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John Nichols

John Nichols

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On Privatization's Cutting Edge

Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley Jr. (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

Last week, for the opening of the school year, I wrote about my interview with Tom Geoghegan about his (so-far) failed suit to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s morally and educationally disastrous crusade to close fifty schools in Chicago. But that’s not all I talked about with Tom. “I don’t want this just to be a Mayor Emanuel–bashing session,” I said. “Because we have to bash Mayor Daley.”

Everyone, I suppose, dislikes parking meters. Chicagoans hate them even more. That’s because Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008 struck a deal with the investment consortium Chicago Parking Meters LLC, or CPM, that included Morgan Stanley, Allianz Capital Partners and, yes, the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Abu Dhabi, to privatize our meters. The price of parking—and the intensity of enforcement—skyrocketed. The terms were negotiated in secret. City Council members got two days to study the billion-dollar, seventy-five-year contract before signing off on it. An early estimate from the Chicago inspector general was that the city had sold off its property for about half of what it was worth. Then an alderman said it was worth about four times what the city had been paid. Finally, in 2010, Forbes reported that in fact the city had been underpaid by a factor of ten.

Well, Chicagoans, Tom Geoghegan is here to tell you that the whole damn thing is illegal under the Illinois Constitution—and most other constitutions, too. He’s in the middle of a suit to have the whole thing torn up. The argument is driven by the legal theory that “a seventy-five-year-agreement to run parking meters is an unconstitutional restriction on the police power—the sovereign right of the city to control its public streets and ways…. This is a very traditional, conservative, really, argument: what the City of Chicago did was not sell the meters. They sold the police power of the city.”

The deal, you see, is structured like this. Not only does CPM get the money its meters hoover up from the fine upstanding citizens of Chicago. It gets money even if the meters are not used. Each meter has been assigned a “fair market valuation.” If the City takes what is called a “reserve power adverse action”—that can mean anything from removing a meter because it impedes traffic flow, shutting down a street for a block party or discouraging traffic from coming into the city during rush hour—“CPM has the right to trigger an immediate payment for the entire loss of the meter’s fair market value over the entire life of the seventy-five-year agreement.”

Shut down one meter that the market-valuation says makes twenty-two bucks a day, in other words, and the City of Chicago has to fork over a check for $351,000—six days a week (why six days? more on that later), fifty-two weeks in a year, times seventy-five—within thirty days. Very easily, Geoghegan points out, a single shut-down of parking in a chunk of the city—say, for something like a NATO summit Chicago hosted last year—“could be more than the original purchase price of the deal.”

And if the city lowered the parking meter rates, the highest in the country? Same problem: that would trigger the “reserve power action” clause too. Chicago, meet your new City Council: the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Abu Dhabi.

And that’s just wrong—illegal, says Geoghegan: “You can’t bargain away—you can’t sell off—the police power of the city.”

He thundered: “This is privatization gone nuts. It’s almost a comical form of privatization—privatization at its very, very most toxic. Because here, what is being sold off is not really a city asset. It’s not really like Midway Airport”—a deal that might be just around the corner, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. “It’s not like a tollway”—the Chicago Skyway was leased for ninety-nine years to an Australian concern for quick cash in 2005 (“With that kind of money to be made,” The Washington Post said, “Americans are lining up to try their luck at Wall Street’s hottest new game—“investing in infrastructure.”) No, at least in those cases it was just property they were selling off. Here, “they’re selling off the governmental powers of a city. And that’s what’s so disturbing about this. And getting those back is insanely expensive. And the City said, in its brief in the court below, that if the deal were undone they would owe all this money and they can’t pay it back.”

Geoghegan cites the doctrine of in peri delicto—“something you learn your first year of law school”—to explain why this cannot stand. It means the contract is illegal, and thus not enforceable. He gives the example—“not this would ever happen”—of Perlstein selling Geoghegan a gram of meth for $100. (Damn right it wouldn’t happen. My going rate is $200!) “The judge would say this isn’t a legal agreement and I’m not going to enforce it. I couldn’t get restitution. And if this agreement is unconstitutional”—he’s using the Illinois Constitution, but the principle is one of wide application—“CPM is in the same boat.”

I say that this raises an interesting point—that his suit sounds great for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who happens to be dealing with a huge municipal budget deficit. So he must support the suit! Especially since the parking meter deal was inked by his predecessor, not by him.

