Shadow Government

Why Is Obama at the G-20?

In dark times, as storm clouds gather over Syria and nations align themselves on either side of the conflict (or fall by the wayside), global leaders have gathered in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to discuss ... the global taxation of multinational corporations? The deleterious effects of the potential tapering of the U.S. Federal Reserve's quantitative easing policy?

This seems a bit absurd. Far be it from me to decry a good conversation about the global economy, but the microeconomic concept of opportunity cost comes into play here. Is this a good use of President Obama's time?

Consider some of the reasons one might support attendance:

1. A consequential agenda. Issues such as international taxation, monetary coordination, and global growth are important. They are discussed at academic conferences all the time. The question is whether much more will be achieved by having world leaders around the table. I addressed the question of the G-20's ineffectual efforts on growth not long ago.

On monetary coordination, developing nations such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa are rightly concerned about their plunging currencies, as money rushes out of emerging markets and back toward the developed world. It would aid them in their efforts if the major developed-world central banks were to loosen their monetary policy (cut rates, postpone tapering). But they won't. The major central banks appear singularly focused on their domestic mandates. In the United States, given the independence of the Federal Reserve, there's not even much Barack Obama could do about tapering, even if he were so inclined, at least until he appoints Chairman Ben Bernanke's successor.

Nor does global tax coordination seem much more promising. In the United States, talk of tax reform has foundered on questions of what will happen with the revenue. It also waits far back in line, behind a full agenda before the U.S. Congress. The marginal impact of a G-20 communiqué on the debate is likely to be near zero. The economic agenda does not seem to demand the president's presence.

2. Respect for multilateral institutions. Until the last couple of weeks, this would have seemed a serious argument. In the context of Syria's use of chemical weapons, however, the administration has taken a decidedly pragmatic, rather than dutiful, approach to the United Nations. If Russia is sure to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Syria, why even bother? That makes a certain degree of sense, but why should such pragmatism not extend to the G-20? What will it really accomplish along these lines? In each case, if there is no cost to observing diplomatic niceties, then we should clearly do so. But what if the cost is high?

3. Basic manners. Given that the Russians were so nice as to invite us, it would be rude to decline at the last minute.

Just kidding.

4. It's all about Syria anyway. Even though the G-20 agenda may nominally be filled with economic topics, the gathering still provides an opportunity to coordinate with other leaders on the Middle East.

The problem with this argument is that there seems little room for further progress along these lines. Obama will not be holding bilateral discussions with either British Prime Minister David Cameron or Russian President Vladimir Putin. The French were already aligned. China warned that a strike against Syria would harm the global economy -- unhelpful to the U.S. president's cause, but at least bringing the discussion back to the nominal purpose of the gathering.

At best, Obama may leave the G-20 unscathed on the topic of Syria. At worst, he could be bruised by one of Putin's throws.

So what is the opportunity cost of the president's G-20 attendance? He is not home, persuading a skeptical public to back his plans for Syria. Shadow Government's Peter Feaver has repeatedly stressed the importance of civilian leaders building public support for a war effort. In a recent Pew poll, public opinion ran strongly against Syrian airstrikes, with 48 percent opposed and 29 percent in support (with 23 percent uncertain). The strongest opposition came from Democrats and independents, with Republicans less opposed.

For all the abuse it takes, Congress is usually responsive to the constituents its members represent. Early vote tallies signal problems in the House. The House leadership has offered the president support, but a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner stated: "All votes authorizing the use of military force are conscience votes for members, and passage will require direct, continuous engagement from the White House."

The impending congressional vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria has enormous implications for both U.S. standing in the world and the remainder of this president's term. While Vice President Joe Biden and other aides can lobby lawmakers this week, it will be a difficult sell in the face of deep public skepticism. Obama is uniquely positioned to win over the public through persistent, reasoned argument. Except he's in Russia.

Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

In Support of Congressional Authorization on Syria

Barack Obama's campaign team is out in full force doing what the U.S. president himself is giving only passing attention to: building the case for a limited military strike on targets only symbolically related to chemical weapons and calibrated to have no effect on the brutal civil war grinding on and producing ever more radical rebels who are consolidating power in swaths of Syria.

