Nonfiction: Deep Inside the Obama White House


Obama’s willingness to be honest about the West’s imperial past led conservative critics to accuse him of conducting an “apology tour,” a meretricious dodge. They ignored the other half of his message, which gave it an elegant balance: “Islam has to recognize the contributions that the West has made to articulate certain principles that are universal.”

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All presidents do stupid stuff overseas; the world beyond our ocean borders is too complicated to be fully known. Obama made mistakes of optimism. He assumed the old, autocratic order in the Middle East was about to change; he underestimated the power of tribalism, which provided identity amid amorphous globalism. Rhodes encouraged these delusions — along with the White House advisers Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who professed a somewhat tortured liberal militarism, a faith in humanitarian intervention. The story of how Rhodes progressed from this idealism to a more nuanced vision of “the world as it is” is at the heart of this book.

“I was part of a cohort of younger staffers … who shared a distaste for the corrupt way in which the Middle East was ruled,” Rhodes writes. Obama sided with the idealists early on, especially when protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the first flush of the Arab Spring. “If it were up to him,” Rhodes reports Obama saying, “he’d prefer that the ‘Google guy’ run Egypt, referring to Wael Ghonim … who was helping to lead the protest movement.” Rhodes writes that Obama “didn’t mean it literally. … But his senior staff was in a different place.” Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all counseling caution: Don’t be so quick to oust the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. There was no guarantee that democracy would ensue — and, in fact, democracy led to an electoral victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, which led to a military coup.

The same mistake was made in Libya. The dictator Muammar Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opponents in Benghazi. Susan Rice compared the situation to Rwanda, where Bill Clinton was said to have “allowed” a genocide. Samantha Power passed Rhodes a note stating “this was going to be the first mass atrocity that took place on our watch.” Rhodes agreed. “We’d have to consider,” he advised in his new role as a deputy national security adviser, “what we would say if we choose not to do something.” A good point, especially with the Europeans and the Arab League (very briefly) urging action. But military intervention — and the eventual removal of Qaddafi — led to chaos. The impulse to prevent a massacre was noble, but it was speculative; the chaos was real. And the more general disorder in the region led to revolts and atrocities in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. There were, Rhodes slowly realized, events in the world beyond America’s influence.

By the time Bashar Assad dropped poison gas on his populace, both Obama and Rhodes were having second thoughts. Obama had established the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” and then chose not to respond militarily when Assad crossed it. Rhodes’s description of these deliberations — and most of the other real-time crises — is particularly illuminating, given Donald Trump’s subsequent missile strikes. Obama calculated that any military action that would have an actual impact on Assad’s behavior might lead to a wider war. He may well have been right, but he seemed weak at the time. Trump, by contrast, seemed strong, but the effect of his strikes appears to have been negligible. In a remarkable moment, in the midst of the deliberations over what to do about Syria, Obama completes his transition to realism by telling Rhodes: “Maybe we would never have done Rwanda. … You can’t stop people from killing each other like that.” This is the reality of “The World as It Is.” Sometimes there are no good choices.

Setting Tone for Post-Presidency, Obama Will Speak in South Africa on Tolerance


The choice of Mandela and South Africa are freighted with symbolism for Mr. Obama at a time when his political legacy is being dismantled by his successor, President Trump, who crudely disparaged African countries and complained about laws that would protect immigrants from those places.

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Mr. Obama speaking at the University of Cape Town in 2013. Mr. Obama is inaugurating his most significant international project as an ex-president, with an announcement that the Obama Foundation plans to convene 200 young people in July in Johannesburg for five days of meetings, workshops and technical training.

Credit
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

“It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former speechwriter for Mr. Obama who still advises him.

“Mandela,” he added, “endured far darker times than anything we’re enduring today.”

Mr. Obama does not plan to take on Mr. Trump directly, in keeping with his practice of not publicly criticizing his successor. But Mr. Rhodes said he would not shrink from confronting the divisive issues raised by the Trump presidency.

