Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017

SYRIA

Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:

shayrat

Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

Continue reading

It’s always the cover-up

The investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, and the assorted wiretapping allegations that have accompanied it, have to be turned over to an independent investigator or, at least, a select Congressional committee with equal Republican and Democratic membership. I say this as somebody who remains largely unconvinced that this story is as big a scandal as some Democrats have made out, let alone that it’s going to end with Donald Trump being frog marched off to USP Lewisburg or wherever.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem believing that the Russian government tried through various means to influence the November election, just as I’d have no problem believing that the US was fucking around with May’s Iranian election. There’s plenty of evidence to show that we’ve tried to manipulate other countries’ elections in the past, so why should Russia be any different? But it’s a long way from “Russia tried to influence the election” or even “Russia did influence the election” to “Russia and the Trump campaign colluded to influence the election.” I don’t have any particular problem believing that charge either, but so far nobody’s produced anything other than circumstantial evidence to support it.

Of course, plenty of Congressional investigations have been launched with far less to go on than circumstantial evidence and plausibility, so investigate away as far as I’m concerned. But therein lies the problem. A big chunk of the investigation was supposed to be handled by Devin Nunes’s House Intelligence Committee, and Nunes has now conclusively demonstrated that he can’t be trusted to handle it.

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These gasses aren’t going to light themselves

Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee (MOTTO: “Searching for Intelligence in the House of Representatives Since 1977”), contributed his best effort yesterday to the ongoing Republican war on objective reality. With the White House facing Congressional investigation over alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia and over President Trump’s thus-far completely unsupported accusation that the Obama administration eavesdropped on his campaign/transition team’s communications, Nunes learned a shocking fairly mundane bit of information and immediately took it to his committee for investigation ran to brief the White House and then helped them use this information to publicly obfuscate the investigations.

What Nunes found out–possibly based on “evidence” he was given by the Trump administration itself–was that members of Trump’s transition team did have some of their communications intercepted after the election. This obviously relates, but only superficially, to Trump’s allegations that his people were being spied upon by the Obama administration, which has gotten folded into the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the Russia/election story. Given that Trump is the focus of that investigation, and Nunes is supposed to be the lead investigator, his decision to relay this information to the Trump White House, and then to the media, before the other members of his own committee was telling, to say the least.

Naturally, Trump later used Nunes’s information to claim he was vindicated on his wiretapping charges, but the truth is that one has nothing to do with the other. Some Trump communications may have been collected by the NSA because they involved foreign leaders, and the NSA works very hard to collect any communications involving foreign leaders. Nothing in what Nunes found actually supports the claim that Trump or his people were being wiretapped. Even Nunes isn’t really saying that it does, instead falling back on pedantic bullshit when asked if the Obama administration was spying on Trump’s transition: “It all depends on one’s definition of spying.” In fact, although he said he’d found evidence that Trump “communications” were collected, it now seems that what Nunes actually found was that conversations related to Trump were collected–or, in other words, that the NSA had captured conversations in which people in Trump’s circle were discussed, but didn’t participate themselves. If that’s all Nunes found, then it literally says nothing whatsoever about Trump’s spying claims.

(There may be– I say may be, because it seems like a bad idea to just trust Nunes on this–a problem with how the NSA/intelligence community handled whatever it collected. Information about Americans that’s picked up in this kind of surveillance is supposed to be “masked” absent probable cause, and that may not have been properly handled in this case. But that still doesn’t have anything to do with the accusation that Trump’s people were being directly monitored.)

But we’ve seen this game played out many times now, enough times to know that it doesn’t matter that Nunes still says there’s no evidence that the government wiretapped the Trump transition. It doesn’t matter that Nunes now says he probably shouldn’t have run to the White House and then the nearest TV camera with this information before he went back to the committee he’s supposed to be running. It doesn’t matter that to any objective observer, Devin Nunes has now shown that he’s incapable of investigating the Trump administration. All that matters is that the right-wing gaslighting Wurlitzer got enough fuel to keep churning out disinformation until the next big story breaks and knocks this one out of the public consciousness.

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The size of the tent doesn’t matter

FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten wrote a piece yesterday on Joe “I Vote With Donald Trump Two-Thirds Of The Time” Manchin (D?-WV) and his value, much evidence to the contrary, to the Democratic Party:

So I can see why progressives would be peeved with Manchin. But it’s sort of silly to compare Manchin to the median Democrat. He represents West Virginia! FiveThirtyEight’s “Trump Score,” which ignores party and instead compares how often members vote with Trump to how often we would expect them to based on Trump’s share of the vote in their state, shows Manchin as one of the Democrats’ most valuable members. Manchin votes for the Trump position occasionally, but he does so about 33 percentage points less than senators from similarly red states.