“Well!” Geoghegan responds with his inimitably cheerful, bright irony. “He simultaneously badmouths the deal and defends it to the death.”

The badmouthing part: there was the mayor’s proud boast to have “renegotiated” the deal, supposedly to make parking cheaper by making it free on Sunday, which ended up extending the hours on all the other days, making everything just about a wash.

The defending part: he won’t say anything too bad about CPM, because that would discourage investors from buying up other chunks of the city—like the deal to lease the digital billboard concession along the Dan Ryan Expressway for twenty years, which reform alderman Bob Fioretti points out was about as much of a rip-off for the City as the parking meters, not least because no one knows what kind of technology for advertising will be in use twenty years from now.

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Rahm Emanuel is a funny guy. He loves to simultaneously take credit for things and evade responsibility for them. In the school-closing case I wrote about last week, Geoghegan tried to sue the mayor as well as the Chicago School Board. The judge didn’t allow Emanuel to be included, buying the mayor’s office’s argument: “They said 'we have nothing to do with the schools'!”

That got a huge laugh: everyone knows that Emanuel is always saying the schools are his personal responsibility; after all, he alone appoints the school board.

So Geoghegan’s suit attached an op-ed signed by Emanuel arguing he was personally responsible for the school closings. And a press release saying much the same thing. In court, though, the mayor’s office said they were just providing “input.” More laughter: “A paralegal in our office described the mayor’s position as, ‘I’m responsible, but I’m not legally responsible.’ ”

A funny guy—and it isn’t just Chicagoans who, bitterly, are being forced to laugh. Our parking meter mess might someday be yours if it isn’t already—yes, this means you, New York, as Matt Taibbi reports. As Tom Tresser of Chicago’s CivicLab impressed upon me, they’re coming after your meters—and bridges, and billboards, and who knows what other public assets—next. “We have a massive global movement of capital which, because they’ve burned their own fucking houses down through their own greed, don’t have the gilt returns that they’re used to receiving…. So the new guaranteed annual returns that big business and big capital are looking for is our assets.”

And that’s about all of us.

Rick Perlstein writes about the resurgent protest culture that is fighting back against Rahm Emanuels’ austerity agenda.

The Senate's 'Limited' Authorization Is Full of Holes

Secretary of State John Kerry, center, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to authorize the use of force in Syria, sending a resolution full of broad, imprecise language on to the full Senate. The committee split 10-7, with Democrats Chris Murphy and Tom Udall and Republican presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Marco Rubio among those voting against the authorization.

The resolution is in some respects narrower than what the administration proposed, but it retains a number of loopholes. While it gives the president the power to use the armed forces only within Syria, and “in a limited and specified manner against legitimate military targets,” the president reserves the ability to determine what constitutes “limited” and “legitimate.”

The resolution authorizes the president to use force not only for the purposes of deterring and degrading Assad’s ability to launch future chemical attacks, but also to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorists, to non-state actors within Syria or to another state. While the transfer of chemical weapons is a legitimate concern, that language broadens the scope of the authorization well beyond what the administration claims to be the intention of the strikes.

The resolution appears to prohibit “boots on the ground,” a priority for lawmakers wary of deeper entanglement. But at closer inspection, that limitation is hollow. The resolution states that it “does not authorize the use the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.” It says nothing about the use of Special Forces, which may already be engaged in Syria, and it would permit the deployment of ground troops for purposes other than “combat operations.”

The ultimate problem with the limitation on boots on the ground is that no language can control how the Syrian government or its allies will respond to American airstrikes. Initiating military action in Syria, however limited, invites a response that could escalate the conflict to an extent that effectively forces the United States to introduce ground troops. If US allies or American personnel were directly targeted, it would be nearly impossible to limit the scale of US involvement.

I wrote yesterday about the last “whereas” clause in the draft resolution (preserved in the final version), which offers a shockingly broad interpretation of executive war power, particularly in combination with other “whereas” clauses in the authorization. The resolution makes the claim that the “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” What constitutes national security interests, and who decides when they are threatened? According to previous clauses, “Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction” and “Syria’s use of weapons of mass destruction and its conduct and actions” both threaten “the national security interests of the United States.”