“There’s an enhanced sense of tribalism in the world,” he said. “Our unifying theory is that the best way to promote inclusive and democratic societies is by empowering young people in civil society.”

Mr. Obama, he said, views this as the most important speech he has given since leaving the White House, one that will set the tone for his post-presidency. Mandela was a beacon to Mr. Obama, inspiring what he once said was his first “act of political activism” — a speech he gave as a student at Occidental College for the anti-apartheid movement.

He labored over his eulogy to Mandela, rewriting Mr. Rhodes’s draft from top to bottom in longhand — something he had done only once before, with his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Rhodes said he expected the former president, with more time on his hands now, to write this speech himself.

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, remained in Washington after he left office, so their younger daughter, Sasha, could finish school. But they have kept a low profile in the capital. Much of Mr. Obama’s time is spent working on his presidential memoir. He has largely steered clear of domestic politics, though aides said they expected him to return to the campaign trail as the midterm elections draw closer.

Overseas, however, Mr. Obama has cut a wider swath. He has visited 16 countries for speeches or meetings, drawing crowds and V.I.P. treatment everywhere he goes. In Beijing, Mr. Xi invited him to a private dinner to sound him out about political developments in the United States.

Photo

Mr. Obama during a welcoming ceremony in Auckland, New Zealand, last month. He has largely steered clear of domestic politics since leaving the White House, but has cut a wider swath overseas, visiting 16 countries for speeches or meetings.

Credit
Simon Watts/Dept of Internal Affairs, via Associated Press

The Obama Foundation’s emphasis on developing young people, Mr. Rhodes said, is consciously different than the focus of other foundations, like those of Bill Clinton or Bill and Melinda Gates, which tend to concentrate on solving specific problems. He said it drew on Mr. Obama’s roots as a community organizer in Chicago.

“When I was in my last year in office, part of what I asked myself is, ‘What would be the most important contribution I could make?’” Mr. Obama said during a recent round table with young people in Singapore. “What I really felt most strongly about was, ‘How do we develop the next generation of leaders?’”

The Obama Foundation’s Africa program is a yearlong initiative that aims to train people for roles in government, civil society and the private sector. The 200 participants were chosen from an applicant pool of nearly 10,000, said Bernadette Meehan, a former diplomat who oversees the program as chief international officer of the foundation.

Mr. Obama plans to recruit veterans of his administration and big-name friends to speak to the young people in Johannesburg. He will hold a town-hall-style meeting with them at the end, something he made a practice of doing during his trips as president.

For his former aides and supporters, looking back on those sessions can be bittersweet. During a visit to Laos in September 2016, Mr. Obama used one of these meetings, part of a program called the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was intended to include the United States and other Pacific Rim countries.

A young Vietnamese man asked him about the failure of Congress to ratify the pact, and whether the prospects for the agreement would be better or worse under a new president.

“I believe it will be ratified because it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Obama replied. “We’re in a political season now, and it’s always difficult to get things done. Congress isn’t doing much right now; they’re all going home and talking to constituents, trying to get re-elected. After the election, people can refocus attention on why this is so important.”

As it turned out, of course, Mr. Trump was elected, and he pulled the United States out of the trade agreement in his first week in office.

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Diplomatic Riddle Solved: Neither Trumps nor Obamas to Attend Royal Wedding


The question of the Obamas versus the Trumps was always a difficult one. It was widely believed that the Obamas had the inside track, after Prince Harry and Mr. Obama forged a friendship while attending the Invictus Games in Toronto last year.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, speaking with Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia at Buckingham Palace after her wedding to Britain’s Prince William at Westminster Abbey in London on April, 29, 2011.

Credit
Pool photo by Ian West

During the event, Prince Harry interviewed the former president for BBC Radio 4’s flagship program, “Today,” in Mr. Obama’s first international interview after leaving office.

Yet, British newspapers reported in December that the royal couple was under great diplomatic pressure to invite President Trump and the first lady, despite Ms. Markle being a vocal critic of Mr. Trump. Downing Street is eager to maintain good relations with the White House, with an eye to negotiating a bilateral trade agreement as quickly as possible after Britain leaves the European Union.

