America at the Brink

America now stands at the edge of a government shutdown on October 1 if Congress fails to pass a Continuing Resolution to fund the operations of the federal government as it begins its new fiscal year. Right now, passage of this bill in its present form looks extremely unlikely.

Continuing Resolutions (temporary measures to fund government operations) have become common in recent years, as the two houses of Congress have been unable to agree on an annual budget. In fact, federal budgets have been approved on time only four times in the last 35 years, the last being in 1997.

The Senate passed its own version of a new budget earlier this year, but the House majority leader, John Boehner, has refused to let it come for a vote since the Republican majority in the House of Representatives opposes it. Unless new spending appropriations are passed by October 1, all non-essential government services will have to be shut down. Some 800,000 federal employees will be laid off. Veterans’ affairs, national parks, environmental protection, and a host of other services will be shut down. Civilian employees providing support services in the military will also be sent home.

obama-signs-affordable-care-act_custom-b7af1438c0b0d7bbf85748009e257a998040d1ae-s6-c30How did matters reach this crisis point? It all revolves around the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) passed by Congress in early 2010. Republicans have been opposed to the Act from the beginning, and have been throwing up roadblocks to its full implementation ever since.

Immediately after the Affordable Care Act was passed Republicans challenged its constitutionality in court. The Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional, except for one provision that infringed upon states’ rights which was then modified. Republicans fought a presidential election over it in 2012 with their candidate promising to repeal Obamacare as soon as he took office. They lost again. Since then, the Republican controlled House has voted 42 times to repeal, defeat, or defund Obamacare – all to no effect. They have delayed other important committee work and legislation, and have neglected dealing with bills passed by the Senate so as to focus on this one all-consuming issue.

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Through it all, work has continued during the last three years to prepare for the full implementation of this Act. Negotiations have been conducted with individual states to get them on board with the plan through a variety of arrangements. Subsidies have been arranged for those presently uninsured would have difficulty in paying health care premiums. A network of health care exchanges has been set up to assist people in finding the best rates and provisions to choose from. Health insurers have created new plans and new rate structures to deal with new enrollees. And most recently an army of “navigators” has been hired and trained to counsel individual applicants seeking health care insurance.

Now the preparatory work is done. As of Tuesday, October 1 (the same day that the federal government must have new money to continue operations), people will able to begin enrolling for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. They will have 6 months in which to do this, and the coverage for those enrolled will begin on January 1, 2014.

Republican opponents are in a panic. They are determined to stop Obamacare by any means possible. Their latest strategy, with all else having failed, has been to shut down the U.S. government if Obamacare is not withdrawn.

Events this Past Week

On Friday, September 20, the House passed a Continuing Resolution approving a temporary continuation of funding until December 15, 2013 with an attached amendment to defund Obamacare. The resolution then went to the Senate for consideration.

Ted CruzIn a lively spectacle, Junior Republican Senator Ted Cruz mounted a 21-hour monologue (it was not technically a filibuster) imploring his fellow Republicans to prevent his own Party’s House bill from receiving a Senate vote. (That struck many as an odd strategy.) Afterward the Senate voted 100-0 to take up the bill anyway, and the Democratic majority proceeded to strip off the amendment defunding Obamacare. By Friday, the Senate had voted to pass the unamended bill, and sent it back to the House for final approval.

But Republicans members of the House were not satisfied. Republican Tea Party members in the House consulted Senator Ted Cruz and followed his advice – opposing the announced strategy of the House majority leader John Boehner – and attached new amendments to the resolution before passing it. There is something rather astonishing when a junior Tea Party Senator elected to Congress only 8 months ago has more clout with House Republicans than their own seasoned, senior leader.

House Republicans have finally realized that they cannot succeed in defunding Obamacare outright. So they have developed a fallback plan. A new amendment will this time only  seek to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for one year until January 2015. Other amendments will repeal the medical device tax (adding $30 billion to the federal deficit over the next ten years), and allow employers and health care providers to opt out of mandatory contraception coverage. In addition, the House passed a separate bill to continue paying military personnel during the expected government shutdown.

The bills received unanimous support from Republican members of the House. They now go back to the Senate to be dealt with on Monday morning with less than one day remaining to find a resolution to the funding crisis. The Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, however, has already declared the new House bill, with its one year delay of Obamacare, to be dead on arrival.

