Wonkbook: A transmission from Vladimir

September 12, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

What happens when international diplomacy stops being polite and starts getting...surreal?

The latest twist (and turn!) in the Syria saga is a New York Times op-ed by Vladimir Putin. Yes, that Vladimir Putin. The bio line literally says, "Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia."

Can you imagine trying to edit Putin?

Much of the op-ed is devoted to poking President Obama. Putin accuses the United States of breaking international law if it attacks Syria. He exhorts the beauty and wisdom of the U.N. Security Council, where his country holds a veto. He mocks the outcomes of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya. He says that "there is every reason to believe [the chemical gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces." He scolds America for its belief in American exceptionalism, writing that "it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional."

But there's exactly one sentence of actual policy in the speech. Here it is: "The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction."

So as Sam Stein writes, "Putin's oped argues: 1. The rebels used chemical weapons, not Assad. 2. Let's encourage Assad to give up his weapons (no mention of rebels)".

Putin's rhetoric is confrontational (and it's about to be shredded by the UN report). But when it turns to policy, he's affirming the precise compromise the White House is seeking.

The White House made much this point to CNN's Jake Tapper. “[Putin] put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it," said a senior official. "That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”

This is an ugly foreign policy process to watch unfold. It's less George Kennan than Mr. Magoo. President Obama ad libbed a "red line" on chemical weapons. His administration lurched unexpectedly and unstrategically towards working with Congress. His secretary of state ad libbed a way out of strikes. Now they're being effectively mocked by Putin in the New York Times.

And yet, for all that, they seem to be moving towards a negotiated outcome on the chemical weapons issue that's better than anything that looked plausible a week or a month or six months ago.

In recent years, we've all seen foreign policy conducted with the utmost decorum by very responsible adults turn out a lot worse. Given that a few days ago the White House looked likely to either lose the vote in Congress and watch their Syria policy completely fall apart or begin a series of strikes that didn't make much sense to anybody and carried the risk of disastrous escalation, if they can pull this deal off, it'll be a minor miracle. I'll take good outcomes over good process anytime.


Russia's President, Vladimir Putin (Mladen Antonov / AFP/Getty Images)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 1969. That's the year when President Richard Nixon ended the U.S. chemical-weapons program.

Wonkbook's Graphs of the Day: Five years after the crisis, these 13 charts show what’s fixed and what isn’t.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) bye bye, Syria; 2) counterterrorism that works; 3) the shrinking budget deficit; 4) Israel calling on line 1; and 5) unions become Obamacare foes.

1) Top story: The war that wasn't

Senate moving on from Syria resolution. "The Senate is formally dropping consideration of a resolution authorizing U.S. military force in Syria and deferring instead to diplomatic attempts to end the crisis. “We’ve agreed on a way forward based on the president’s speech last night,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon. While Secretary of State John F. Kerry travels to Geneva on Thursday for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Reid said the Senate would move on so as “not to tread water” on the Syrian issue and begin debating a bipartisan energy efficiency bill that has been waiting for consideration for months." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

US, Russia far apart on eve of Syria talks. "Secretary of State John Kerry headed late Wednesday to Geneva with a team of arms control experts for intensive talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, to try to reach an agreement on how to secure and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was taking his own arms control experts to the negotiations, holding out the possibility that there would be depth and detail to the talks. But sharp divisions remained between the two powers less than 24 hours after President Obama said he would hold off on an American military strike on Syria and gave a qualified endorsement to a Russian proposal for international monitors to take over the country’s chemical arsenal." Michael D. Shear and Michael R. Gordon in The New York Times.

Lawmakers dread Syria inspections. "While they said avoiding U.S. military action is a positive development, some see in Syria a repeat of the drawn-out series of weapons inspections in the 12 years between the first and second Gulf Wars." Jeremy Herb in The Hill.

U.S. weapons reaching Syrian rebels. "The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war. The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month." Ernesto Londoño and Greg Miller in The Washington Post.

@alisonforns: "We don't have a horse in this fight." - Rick Santorum on Syria. Because, you know, horse fighting.

No timeline for weighing Syria chemical weapons offer. "[T]he White House said Wednesday that it did not know how long it would need to evaluate a last-minute offer from the Assad regime — aside from conceding "it obviously will take some time."" Justin Sink in The Hill.