A Palace source, speaking on the condition of anonymity following protocol, said Prince Harry and Ms. Markle hoped to see the Obamas soon, but confirmed that they would not be attending the wedding.

The Palace source said that 600 guests would be invited to the wedding ceremony, based on the size of St. George’s Chapel, and said that it is not necessary for the royal couple to invite world leaders and politicians to their wedding because Prince Harry is not a direct heir to the throne.

He is fifth in line after his father, Prince Charles, his brother, Prince William, and his brother’s children.

Some world leaders may still be invited to the wedding based on their personal relationship with the royal couple and not in their official capacity, the Palace source added.

Prince Harry and Ms. Markle have also invited 1,200 members of the public to Windsor Castle to celebrate their marriage. On Monday they asked people to donate to charities instead of sending them wedding gifts.

“The couple have chosen charities which represent a range of issues that they are passionate about, including sport for social change, women’s empowerment, conservation, the environment, homelessness, HIV and the Armed Forces,” Kensington Palace said in a statement.

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The Interpreter: America’s Three Bad Options in Syria


“The utter irrelevance of Trump’s one-off bombing of a Syrian airfield hasn’t made the slightest dent in the myth that Obama bombing Syria in 2013 would have changed everything, has it,” Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor of Middle East studies, wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, pressure is mounting for another set of such strikes, and it looks as if Mr. Trump may again carry them out.

What Americans may be confronting — whether they want to or not — is the reality that some problems can’t be fixed by the sort of low-cost, low-risk solutions to which they grew accustomed in the brief moment of American global hegemony after the Cold War. It feels impossible that something could be beyond easy American resolution, so the problem must be that the president lacks proper will or resolve to see that resolution through.

“For those who want a military response, the question is simple: can you tell me any practical response short of full-fledged invasion that could prevent this?” Emma Ashford, a Cato Institute analyst, asked on Twitter, referring to further chemical attacks.

To understand this, it helps to divide possible American responses into three categories, each of which comes up against hard problems that are structural to the Syrian war.

Photo

A Tomahawk missile being launched toward a Syrian airfield in April last year from the American guided-missile destroyer Porter.

Credit
Ford Williams/U.S. Navy

Option category #1 could be termed the sort of limited, punitive strikes that Mr. Obama was pressured to execute and that Mr. Trump saw through last year.

Such action is meant to impose a modest cost on Mr. Assad or to send a message that future chemical weapons use will not be tolerated. At the same time, it is meant to avoid any risk of changing the course of the war, which could lead in unanticipated directions — like embroiling the United States in a larger conflict, or collapsing the Syrian government, which could, in turn, spread chaos that would risk millions of lives.

But past efforts at these kind of strikes have failed for two reasons. First, they do not change Mr. Assad’s calculus because, to Mr. Assad, this war is a matter of personal and national survival. If he believes chemical weapons are necessary to his survival, he will abandon them only in the face of some threat to his survival greater than the benefit he thinks they offer him. That requires an existential threat, which the United States is unwilling to impose because of the risks.

Second, Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies can easily help him absorb the costs imposed by such strikes. If the United States bombs another Syrian runway, Russian contractors can simply pave Mr. Assad a new one. It’s not exactly a game-changer for him.

Fuzzier arguments for limited strikes — that they will communicate American resolve and toughness — play well in domestic politics, but there is little concrete evidence that such messages make much difference to adversaries.

Option category #2 might describe the policies that Mr. Obama favored: actions that make the war costlier for Mr. Assad — arming anti-government rebels, for instance — so as to pressure the Syrian leader into complying with American demands.

Mr. Obama supplied rebels with anti-tank TOW missiles, which they used to great effect, pushing back government forces with the weapons they called “Assad tamers.”

