A step toward war, or a deterrent?
I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 10 minutes.
Joe Biden orders an airstrike in Syria. Plus, an important Tangle poll, a funny look at where we were a year ago, and some reader feedback.
Jeff from Aston, Pennsylvania replied to yesterday’s edition on voter fraud and said he was “really disappointed that you only mentioned the avalanche of Republican voter suppression efforts across the country in passing (a brief callout quote in the ‘What the left is saying’ section). It seems that you wanted to focus on just the Arizona case, which is fine and all, but speaking about that case largely in a vacuum misses the point, in my opinion… Republicans aren't misguidedly trying to ‘secure our elections,’ as you suggest/echo several times -- they are trying to find a technically-legal way to *rig* elections in favor of Republicans.”
Another reader said: “I’m seeing articles from previous election years (including this NYT article) talking about a bipartisan agreement that mail-in voting is the least reliable method, talking about rejection rates, specific mechanisms for fraud — including specifically targeting the elderly at nursing homes — and pointing to overturned local elections where the scale needed for useful fraud is much smaller. What happened?… I can agree that the precinct law is pointless, but I think ballot harvesting needs some better language, because right now it covers any sort of third-party ballot collection, including drop boxes or door-to-door campaigns or visiting places where you can find groups of people at once. All of those are very different practices.”
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A year ago today…
We were talking about Super Tuesday, Amy Klobuchar had just dropped out of the Democratic primary and the race was down to Bernie, Joe Biden, Mayor Pete and Elizabeth Warren. I wrote that “The Biden bump could be real,” and called the race a “total crapshoot.” Editor’s note: the bump was real and it wasn’t a crapshoot.
- The Biden administration withdrew their controversial nominee Neera Tanden from consideration for White House budget director. Tanden had come under fire for sparring with Republicans and progressives on social media before being nominated. (The New York Post)
- President Biden vowed that there would be enough vaccine supply for “every adult American” by the end of May. The latest timeline is two months earlier than previously predicted, and comes after the pharmaceutical rivals Johnson & Johnson and Merck announced a joint effort to ramp up production of J&J’s new single-dose vaccine. (The New York Times)
- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the mask mandate across his state and said all businesses would be allowed to fully reopen on March 10th. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said their state’s mask mandate would end Wednesday. (NBC News)
- Democrats are already angling to make the child tax credit, which is part of their $1.9 trillion spending bill, permanent. The credit is expected to cut child poverty in half, but is also scheduled to expire in 2021. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing growing pressure to resign after three women have accused him of sexual harassment and his administration is under investigation for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Politico)
What D.C. is talking about.
Syria. Last week, the United States carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria. The Pentagon said the strikes were on a border crossing used by Iran-backed militias that were responsible for attacks against American troops and their allies in the nearby Iraqi town of Erbil. President Biden authorized the strikes.
The attack in Erbil, which came on February 15th, killed a Filipino contractor who was working for the American-led military coalition there. Six others were wounded.
In response, Biden directed seven 500-pound bombs to be dropped on a cluster of buildings in Syria that the administration says was used to smuggle weapons and fighters across the Syria-Iraq border. The goal, according to the Pentagon press secretary, was to punish the perpetrators of the rocket attack but not escalate hostilities with Iran.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group in London, said the strikes killed 22 fighters from an Iraqi umbrella group. Yesterday, the U.S. said just one militia member was killed in the strike, while two others were wounded. At least one Iranian-backed paramilitary group, Kataib Hezbollah, said one of its fighters was killed, but there continue to be conflicting reports about the death toll.
This morning, there were reports of at least 10 rockets fired from Iranian-backed forces, targeting a military base in western Iraq that hosts U.S.-led troops, escalating fears of a tit-for-tat rocket exchange. While nobody has claimed the attack yet, it was the first strike since the U.S. hit Syria last week.
These military developments come as Joe Biden is attempting to engage Iran in an effort to get them to recommit to the Iran Nuclear Deal, which Tangle covered last week. Along with the exchange of fire, Iran this week rejected an offer for direct talks to negotiate the deal.
What the right is saying.
The right is mixed about the airstrikes. However, they are critical of how it fits into Biden’s larger strategy in the Middle East.
