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Straight talk from Obama on Syria and the U.S. Constitution

REUTERS/Mike Theiler
President Barack Obama speaking about the situation in Syria at a Saturday press conference in the Rose Garden as Vice President Joe Biden looks on.

That was the straightest talk I have heard from President Obama or any other major political figure in a long time.

Obama’s comments on Syria Saturday were short and to the point. He is convicting the Assad government of using chemical weapons to murder men and women and children. He basically swept aside any ambiguity that others may want to raise about whether the evidence is clear. It is clear, Obama said, and he is making a classified document available to members of Congress to back that up.

He has decided that this violation of international norms cannot go unpunished. He favors U.S. action that he believes will punish Assad, degrade Syrian capabilities for further use of chemical weapons, and deter other bad actors on the world stage who otherwise might think they can use chemical or biological weapons and not suffer any consequences.

With or without allies, the United States should take that action, Obama said. (The quote: “I am prepared to make that order.”) Until Saturday, although it seemed obvious that Obama’s thinking was heading in this direction, he said every time he spoke publicly that he had not yet made a decision. Now he has.

I’ve been underwhelmed by several recent Obama speeches. He seemed tired and the speeches wandered. This wasn’t really a speech. It lasted just 10 minutes. But he said what he came to say.

Seeking congressional action

But he wants Congress to authorize it. That was the big news. The leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress have agreed to hold a debate on such an authorization as soon as Congress reconvenes from its current recess (currently scheduled for Sept. 9). “The country will be stronger if we take this course,” Obama said, meaning to debate a resolution authorizing military action. He invoked Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (without mentioning ol’ Abe, nor the origin of the phrase—Lincoln’s brief remarks at Gettysburg in 1863).

The exception to all of the clarity I celebrated in the first paragraph was the answer he did not give to the one question shouted to him by a reporter as he walked away from the podium: “Will you go ahead if Congress disapproves?”

Until we know the answer to that, we can’t know how seriously Obama meant all the stuff in the middle about constitutional government. In fact, if you study the full text of Obama’s remarks, it’s hard not to believe that he went out of his way to avoid shedding too much light on his answer to the reporter’s shouted question.

After saying “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” Obama subsequently said: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” Hmmmm. Angels will soon be dancing on constitutional pins over the tension between those two sentences.

As a U.S. Constitution guy, I have to say that the constitutional understanding of the war powers have been a dead letter for about a century. The Constitution, in its preamble, establishes that one of the purposes of the government is to “provide for the common defense.” (Note the word is “defense,” but has come to mean anything military.) Article I gives Congress the power to declare war. Article II appoints the president as commander in chief of the armed forces.

I believe the clear understanding was that the United States (which the Framers did not envision as possessing a large standing military but which would rely primarily on state militias that could be called into national service when necessary for national defense) would be at peace with the rest of the world except when Congress declared war, which would activate, or at least elevate the president’s commander-in-chief powers.

The Framers could naturally not imagine a modern superpower, engaged in an almost perpetual state of semi-war. That is what we have become and the Constitution has never been amended to reflect it, so we have a pastiche of semi-constitutional practices.

Congress has not actually literally “declared” a war since Pearl Harbor. Since then, U.S. forces have engaged in dozens of military actions (in other words, “wars.”) Several of those actions were authorized in advance by a congressional vote that used language other than “declare war.” Perhaps the semantics are unimportant in those cases.

But presidents have taken dozens of other military actions with no advance congressional authorization at all. For all of these reasons, we have no working understanding of whether and when the president needs advance approval from Congress to start a war (or, in the current Syrian case, join a war that is already in progress, although not exactly join the war. More like drop in, blow up some things, make a statement, and go back to the sideline.)

Why do it? Obama has called on Assad to leave, but hasn’t made it a goal of U.S. policy to bring that about, nor should we take his desire to take military action as designed to bring about Assad’s demise. If we take him at his word, he is still trying not to get (at least not very) involved in the Syrian civil war. America is war-weary, Obama said, and alluded to his goal of ending the two wars he inherited from his predecessor.