Harry ReidImpatience with the House tactics is growing. Harry Reid sharply stated,

After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at Square 1. We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.

This is unusually strong language for Harry Reid. But it is no stronger than that used by Republican critics who have repeatedly called Obamacare a totalitarian, Communist scheme that is the most destructive law ever passed by Congress and will bring the country to ruin.

For those of us living outside the United States where national health coverage has been a standard practice for many decades, this extreme rhetoric seems quite absurd. America’s closest neighbor and strongest ally. Canada, has had national health care for 50 years, and no one there would dream of doing without it. When Canadians were asked several years ago to name the greatest Canadian of all time, and they overwhelmingly named Tommy Douglas, the political leader who introduced national health care in Canada.

Republicans are in a panic because they know that in a few years Americans will also embrace the benefits of their new national health care plan and no one will dare to take those benefits away. The American public may even give lasting credit to President Obama who persevered and made these benefits possible.

The ideological opponents of Obamacare can see the writing on the wall. Having lost all other gambits, they have retreated to at least demanding that Obamacare be delayed for a year – until after the 2014 mid-term elections. They know that if Obamacare goes into effect in January of 2014, by the time the election campaigns are in full swing people will have gotten used to their benefits. Those living in Republican controlled states that have rejected the local implementation of the Affordable Care Act will look at their neighbors’ coverage and begin to demand the same.

Elections will be fought and lost on this issue. It could well decimate the Republican and Tea Party ranks. It is quite possible that within a short time any politician defiantly opposing the ACA will come to be held in as much disdain as were those who continued to obstinately oppose school segregation after the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. This legislation is that big of a game changer

My advice to the opponents of Obamacare: Get over it and move on to other things. If this is the ditch you have chosen to die in, so be it. There will be few mourners.

 Credits: Getty Images; AP; Star Tribune

Progress on Syria

Surprising developments continued to emerge this week regarding Syria. President Obama had a major dilemma on his hands in proposing strikes against Assad’s regime but with little support abroad and growing opposition at home.

Obama and Putin at 2012 G-20 SummitIt was suddenly resolved by Russia stepping in and providing a third option. At first it appeared that Secretary of State, John Kerry, had made an off-hand remark in a televised interview that Russia quickly seized hold of, but other information indicates that the groundwork had already been laid for such a move in private talks between Obama and Putin on Sept. 6 at the G-20 Summit.

There has been an enormous amount of discussion as to who gained the upper hand in this situation: Obama or Putin. Did Putin come to Obama’s rescue? Or did Obama’s threat of unilateral action against Syria push Putin into getting involved? I am sure we will continue to hear both sides of this debated for some time to come. But this much is undeniable:

1)   A week ago Syria was denying that it possessed chemical weapons; now it has admitted to its stockpiles.

2)   Russia had previously stood with Syria in denying these weapons existed; now Russia is also on record in admitted their existence.

3)   If the U.S. had taken military action in Syria the result would have been unpredictable but potentially catastrophic (in terms of escalation and retaliation).

4)   It was in Russia’s own interest to get involved in bringing about a peaceful solution, rather than letting the West be the only actor – and thus determiner – of ensuing events.

5)   The UN is now also involved, and the interim gives time for the UN inspectors to table their own poison gas report this week and for other nations to join together in opposing Syria.

Russia may have “saved Obama’s ass,” as some have said, but the price has been high: Russia is now on the hook to make the plan work and convince Syria to comply. Obama merely has to continue to threaten military action if the plan fails (a fairly straightforward decision), while Russia has to do the hard work in keeping Syria on board in moving the process forward. In my view, Obama got the better part of the deal.

Secretary Of State Kerry And Defense Secretary Hagel Meet With Russian CounterpartsI watched in the last few days as John Kerry and his Russian counter-part Sergey Lavrov did their formal negotiating “dance,” and was expecting some kind of standoff “with honour” that would have produced minimal results while still allowing each side to save face. So I was very surprised to hear this morning that after three days of negotiations, a formal agreement has been reached with commitments for Syria to disclose its entire stockpile of chemical weapons, a strict time table for U.N. inspections, and a schedule for destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. There are still enormous hurdles to overcome (e.g. transporting chemical weapons in the middle of a war zone and the safety of the UN personnel). But there are undeniable gains.