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said “Biden sent F-15s to kill people in Syria. No one in this country benefited from that, not even in the smallest, most theoretical way…
“Who were these people, in any case? Who was targeted?” he asked. “The Biden administration says it targeted two militia groups that are aligned with Iran. Members of those groups allegedly fired a rocket into Iraq that killed an American contractor. You may be wondering, ‘Why are there still American contractors in Iraq after almost two decades and no obvious return?’ That's a good question. We'll address that some other time, because here's an even more amazing thing: Both of the militia the Biden administration hit are part of something called the Popular Mobilization Forces, a kind of umbrella group sponsored by the Iraqi government.
“Now, the Iraqi government itself is a creation of previous American administrations,” he added. “So in other words, if you're following all this (and you have been for 18 years at this point), we are now defending Americans in Iraq from people we empowered in the first place to fix a disaster that was caused by our invasion. That's all counter-terrorism, got it? The snake eats its own tail.”
In Townhall, Michael Busler said that “instead of turning the other cheek, as the Obama/Biden administration mostly did, President Biden followed the peace through strength philosophy when he struck Iranian-backed militias in Syria.”
“The Trump administration followed the peace through strength philosophy,” he added. “That essentially says to show potential adversaries that the U.S. is so strong that any confrontation would result in a U.S. victory and a devastating defeat for the opponent. In fact, this philosophy says, the stronger the military becomes, the less likely it will ever be used… During the last four years, each time Iran took an offensive action against the US, our military responded, sometimes not immediately but always very profoundly. The Trump Administration also reasoned that the US has much financial strength that can be used as a weapon. The use of sanctions crippled the Iranian economy. That should lead to their willingness to negotiate.”
In American Conservative, Barbara Boland criticized Biden’s airstrikes — and his lack of authority to carry them out.
“Some within the Biden administration used to know the constitutional limits of presidential power,” she said. “Comments from Press Secretary Jen Psaki from April 2017 criticizing former President Trump for launching airstrikes against Syria haven’t aged very well. Psaki asked what ‘legal authority for strikes’ Trump had in Syria. ‘Assad is a brutal dictator,’ she tweeted, ‘But Syria is a sovereign country.’ … Critics of the Iran deal on the Hill believe Biden’s decision will show Iran’s proxies throughout the Middle East that Biden is tough and won’t tolerate attacks on personnel in Iraq. But the other side of this coin is the simple question of why the U.S. has so many targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East for Iran and its proxies to target in the first place?”
What the left is saying.
The left is mixed about the airstrikes, too. Some Democrats have defended them, but the progressive wing of the party has been increasingly critical.
In The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel said the airstrikes “undermined” Biden’s promise to end forever wars in the Middle East.
“According to President Biden, the airstrikes he launched against Iran-backed militias in Syria on Feb. 25 were designed to send Iran a message: ‘You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,’” she wrote. “But the strikes also sent a disturbing message to Americans: Barely a month into Biden’s presidency, the Middle East quagmire is already undermining his much-advertised commitment to a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ that will end ‘forever wars’ and focus on ‘existential’ threats such as climate change and on rebuilding America’s strength at home.
“The argument that the strikes are a ‘defensive’ measure mocks the reality of our presence there,” she added. “Under President Barack Obama, the United States invaded Syria without permission or invitation as part of a ham-handed effort at regime change, just as we invaded Afghanistan to overturn its government and invaded Iraq in a war of choice to take down Saddam Hussein. For an aggressor to call the retaliatory exchange ‘defensive’ doesn’t pass the smell test.”
In CNN, David Andelman defended the airstrikes, writing that “Biden has drawn a new red line in the Middle East and shown he is prepared to defend it.”
“It also sent a stark message to Iran: That it can no longer use militias in Syria and Iraq as proxies to attack Western, especially American, interests anywhere in the region,” he wrote. “And that Biden is ready to punish any violations of this new red line surely and quickly.
“Biden's move is a sharp departure from his predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama,” he added. “Trump blustered about America's military might and pulled out of the deal the Obama administration struck with Iran restraining Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons, at least in part because it put no restraints on Iranian support for Shiite militias. But he also drew down American forces in the region to the lowest levels since before the Iraq war. Obama declared a red line in Syria against the use of chemical weapons, then failed to act when the regime of Bashar al-Assad crossed it.”
In The Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch said he didn’t understand what gave Biden the “legal or moral authority” to unilaterally launch a military attack in Syria.