So why do it? Obama did allude (fairly vaguely) to his previous (perhaps regretted) comment about the “red line” that would be crossed if Assad used chemical weapons. The allusion went like this: “Now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say.”

Bigger justification

But the bigger justification is about the importance of the general commitment not to tolerate the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons by anyone. As a matter of history, this is a bit awkward, since the United States is the only nation ever to drop an atomic weapon (two, actually) on civilian targets, and used chemical weapons (I consider napalm a chemical weapon) as recently as the Vietnam War.

Obama made no reference to these problems. And he didn’t do much to explain exactly who elected the United States as the enforcer of “international norms.” In theory, that should perhaps be the job of the United Nations, but Obama did mention that in practice, with two Syrian allies holding veto power on the U.N. Security Council, that idea was a path to nowhere.

True, but that doesn’t address the question of how or why one nation appoints itself the enforcer, by cruise missile, of something as amorphous as international norms. He didn’t ignore the question, but addressed it with the kind of non-answer that pretty much all presidents turn to on such occasions. It went like this:

We are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.

I won’t attempt a political analysis of the debate that will soon ensue in Congress except to note that, unlike most things these days, it will not break down on pure party lines. Democrats will probably divide between peaceniks, liberal hawks and those who believe they should support a president of their own party. Republicans will divide between McCainiac hawks and neocons, whom I suspect will support the resolution, Rand Paulish libertarian non-interventionists, whom I expect to oppose it, and Republicans who will vote against anything that Obama is for.

The debate should be interesting.

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Comments (34)

  1. Submitted by Dan Lacey on 08/31/2013 - 09:14 pm.

    Looking forward to the vote being added as a rider to another effort to repeal Obamacare.

    But no-he knows going in that any vote to attack Syria will take forever and will be defeated. ‘Straight Talkin’ is part of the show, as is the punt. Repellent.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/31/2013 - 09:32 pm.

    Obama’s syndicating the risk

    So what’s he going to do when congress votes no? Like Krauthammer said, “This is Amateur Hour … It looks like the president boxed himself into a corner and is looking for a way out.”

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/01/2013 - 11:20 am.

      Now I know

      that Congress will vote ‘yes’.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/01/2013 - 12:15 pm.

      Or, President Obama has decided to follow the Constitution. You decide.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/01/2013 - 02:20 pm.

      I like your metaphor of syndication, a sure sign that what…

      …he’s selling this time is a load of crap.

      Maybe Obama could just admit he made a poor choice when he shot off his mouth about a “red line”.

      Insofar as a risk of losing credibility, this risk is exceedingly low, as so few around the world believe our leaders’ pronouncements of high-mindedness and moral outrage. There are too many instances to mention here of the brazen contradiction between our official pronouncements and our actual behavior as a nation. Just one: we sat on our hands and did nothing while nearly a million Rwandans were murdered.

      The country’s interests are not served by entering armed conflict to protect the fool pride of this President.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/01/2013 - 05:29 pm.


        your history.
        Obama was not president in 1994.

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/01/2013 - 07:15 pm.

          Thanks for the tip, but how much change in U.S. foreign…

          …policy has there been in the years since ?

          The “our official pronouncements” and “our actual behavior as a nation” in my comment was not meant to refer to Obama alone, but rather U.S. foreign policy pronouncements.

          I see a pretty consistent policy of pursuing only selfish interests while making high-minded pronouncements – in which Obama excels, right along with his predecessors.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2013 - 09:26 am.

            from 2000 to 2008

            we had massive ground invasions and carpet bombing with ‘democratization’ as a goal.
            Before (Kosovo) and after (Libya) we had much more limited involvements.
            I’d say there was was a significant policy difference.

  3. Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/01/2013 - 11:32 am.

    He did the right thing

    But the fact is that no matter WHAT decision he’d made it was going to be painted as “the wrong decision” by those who are vowed to oppose him in everything he does.

    What will be interesting this time around will be seeing how the discussion shapes up given some of the strange bedfellows who have been publicly opposing a strike (e.g. Keith Ellison and Michele Bachmann).

    But throwing it back to Congress is the right thing to do. Perhaps this will be a start to reversing the course of unilateral military actions taken by U.S. Presidents that has become the norm in recent history.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/01/2013 - 01:00 pm.