In other words, Manchin’s real worth to Democrats is that he’s a Democrat, because a Republican from West Virginia would probably vote GOP far more often. In fact, West Virginia’s other senator, Capito, has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time.

The use of the word “occasionally” to describe something Manchin does 67 percent of the time is…interesting phrasing, but I’m not here to argue about vocabulary. The big problem with this analysis is that it compares Manchin to Republican senators, who you would obviously expect to vote Trump’s way almost all the time. But Enten has adjusted for that, a bit: Continue reading

Paul Ryan: Policy Wank

OH. MY. GAWD. He’s so wonky and neat! And so smart! Other politicians don’t get into the policy and really understand it the way Paul–I’m allowed to call him Paul, he told me one night while I was staring into his eyes on TV–does. What brilliant thing did he say today?

Well, he’s not wrong–healthy people subsidizing sick people is the “whole idea of Obamacare.” In fact, it’s the whole idea of health insurance. Policy genius Paul Ryan doesn’t know how insurance works. Paul’s solution to this problem, amazingly, isn’t to get rid of health insurance and adopt true universal healthcare like every other industrialized nation on the fucking planet. His solution, now with three times the wonkiness, is apparently that the government will “subsidize” health care for sick people so that the insurance market can strictly deal with healthy ones. That’s…not how insurance works, and there is no way in hell that his plan will actually appropriate enough money to pay for the health care of anybody with a pre-existing condition.

What Ryan is doing is, in some dialects of English other than Media English, called “lying,” which is this thing where somebody says something they know not to be true in order to convey a falsehood to his or her audience. As long as we insist on maintaining the supremely fucked up private for profit health insurance business, the only way that insurance companies can afford to take on sick people is if they also take on a bunch of healthy people who probably don’t want to buy insurance. This leads to all the shittiest parts of the ACA–the mandate, the garbage high deductible policies, etc. But if you want to get rid of those shitty parts, you have two choices: enact genuine health care reform, like single-payer, or tell people with pre-existing conditions to go fuck themselves. Republicans won’t do the former, obviously–hell, Democrats don’t even want to do the former–and they can’t do the latter because Politics.

So instead, Ryan has to play this game where he pretends to care about people with pre-existing conditions with his pretend fix that can’t work, knowing full well that when the rubber hits the road, he and the rest of his party would gladly stick every sick person in America on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea if it meant they could finance another massive tax cut for Paul Singer et al. But they have to bullshit the public for now, and despite the fact that they’ve collectively fallen for the same completely made-up “Paul Ryan: The Wonk Who Cares” myth over and over and over again for the better part of two decades, our media still hasn’t learned that Paul Ryan isn’t a wonk and doesn’t actually care.

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Why Ellison matters

Yesterday I tried to make the argument that it matters who the DNC chair is, insofar as that person should be up to the job of running the Democratic Party. I’ve seen people argue that the party chair is mostly irrelevant, and it seems pretty clear to me that that’s not the case. I do agree that the DNC chair’s personal politics aren’t particularly relevant as to whether or not they can manage the party–paid MEK lobbyist Howard Dean, for example, has some pretty awful political ideas, but he was an effective DNC chair because he understood the need to grow the party at the state level and field candidates all over the map. Ideally you’d like to have a party chair with better politics than Dean but who also understands tactically how to build the party, but my point is that the latter is more important than the former. The Democratic Party’s political leanings are going to be determined by elected Democrats and the party’s rank and file, not the DNC chair, and to that point it’s up to us to make sure the party looks more like Elizabeth Warren’s party than Andrew Cuomo’s. Party chairs aren’t even the chief spokespeople for their parties, unless you think that Reince Priebus was the face of the Republican Party for the past eight years and not, say, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, or Donald Trump.

With all that said, though, there is a compelling political argument for Ellison as DNC chair. It doesn’t have to do with his politics versus Tom Perez’s politics so much as it has to do with what Ellison represents to some crucial Democratic constituencies:

“Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, an organization fighting to expand Social Security benefits.

“If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter,” Lawson added.

Ellison backers acknowledge that the liberal protest movement that has taken shape since President Donald Trump’s inauguration ― not the DNC race ― has become the focus of grassroots energy. A loss for Ellison now could limit the party’s ability to tap into that enthusiasm, but it wouldn’t stop the movement.