The problem with this strategy is that Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies are able to escalate in turn, matching and exceeding any American bid. The Americans send guns; the Iranians send a combat brigade. The Americans send missiles; the Russians install an artillery unit. Russia and Iran can simply do more, giving them control over what military planners call “the escalation ladder.”

Some analysts argue that the “Assad tamers” were so successful that they prompted Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. In that sense, Mr. Obama’s approach not only failed, it backfired terribly. The result was a bloodier war with more Syrian suffering but little change in Mr. Assad’s calculus. Further such escalations would risk the same.

Option category #3 would be attacks that go beyond what the Russians and Iranians can match, which is likely to mean either a full intervention or strikes that existentially threaten the Syrian government.

These strikes would only be enough to work if they deliberately create one of two risks that the United States has strained to avoid. The first risk is that of collapsing the Syrian government, which would exacerbate Syrian suffering by throwing millions more lives into chaos and most likely prolong the war. The second risk is of a direct military confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed power with the ability to escalate hostilities rapidly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, putting millions of non-Syrians at risk.

“Bottom line: Assad’s actions are abhorrent, but there is no practical military option here unless you are willing to effectively collapse the Syrian state and re-escalate the civil war,” Ms. Ashford wrote.

Mr. Trump, she predicted, would launch another set of punitive strikes that would “change nothing” but win domestic approval.

But why does such support still exist for a policy that has already demonstrably failed?

Research by Sarah Kreps and Sarah Maxey, political scientists at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, found that Americans feel a moral obligation to help humanitarian victims — and to provide that help in the form of military action. This can lead Americans to support seemingly incongruous policies like saving war refugees by dropping bombs.

But it’s not just voters. Within Washington, an odd revisionism has arisen around Mr. Trump’s previous set of strikes, meant to explain why they produced little tangible benefit. They only appeared to fail because the United States, it is said, did not properly capitalize on the “leverage” the strikes had provided.

There is an alternate hypothesis: The reason that limited strikes rarely seem to translate into “leverage” is because they do not produce “leverage,” a fuzzy term with no fixed meaning.

This is where we think this debate starts to reveal more about the United States, and particularly Washington’s foreign policy community, than about the Syrian war.

The cult of “limited strikes” is so powerful in Washington that, even when they do occur, it’s said they were never properly capitalized on. There is always the shimmering hope, just over the next hill, that bombing a runway will make all of Washington’s dreams come true.

It sometimes seems as if the United States will be bombing empty runways until the end of time, dead certain that it’s a way to get everything Americans want at no real cost or risk, and that all the past failures only prove that the next time it’ll work for sure.

Continue reading the main story

The Interpreter: America’s Three Bad Options in Syria


“The utter irrelevance of Trump’s one-off bombing of a Syrian airfield hasn’t made the slightest dent in the myth that Obama bombing Syria in 2013 would have changed everything, has it,” Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor of Middle East studies, wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, pressure is mounting for another set of such strikes, and it looks as if Mr. Trump may again carry them out.

What Americans may be confronting — whether they want to or not — is the reality that some problems can’t be fixed by the sort of low-cost, low-risk solutions to which they grew accustomed in the brief moment of American global hegemony after the Cold War. It feels impossible that something could be beyond easy American resolution, so the problem must be that the president lacks proper will or resolve to see that resolution through.

“For those who want a military response, the question is simple: can you tell me any practical response short of full-fledged invasion that could prevent this?” Emma Ashford, a Cato Institute analyst, asked on Twitter, referring to further chemical attacks.

To understand this, it helps to divide possible American responses into three categories, each of which comes up against hard problems that are structural to the Syrian war.

Photo

A Tomahawk missile being launched toward a Syrian airfield in April last year from the American guided-missile destroyer Porter.

Credit
Ford Williams/U.S. Navy

Option category #1 could be termed the sort of limited, punitive strikes that Mr. Obama was pressured to execute and that Mr. Trump saw through last year.

Such action is meant to impose a modest cost on Mr. Assad or to send a message that future chemical weapons use will not be tolerated. At the same time, it is meant to avoid any risk of changing the course of the war, which could lead in unanticipated directions — like embroiling the United States in a larger conflict, or collapsing the Syrian government, which could, in turn, spread chaos that would risk millions of lives.