    This is serious business with artisan politics fogging the issue

    Well it’s a catch-22 for Obama whatever the outcome but it’s patriot time for congressmen making political hay on the issue whichever the final word on this latest contemplated ‘intervention’?
    Israel is jumping up and down with the propeller on his beanie cap a whirling dervish, cheering Obama into action.

    Any Syrians or Syrian-Americans too I suppose, are up for interrogation exercises by the FBI and maybe Homeland Security(NY Times) so even if you have a Syrian grandmother in your immediate ancestry, highlight your Norwegian grandfather long dead; no matter….

    What do they call it these days… still called the Unamerican Activities Committee. or maybe Clapper or Alexandre is it, haven’t got a name for that committee yet? Who knows?

    If this issue had come a week earlier, Fair time, I would say watch those corn-dogs …may be consuming surveillance-on-a-stick. Sing God Bless America often these days… may clear you, who knows?

    …I should be turning in this little black box of cheap advertizing that I can’t get rid of; turning it in to the FBI as terrorist activity on the Web. Covers up the screen and pops up whatever I try, heck of one crummy way to sell something, whatever?

    Have a good day and say hi to your Syrian grandmother…don’t start looking for terrorists in every corner…I know terrorists – not personally – FBI may be be getting a wee bit paranoid again…then again…?

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/03/2013 - 03:56 pm.

      is artisan politics like artisan sausage?

      and should those who love one or the other want to watch either being made?

  5. Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/01/2013 - 04:28 pm.

    This Analysis is Surreal

    This analysis is dishonest to the extreme– if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect it was DNC-generated propaganda. Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Obama’s words and what the constitution actually has to say on the matter…

    First, a direct quote from last night’s sales pitch:

    “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.”

    I, like a lot of people, am interested to hear what specific provision(s) this guy seems to think allows him to bypass Congress and the American people in instigating military action against another country. Because the law is quite clear on this. It’s not even debatable. The War Powers Resolution, codified into Federal law in 1973 and taught in American public schools until the 1980’s, is explicit: the president’s power to drag the country into “hostilities”–this is lifted verbatim, mind you–“are exercised only pursuant to (1) a [Congressional] declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

    So if Barry really believes he can “carry out this military action without specific congressional approval,” that leaves him only options (2) and (3). No one is suggesting that the Syrian government poses a threat to the U.S.–the only pretext offered so far is that Assad killed his own people–so that rules out (3). And no “specific statutory authorization” is in the works, so that leaves out (2). What you’re left with is a tyrant (or a puppet acting as a proxy for tyrants) claiming the right to bomb, torture, imprison, and assassinate any human being on the planet with zero accountability in total secrecy. (Remember, this is the same administration that hunts down whistleblowers like stray dogs and has effectively outlawed investigative journalism).

    Just for fun, let’s end on a quote:

    “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.”–Barack Obama, 2007

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/01/2013 - 07:32 pm.

      “…any human being on the planet”

      Yes, and further, our foreign policy now presumes the right to ignore any nation’s sovereignty – to cross any international boundary whenever we choose – to do the things you enumerate.

      It now even extends through our poodle governments, e.g., in Europe, doing our bidding for us, as when recently a plane carrying a head of state was force-landed, boarded, and searched…based upon a suspicion, without any legal justification, and merely upon the demand of our CIA communicated to those poodles.

      But, Mr. Snyders, we are howling at the moon here. What the law says means little at this time. It’s pure, raw power that counts, and little else.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2013 - 02:16 pm.

        Again, history.

        War of 1812 (invasion of Canada).
        Mexican War.
        Spanish/American war.
        And of course Noriega was the head of a foreign state.
        So what’s new?

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/02/2013 - 01:40 pm.

          I don’t mean to quibble here, but…

          …perhaps what’s new is not a difference in kind but rather in the degree of our dominance in military and economic power at this time – and, apace with this dominance, our national arrogance.

          The risk of over-playing our hand now, e.g., in disregard of the sovereignty of other nations due to their near powerlessness to resist, is that at a future time, the roles will be reversed, and some one or more of those other nations, holding greater power, will choose to disregard our sovereignty based on the precedent we established.