It would appear then that the Foreign Relations Committee agrees with the administration’s claim that it does not need congressional authorization to initiate military strikes. Furthermore, the broadened constitutional authority that the resolution acknowledges is not limited to Syria, and so could be abused by an executive in future decisions regarding the use of force. While the “whereas” clause is essentially meaningless in terms of the practical application of the resolution, it does send a troubling signal about how much constitutional power Congress is willing to cede to the executive branch. As Jack Goldsmith, formerly assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Council and now a Harvard law professor, wrote yesterday, the authorization “gives significant support to the position that the President has some (uncertain) independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria, regardless of what Congress authorizes, and (perhaps) beyond what Congress authorizes.”

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Senator Rand Paul introduced an amendment clarifying the constitutional limits on the president’s authority to act unilaterally, but it failed to win approval from the committee. Two amendments, proposed by John McCain and Chris Coons, were added by voice vote; they assert that official US policy is “to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria” in a way that “leads to a democratic government,” and that US strategy should aim to upgrade the capacity of “vetted elements” of the opposition.

The Obama administration commended the passage of the authorization, as it should. The resolution is well “tailored” to fit its agenda.

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Obama's Syria War Is Really About Iran and Israel

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The dirty little not-so-secret behind President Obama’s much-lobbied-for, illegal and strategically incompetent war against Syria is that it’s not about Syria at all. It’s about Iran—and Israel. And it has been from the start.

By “the start,” I mean 2011, when the Obama administration gradually became convinced that it could deal Iran a mortal blow by toppling President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a secular, Baathist strongman who is, despite all, an ally of Iran’s. Since then, taking Iran down a peg has been the driving force behind Obama’s Syria policy.

Not coincidentally, the White House plans to scare members of Congress into supporting the ill-conceived war plan by waving the Iranian flag in their faces. Even liberal Democrats, some of whom are opposing or questioning war with Syria, blanch at the prospect of opposing Obama and the Israel lobby over Iran.

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Item for consideration: a new column by the Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the chief think tank of the Israel lobby. Andrew Tabler headlines his piece: “Attacking Syria Is the Best Way to Deal with Iran.” In it, he says:

At first glance, the festering Syria crisis seems bad news for diplomatic efforts to keep Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. In actuality, however, achieving U.S. objectives in the Syria crisis is an opportunity to pressure Iran into making hard choices not only in Syria, but regarding its nuclear program as well. More U.S. involvement to achieve its objectives in Syria will inevitably run counter to Tehran’s interests, be it to punish the Assad regime for chemical weapons use or to show support for the Syrian opposition in changing Assad’s calculus and forcing him to “step aside” at the negotiating table or on the battlefield.

Many in U.S. policymaking circles have viewed containing swelling Iranian influence in Syria and preventing Iran from going nuclear as two distinct policy discussions, as the Obama Administration only has so much “bandwidth” to deal with Middle East threats. But the recent deepening of cooperation between Tehran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime, combined with their public acknowledgement of these activities, indicates that they themselves see these activities as furthering the efficacy of the “resistance axis.”

Like every alliance, its members will only make hard policy choices if the costs of its current policies far outweigh the benefits. U.S. strikes on the Assad regime, if properly calibrated as part of an overall plan to degrade the regime, would force Tehran to become more involved in Syria in order to rescue its stalwart ally. This would be costly for Iran financially, militarily and politically. Those costs would make the Iranian regime and its people reassess aspirations to go nuclear.

Needless to say, such a strategy is bound to be counterproductive, since—by slamming Syria, never mind toppling Assad—Washington is likely to undermine doves and bolster hawks in Tehran and undermine the chances for successful negotiations with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who’ll be speaking at the UN General Assembly later this month.

In fact, both Russia and Iran have signaled recently, in the wake of Syria’s obvious deployment and use of sarin gas and other deadly weapons that they might be getting ready to join the rest of the world in condemning Syria’s chemical warfare, and that makes it far more likely that the much-postponed US-Russia “Geneva II” peace conference on Syria might work. The hawkish Washington Post today notes Rouhani’s new administration in Tehran is softening its tone on Syria, and it reports that the new Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has acknowledged the Syria has erred, saying: “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, while issuing scathing denunciations of the coming U.S. attack on Syria, has dropped broad hints that he might be willing to join with other nations if and when the United Nations weapons team concludes that Assad used nerve gas, suggesting that Russia might not block a UN Security Council resolution against Syria. In his much-reported interview with the Associated Press, Putin insisted on waiting for the UN report:

“If there is evidence that chemical weapons have been used, and used specifically by the regular army, this evidence should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council. And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by intelligence agencies through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that.”

