what it says."

Yes, that surely was an historic election in 2008.

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