          Hoist with our own petard, how will we argue to the contrary at that time ? It seems many Americans believe this could never happen, that we will always dominate. This is the blind spot of “American exceptionalism” – the rules and constraints we project onto others don’t really apply to us.

          I take your point, though.

  6. Submitted by Matt Snyders on 09/01/2013 - 06:23 pm.


    “America is war-weary, Obama said, and alluded to his goal of ending the two wars he inherited from his predecessor.”

    Also misleading to the extreme: the above reference to Obama’s goal of “ending” the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan.

    Three years ago, if you recall, Mr. Obama successfully sought to to *extend* the Afghanistan occupation until 2014… and left the window open for an even longer presence. We still have troops there. The merits of this decision are another argument all together, but Obama certainly prolonged the occupation as documented by every major newspaper in the world. In addition the Obama administration never made it a “goal” to end the war in Iraq. It did precisely the opposite. In 2011 Obama lobbied the Iraqi government to amend the Status of Forces Agreement to allow troops to remain in Iraq, and even publicly advocated this position. (Are we going to pretend this never happened?) It was only the Iraqi government’s insistence on sticking to the timetable hatched during the Bush administration that forced Obama to concede and wind down the troop presence. Based on these facts we can agree that the Obama administration made it a goal to PROLONG the two wars he inherited– not end them. In one case he was successful. In the other he was not. This isn’t mere nitpicking. You do a disservice to your readers by parroting the administration’s propaganda, that which seeks to paint him as a candidate of peace.

  7. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/01/2013 - 07:31 pm.

    Dead is dead

    What is the difference between killing your own people with bullet and bombs, or poison gas? Dead is dead. The only difference in this situation is that Obama opened his big mouth and said poison gas is a “red line.” Now he is pretending he cares about the Syrian people, even though Assad has been killing his own people for 2 years. This is all a show. After Congress disapproves of this action, Obama can go back to doing what he wanted all along, doing nothing.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2013 - 10:55 am.

      So is that what you want?

      You’re alright with the idea of Congress not approving any action, because that would mean humiliating the President?

      Spare us your “concern” for the people of Syria. The “effectual result” you said you wanted to see–regime change, destruction of the poison gas, and destruction of the means to deliver the poison gas (but not, for some reason, bullets)–isn’t going to happen. No one has any stomach for that excfept a couple of bellicose Senators who represent Sunday morning talk shows. The alternative seems to be that Congress will not allow the President to do anything, so Syrians will continue to die at the hands of the Assad regime. Why? Apart from playing well to the Republican base, it will be punishment for not acting sooner, and not creating a bigger morass.

      But hey, what’s a few more dead Arabs when you have a midterm election to win?

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/02/2013 - 09:13 am.

    It’s the Roman way

    Eric’s piece makes for interesting reading, as does the subsequent commentary.

    I assume Mr. Obama will be returning his Nobel Peace Prize to the committee in Stockholm as soon as the first cruise missile is launched.

    We’re already up to our nostrils in debt, while barely staying afloat in very deep financial water created by a pair of “off-the-books” wars coupled with massive tax cuts for the affluent. We’ve already demonstrated — twice — that we have no idea what we’re doing in the Middle East. Bringing “democracy” to Iraq and Afghanistan via boots on the ground and drone warfare from the sky has not, to put it as kindly as possible, made us a lot of new friends in a Muslim world inclined to be hostile to secular nations to begin with. It’s likely to be centuries before the United States, if it still exists, will be regarded positively in those areas.

    Steve Titterud seems correct to me in asserting that our high-minded rhetoric compares poorly with our actual behavior. Obama is not the first, nor will he be the last, to ignore this dichotomy. Steve Berg seems correct to me as well: tossing the question to Congress is the right thing to do, and at least provokes public discussion of what course of action to take, even if doing so simply serves the cynical purpose of measuring which way the wind of public opinion is blowing. It would still be the first time there’s actually *been* a public discussion of whether to take military action or not in many years. Berg also is on the mark, in my opinion, in asserting that, no matter what Obama does, it’ll be the “wrong” decision as far as his perpetual enemies are concerned.