Then, according to the Washington Post, Putin declared that he might join a UN-sponsored coalition on Syria:

He said he “doesn’t exclude” backing the use of force against Syria at the United Nations if there is objective evidence proving that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against its people. But he strongly warned Washington against launching military action without U.N. approval, saying it would represent an aggression. Russia can veto resolutions at the U.N. Security Council and has protected Syria from punitive actions there before.

But a change in tone on the part of Russia and Iran—the latter of whom the Obama administration still refuses to invite to Geneva II if and when it occurs—won’t mean a thing if the object of war with Syria is to send a message to Iran. As Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg, says, for Israel it’s all about Iran:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would prefer that Obama enforce his red line on chemical weapons use, because he would like to see proof that Obama believes in the red lines he draws. From Netanyahu’s perspective, Israel isn’t unduly threatened by Assad. Syria constitutes a dangerous, but ultimately manageable, threat.

Netanyahu believes, of course, that Iran, Syria’s primary sponsor, poses an existential threat to his country, and so would like the Iranians to understand very clearly that Obama’s red lines are, in fact, very red. As Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me last night, the formula is simple: “If the Iranians do not fear Obama, then the Israelis will lose confidence in Obama.”

In his round-robin television appearances on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry—now the administration’s über-hawk—repeatedly said that bombing Syria would send a message to Iran. As he told Fox News on Sunday:

“The fact is that if we act and if we act in concert, then Iran will know that this nation is capable of speaking with one voice on something like this, and that has serious, profound implications, I think, with respect to the potential of a confrontation over their nuclear program. That is one of the things that is at stake here.”

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Media Question Kerry's Mysterious 1,429 Death Toll in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)

Days later and we still have no idea where Secretary of State John Kerry got that amazingly precise number of 1,429 killed in the alleged Syria chemical agent attack. He hasn’t cited full sourcing for it or taken questions on that. He merely claims he can’t say because it would “compromise” intelligence, which sounds like utter bull. President Obama also cited the death toll as fact in public statements beating the drums for war.

And all other sources put the number a little or a lot lower. Why does this matter in the current debate? Obviously the higher number, particularly with the also unproven claim of more than 400 dead kids, is meant to sell a US military attack to the American people—and that’s why it’s a key claim. That 1,400 number makes the latest attack seem so much worse than earlier alleged Assad chem attacks, which we did not find horrible enough to claim they crossed the “red line.”

Despite all that, most in US media for days still cited the number with little qualifying or probing. It was often said that Kerry “revealed” the number of deaths, not “claimed.”

That’s starting to change, finally, although few in the media are charging Kerry with a deliberate lie. In the midst of a major AP story (on the US’s missing signs of the chemical attack) last night the reporter notes: “The administration says 1,429 died in the attack. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower.” A September 3 New York Times piece referred to the “stunningly higher” US death figure.

Mark Seibel, a top McClatchy editor, was on Democracy Now! Wednesday taking up that issue, among others, and see full transcript here. McClatchy had published a piece the day before analyzing the questions about the high figure. It quoted Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, who criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429.

A Los Angeles Times piece late yesterday took a very tough look at it, citing the lower figures from the Brits and French. And this:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally regarded as one of the most reliable sources of information on casualty figures in Syria, says it has confirmed 502 deaths, including 80 children and 137 women. Rami Abdul-Rahman, a Syrian expatriate who runs the organization from his home in Britain, said he was shocked by the White House’s count.

“I don’t know where this number came from,” Abdul-Rahman said in a phone interview. He said some Syrian opposition groups disseminate propaganda and exaggerated death tolls in an attempt to sway American politicians. “The U.S. took this high number from one part of the Syrian opposition that is supported by the U.S. government,” Abdul-Rahman said. “We don’t trust them.”