Both the U.S. and Russia have agreed to press the UN for a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. This is itself a major breakthrough. Chapter 7 can authorize formal actions against Syria if it does not comply with these measures, meaning anything from sanctions to military force. Russia will no doubt continue to oppose UN military force, but is open to other measures. Until now Russia was blocking every proposed action against Syria at the Security Council; this is now no longer the case.

Hope has also sprung for the next step in ending the Syrian conflict. Kerry and Lavrov have met with the UN-Arab League envoy to lay the groundwork for a second peace conference on Syria. A successful resolution of the chemical weapons issue was seen as a necessary prerequisite for these talks to be held.

How things will unfold from this point on is anyone’s guess. But for the time being we have stepped back from the brink and can admit to some cautious optimism for the future.

Photo credits: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster; Win McNamee/Getty Images News

5 Tough Questions about Attacking Syria

What should be done about Syria? That is the main political issue facing the U.S. Congress and the American people this week. Its answer will have implications for the entire international community.

Obama-GalesburgBack in August of 2012 President Obama stated before the White House Press Corps,

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [that] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. … That would change my calculations significantly.

That line has now been crossed with confirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Saraqeb last month coupled with claims by the President that “well over 1000 people were murdered.” Barack Obama has called for limited military action against Syria, and the world nervously waits to see what form that action will take.

136614_600Obama’s options are limited, and some very difficult questions must be faced. The most pressing questions, in my view, are the following:

1)   Should the U.S. take action with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons?

The simple answer is “Yes … in principle.” The United States, along with 137 nations is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” as well as “the use of bacteriological methods of warfare.” All of these nations are bound by a common pledge to condemn the use of chemical weapons during warfare.

There is, however, one very big problem. The Geneva Protocol does not state the kind of response to be made upon violation of the agreement, nor does it state who can authorize that response. As the Washington Post’sFact Checker” column noted last week,

Such treaties generally do not have mechanisms for enforcement. As far as we know, no nation has ever attacked another to punish it for the use of chemical weapons, so Obama’s request is unprecedented.

2)   Can the U.S. take action unilaterally against Syria?

hans_blixAgain, the answer is Yes … but with a few caveats. Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq from 2000–2003, offered this cautionary warning to the U.S. in an interview just last week:

They talk about enforcing a norm, the ban on the use of chemical weapons. … [But] I don’t think the world community has appointed the U.S. or the U.K. or anybody else to be the policeman to police these norms. It’s the [U.N.] Security Council that is the world’s policeman. … And the [U.N.] Charter forbids member states to use the force or threat to use the force against others unless they are acting in self-defense against an armed aggression or the have the authorization of the Security Council.

Hans Blix acknowledges that the Security Council had been “a rather poor policeman.” President Obama made specific reference to this fact in announcing his intent to take independent action against Syria, saying

I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

Nevertheless, unless the United States is able to convince the world community that in attacking Syria it is acting in its own self-defence, it will be violating the U.N. Charter. This in itself will not be enough to raise international condemnation, but it will have practical consequences. As Blix cautioned in his interview,

if U.S. goes alone here and not adheres to the standards of the charter, it will weaken the U.S. It will isolate the U.S. in the world.

3)   Must the President have the approval of Congress to take action against Syria?

The answer in this instance is Yes … and No. Article One, Section eight of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress hall have power to … declare war.” As a recent article in qPolitics states,

A simple reading of this could lead one to the conclusion that the President should not have the right to begin military action without congressional approval, even if there is no formal declaration of war. From this perspective, military intervention in Syria would need to be approved by Congress.

Yet the article goes on to note that the United States has fought numerous wars, battles, and skirmishes over the years. Only five of these were “declared” wars (the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the two World Wars). Other “undeclared” wars have also received congressional authorization, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In addition, “there have been over 100 military actions throughout our history that did not have specific approval from Congress.” [emphasis added] To sum up, in America’s history

military action has been undertaken under all three of these circumstances, i.e. declared wars, congressionally approved wars and wars based on Presidential or executive branch initiative.