    Presumably, as a professor of constitutional law before his election, Mr. Obama would be familiar with many of the arguments for and against what he proposes to do. Assuming the quote provided by Matt Snyders to be correct, it would seem that the President doesn’t really have a leg to stand on.

    Not that it matters very much. Steve Titterud also seems correct to me in asserting that we’ve adopted the neocon notion that the U.S. is somehow entitled to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it suits us, simply because… well… we’re the United States, to which all other nations owe deference. It’s the way of the Roman Empire.

    William Fulbright’s “The Arrogance of Power” is, sadly, just as relevant now as it was in 1966.

  9. Submitted by andrea schaerf on 09/02/2013 - 09:14 am.

    War Crimes

    Would another option be for him to go to the Court, in Den hague I believe that judges war criminals. He could suggest was to prevent further war crimes from knowlingly happing, like a sugical military strike.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2013 - 10:51 am.

      It would be an option….

      But another political dodge rather than a productive action.
      Since the International Court is the judicial arm of the United Nations, any enforcement of its decisions would be up to the Security Council. And as with the Security Council, Russia and China are members of the International Court.
      At best it’s a mediator, not an arbitrator.
      So, nothing new here.

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/02/2013 - 12:46 pm.

    Framing the debate

    Eric has raised a valid and salient point of discussion. I find myself in agreement with most of the comments both pro and con in this thread about the abstract principle of constitutional powers. But let’s face it, the point is unclear. It is especially unclear because I don’t think it’s especially clear that we are “going to war.” I find myself also questioning the way the issue is being framed, which determines how people will answer it. I assume we are not talking about invasion of Syria, a la Iraq War or even some kind of military action like the first Gulf War. That seems to me what framing the issue about “going to war with Syria” begs. Can we really be said to “going to War” with a whole nation which is embroiled in a civil war as it is?

    I read something recently by Noam Chomsky that may shed some light on the logic behind the impending action, whatever that is. According to Chomsky, the mission to take out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan brought this country very close to a nuclear confrontation if not all out war with Pakistan, or at least those in Pakistan in charge of the military.

    With Pakistan we have situation of a very unstable country having weapons of mass destruction. It’s been a major concern of the US that these WMD’s do not fall into the “wrong hands”, i.e. jihadists who will deploy them not against other Pakistanis but against the west, including the US.

    Syria does not have nuclear weapons as far as I know but it does have WMDs. One argument for a “surgical strike” to destroy these WMDs is just that they could easily fall into the hands of jihadists and used against the West.

    Now I don’t buy the idea of a “surgical strike” either. (For one thing, I also read Eric’s piece with the link to the “Onion” satire of Assad’s opinion piece). But on the other hand, we’re not talking about another Gulf or Iraq War or even Afghanistan “incursion.” In other words, we’re not talking about “going to war with Syria” which is how the debate is being framed.

    Whatever one may think about the President’s unilateral use of his “war powers”, I think there’s an argument to be made that his action here resembles more his action in taking out Osama bin Laden (which raises a whole host of other legal, moral and ethical issues). The President’s motive here, which he may be unable or unwilling to state in public, may have more to do with protecting American lives and lives of innocent people in the West than it may appear on the surface. If the President’s motives are not just to uphold the abstract sanctity of an international treaty (which is more than just a “norm” isn’t it?) but to prevent chemical weapons falling into the “wrong hands” where they might be used against the US, wouldn’t that change how the debate is framed? Should the President be castigated if he doesn’t waive around the “mushroom cloud” to whip the public into a state of hysteriia to blow up a stockpile of WMD in a country whose political situation is rapidly deteriorating?

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2013 - 02:19 pm.

    Noam Chomsky

    isn’t even taken seriously as a linguist any more.
    I’d look for a slightly less ‘creative’ source for recent history.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/02/2013 - 05:22 pm.

      Taken seriously. . . by whom?