Obama’s tough task: Getting Americans to care about chemical weapons use in Syria. "As President Obama has made the case for U.S. military intervention in Syria, his most starkly emotional appeal has focused on images of dead and wounded kids. He pointed to such imagery in his address to the nation Tuesday night, describing “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk” after an alleged sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Debate: Can Syria's chemical weapons be destroyedThe New York Times.

Lessons from the destruction of U.S. chemical weapons. "The U.S. has been systemically destroying its chemical weapons since the 1970s, but the job of eliminating nerve gas and other agents will take another decade because of the hazards of the disposal process, U.S. officials and weapons experts said...The newest destruction facilities use neutralization, in which the chemical agent is diluted and processed until it is made safe, then treated further, officials said." Ben Kesling in The Wall Street Journal.

Behind Russia's calculus. "Russian diplomats say this changed their calculus on Syria’s chemical weapons dramatically. From Moscow’s point of view, a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only cripple its long-standing ally, but it would also undermine Russia’s biggest trump card on the international stage — its veto power in the U.N. Security Council...With that in mind, Russia set about making itself as useful as possible in the Syrian crisis over the past week, so that it could not be dismissed and sidelined as a spoiler on the international stage." Simon Shuster in Time Magazine.

Obama’s war-and-diplomacy appeal on Syria presents fresh risks to administration. "It’s been said there are no do-overs in life. But President Obama may be getting the closest thing to it with his abrupt turn toward diplomacy on Syria. Still, it is a path as fraught with problems and risks for the president as was his inability to win public and congressional support for targeted strikes. When Obama spoke to the nation Tuesday night, he was in the middle of a dramatic and unexpected pivot. Given what had happened in the previous 36 hours, he had to make an awkward rhetorical transition from arguing for military intervention — the original purpose of his prime-time address — to arguing to give diplomacy a chance." Dan Balz in The Washington Post.

Interview: The man who wrote the book on the U.N. Security Council tells how it’s handling SyriaDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

It's an unusual time of sharp changes in foreign policy. "Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly. To aides and allies, Mr. Obama’s willingness to hit the pause button twice on his decision to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people reflects a refreshing open-mindedness and a reluctance to use force...But to Mr. Obama’s detractors, including many in his own party, he has shown a certain fecklessness with his decisions first to outsource the decision to lawmakers in the face of bipartisan opposition and then to embrace a Russian diplomatic alternative." Peter Baker in The New York Times.

Syrian rebels hurt by delay. "With a U.S. attack on Syria on hold, Western-backed rebels said they feared they had lost their best chance of promptly ousting President Bashar al-Assad and sidelining Islamist extremists...The U.S. effort to arm rebels, authorized by Mr. Obama in June, appeared to have taken a step forward on Wednesday. The U.S. has started providing some arms to the Free Syrian Army, according to Khalid Saleh, spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Mr. Saleh declined to provide details." Nour Malas in The Wall Street Journal.

PUTIN: A transmission from Vladimir. "From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law...If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues." Vladimir V. Putin in The New York Times.

@jbarro: "A Plea of Caution From Russia" is better than the originally planned headline "Let Syria Go Bankrupt"

KLEIN: The worst argument against the Russia-Syria deal. "[I]t will likely take a long time to destroy Assad’s entire chemical weapons arsenal, if it ever happens at all. But the alternative is air strikes. And we know air strikes won’t destroy any of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, as when you hit chemical weapons with a missile, deadly gas goes everywhere and kills innocent civilians. That means the choice is between air strikes that won’t destroy any of Assad’s chemical weapons (unless, tragically, we miss) and a negotiated process that has the potential of eventually destroying all or most of them. The choice there seems clear." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

KRISTOF: That threat worked. "Negotiate with Moscow on removal of Syrian chemical weapons and insist on conditions to ensure we’re not being played, including immediate disclosure to the United Nations of chemical weapons stockpiles, a binding Security Council resolution confirming the deal, a reference in the resolution to “serious consequences” for noncompliance, and immediate installation of camera monitors on at least a few locations." Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: Paul Kalkbrenner, "Aaron."

