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Michael Barone - Obama's 'red line' undermines U.S. power

Blunder after blunder. That's been the story of President Barack Obama's policy toward Syria.

In April 2011, Obama said dictator Bashir al-Assad "had to go." But he did little or nothing to speed him on his way.

At an Aug. 20, 2012, press conference, in campaign season, he was asked about Syria's chemical weapons and said "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."

On Aug. 21, 2013, a year and a day afterwards, chemical weapons were used in large quantities in the Damascus suburbs a 20-minute drive from United Nations inspectors.

Last week, all signs — strong statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, leaks of detailed military plans — indicated that Obama would soon order what he described as "a shot across the bow."

But on Saturday, Aug. 31, he announced that he would ask Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force — even though he believed he had authority to do it unilaterally. That means delay until Congress assembles Sept. 9 — time for Assad to put his military assets out of harm's way.

There are strong arguments for voting against a resolution, the exact wording of which is not established at this writing.

Obama's "limited, tailored" approach seems certain not to destroy Assad's chemical weapons and may well not deter him from using them. And we have the president's word that he is not seeking "regime change."

In the unlikely event that air strikes do undermine the Assad regime, we have no assurance that an alternative would be preferable. Al-Qaida sympathizers may gain the upper hand.

At the same time, there are strong arguments against a vote countering a resolution. Undermining the power of even a feckless American president risks undermining the power of the presidency — and of America — for years.

Crossing a president's "red line," however improvidently drawn, should carry consequences, however limited.

Many in Congress, and not just Republicans, surely resent being called upon to authorize an action that public opinion polls indicate is widely unpopular, particularly among the Independent voters who can determine election outcomes in many states and congressional districts.

If a vote were taken this week, the resolution would be rejected — just as a similar resolution was, unexpectedly, rejected in the British House of Commons Aug. 29.
Some Democrats want the resolution to strictly limit the president, while Republicans like Sen. John McCain want a broader permit that would allow for regime change.

Presidents usually prevail on issues like this, where they can argue that national security is at stake, and the administration can probably round up enough votes in the Democratic-majority Senate.

That will be much harder in the Republican-majority House. Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have both endorsed a resolution.

But Boehner and Democrat Chris Van Hollen have both called this a conscience vote and said their parties will not whip the issue. The White House will have to do the hard work of rounding up the votes.

At midweek The Washington Post listed only 17 House members favoring military action and 130 opposed or leaning against.

Most House Democrats voted against the Iraq War resolution in October 2002, when most voters favored it. Their party has dovish instincts going back to the Vietnam War and has been largely ignored by the administration since it lost its House majority in 2010.

House Republicans, the object of Obama's continued denunciations and disdain, are not inclined to trust him at all. Many surely believe they're being set up as fall guys for a president whose chief political goal is regaining the House majority for Democrats in 2014.

That suspicion was surely enhanced in Sweden on Wednesday when Obama said, "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

But the world is not clamoring to enforce it. The only nation contemplating joining the United States in military action is France. That's 38 fewer allies than joined the United States after the supposed unilateralist George W. Bush, with congressional authorization, ordered troops into Iraq.

Former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has argued that Obama's foreign policy is designed to restrain and reduce America's power in the world. The twists and turns of his policy toward Syria certainly seem to be having that effect.

(Syndicated columnist Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.)

Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 07:36

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Susan Estrich - From a line in the sand to a debate in Congress

I was just fine with the line in the sand. In a civilized world, there must be some line. If not chemical weapons, where?

So when the president stood up and said we will not tolerate such brutality, I was thinking about the young Americans who would deliver that message halfway around the world and was feeling proud to be a citizen of a country that stands for something. No, we shouldn't be in the regime-change business. No, we can't stop civil wars everywhere. But no leader should think he can use chemical weapons against his own people with impunity.

Unless Congress thinks differently, of course.

Within a 24-hour period, the administration went from announcing military action as a matter of principle (in far more detail than we needed to know) to deciding that, actually, the president would wait to see what Congress has to say when it comes back from vacation next week (no rush there).

What happened? Is there some new piece of intelligence that we don't know about but would perfectly explain what otherwise appears to be a fairly classic demonstration of political weakness?

I hope so. Otherwise, the administration's actions are pretty much impossible to defend.

This is not, I should add, a matter of constitutional law.

As commander in chief, the president could have ordered the sort of limited strike the administration has been talking about without getting approval from Congress. He didn't need Congress; he needed the public. And when it became clear that he did not have that support, he needed cover, which is when he decided to go to Congress. At least that's how it looks, which is why I would prefer to believe in some new piece of intelligence, even though logic tells me that if there were new intelligence, the way things have been leaking here, that would have been leaked, too, if for no other reason than that it would make the administration look less weak for changing course.

So what happens next?