Which category would military action against Syria most likely fit under? The author offers this observation:

In today’s context, we could see that if the President wanted to employ the military to rescue American hostages seized overseas, he should not have to go to Congress to get authorization. He would need to be able to act quickly, maintain an element of surprise, and be free to act. On the other hand, involving the country in a major war would certainly require congressional approval. In the long run, Congress would need to pay the bills. War is too important to fight without the support of the people.

Actually, the issue need not even be debated in this instance. Although President Obama claims that he has the right to take military action against Syria with or without the approval of Congress, has nevertheless decided to ask Congress for its approval. In his address on August 31, Obama stated,

I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.

4)   What are the objectives in mounting a strike against Syria?

On this question the answer is not at all clear. Is a military strike primarily intended to deliver a message of moral condemnation against the Syrian regime? Is it intended to send a warning to other bodies (such as Iran and Hezbollah) of what will happen if they ever use chemical weapons themselves? Is it intended to punish Assad’s government and support the rebel movement in Syria? Is it intended to so cripple the Assad regime that will lead to its downfall?

How extensive would such a strike be? Would it target government offices? Would it target Assad’s own residence? Would it target military installations alone, or airports, communications structures, and other Syrian infrastructure? These are all unknown. If the action is too limited, it may be regarded as only a slap on the wrist and ineffectual. If it is too extensive, America may be viewed as an aggressor by other powers.

At this point it is quite difficult to gauge what would be the most appropriate level of action and how it would be perceived by others. (See the recent article in Foreign Policy)

5)   What are the potential consequences?

The answer to this is almost impossible to gauge. If Congress fails to approve President Obama’s request, he will no doubt appear weak, and American foreign policy may be perceived as ineffectual. It may even encourage the Assad regime and other powers to believe they can use chemical weapons with impunity in future conflicts. However, if Congress should approve military strike against Syria, the consequences could be far worse.

Ezra Klein in The Washington Post recently enumerated “10 things that could go very wrong if we attack Syria.” Briefly put,

1. American strikes could result in heavy civilian casualties. Even when aimed at designated military targets, intelligence can be faulty, missiles can go off course, and civilians will inevitably be caught in the blast.

2. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians. If the strikes weaken the Assad regime, it may step up its efforts to regain the upper hand, resulting in many more casualties.

3. U.S. strikes could result in Assad killing more civilians with chemical weapons. Rather than admitting defeat, Assad could double down on his attacks in an act of defiance against America.

4. The attacks may be limited and Assad easily survives them. If the attacks are not damaging enough, Assad could emerge as a defiant “hero” with even greater strength.

5. American intervention could topple Assad, and Syria would become America’s problem. Klein cites the “Pottery Barn Rule” – “you break it, you buy it” – from the Iraq war.

6. There could be reprisals. The Syrian army, or sympathizers like Hezbolah, could decide to exact revenge by launching terrorist attacks against American interests elsewhere in the world.

7. Assad could fall and the chemical weapons end up in the wrong hands. Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons is kept hidden. If his regime collapses, the opposition wouldn’t know where these weapons are. But his top loyalists would, and the weapons would soon appear on the black market.

8. The Assad regime could fall only to be replaced by chaos. Once they are in a position to do so, the rebels will almost certainly exact revenge against those in the Assad regime, and there could be much further bloodshed as rival factions begin jockeying for control.

9. Assad could fall only to be replaced by something worse. What if the Al Nusra Front, which claims allegiance to al Qaeda, wins the resulting power struggle, or has a major role in the coalition? What then?

10. How extensively will the strikes escalate the conflict? This final point is not stated as a “could be” scenario. Further escalation in the Syrian conflict is a certainty. Klein states,

Almost everything that could go wrong points towards the same ultimate response: Escalation. That could mean more bombing, or actual ground troops, or some combination. But the key fear behind intervening in Syria is that even constrained missions can unexpectedly break free of their limits.

America still remembers how direct American involvement in the Vietnam conflict led step by step to an intractable long-term military commitment that saw thousands of Americans losing their lives. More recently, they remember how America’s engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not lead to any quick resolutions, became difficult to withdraw from, and ended up costing far too many American lives. War has a habit of getting messy, spilling over into new conflicts, and creating even greater regional instability.

Americans are weary of the adventurism of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. They are hesitant to commit to new protracted military engagements. And for good reason. The consequences may be hard to foresee, but they are very real and costly.

Cartoon credit: Star Tribune