Top opinion

WESSEL: 5 years after financial crisis, we still have stuff on the to-do list. "U.S. banks have been pushed—in some cases, forced—to raise more capital. By one widely used measure, the 18 biggest banks had high-quality capital equal to 5.8% of assets at the end of 2008; at the end of last year, they had 11.3%. This gives them bigger cushions to absorb another blow and probably makes them a bit more wary about taking big risks, for better or worse." David M. Wessel in The Wall Street Journal.

BEUTLER: The right’s Obamacare obsession is destroying the Republican Party. "The right’s Ahab-like determination to destroy Obamacare has so thoroughly overtaken the conservative wing of the GOP that its loyalists in Congress are about to squander an opportunity to hand Democrats a huge defeat in the fight over sequestration, and hasten the Republican crackup in the process. Conservatives are poised — once again! — to align with progressives in temporarily handing control of the House of Representatives over to Nancy Pelosi, and protecting the poor from deep government spending cuts. All because GOP leaders don’t think suicide is a wise political strategy." Brian Beutler in Salon.

MCARDLE: Lawyers are the obstacle to driverless cars. "Driverless cars will be safer and quieter. They will fetch you to your destination, and then trundle off to park themselves. They will all but eliminate the auto accidents that kill tens of thousands every year. I believe all this. But I’m still worried about the future of driverless cars, not because they’re technically impossible, but because the liability possibilities are enormous." Megan McArdle in Bloomberg.

Employment interlude: The history of the job-search cover letter.

2) Counterterrorism, but with rigor this time

Twelve years after 9/11, we still have no idea how to fight terrorism. "Counterterrorism may be the most significant area of government policy where we still have no idea what the hell we’re doing...The Afghanistan war has cost $657.5 billion so far, we spend $17.2 billion in classified funds a year fighting terrorism through the intelligence community, and the Department of Homeland Security spent another $47.4 billion last year. And we have very little idea whether any of it is preventing terrorist attacks." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Explainer: 9 facts about terrorism since 9/11Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Senate panel to review Department of Homeland Security on 9/11 anniversary. "A Senate panel plans to review the Department of Homeland Security during a hearing on Wednesday, a date marking the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that led to the agency’s creation. The Senate Homeland Security Committee will examine issues relating to cybersecurity, counterterrorism, border security and disaster preparedness, according to congressional aides. The panel is scheduled to hear testimony from former lawmakers and past DHS officials, including Tom Ridge, who was the first homeland security secretary, and retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who served as national incident commander during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

1990s Internet interlude: Word Magazine comes back online.

3) Budget deficit sustains sharp drop

Federal deficit on track for Obama-administration low. "The national debt grew by $750 billion during the first 11 months of fiscal 2013, compared to an increase of $1.16 trillion during the same period last year, the CBO said in its August federal-budget review." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

House delays government funding vote. "Rank-and-file Republicans had not fully endorsed their leadership’s complicated plan to keep federal agencies operating at current austerity levels while forcing a Senate vote on whether to defund President Obama’s health-care initiative. Under that plan, the Democratic-led Senate would likely dismiss the Obamacare rider and keep the government running, a scenario that outside conservative groups have lambasted in the last 24 hours. But House conservatives said Wednesday that they might be willing to go along with the proposal if GOP leaders can craft a longer-term plan to fight next month’s showdown on raising the federal debt ceiling." Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

What if a typical family spent like the federal government? It’d be a very weird family. "The Smiths would spend 20 percent of their budget, or $12,800 each year, on an arsenal of guns, tanks and drones to defend their house against threats or to invade the occasional neighbor over lawn-pesticide disputes and access to the gas station...Anyway, it’s a good analogy. The U.S. federal government really does resemble your typical money-printing family that owns lots of tanks, operates a giant insurance conglomerate, can borrow money at extremely low rates, and is assumed to be immortal." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Could fees fix the budget? "Revenue from the obscure and often overlooked charges could offer at least some of the savings lawmakers are searching for while allowing each side to claim it held firm on raising taxes and cutting entitlements. Democrats could argue they raised revenue, while Republicans could deny signing off on tax increases." Brian Faler in Politico.

Chart: How the 1 percent won the recovery. Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Interview: Richard Cordray on what’s next for the consumer-protection bureau. Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Five years after the crisis, these 13 charts show what’s fixed and what isn’t. Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

After 7-hour meeting, it’s on: Richmond sticks with its plan to seize mortgages through eminent domain. "After a marathon hearing that wrapped up in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the City Council of Richmond, Calif., voted to allow the use of eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages, becoming the first city in the nation to take such a concrete step toward the novel and risky strategy for helping people avoid foreclosure. The night of impassioned debate — featuring six feuding council members, a mayor firmly committed to the plan, and several dozen speeches from the public — showed the power of litigation to sow doubt, and the power of personal stories to stir hearts." Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

Mother Earth interlude: Kenya strikes water. Yes, that's a huge deal.