The president is meeting with congressional leaders to try to line up support for the line in the sand. Members of Congress, many of whom would prefer not to have to cast an unpopular vote (and it will be an unpopular vote for many, because the district is dominated either by liberals who oppose the use of force or by conservatives who are angry that the president delayed action), are now being forced by the president's odd dance to do just that. But if it's not an easy vote for some members of Congress, the danger is even greater for the president.
He could narrowly "win" with the help of Republicans, which doesn't help Democrats heading into the midterms, or he could "lose" because his own party doesn't support him, which doesn't help Democrats, either. He is liable to be blamed for whatever goes wrong, and something certainly will, whether we act or not.

Is there another alternative? Could this be a magic "turning point" in American politics, where the gladiators put aside their weapons and come together to debate whether there is any room left in real politics for lines in the sand, for matters of values, for taking a stand for its own sake, even if it will not end the war or lead to the fall of an evil ruler? Could this be an occasion to put partisanship aside to try to grapple with a fundamental and difficult question, respecting each other in the process because there are no easy answers?

Don't bet on it.

(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 December 1969 07:00

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Bob Meade - Actuarially speaking

How many readers would like to buy their auto, home, health, or life insurance from a company that does not make a profit? Probably not many. What if that unprofitable company offered better rates than anyone else? While some might be tempted to accept the lower rate offer, good judgment would probably lead most people to purchase their policy from a more stable, and profitable, company.

The first rule of insurability is that the insured's risk cannot cause loss to the multitude simultaneously. By pooling large numbers of people across a broad base into insurable risk categories, no one, or many, individual losses can cause loss "to the multitude, simultaneously". It's the work of the insurance company actuaries to determine the odds on how many of the insured in their pool will suffer loss at any given time.

The reason for mentioning actuaries, and their importance, is to highlight how those actuarial functions change, or cease to exist, in the Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare". Some examples.

— Under Obamacare, no one can be denied insurance based on a pre-existing condition. Without question, no one wants to deny insurance to someone who needs it. However, without question, the increased cost to the insurance companies will result in increasing the premium cost to other, more healthy people.

Another issue is, what if a young healthy person decides to pay the "fine" rather than purchase insurance? Later, that individual becomes seriously ill and requires very costly surgery or other medical care. It appears that under Obamacare, that person cannot be denied coverage on demand. If that's the case, the insurance companies will have to include that potential into their actuarial calculations, thereby forcing those who do comply with the law to essentially pay for those who don't.

— The president has told us that under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies must pay out in benefits, a minimum of 80 percent of what monies are collected in premiums. This presidential edict that insurance company overhead cannot exceed 20 percent of the premiums collected sounds good, but is it really? Years ago I took some insurance courses. One of the things I learned was that (at that time) 65 percent of the first year's premium went to underwriting, policy issuance, claim processing, and sales commissions, etc. While there may be some difference in today's numbers, the only way the insurance companies can comply with the edict is to have a relatively low turnover in policy holders. If a business seeking health insurance for their employees has a high personnel turnover rate, an insurance company simply cannot provide insurance without substantially increasing premium costs. It is for this reason that MacDonald's was given a presidential waiver, early on.

— Another much talked about issue is to be able to buy insurance "across state lines". This "sounds good" solution is a nightmare and kills off any semblance of actuarial input. Under Obamacare, no mention is made of "tort reform". However, without such reform the rising costs of malpractice insurance will continue to grow. For example, a number of OB-GYN physicians have decided to retire because, depending on the state and location, the cost of malpractice insurance is excessively high.

For example, (using 2009 numbers) internal medicine physicians in Minnesota would pay about $4,000 a year for malpractice insurance but in Florida, their cost would be $56,000. For general surgeons in Minnesota, malpractice insurance would be in the $10,000 range, but in Florida, $90,000. One of the most costly coverage is for OB-GYNs. In Minnesota they paid about $17,000, while in Florida, the annual premiums were upwards of $200,000. Of course the physicians have no choice but to set their prices to their patients to cover these costs.

In these examples, if Florida's doctor's (or Florida's citizens) rushed to buy their insurance across state lines in Minnesota, actuarially, Minnesota's insurers would have to raise their premium rates to reflect the Florida realities, which would thereby increase the rates paid by the Minnesota (and other state's) physicians. Of course these increases would be imposed on the patients in those other states.

— This leads to the need for "tort reform", which been totally ignored. Litigation costs are a healthy part of medical expenses. The examples cited above are not fairy tales, they are reality. While the federal government has ignored the litigation problems, the State of Pennsylvania enacted some fairly simple tort reform laws that have caused malpractice lawsuits to drop over 40 percent yearly. These two measures weren't draconian, they were common sense. The first rule change was that attorneys had to obtain a certificate of merit showing that medical procedures in a case didn't meet accepted standards before they could file their case. The second was that they could only file the lawsuit in the county in which the alleged malpractice took place; ergo, no "venue shopping". Can you imagine the impact on malpractice insurance costs if those two simple rule changes were made across all the states?

The choice becomes, do we let insurance companies continue to make actuarially sound judgments, or do we let the government simply raise taxes to cover their naively poor judgments?

(Bob Meade is a Laconia resident.)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 December 1969 07:00

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Diana Lacey - Laboring for less

Do you have a funny feeling that your paycheck isn't stretching as far these days? If you do, you're not alone.

