Thinking Carefully about U.S. Power

Another reason to read the NYT: where else will you get a full half-page, above-the-fold analysis citing top scholars on the underlying reasons why Syria is a such a strategic, military and diplomatic conundrum:

It is an urgent problem that has consumed foreign policy discussions for the last few years. But much more is involved than the fate of a single country in the Middle East. Underlying the Syria issue is a set of questions that have animated every major debate over foreign policy for a century: What is America’s role in the world, what are its obligations, and what happens if it falls short of meeting them?
One strain of thought holds that America has a mission to champion democracy and human rights, granting it a unique role in the world, along with special powers and obligations. But that idea has always been controversial, with skeptics arguing it is an alluring myth — and a potentially dangerous notion.
via NYT

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Inside Negotiations for a Bipartisan Immigration Deal

A great article by Alec MacGillis in the NYT Magazine on how the Republicans and Democrats came together after Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama–with a historic window to negotiate an immigration deal. Who were the players. How did the deal come together. And how it fell apart.

Three years ago, the G.O.P.-led Housewas close to reaching a compromise on immigration — one that might haveneutralized the issue for the 2016 election.This is the inside story of what went wrong.

Source: How Republicans Lost Their Best Shot at the Hispanic Vote – The New York Times

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Rhetorical Tactics of White House Women

But at the White House, one former staffer explained to the Washington Post, women started using a simple rhetorical technique to stop interruptions and reinforce points made by other women. When a woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it, and give credit to the originator. This made the idea harder to ignore, or to steal. The women called the technique “amplification.”

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it,” one of president Barack Obama’s former aides told the Post. “It was an everyday thing.” She said that Obama noticed and began calling on women more often.
The women, perhaps unconsciously, had noticed two things. First, that repetition is one of the simplest ways of reinforcing any point—which can be seen through history across oratory and poetry. But secondly, that simply hammering a point home by repeating it oneself has limitations, especially in a competitive environment where everyone is clamoring to be heard. Some researchers have hypothesized that women are interrupted more because their conversational style tends to be collaborative, where men tend to be more competitive.


Booklist | Rhetoric in Public Life from the head of NYT/former leader of BBC

The book had me at the sub-title; what’s not to love about a book exploring political rhetoric from the former head of the BBC/current leader of NYT? Even better: the book comes from a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” Oxford. Good stuff.

Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Source: Mark Thompson’s New Book on the Use and Misuse of Rhetoric – The New York Times

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Chas Freeman:  Groupthink Foe or Political Firebrand?

Speaking out can cost you politically. Consider Chas Freeman, a career foreign service officer who served as DCM in Beijing and Bangkok, PDAS for African Affairs,and US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

In 2009 he was nominated as chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama Administration, but the appointment was scuttled due to fierce opposition owing to his views on the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Chas Freeman’s selection … is notable not just for his surprising (and, to some, disturbing) even-handedness about the Middle East. The man is one of a rare breed: He is a Washington insider, and yet he is also a ferociously independent thinker, a super-realist, an iconoclast, a provocateur and a gadfly. He has, as I wrote in a article about him in 2006, spent a goodly part of the last 10 years raising questions that otherwise might never get answered — or even asked — because they’re too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.

For him to be put in charge of what Rozen calls “the intelligence community’s primary big-think shop and the lead body in producing national intelligence estimates” is about the most emphatic statement the Obama Administration could possibly make that it won’t succumb to the kind of submissive intelligence-community groupthink that preceded the war in Iraq.

Source: Watchdog Blog Blog Archive » A One-Man Destroyer of Groupthink


Breaking Down the Syrian Ceasefire 

An excellent discussion parsing prospects, dimensions, and implications relating to the Syrian Ceasefire on today’s Diane Rehm Show.

The U.S. – Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria which went into effect at sundown on Monday is said to be, so far, mostly holding. Despite long odds for success Washington and Moscow hope their joint efforts can target the Islamic State and an Al Qaeda terrorist group while allowing for the delivery of humanitarian aid to thousands of increasingly desperate Syrian civilians: Join us for an update on the ongoing brutal conflict in Syria and prospects for this latest ceasefire agreement to hold.


  • Liz Sly bureau chief, Beirut, Washington Post
  • Jason Cone executive director, Doctors Without Borders
  • Philip Gordon senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, former special assistant to the president and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013–15
  • Faysal Itani resident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
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A New Frame for American Power


Facing “a world in disarray”–the term used by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. President has some work to do. On his recent trip to Laos, however, President Obama draws from his rhetorical toolbox to reframing the discourse on U.S. power and foreign policy history. His critics see it as weakness, or worse. But speaking truthfully about American past misdeeds can be a powerful strategy for building influence.

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

According to Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, reported in the NYT:

none of Mr. Obama’s comments constitute apology. … Rather, these speeches touch on a longstanding domestic political divide over the nature of American power.

“It gets back to this issue of national identity,” she said. Some Americans, including Mr. Obama, emphasize democratic ideals of humility and self-critique. Others believe American power is rooted in unity, celebration of positive deeds and shows of strength.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” Mr. Obama said in March in Argentina, referring to a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.”

Source: Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power – The New York Times

This strategy strengthens soft power–even as the Obama Doctrine has relied on hard power significantly.

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Could we Sleepwalk into a Big War?

What does the end of the West’s military superiority mean for great power politics, peace and stability around the world?

When explaining the need to prepare for a major war against a high-end enemy, US and European analysts usually point to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea (9). Western military moves, it is claimed, are an undesired but necessary reaction to provocations by others. But probe more deeply into the thinking of senior leaders and a different picture emerges. Running throughout this discussion is a pervasive anxiety that the world has changed in significant ways, and that the strategic advantages once possessed by the West are slipping away as other powers gain increased military and geopolitical leverage. In this new era — ‘a time of renewed great power competition’ as Carter put it — the US’s military might no longer appears as formidable as it once did, while the m

Source: Sleepwalking into a big war, by Michael T Klare (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2016)


‘Gaps of Trust’ With Russia Bar a Syrian Truce, Obama Says 

Have you ever participated in a “trust fall” exercise? If so, you get the point–trusting your partners is important. It appears that trust doesn’t really exist much between the US and Russia–and that has big implications for the ongoing Syrian civil war.

“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work,” Mr. Obama declared at a news conference at the end of a Group of 20 summit meeting in Hangzhou, China.He did not describe the points of contention. Other officials have said they involve technical issues like how to staff checkpoints in combat areas. But the checkered history of Syrian cease-fires — the United States agreed to one with Russia in February, only to watch it unravel weeks later — has left the president deeply leery.

Source: ‘Gaps of Trust’ With Russia Bar a Syrian Truce, Obama Says – The New York Times


The Kurds: Against Iraq and a Hard Place

The history of the Kurdish people can make for some sobering reading. Even so, their success on the battlefield against ISIL has raised their hopes for autonomy–and also the pressure brought against them by their adversaries.

If nothing else, the American military support, even without any promises on the political front, has legitimized the Syrian Kurds’ ambitions. It has helped them to secure a large section of territory they say they will never give up, no matter what their patrons do.“Throughout history, the Kurds were abandoned,” said Ahmad Haj Mansour, a Democratic Union Party official who lives in Britain. “But now, the time and place is different. We don’t need world powers to survive. We are in charge of our land, and we have fighters.”

Source: Kurds Fear the U.S. Will Again Betray Them, in Syria – The New York Times