This is what preventing war looks like

meeting with Miles for Peace activists in Tehran
meeting with Miles for Peace activists in Tehran

Six years ago, when hope was high after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, I traveled to Iran with a people-to-people diplomacy delegation. Scarred by years of war and devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan, people in the US and abroad hoped that the candidate who stuck up for diplomacy on the campaign trail would take us down another path. Continue reading “This is what preventing war looks like”

Toxic masculinity won’t save us

photo via talkingpointsmemo
photo via

The conflation of stereotypical masculinity and leadership is nothing new. There’s ample discussion of how it plays out everywhere from the workplace to the political sphere. Perennial non-favorite columnist and pundit David Brooks hit on this theme on Meet the Press yesterday in reference to President Obama’s foreign policy: Continue reading “Toxic masculinity won’t save us”

You’re not helping


There is a lot of debate to be had about the best way to help a cause (don’t get me started on PETA). Sometimes people’s attempts to ostensibly help are near-inexplicable. This week’s news offered a few head-scratchers.

This week in you’re not helping: 

Continue reading “You’re not helping”

Obama ignores his own advice on Syria


Readers who came to David Remnick’s lengthy piece on President Obama in The New Yorker might be forgiven for thinking that the president had always been an opponent of military action in Syria. When Remnick asks him is he’s haunted by what’s happened there, he responds:

“I am haunted by what’s happened,” he said. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”

While he’s clearly addressing critics who wanted to see a full-on military intervention in an attempt to shift the tide in the civil war, the criticisms could also apply to his unwise plan to use military force to deal with the use of chemical weapons. There’s an interventionist wing of the Democratic Party that wants to draw a distinction between limited interventions and full scale wars, without proving that limited military intervention is any more effective or less counterproductive. The US pulled back from the brink (it was close enough that French jets were preparing to take off) largely because the administration could not make a coherent case that military intervention was a smart approach.

I’m not convinced President Obama ever thought a military strike was a smart idea. He allowed himself to be boxed in by an imprudent statement about Syria’s “red line.” At no point did he explicitly state that crossing that line guaranteed a military response, but he left open a space that allowed people to define his expected reaction. He had months in which he could have clarified and laid out diplomatic approaches to the crisis, but he let those assumptions continue unanswered and was trapped by them.

I was on Capitol Hill lobbying against intervention the week the vote on authorizing force was supposed to happen, after President Obama shocked many by slowing down the march to a strike and ceding to calls for congressional debate. This may have been part of their buying time to look for the exit; it was clear they were doing a poor job selling the intervention to Congress.

Some Democrats came out early with principled opposition to an unwise military intervention. Some Republicans did the same, with others responding with a knee-jerk anti-Obama response that nonetheless helped slow the momentum toward war. But many Democrats also crossed their fingers and hoped they would never have to cast a vote that would put them in a position of choosing between the public and their president. I didn’t hear anyone mount a rousing defense of the efficacy of attacking Syria. And there was no question about where the American people stood. Everyone talked about an overwhelming ratio of calls and emails against intervention.

The Syrian and American peoples, as well as President Obama and Congress, all benefited from the hail mary diplomatic solution that brought us back from the brink of war. But it sadly appears that the president is once again ignoring his instincts–and all available evidence [emphasis mine].

“It’s not as if we didn’t discuss this extensively down in the Situation Room. It’s not as if we did not solicit—and continue to solicit—opinions from a wide range of folks. Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided.”

A sensible response, and yet it contradicts the Obama administration’s policy. Reuters reported earlier this month that Congress secretly approved supplying weapons to so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria, despite the risk that the weapons could proliferate and be used in human rights abuses, which have been reported on all sides of the conflict.

Good statements of foreign policy ring hollow when his administration is ignoring his own prudent advice.

Fear begets fear: political paralysis on crime and terrorism

Politicians and pundits constantly drum up fear to move their political agendas. While the manipulative nature of the fear-mongering is frustrating, it’s nothing compared to the serious damage that is done by resulting policies. Enemies like Osama bin Laden and boogie men like Willie Horton have led to sprawling “wars” with no defined end that eat up our resources  and ruin (and often end) lives. The campaigns of fear around crime and terrorism have paralyzed our political process in a way that politicians concerned about reelection are too afraid to defy these counterproductive and unjust frameworks.

This is coming to the fore in California, where the courts have stepped in to mandate the release of thousands of prisoners from our state’s overcrowded prisons. Rather than using this court order as an opportunity to remedy a broken system, Governor Jerry Brown proposes to squander much-needed tax dollars on an even worse proposal:

Over the summer, Brown revealed a plan to spend what could end up being the bulk of the state’s $1 billion emergency reserve fund – money that is supposed to be spent in the event of an emergency – to finance the transfer of people from California’s overcrowded detention facilities into privately run prisons. “Brown said the alternative is to allow 10,000 prison inmates to go free.”

“It’s going to take some money, make no doubt about it,” Brown said of defying the federal government. But, “Public safety is the priority and we’ll take care of it,” he said, “the money is there.” The estimated cost of transferring the prisoners is about equal to what the state cut in funding for the University of California system between 2008 and 2012.

Refusing to acknowledge the real problem is an injustice to people in and out of prison. Thousands of nonviolent offenders not only unnecessarily languish in prison, but are then systematically shut out from opportunities to improve their lives, feeding a vicious cycle (if you haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow, which chronicles the ripple effects of mass incarceration, stop what you’re doing and go get it). Directing our tax dollars to private prisons continues a disturbing trend of injecting a profit motive into a broken, unjust system. And as Charles Davis points out in his piece, it means a billion dollars that could help with anything from education to emergency preparedness is squandered.

In talking to activists working on this issue, it’s clear that even some politicians who recognize the need for fundamental change are too afraid to take responsibility for it. Nobody wants to be the politician who let Willie Horton out of jail. So you get a “liberal” governor in a blue state ignoring proven solutions and exacerbating a devastating problem.

This resonated for me after ten years of organizing for a more just foreign policy during the so-called “war on terror.” Gregory Johnsen has a thorough and valuable piece about the history of the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed shortly after September 11th and the never-ending war it spawned:

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.

More than a dozen years since that law was passed, there has not been a significant challenge to the “war on terror” framework. Johnsen chronicles how Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) bravely stood up as the lone vote against the original AUMF, even though some of her colleagues indicated behind the scenes that they shared her concerns about the resolution. The difficulty of casting that vote a few days after September 11th is clear (Lee faced outrage and death threats), but with twelve years of distance we are still only chipping away at the injustices it engendered. Again, politicians swing too far in the wrong direction, that overcompensation an insurance policy against charges of being soft on terrorism that could be linked to an attack on their watch.

While some of the most egregious actions, like throwing up roadblocks to transferring innocent people from Guantanamo, have been led by Republicans, most Democrats haven’t challenged the orthodoxy. People from both parties praised President Obama for the targeted assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, despite the fact that the threat he posed has been called into question and the frightening precedent set by this act. Some leaders in Congress are pushing for greater transparency around the administration’s targeted killing policy, but few are willing to substantively challenge the entrenched mentality that has led to torture, incarceration of innocent people, racial profiling, and hundreds of civilian casualties.

Mulling this over brought me back to a revealing (though not terribly surprising) moment in John Oliver’s masterful pieces on gun control on The Daily Show. When asking Sen. Harry Reid’s staffer about what makes a politician successful, he responds with “getting reelected.” It’s a telling slip up. The challenges to sanity on these issues don’t make change impossible, and we have an obligation to work as hard as we can to undo these injustices. It reminds us that we need to increase the political cost of supporting these unjust, dangerous and counterproductive wars.