“If Perez wins, we’re not gonna come out with pitchforks and say, ‘No, no, no,’” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of Credo Action, an online progressive heavyweight that has experienced record growth since Trump’s inauguration. “But people are going to roll their eyes and just keeping doing what they do. It’s going to keep the DNC what it is: an irrelevant, old, stale entity that hasn’t been re-serviced since the Howard Dean days.” (Zaheed noted that he spoke to HuffPost in his personal capacity, since Credo isn’t endorsing in the race.)

There is one thing about Perez’s politics that does matter here: his support for TPP and what that means to organized labor. But even that’s symbolic. TPP is gone and it’s not coming back, at least not in anything resembling the form it had before. But more to the point, the DNC chair’s position on free trade isn’t really that important. What is important is that traditionally Democratic constituencies that have become disenchanted with the Democratic Party over the past 25 years might finally feel like they’re being heard if Ellison gets the job, in a way that they say they won’t if Perez gets it. And yes, if Ellison wins there are going to be constituencies upset about that too. But I would argue that Ellison will have an easier time patching things up with those constituencies than Perez will have with the constituencies his election will alienate, if only because they’ve got less pent up resentment toward the national Democratic Party.

Now, you could argue that this seems an awful lot like blackmail, or a mafia protection racket, that these groups are threatening the Democratic Party to get what they want. But isn’t that essentially what politics is? Do what I want, support the policies I like, address my problems, or else you don’t get my vote. That’s a message the Democratic Party should be getting loud and clear after November, and after an eight year period that saw it lose control of, well, almost everything. If electing Keith Ellison as DNC chair can win the party some goodwill with voters who could help right the Democratic Party’s electoral ship, then why wouldn’t you want him in that job?

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Things that don’t matter except when they do

perez_ellison

I have to be completely honest: I don’t care very much who winds up as DNC chair. What I mean by that is that I would like to see Keith Ellison get the job, and I would not like to see Tom Perez get it, but if Perez does get it I’m not going to be that mad about it.

At least, not yet.

I don’t know much about Perez’s politics. Erik Loomis (who supports Ellison) says he was a very good Labor Secretary, and Loomis knows Labor issues quite well whereas I care about those issues but am not very well-informed about them because, well, there are only so many hours in the day. So I’ll stipulate that he was a good Labor Secretary in part because I don’t think it matters when evaluating his candidacy to run the DNC. His Israel-Palestine politics are shitty, but he’s running for DNC chair, not Secretary of State, and moving forward it’s going to be harder and harder for the Democratic Party to remain as anti-Palestinian as it currently is, regardless of who the DNC chair may be.

I know Ellison’s politics better, and I like them, but even if you like his politics you have to bear in mind that he’s running for a job where personal politics aren’t supposed to, and usually don’t, matter. I don’t think Reince Priebus, for example, had much effect on moving the Republican Party toward the nativist hard right, and in fact it seems pretty clear that he was along for the ride. What should matter in a party chair is how they manage the party apparatus.

Where I disagree with Loomis is in the notion that it doesn’t matter who’s running the party or that Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t do a fair amount of damage over her ~5 year tenure. The evidence of her apparently willful decimation of state parties is splayed all over any 2016 electoral map you can find and written in any piece you read about the number of legislative seats in this country that simply go uncontested in any given election cycle (yes, the Republicans choose not to contest seats too, but they’re not the minority party). It’s clear when every other tweet out of the DNC’s Twitter account is a GIF of Leslie Knope rolling her eyes that something in DWS’s Democratic Party was broken, and I’m not sure how you can argue that it didn’t matter come election time.

So given that, what worries me most about Perez is that some of the same people who left DWS in charge of the party even as it was clear she was running it into a ditch are the ones pushing Perez’s candidacy. If Perez gets the job and revitalizes state parties, recruits candidates all over the map, and fixes the national party’s messaging operation while staying out of the way on policy, then he’ll probably be OK. On the other hand, if he gets the job and keeps weakening state parties, keeps restricting the party’s messaging, and/or tries to use his perch to drag the party to the right, that will be shitty. I feel pretty confident that Ellison knows what’s wrong with the DNC and has a plan to fix it. That, much more than their relative political viewpoints, is why I would like to see Ellison get the gig. I really have no idea if the same is true of Perez, but I also don’t know that it’s not true, so I guess if he gets the job I’ll take a wait and see position.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.