In yet one more example that the Chicago School is better at campaigning than governing, David Axelrod bragged that the president had forced Congress to take responsibility for Syria. He further taunted Congress -- before the vote! -- as not knowing what to do. The president and his team assert he may attack Syria even if Congress withholds the authorization he has requested. How this builds support, either across the aisle or in Democratic ranks, where for many liberals this will be a difficult vote for principled reasons, is a mystery. But it is consistent with the administration's inability to resist basketball court swagger -- as is hinting that winning congressional authorization on military action will be parlayed into an ownership of Republican votes on raising the debt ceiling and other urgent issues on which the president has been unable to build a coalition and unwilling much to try. Surely a White House that will be decimated both domestically and internationally should the vote fail ought to be instead cajoling, horse trading, and praising to garner votes?

A "full-court press" by the White House evidently consists of major policy statements delivered over the Labor Day weekend, selective declassification of intelligence with assurances that this cabinet would never shade intelligence, ringing speeches by the secretary of state (and John Kerry was resplendent), allowing members of Congress to remain in their districts to maximize exposure to public skepticism rather than call them back for a war vote at which the president addresses a joint session of Congress, and a presidential willingness to cancel a fundraising trip to California next week, should that prove absolutely necessary. This is an administration willing to forego European missile defense to buy questionable Russian support on Iran sanctions but unwilling to forgo anything in Obama's agenda to buy congressional support for his war in Syria. The president should watch Spielberg's Lincoln for a teachable moment.

Rosa Brooks's elegiac column best outlines the downward spiral of the Obama administration. The case made by the administration in congressional hearings is a stunning reversal of previous policy: What began as resistance in the face of pressure to act is now desperate rationalization for action. Now Kerry insists extremists constitute only "15 to 25 percent" of rebel forces (as though that were manageable), when just weeks ago a senior intelligence official explained at the Aspen Security Forum that more than a thousand separate factions are fighting. Now Kerry insists moderate rebels are gaining in influence thanks to equipment provided by Saudi Arabia, even as commanders of four of the five major rebel fighting forces threaten to align with the al-Nusra Front. Now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimates the cost of planned military operations only in the "tens of millions," while Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recently denied any military action was possible under a billion. Now intelligence agencies have a rock-solid hold on every aspect of Syria's chemical weapons attack, though Dempsey not long ago testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syria. Now the president considers the prohibition on chemical weapons use a national interest; the previous 13 chemical attacks by Syria over the past year somehow did not constitute a cause for war. Now the world has drawn a red line, even though the world is conspicuously absent in providing political support, mandates from international institutions, or military forces for action against Syria.

Yet with all the administration's bungling, Congress has now before it a choice. Should legislators support the president's request or deny him authorization? If they support, they will be complicit in what's to come, and the president's "strategy" is laughably unstrategic. It's a terrible plan, narcissistic to the point of ignoring predictable reactions by both enemies and friends. Many in Congress are understandably concerned about voter backlash -- and this president has very short coattails. Only about 20 percent of the public supports intervening in Syria; the administration is nowhere near winning the argument. There is stunning hypocrisy in this president, who took campaign swings through Iraq to highlight his opposition to the war that the United States was fighting and to Germany to highlight his international appeal, now somberly intoning that politics must stop at the water's edge.

But none of these concerns erases the stubborn fact that it would be bad for our country to deny the president congressional support to attack Syria. Obama has damaged American credibility with his choices; Congress has an opportunity to provide some margin of repair.

A vote in favor of the resolution would demonstrate to the world that We the People are often better than our government, able to make difficult decisions when difficult decisions need to be made. That we struggle to make manifest our principles and beliefs, even in complicated circumstances. That we don't avert our eyes from evil, even when we are weary of war. That we understand our choices set standards to shape the international order and that responsibility is often a lonely one.

Republicans in Congress should not allow the president to foist on them responsibility that is properly and constitutionally settled on the commander in chief. It is the president who develops policies and carries out military action; he should come up with a better one. Congress should give him the authority while criticizing his plan.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images