“The casual and arguably unconstitutional U.S. bombing inside Syria — coupled with a tepid and morally bankrupt response to another crisis in the region, the hard to dispute and now public intel that Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of a U.S.-based journalist — are strong signals that Biden won’t change the fundamental direction of unbridled, unfathomably expensive militarism that has been America’s go-to maneuver for generations,” he wrote. “The truth is that America executing its foreign policy with Predator missiles — regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, with the U.S. spending more on weapons and troops than the next 10 nations combined — makes neither President Biden nor America look strong. Our bullying and too often deadly ways, in nations stretching from Africa to Pakistan, shows us to be morally weak — clinging to superpower status with brute force rather than the force of our now-on-life-support democratic ideals.”
Peace through violence. Ending war with rockets. Negotiating with bombs. If these things seem to confound you, fear not: they are difficult to understand.
I’m glad to see there is some common ground on the right and left amongst the people who can look at what’s happening and see “strength” and “American resolve.” I’m much happier that there are growing wings of both the left and right who are so perpetually exhausted, so finished, so through with the nonstop drumbeat of justification for war that Tucker Carlson can sound like Ilhan Omar and The American Conservative can push op-eds that mirror a liberal writer like Will Bunch’s arguments in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
When will it end? I certainly didn’t expect Biden to be any different, and I said as much in the pages of this newsletter. But he made the promises anyway. So did Barack Obama, the former antiwar proponent turned senator turned president who carried out ten times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush. Donald Trump promised to get us out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and he did none of those things — military spending increased, troops were shuffled around on the chessboard, and the number of civilians killed by airstrikes in Afghanistan went up by 330%.
There will always be a justification. That’s what is so maddening about this. I can see it myself: Iran is trying to show us that they can make chaos in the region. We have to show them we can stop it. It’s a big, old fashioned, global pissing contest where U.S. and/or Iraqi soldiers and civilians across the Middle East will end up dead to improve precisely nothing.
Americans tend to freak out when Google crashes, or an enemy combatant flies through our airspace, or a mosque opens in Minnesota with a far-right leader. Last week, an airplane engine exploded over Colorado and left debris falling into suburban, residential neighborhoods, which created consecutive days of news coverage and viral videos. Imagine the horror, for a moment, of bombs falling from the sky into those neighborhoods. Imagine a world where that was normal for you. Welcome to life in some parts of Syria.
We just got done wasting nearly $1.7 trillion dollars — that’s $1,700,000,000,000 — on F-35 jets that don’t work. As Will Bunch pointed out, that’s about equal to every single dollar of student loan debt owed by Americans. We’ve got a president once again launching strikes without authorization from Congress and we’ve got a public increasingly, unabashedly asking for all of it to end. In his CNN piece defending Biden, David Andelman wrote “If the administration's posture in the region remains one of reasoned but consistent toughness, Iran may restrain itself from any tit-for-tat retaliation and response.” Less than a week later it looks like Iran responded with another wave of rockets at bases with U.S. forces. How magnificent deterrence is!
Biden promised a “foreign policy for the middle class,” a concept I truly loved and did not for a moment believe he’d follow through on. “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” he said. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.”
How is this action helping American families?
As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting, I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you the stories that were undercovered by left-leaning or right-leaning news outlets.
The right missed a story about the United Nations saying the global pledges to curb climate change do not go far enough.
The left missed a story about German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying vaccination passports will be available this summer.
Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.
A story that matters.
There is a lot of sudden movement on the push to reopen schools. Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, is planning a high-profile visit with Jill Biden to middle schools that are already open. President Biden is considering a czar to head school reopenings, and he is enlisting a federal agency to vaccinate as many teachers as possible in an effort to get them back into schools safely. The president promised kids would be back in school in his first 100 days in office, and said two things were needed to make that happen: his education secretary had to get confirmed and he needed to pass the massive COVID-19 spending package. He has his secretary, and the COVID-19 package could be passed in the coming days or weeks. That means the reopening of schools should be happening shortly thereafter. (Politico)
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A challenge for you.
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Nearly 60 years ago, Calvin Tyler dropped out of his college because he couldn’t afford it. At the time, he was enrolled in Morgan State College, a historically Black college in Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly after dropping out, he became a UPS driver — one of the first 10 in Baltimore. In the decades since, he has climbed the ranks of UPS and eventually rose to become senior vice president of operations before his retirement in 1998. Yesterday, Mr. Tyler donated $20 million to Morgan State College to help fund scholarships for other students like him. (CBS News)