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A former CIA official tells the LA Times: “I would suspect most of that information would be on the high side initially. You’ll have sources who want to influence you, so they’ll give higher figures.” Also see an in-depth Marcy Wheeler post here which explores the US sourcing, as far as it goes. (And see my book, So Wrong for So Long, on how the media helped give us the Iraq war, and keep us there.)

Greg Mitchell questions why AIPAC’s role in this debate is being censored.

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No on Military Intervention in Syria

If Congress Says No, Can Obama Strike?

Protesters hold up their red-painted hands behind Secretary of State John Kerry as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 4, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/ J. Scott Applewhite)

Among the many questions the Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to answer regarding its plans for military strikes in Syria is what happens if Congress refuses to authorize the use of force.

It’s a question that should be answered before, not after, a vote occurs in Congress, because it will clarify whether lawmakers are now engaged in the binding decision-making process required by the Constitution, or whether they are merely being used to lend an air of domestic legitimacy to military action that would violate international law.

Senator Rand Paul made the point yesterday near the end of the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which heard testimony from John Kerry, Director of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Paul asked Kerry whether the president would abide by Congress’ vote. “I don’t know what the president’s decision is,” Kerry answered, “but I’ll tell you this …he still has the constitutional authority and he would be in keeping with the Constitution.”

Paul objected: “If we do not say that the Constitution applies, if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you’re making a joke of us. You’re making us into theater, and so we play constitutional theater for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You’re probably going to win. Just go ahead and say it’s real, and let’s have a real debate in this country and not a meaningless debate that in the end you lose and say, ‘Oh well, we had the authority anyway, we’re going to go ahead and go to war anyway.’ ”

Putting his face in his hand, Kerry said, “Senator, I assure you there is nothing meaningless and there is everything real about what is happening here.”

Paul interrupted, “Only if you adhere to what we vote on, only if our vote makes a difference, only if our vote is binding is it meaningful.”

Since President Obama announced his decision to request authorization from Congress, the message coming from the administration has been that Congress’s vote, while important politically, is essentially insignificant from a legal perspective. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made that distinction yesterday after a meeting at the White House. “I don’t think congressional authorization is necessary, but I do think it is a good thing, and I think we can achieve it,” she said.

Moreover, Pelosi argued that there is precedent for a chief executive to proceed with military strikes even after they have failed to achieve congressional authorization. “In 1999, President Clinton brought us all together, similar to this meeting here…to talk about going into the Balkans and the vote was 213-213 [in the House],” Pelosi recounted. “He went. And you know what happened there.”

Contrary to the administration’s position, constitutional scholars argue that the president has no authority to initiate airstrikes without the approval of Congress, and that there is in fact no precedent for doing so in defiance of a clear rejection by Congress of a request for authorization. “The president does not have authority under the Constitution to launch a military attack on another country absent an emergency created by the imminent threat of an armed attack on the United States. So, whatever his claim, the reality is that what he is doing is constitutionally required,” said Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “The constitutional case against presidential power would be strengthened even further by a rejection of authorization.”

Glennon said that there is “virtually no precedent” for the chief executive to proceed in the face of explicit congressional opposition, even considering Pelosi’s historical example. In 1999, Clinton ordered the military to engage Serbia the day after the Senate voted to authorize strikes, and before the House vote ended in a draw. While several presidents initiated strikes prior to seeking congressional approval, Glennon noted that very few of these instances were significant uses of force against significant adversaries that created significant risk.

How great the use of force will be is a matter of debate, but clearly the risks of military action in Syria are great. Without Security Council authorization or a legitimate claim of self-defense, said Glennon, under the UN Charter Syria would have the right to defend itself by force, and to call upon its allies—namely, Russia and Iran—to come to its defense.

As for the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Glennon said it was a wide misunderstanding that the Resolution authorizes the use of force for a sixty-day period. “The War Powers Resolution itself makes clear, in section 8A, that nothing in the resolution may be construed as conferring any power on the president which he would not have had in its absence,” said Glennon. “If Congress does nothing, the War Powers Resolution cannot be relied upon by the executive as conferring authorization. And if Congress says no, the president’s power is doubly undercut.”

Louis Fisher, a scholar-in-residence at the Constitution Project and a specialist on the separation of powers, agreed that if Congress votes not to authorize the use of force, proceeding with airstrikes would be an unprecedented violation of the Constitution. But Fisher is also concerned by what he called “the incredible abdication of congressional authority” expressed in the joint resolution presented by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for markup this morning.