But past efforts at these kind of strikes have failed for two reasons. First, they do not change Mr. Assad’s calculus because, to Mr. Assad, this war is a matter of personal and national survival. If he believes chemical weapons are necessary to his survival, he will abandon them only in the face of some threat to his survival greater than the benefit he thinks they offer him. That requires an existential threat, which the United States is unwilling to impose because of the risks.

Second, Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies can easily help him absorb the costs imposed by such strikes. If the United States bombs another Syrian runway, Russian contractors can simply pave Mr. Assad a new one. It’s not exactly a game-changer for him.

Fuzzier arguments for limited strikes — that they will communicate American resolve and toughness — play well in domestic politics, but there is little concrete evidence that such messages make much difference to adversaries.

Option category #2 might describe the policies that Mr. Obama favored: actions that make the war costlier for Mr. Assad — arming anti-government rebels, for instance — so as to pressure the Syrian leader into complying with American demands.

Mr. Obama supplied rebels with anti-tank TOW missiles, which they used to great effect, pushing back government forces with the weapons they called “Assad tamers.”

The problem with this strategy is that Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies are able to escalate in turn, matching and exceeding any American bid. The Americans send guns; the Iranians send a combat brigade. The Americans send missiles; the Russians install an artillery unit. Russia and Iran can simply do more, giving them control over what military planners call “the escalation ladder.”

Some analysts argue that the “Assad tamers” were so successful that they prompted Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. In that sense, Mr. Obama’s approach not only failed, it backfired terribly. The result was a bloodier war with more Syrian suffering but little change in Mr. Assad’s calculus. Further such escalations would risk the same.

Option category #3 would be attacks that go beyond what the Russians and Iranians can match, which is likely to mean either a full intervention or strikes that existentially threaten the Syrian government.

These strikes would only be enough to work if they deliberately create one of two risks that the United States has strained to avoid. The first risk is that of collapsing the Syrian government, which would exacerbate Syrian suffering by throwing millions more lives into chaos and most likely prolong the war. The second risk is of a direct military confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed power with the ability to escalate hostilities rapidly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, putting millions of non-Syrians at risk.

“Bottom line: Assad’s actions are abhorrent, but there is no practical military option here unless you are willing to effectively collapse the Syrian state and re-escalate the civil war,” Ms. Ashford wrote.

Mr. Trump, she predicted, would launch another set of punitive strikes that would “change nothing” but win domestic approval.

But why does such support still exist for a policy that has already demonstrably failed?

Research by Sarah Kreps and Sarah Maxey, political scientists at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, found that Americans feel a moral obligation to help humanitarian victims — and to provide that help in the form of military action. This can lead Americans to support seemingly incongruous policies like saving war refugees by dropping bombs.

But it’s not just voters. Within Washington, an odd revisionism has arisen around Mr. Trump’s previous set of strikes, meant to explain why they produced little tangible benefit. They only appeared to fail because the United States, it is said, did not properly capitalize on the “leverage” the strikes had provided.

There is an alternate hypothesis: The reason that limited strikes rarely seem to translate into “leverage” is because they do not produce “leverage,” a fuzzy term with no fixed meaning.

This is where we think this debate starts to reveal more about the United States, and particularly Washington’s foreign policy community, than about the Syrian war.

The cult of “limited strikes” is so powerful in Washington that, even when they do occur, it’s said they were never properly capitalized on. There is always the shimmering hope, just over the next hill, that bombing a runway will make all of Washington’s dreams come true.

It sometimes seems as if the United States will be bombing empty runways until the end of time, dead certain that it’s a way to get everything Americans want at no real cost or risk, and that all the past failures only prove that the next time it’ll work for sure.

