Day: July 4, 2017

Another view of July 4

New Yorker editor David Remnick draws attention to abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1852 July 4 address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. That’s the same Frederick Douglass, dead since 1895, that Trump said is doing a good job. Remnick thinks Douglass’ peroration against slavery might relieve current despair. It begins to end with these words:

…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia, shall, stretch out her hand unto God.”

If Douglass, born a slave, could be optimistic, we have little grounds to be less so.

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More questions than answers

The National Interest published my piece on the White House warning on chemical weapons  only yesterday under a headline I didn’t like. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Monday night [June 26] the White House issued a warning to President Assad that if “Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price.” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley added that the White House message was also intended for Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. The warning raises more questions than it answers.

There was initially some question about the intelligence suggesting a new chemical attack was under preparation, and it has not been made public. The Pentagon and White House have, however, confirmed its existence and claimed proper interagency assessments were done, albeit in haste due the apparent imminence of an attack. Those who remember the Tonkin Gulf incident (an alleged attack on a U.S. warships that precipitated enhanced intervention in Vietnam in 1964) may still have doubts.

Why issue a public warning? Diplomatic statements of this sort are more often issued privately, in part to avoid the kind of problem Obama faced after his “red line” chemical weapons statement against Syria in 2012, when a year later it became clear that Congress might not approve military action. In 1992 for example, President George H. W. Bush issued a secret and personal Christmas Day warning to Slobodan Milosevic not to attack Kosovo, one reissued later by President Clinton. Those statements are often credited with holding the Serbian autocrat off for several years.

A public warning may have more weight, if only because it brings into the equation the Obama example and the issue of U.S. credibility. But the Trump administration warning to Assad was not issued by the president himself but rather by the press secretary, which detracts from what otherwise might have been its diplomatic weight. It was also issued only a few days after a Central Command spokesperson suggested that cooperation with Assad and his allied forces in attacking the Islamic State in eastern Syria would be welcome. Was that a purposeful “carrot” followed by a “stick,” or was it just lack of coordination and consequent confusion?

Precisely what the statement means is open to question. [Please go to How to Play Diplomatic Dodgeball with Bashar al-Assad | The National Interest for the rest.]