The last of twelve “whereas” clauses in the resolution states that “the President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.” Fisher said he’s never seen language that broad, and that the resolution’s authors are acknowledging presidential authority that has in fact never been granted by the Constitution. “The expectation of the framers of the Constitution was that when one branch’s rights were encroached on, it would fight it off. Congress has failed to do that,” said Fisher.

In the past, chief executives have predominantly used international rather than constitutional law to justify unauthorized acts of war, namely by referencing their duty to uphold the UN charter. President Truman’s administration argued that maintaining the effectiveness of the UN was “a paramount United States interest” in an opinion regarding engagement in Korea in 1950, and the George H. W. Bush drew on that language to support the use of force in Somalia.

Most recently, after the UN authorized the use of force to protect civilians and instituted a no-fly zone in Libya, the Office of Legal Council cited the “U.S. commitment to maintaining the credibility of the United Nations Security Council and the effectiveness of its actions” in an opinion providing legal justification for Obama’s engagement in Libya, for which he did not initially have congressional authority.

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Initiating airstrikes in Syria would undermine rather than uphold the credibility of the UN Charter, which generally permits the use of non-defensive force only with Security Council authorization. That has not been granted. The charter’s purpose is in fact to prevent individual states from engaging in the sort of international policing the US is proposing to undertake in Syria. Ultimately, it isn’t clear where the administration could turn for legal justification in the event of a no vote in Congress.

Even without a strong legal foundation, if the administration decides to proceed with airstrikes, there isn’t much Congress could do to stop it. Beyond impeaching the president or denying funds, both of which would require an unlikely stiffening of spines, Congress could hold hearings, as Senator William Fulbright and the Foreign Relations Committee did in the late 1960s and early ’70s concerning the war in Vietnam. It was at one of those hearings that a 27-year-old Naval lieutenant named John Kerry gave his first congressional testimony, against that ill-begotten war.

In Glennon’s view, it would be “almost unthinkable” in political terms for the president to proceed to attack Syria following the rejection of authorization by Congress. The administration wouldn’t be working so hard to make sure authorization passes if it didn’t recognize that fact. Rand Paul said this morning that he planned to introduce an amendment that would reaffirm Congress’ constitutional authority and the binding nature of its vote, and there are many others in Congress whose calls for authorization last week expressed a similar understanding of the Constitution. The only reason to object to such an amendment is to give the president an escape hatch by which to evade the outcome of the debate. If he has that—what’s the point?

The editors explain why a bipartisan coalition in Congress must turn Obama down.

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From the Sunbelt to Capitol Hill, Students Mass for Racial Justice

Students are arrested at San Francisco City Hall. (Photo: Chris Filippi, KCBS)

E-mail questions, tips or proposals to studentmovement@thenation.com. For earlier dispatches on student and youth organizing, check out the previous post. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. To Commemorate the March, Chicago Students Boycott School

On August 28, the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, students from Chicago took to the streets demanding a democratically elected board of education and an end to school closures. A new student organization, the Chicago Students Union, helped organize students to boycott the third day of school and marched with the Chicago Teachers Union, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Action Now and other community groups, declaring a “boycott for educational justice.” Numerous students were threatened with truancy and detentions, but no students on record got more than an unexcused absence. In the upcoming school year, the Chicago Students Union hopes to expand its network into all schools and plans to push legislation in Chicago and Springfield to ensure a quality education for every student.

—Chicago Students Union

2. With City College on the Ropes, 150 Sit-In

On August 3, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges revoked the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation in July 2014—which, if it goes through, will effectively shut down a historically accessible institution of higher education for working-class students. On August 20, 150 students and SaveCCSF members marched on San Francisco City Hall to demand a meeting with mayor and state adviser Edwin Lee, the dropping of all ACCJC sanctions and the removal of Robert Agrella, the state-imposed “special trustee.” A group of students refused to leave City Hall until a meeting with Lee was confirmed and students’ demands were recognized. Just before midnight, twenty-six students and protesters were arrested by local police, cited and released. Meanwhile, in response to a nearly 300-page complaint filed by the American Federation of Teachers 2121 and the California Federation of Teachers, the ACCJC is under federal investigation over failing to comply with federal regulations. On August 22, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against the ACCJC and the Board of Governors—giving even more weight to claims made by members of the SaveCCSF Coalition.