Continue reading the main story

The Interpreter: America’s Three Bad Options in Syria


“The utter irrelevance of Trump’s one-off bombing of a Syrian airfield hasn’t made the slightest dent in the myth that Obama bombing Syria in 2013 would have changed everything, has it,” Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor of Middle East studies, wrote on Twitter.

Indeed, pressure is mounting for another set of such strikes, and it looks as if Mr. Trump may again carry them out.

What Americans may be confronting — whether they want to or not — is the reality that some problems can’t be fixed by the sort of low-cost, low-risk solutions to which they grew accustomed in the brief moment of American global hegemony after the Cold War. It feels impossible that something could be beyond easy American resolution, so the problem must be that the president lacks proper will or resolve to see that resolution through.

“For those who want a military response, the question is simple: can you tell me any practical response short of full-fledged invasion that could prevent this?” Emma Ashford, a Cato Institute analyst, asked on Twitter, referring to further chemical attacks.

To understand this, it helps to divide possible American responses into three categories, each of which comes up against hard problems that are structural to the Syrian war.

Photo

A Tomahawk missile being launched toward a Syrian airfield in April last year from the American guided-missile destroyer Porter.

Credit
Ford Williams/U.S. Navy

Option category #1 could be termed the sort of limited, punitive strikes that Mr. Obama was pressured to execute and that Mr. Trump saw through last year.

Such action is meant to impose a modest cost on Mr. Assad or to send a message that future chemical weapons use will not be tolerated. At the same time, it is meant to avoid any risk of changing the course of the war, which could lead in unanticipated directions — like embroiling the United States in a larger conflict, or collapsing the Syrian government, which could, in turn, spread chaos that would risk millions of lives.

But past efforts at these kind of strikes have failed for two reasons. First, they do not change Mr. Assad’s calculus because, to Mr. Assad, this war is a matter of personal and national survival. If he believes chemical weapons are necessary to his survival, he will abandon them only in the face of some threat to his survival greater than the benefit he thinks they offer him. That requires an existential threat, which the United States is unwilling to impose because of the risks.

Second, Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies can easily help him absorb the costs imposed by such strikes. If the United States bombs another Syrian runway, Russian contractors can simply pave Mr. Assad a new one. It’s not exactly a game-changer for him.

Fuzzier arguments for limited strikes — that they will communicate American resolve and toughness — play well in domestic politics, but there is little concrete evidence that such messages make much difference to adversaries.

Option category #2 might describe the policies that Mr. Obama favored: actions that make the war costlier for Mr. Assad — arming anti-government rebels, for instance — so as to pressure the Syrian leader into complying with American demands.

Mr. Obama supplied rebels with anti-tank TOW missiles, which they used to great effect, pushing back government forces with the weapons they called “Assad tamers.”

The problem with this strategy is that Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies are able to escalate in turn, matching and exceeding any American bid. The Americans send guns; the Iranians send a combat brigade. The Americans send missiles; the Russians install an artillery unit. Russia and Iran can simply do more, giving them control over what military planners call “the escalation ladder.”

Some analysts argue that the “Assad tamers” were so successful that they prompted Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. In that sense, Mr. Obama’s approach not only failed, it backfired terribly. The result was a bloodier war with more Syrian suffering but little change in Mr. Assad’s calculus. Further such escalations would risk the same.

Option category #3 would be attacks that go beyond what the Russians and Iranians can match, which is likely to mean either a full intervention or strikes that existentially threaten the Syrian government.

These strikes would only be enough to work if they deliberately create one of two risks that the United States has strained to avoid. The first risk is that of collapsing the Syrian government, which would exacerbate Syrian suffering by throwing millions more lives into chaos and most likely prolong the war. The second risk is of a direct military confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed power with the ability to escalate hostilities rapidly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, putting millions of non-Syrians at risk.

“Bottom line: Assad’s actions are abhorrent, but there is no practical military option here unless you are willing to effectively collapse the Syrian state and re-escalate the civil war,” Ms. Ashford wrote.

Mr. Trump, she predicted, would launch another set of punitive strikes that would “change nothing” but win domestic approval.