Labor Day is an occasion for celebrating working people in this country. But sadly, N.H.'s workers are working harder, are more productive and yet aren't making a dime more. In fact, we're all making less. According to a just-released report from Sentier Research, the U.S. median household income is down more than 4 percent since the recession ended. Add that to what we lost during the recession itself, and we're all making 6.1 percent less than we were in 2007.

Especially hard-hit are families in which someone has been unemployed, in part because when they get back to work they're not making as much. One study indicates that jobs in categories that tend to pay low wages account for about six in ten of the new jobs added during the economic recovery. Five of the six fastest-growing jobs are in classifications that pay lower-than-average wages.

There is a special group of workers doing better than they were in 2007 though. CEOs got a 16 percent raise last year alone, according to the consulting firm Equilar. And earlier this week, it was announced that the nation's five biggest banks are on track to pay out at least $23 billion in bonuses this year (perhaps million-dollar paychecks don't go as far as they used to either). Big business is booming again and reporting record profits, but the gap between them and us is larger than ever because prosperity is not being shared broadly — it's intentionally being funneled to the top.

It doesn't have to be this way.

This Labor Day we should ask ourselves why we labor in the first place. For millions of Americans, we don't go to work every day as a labor of love — we go to earn a decent living, feed our families, build and keep a home, save for retirement, contribute to our communities and so much more. We labor for more, not less. No matter who you are, where you're from or what job you do, in this country everyone who works hard should be able to have a decent life. But it is going to take a lot of work — labor of love kind of work — to turn the current situation around. Workers of all stripes will need to raise their collective voices and demand that they share in the prosperity they create through their labor in this country. In the past few years, adjunct professors at the Community College System of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University did just that. They are now standing up and using their voices to bring home more to their families, not less. Their efforts will benefit their communities and the students they teach will learn that they too will need to take action for more, not less.

Why? Because those who possess the wealth and power are, for the most part, unwilling to change its distribution. Their control over the nation's economy has put the American middle class well on its way to extinction. The labor workers contributed generations before us to create the middle class can be taken for granted no longer by the majority of workers in this country. It is beyond time for workers to join forces and have their voices heard on the job, in neighborhoods and at the voting polls. Through working collectively, we can and must create a nation in which everyone can fully participate.

So this Labor Day, I hope you will take on a new labor of love. Making a personal commitment to end this labor for less economy is a good place to start. If you need help in learning more about the next steps to take, call a union member you know or call us.

(Belmont resident Diana Lacey is president of the State Employees' Association of NH/SEIU Local 1984.)

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 September 2013 08:44

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Susan Estrich - Chemical weapons

There have to be lines.

We are not in the business of regime change. We cannot be the world's police. There are civil wars we won't stop, abusive leaders we won't depose, corrupt governments we will decline to see as such.

But there have to be some things that even the worst and most abusive leaders cannot do with impunity, and using chemical weapons against their own people has to be one of them.

It's obviously not about numbers, because there are other ways and other means, and dead is dead, and sadly, innocent civilians are frequent targets in the many wars in the world that we don't and can't stop.

The irony of the current situation is that it is the military — and especially Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey — that has been very reluctant, hesitant and downright against American military involvement in Syria. Indeed, Sen. John McCain went so far (too far) as to suggest that Dempsey and the president are at fault for signaling to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he could get away with this.

I don't think any such signal was given.

If others do, that is all the more reason why the line must be drawn.

Why are there certain weapons that must not be used? It is like the child's question at Passover. There are many detailed answers out there right now, but the shortest one is because a civilized world must mean something. Human life must have value.

And responsibility means something.

It is August in California, the last week before school starts. Who wants to think about this?

What has always astonished me about the newspapers from the 1930s is just how much information there is on the front pages about Hitler, tucked right in with the weather and sports.

Assad has the world's attention. He may or may not get away with this — and possibly for reasons having nothing to do with us and about which we can do nothing. We are not, after all, in the regime change business. Drawing lines in the sand is another matter.

Few things are as disturbing to watch as an anti-American demonstration in some city across the globe. And it is clear, you can see and hear, that they hate us — you and me, our families and our faiths, we who try so hard, so many of us, to be generous and tolerant and fair. And this, as my mother would ask, is what we get for it?

The United States will not be more popular with those who hate us if we stand up for what is right. They won't see it that way.

The world won't be safer. Iran is threatening that if we attack they'll attack Israel, and Israelis are trying on gas masks, and by the way, what about Egypt?

Obama almost certainly will be attacked at home from all directions, as he usually is these days, for doing too little and too much, too soon and too late, for trying to find some balance in debates, which increasingly lack any at all.

So what?

I keep thinking about the young American men and women, somewhere in the world, who will be sending out the message loud and clear that there are some lines that cannot be crossed with impunity, some rules that even lawless regimes must follow, and that somebody, somewhere, actually does give a damn.

Godspeed to them.

(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)

Last Updated on Friday, 30 August 2013 10:42

Hits: 918

 
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