      It’s true that Noam Chomsky isn’t taken seriously by the “serious” people. But these “serious” people are the one who’ve taken this country into a series of disastrous wars and brought it to the brink of financial and economic collapse. In other words, by the people who really haven’t got a clue what they’re doing and are unapologetic about their conduct. So in a country where nobody’s opinion counts for anything anymore anyway, Noam Chomsky not being taken “seriously” by “serious” people really isn’t saying anything and doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

      As far as as Chomsky not being taken “seriously” as a linguist anymore, I know there are also people who say that about Jesus, Plato, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle or [pick your favorite icon].

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/02/2013 - 08:13 pm.

        Then you’d agree

        that Chomsky is now mainly of historical interest.
        As far as linguistics go, I have some professional interest in that field as a behavioral psychologist with an interest in verbal behavior. I’ve been aware of Chomsky for over fifty years now.
        Everyone (including Chomsky) has a right to their own opinion; everyone does not have a right to their own facts. The science of verbal behavior has passed Chomsky by. This is of course irrelevant to his competence as a geopolitical commentator. Obviously -he- thinks that he is a ‘serious person’ (meaning, I assume, a person to take seriously).

        Of your icons, Jesus of Nazareth probably has the most to teach us today. Unfortunately, his words got swamped by those of Saul of Tarsus.
        I’ve read the others (and more) — they’re of historical interest in tracing the development of philosophy (and I’m not a fan of applied philosophy) and worth reading from that perspective, but not as commentators on the modern world.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/03/2013 - 08:55 am.

          What Chomsky thinks

          I don’t agree that Chomsky is of mainly historical interest. I think he is a relevant commenter on modern events. He presents the only significant moral voice on international and national events. Which is not to say he has any influence. I would agree he has zero influence. Is it obvious that he thinks that he is a serious person? I imagine he would say that he expects to be taken seriously by anyone who will listen to what he has to say. Which is pretty much all I think any of us expect in the way of being taken seriously. But Chomsky has serious things to say. He is not alone in speaking truth to power today but he is one of the more significant ones.

          I’m not qualified to comment on Chomsky’s standing and role in linguistics. I would expect that he has secured a place in that field as one of its leaders anyway and as someone who has had influence there at least.

          My point in quoting Chomsky was to point out how debates are framed and also what questions are being asked. Because our governments all operate in secret and allow us facts only they wish us to have, they also get to frame the debate and neutralize critical faculties for asking tough and embarrassing questions. (It occurred to me that Obama is not framing the debate all that well in terms of Chomsky’s model in “Manufacturing Consent.” That will be quickly rectified, as we’ll soon see I’m sure). I linked to Chomsky’s comment on the risks of nuclear war with Pakistan only to highly how the debate was framed for the death of Osama bin Laden and what questions were NOT asked. Chomsky’ may not have been alone in asking whether Obama’s actions were lawful, moral and just. The government wanted everyone to think: “Obama took out Osama, yay!” Chomsky asks not only: was this lawful, moral and just? but “was this prudent and reasonable in an area of the world where the powers in control of WMD’s, -nuclear weapons- are very volatile and unstable? I think these are good questions and as far as I’m aware, Chomsky was the only person who asked them.

        • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 09/03/2013 - 08:56 am.

          If the obsolescence of Chomsky’s linguistic theories

          (as you allege, I have no way to know) is”irrelevant to his competence as a geopolitical commentator,” then why did you cite that obsolescence as the crux of your dismissal of his contribution as a “geopolitical commentator”? I had considered your extensive recent arguments on the Syria thread seriously, but you undermine yourself with your ad hominem disrespect toward a man who is as humane, principled and indefatigable as they come.

          Chomsky is not a “geopolitical commentator.” He is a geopolitical historian. His method in his decades of work has been simply to assemble primary sources, and to let those sources tell the story of the methods and hypocrisy of power. No one’s sourcing is more rigorous. Those with an agenda to demonize Chomsky have done so on the basis of two instances in which he made arguments of principle without including an (irrelevant) condemnation of the subjects (Khmer Rouge, the Holocaust-denier d’Aubisson), allowing a lazy argument that he did not condemn their evil. To my knowledge, no geopolitical analysis that Chomsky ever has assembled from the factual record has been refuted. Which of course is why he must be demonized, lest ordinary folk chance to hear what he has to say and wake up to realize how their bread is being buttered.