But why does such support still exist for a policy that has already demonstrably failed?

Research by Sarah Kreps and Sarah Maxey, political scientists at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, found that Americans feel a moral obligation to help humanitarian victims — and to provide that help in the form of military action. This can lead Americans to support seemingly incongruous policies like saving war refugees by dropping bombs.

But it’s not just voters. Within Washington, an odd revisionism has arisen around Mr. Trump’s previous set of strikes, meant to explain why they produced little tangible benefit. They only appeared to fail because the United States, it is said, did not properly capitalize on the “leverage” the strikes had provided.

There is an alternate hypothesis: The reason that limited strikes rarely seem to translate into “leverage” is because they do not produce “leverage,” a fuzzy term with no fixed meaning.

This is where we think this debate starts to reveal more about the United States, and particularly Washington’s foreign policy community, than about the Syrian war.

The cult of “limited strikes” is so powerful in Washington that, even when they do occur, it’s said they were never properly capitalized on. There is always the shimmering hope, just over the next hill, that bombing a runway will make all of Washington’s dreams come true.

It sometimes seems as if the United States will be bombing empty runways until the end of time, dead certain that it’s a way to get everything Americans want at no real cost or risk, and that all the past failures only prove that the next time it’ll work for sure.

Continue reading the main story

Bernie Sanders Courts Black Voters Anew. But an Obama Reference Stings.


So the senator from Vermont — a state where the largest city has but one black barbershop — has begun trying to make inroads across the South and beyond and the country with black voters, who are perhaps the most crucial pillar in a multicandidate Democratic primary.

Earlier this year, Mr. Sanders invited Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Washington, telling Mr. Richmond, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, that he wanted to work more closely with the group. He recently convened a meeting in his office with two black economists who have researched issues of racial and class inequality. And later this month he is expected to join the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina-based black pastor who has risen to prominence as a social justice activist, for a joint event at Duke University.

Yet even as he moves to forge new relationships among African-American leaders and Democrats, Mr. Sanders is demonstrating why it may prove difficult for him to command broad support with a bloc of voters who usually do not rally to the more liberal candidates in Democratic primaries.

Appearing with Mr. Lumumba, the Jackson mayor, at the forum on economic justice, Mr. Sanders was asked how he would engage millennial voters and remake the Democratic Party.

He immediately won applause by declaring that the party’s business model had “failed” and then recalled, as he and many Democrats often do, that the party had lost about 1,000 state legislative seats in the last decade.

But Mr. Sanders also said that these setbacks happened on the watch of “a charismatic individual named Barack Obama,” whom Mr. Sanders also called “an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy.”

Photo

The crowd that turned out to see Mr. Sanders on Wednesday night in Mississippi was more racially diverse than that at many of his 2016 campaign rallies.

Credit
Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times

Few in the audience responded adversely, many of them having witnessed firsthand the decline of the state and local party. But the fact that his only mention of Mr. Obama was in reference to Democratic defeats, particularly during an event honoring Dr. King in a heavily black Deep South capital with a painful racial history, struck some critics as tone-deaf and even insensitive.

On Thursday, Mr. Sanders and his top aides responded angrily to the suggestion he had diminished Mr. Obama. The senator tweeted that “some have so degraded our discourse that my recognition of the historical significance of the Obama presidency is attacked.”

The episode was also a reminder of another hurdle in his way: the feud between many Sanders supporters and Democratic leaders and Hillary Clinton loyalists, which has been raging ever since he challenged Mrs. Clinton for the nomination. Mr. Sanders remains very much an insurgent in a party he still has not formally claimed as his own, a fact he made clear in a less remarked-upon part of the same answer: “The establishment,” he said, “doesn’t go quietly into the twilight.”

Mr. Richmond, the Congressional Black Caucus leader, said he did not think Mr. Sanders had slighted Mr. Obama. The mistake Mr. Sanders made, according to Mr. Richmond, was that he did not go the next step and explain why Democrats incurred so many down-ticket defeats during the Obama years.