4) Honey, who's calling us from Israel?

The NSA is sharing data with Israel. Before filtering out Americans’ information. "The government has said that when data are collected “inadvertently,” because an American is in contact with a foreign target, the data are protected by strict “minimization procedures” that prevent the information from being misused. New documents from Snowden reported by the Guardian on Wednesday appear to contradict those claims. They reveal that the NSA has been sharing raw intelligence information with the Israeli government without first filtering it for data on the communications of American citizens." Andrea Peterson in The Washington Post.

The NSA sponsors ‘cyber operations’ training at universities. Here’s what students learn. "The NSA has run this “cyber operations” program since 2012, working with Northeastern University, Dakota State, the University of Tulsa and the Naval Postgraduate School to design curricula that match the agency’s intelligence and infrastructure needs. (CMU, the Air Force Institute of Technology, Auburn and Mississippi State joined last week.) The purpose, says Carnegie Mellon’s Dena Haritos Tsamitis, is to shift capabilities from “cyber defense” to “cyber offense.” It’s also to funnel the next generation of analysts and hackers directly to the NSA, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies and contractors." Caitlin Dewey in The Washington Post.

Pope Francis on atheists interlude: "Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God's mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart, the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience."

5) Unions had to support the bill to find out what was in it

Unions' misgivings on health law burst into view. "While praising the overall legislation, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a sharply worded resolution that demanded changes to some of its regulations, although Mr. Trumka made sure to strip out some proposals that called for repealing the legislation...Any erosion of health care benefits poses a singular threat to labor leaders, whose arsenal of tools to attract workers into union membership has dwindled alongside the decline of their organizations and their concomitant loss of influence around the country." Steven Greenhouse and Jonathan Martin in The New York Times.

Obamacare created 22 new health insurance plans. Can they succeed? "The Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans, or Co-Ops, are a small part of the health care law that could have big implications for its success. Nonprofits in 24 states have received over $2 billion in federal loans to essentially start new health insurance products from scratch. And the health care observers I talk to think that these plans have the potential to upend the health insurance market — or end up as the next Solyndra. Right now, its too early to tell which direction they’ll go." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Obamacare enrollment rules for Hill staff may be delayed. "The Office of Personnel Management may not issue final rules about how members of Congress and their staff can get insurance coverage through exchanges until after enrollment opens on Oct. 1...Without the final rule, Hill staff won’t be able to view their plan options, costs, benefits or final details on who must enter the exchange, he wrote." Paige Winfield Cunningham in Politico.

Poll: Support for healthcare law dropping. "Just 39 percent of people in the latest survey said they have a favorable view of all or part of the healthcare law, down from 51 percent in January...In the latest CNN survey, 57 percent said they oppose most or all of the healthcare law. Support for the law fell among two key groups for the Obama administration, CNN said: women and people who make less than $50,000 per year." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Obamacare created 22 new health insurance plans. Can they succeed? Sarah Kliff.

The man who wrote the book on the U.N. Security Council tells how it’s handling SyriaDylan Matthews.

Twelve years after 9/11, we still have no idea how to fight terrorismDylan Matthews.

The worst argument against the Russia-Syria dealEzra Klein.

After 7-hour meeting, it’s on: Richmond sticks with its plan to seize mortgages through eminent domainLydia DePillis.

What if a typical family spent like the federal government? It’d be a very weird familyBrad Plumer.

Five years after the crisis, these 13 charts show what’s fixed and what isn’tNeil Irwin.

Nine facts about terrorism in the United States since 9/11Brad Plumer.

How the 1 percent won the recovery, in one tableDylan Matthews.

McCain: Putin is ‘feeling pretty good today’. Ezra Klein.

Et Cetera

EPA plan to curb new coal-fired power-plantsKeith Johnson and Tennille Tracy in The Wall Street Journal.

Immigration legislation booms in state capitalsReid Wilson in The Washington Post.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brad Plumer | September 11, 2013