          But you are correct, Mr Brandon: where power and propaganda govern, and facts are “mainly of historical interest,” so is Chomsky.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/03/2013 - 09:41 am.

            Chomsky’s credibility

            rests on his reputation as a linguist.
            Were it not for that no one would be listening to him (the media would not be interested). And he is not an historian; that is another profession. Good historians do not cherry pick their data.
            As I am not a mind reader, I cannot say to what extent Chomsky’s actions are governed by ‘principle’ and to what extent self promotion.
            He first gained notice as a linguist in 1955. At least according to Wikipedia he first gained public attention as a war critic in 1967 (I was present at the first ‘teach-in’ in Ann Arbor in 1963).
            He has certainly been a notable antiwar voice; I would not characterize him as either the first or the foremost. Wikipedia does characterize him as a leading ‘public intellectual’.
            Please direct me to a publication of Chomsky’s statements on Pakistan and Bin Laden so that I can evaluate his selection of sources. The link you provide includes only unsupported assertions.

            Ad Hominem:
            I am not criticizing Chomsky as a person. I believe that he is well intentioned and honorable as he sees the world. I am criticising his actions and statements, as well as the statement that he holds a unique position in either linguistics or political activism.

            BTW: In regard to generative grammar; see ‘The LAD was a Lady’ by Kurt Salzinger (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Volume 62, Issue 2, pages 323–329, September 1994).

            • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/03/2013 - 09:52 pm.

              Publication of Chomky’s statements

              I meant to cite this but I couldn’t recall exactly where I read Chomsky’s statement. It was in a salon article:


              I don’t agree with all of Chomsky’s statements or actions either. In fact, my point in quoting Chomsky in this article was only to allude to the “geopolitical forces” we in the USA often leave out of account. Chomsky points us to those geopolitical forces and asks that we consider that the PR statements of the US are not to be taken at face value for all their good intentions. But I also don’t agree with him that US motives are always amoral or sinister or evil either. I’m willing to be open to the possibility that Obama may have some nonsinister motives that may have the greater interest truly at heart.

              Chomsky’s credibility and stature has certainly been enhanced by the fact he is or was one of the leading linguistic theorists and an MIT professor. But I think that only took him a short way to his international reputation today. He has been a fearless and outspoken critic when many others were silent about things like the East Timor genocide. He has taken unpopular stands in favor of free speech liberties of “Holocaust deniers”, not because he agreed with them but because he believed they had a right to state their views. He is really a person I think more like a Voltaire or Socrates, a public gadfly but one who, if anyone will listen, speaks with authority.

            • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/04/2013 - 06:10 am.

              That Chomsky is a linguist…

              Is almost never quoted in most of articles (except biographical ones) related to Chomsky.

              In other news Fox News did not take seriously anyone who criticized Bush and the “proof” of WMD in the run up to the Iraq War.

  12. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/02/2013 - 04:29 pm.

    The two parties pushing hardest for action in Syria?

    Israel and Saudi Arabia.


    To set the tone for the coming war on Iran. If the US doesn’t do this now, how can Israel and Saudi Arabia count on the US to do the heavy lifting in an attack on Iran.

    Whoever will they hold the coats for?

    If that scenario doesn’t give you pause, Armageddon awaits…

  13. Submitted by jason myron on 09/03/2013 - 09:41 am.


    “shot off his mouth about a “red line”. ..”.Obama opened his big mouth”
    Gotta love the irony of people who write tripe like this, but presumably defended a guy who rushed into Afghanistan, got bored, decided to attack Iraq, told the terrorists to “bring it on” and hung a banner on an aircraft carrier that said “Mission Accomplished” a full 10 years before pulling out of the conflict. Of course, the clincher was Bush hopping out of the plane like he just finished flying the bombing sortie himself……and these same people claim Obama is the one in over his head….priceless.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/03/2013 - 01:24 pm.

      Your presumption is what is really “priceless” here,…

      …and couldn’t possibly be more wrong !!

      RE: “…presumably defended…(Bush)”

      As the author of the “tripe” you refer to, and someone who twice voted for Obama, I can assure you that I found Bush’s ignorance and dissemblance equally appalling.

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