“The real question is why it happened and it’s no secret: Everybody underestimated the backlash that would come to the first African-American president,” he said.

As Mr. Sanders seeks to gain support from black voters, the Jackson forum was also notable for what the senator did not say to the audience, which skewed young and was almost evenly divided between blacks and whites.

While briefly noting that Dr. King had been a “major political inspiration” for him, Mr. Sanders said nothing about his history as a civil rights activist and his arrest demonstrating against segregation as a college student.

“That’s the No. 1 selling point,” said Teneia Sanders Eichelberger, who plays in a husband-wife band here and supported Mr. Sanders in 2016. “For me and for my grandmother, who’s 82, she loved that about him.”

But unless they already knew about Mr. Sanders’s connection to the movement, hundreds of would-be Democratic primary voters left the gathering none the wiser. (Mrs. Clinton won the 2016 Mississippi Democratic primary with nearly 83 percent of the vote; Mr. Sanders took 16.5 percent.)

Part of Mr. Sanders’s appeal is that he is not a typical, lip-biting politician, ever on the lookout to find a personal connection with any audience. But his relentless focus on the policy dimensions of social justice, which has been the animating cause of his life, can also deprive him of creating bonds that can be essential, especially in building a multiracial coalition.

“Yes, I’m a fairly private person and I don’t like to talk about every aspect of my life,” Mr. Sanders acknowledged in a dressing-room interview after the forum. “I think a lot of politicians do that in a way that is not appropriate.”

Photo

Bernie Sanders memorabilia was on sale outside the forum in Jackson, Miss., where the senator spoke on Wednesday night.

Credit
Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times

Upon hearing the suggestion that recounting his own youthful activism would be compelling to an audience full of younger voters becoming activists in their own right, he all but rolled his eyes.

“Somebody might be interested in what I did 50 years ago, that’s fine,” Mr. Sanders said with an evident lack of enthusiasm. “Or what I did yesterday. But what people have got to start focusing on is not me. It’s how we transform America.”

Mr. Sanders’s reticence can frustrate even his closest supporters.

“If you’re talking to a black audience, you’ve got to say, ‘I was fighting for fair housing in the ’60s,’” said Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a top Sanders surrogate in 2016, noting that he has “an interesting story to tell.”

Several of those at the forum Wednesday night said they liked what they heard. And as is typical for Mr. Sanders, who in 2016 did best among millennials, the younger black attendees were the most enthusiastic.

“To hear his voice and see what he stands for, it’s powerful,” said Cassandra Hogue, 26, who backed Mrs. Clinton two years ago as part of what she called “a legacy thing” for the Clintons but said she would be open to supporting Mr. Sanders in 2020.

Deterrian Jones, 19, made the two-hour-plus drive from the University of Mississippi to Jackson and clutched a handful of buttons he bought from vendors outside, one of which featured Mr. Sanders’s unmistakable visage and logo but with a new slogan: “Hindsight 2020.”

“He talks to millennials, unlike other politicians,” Mr. Jones said.

Yet Mr. Sanders could encounter trouble among black voters if he faces a black Democrat in the primary. “Black voters take special pride in being able to vote for viable African-American candidates,” said former congressman Mike Espy, who plans to run for the Senate.

And while few in attendance at the forum said it so directly, many alluded to Mr. Sanders’s age — he is 76 — and voiced a desire for new blood.

“It’s really time for change,” said Rachael Ighoavodha, 24, a recent Jackson State University graduate sporting a “Black Girl Magic” pin. “It’s time for something new.”

In the interview, Mr. Sanders repeatedly assailed what he called the media’s excessive focus on personality over substance. But when confronted with questions about his age, he replied with good-natured humor on a process question.

”What did you say?” he said, feigning hearing loss and gripping a reporter by the shoulder. “Get me my cane.” Yes, age is a fair question, he said. “But health is a factor,” Mr. Sanders quickly added, before turning to an aide and asking how many times the senator had missed work because he was ill.

The staffer could not recall a single instance.

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