—Shanell Williams

3. In Phoenix, Dreamers Blockade the Deporters

On August 21, undocumented youth, allies, parents and leaders from the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and United We Dream staged an unprecedented action outside an ICE detention center in Phoenix. Four ADAC leaders chained themselves to the front gates to protest the Obama administration’s reckless deportation policies, which separate our families, and to call on Congress to take action to end these policies and provide a real path to citizenship for the entire community. After the leaders were arrested—and promptly released after a flood of calls—the group reconvened for an evening prayer vigil. When they saw a deportation bus preparing to depart, they ran towards the bus and encircled it in prayer. Two leaders were arrested for physically blocking the bus and forcing it to retreat—a huge victory. The next day, a man from the bus was released (having only committed a minor traffic violation). DREAMers plan to escalate civil disobedience and direct action to expose the moral crisis sparked by the deportations.

—Reyna Montoya and Maria Castro

4. In Raleigh, High Schoolers Risk Arrest for Tuition Equality

On August 15, five undocumented youth were arrested at Wake Technical Community College after protesting the school’s discriminatory admissions policies and refusing to leave the premises. Undocumented students must pay out-of-state rates and register for classes after the regular registration period. While Ulises Perez, Cruz Nuñez, Mario Valladares and Jose Benavides have deferred action status, Marco Cervantes is still awaiting a decision on his application. Perez and Nuñez, high school students from Carrboro, participated because they are unsure what will happen once they graduate from high school. Valladares dreams of being a chef, but he is unable to pursue it due to tuition costs. As actions ramp up, an in-state tuition bill, HB 904, sits, and the NC Community College System refuses to change its policies.

—NC Dream Team

5. In San Antonio, Activists Issue a Travel Warning

Over two years ago, GetEQUAL TX joined forces with other LGBT organizations and leaders with the goal of passing an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in San Antonio. That goal may be realized on September 5, when the city council will vote on the proposed ordinance. However, a last-minute revision will limit the ordinance, making it inapplicable to gender-segregated spaces such as bathrooms. This revision was added after opposition to the ordinance came out in force. Recognizing the political tension and dangers LGBT travelers may face, GetEQUAL TX issued a travel alert for the city advising visitors to use caution and avoid non-LGBT businesses without first confirming that they are welcomed. As the day of the vote draws closer, busloads of opponents are arriving from all over the state. Proponents are working closely with social justice allies to mobilize their communities in an effort to offset the masses of anti-LGBT people who have swarmed the city.


6. As Yale Goes Soft on Rape, Students Up the Ante

On July 31, Yale released its semi-annual report on sexual misconduct, stoking a firestorm of criticism. Students from all corners of campus—from graduate students to incoming freshmen—began writing to the administration with questions and concerns, asking why Yale has not issued perpetrators of sexual violence stronger penalties. The report revealed that a number of students were found guilty of sexual violence, and were given only written reprimands rather than penalties such as expulsion or suspension. Hoping to reignite campus activism on sexual misconduct, a group of survivors and allies came together to form Students Against Sexual Violence at Yale. In August, SASVY released an open letter to the administration with four demands aimed at improving campus policy on sexual violence. SASVY proposed making expulsion the preferred sanction for sexual violence, contracting an external victim’s advocate for survivors, formalizing mechanisms for student and survivor involvement in university policymaking and addressing repeat offenses. After 371 members of the Yale community signed the letter, the administration met with SASVY to discuss the organization’s policy proposals. Activists will continue to work with the university to reform its policies to better meet the needs of survivors and the student body at large.

—Emma Goldberg and Winnie Wang

7. As Sallie Mae Sits, Arne Duncan Gets Mailed

Since late August, Jobs with Justice and the Student Labor Action Project have sent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan more than 25,000 e-mails demanding that the Department of Education end its contract with Sallie Mae. Dating back to February, Jobs with Justice has raised concerns over Sallie Mae’s membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council and violations of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that led to lawsuits, which are now resurfacing due to accusations from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that Sallie Mae violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and other “unfair or deceptive” practices. On May 9, students from the US Student Association, Student Labor Action Project and Jobs with Justice met with Duncan to raise these concerns about Sallie Mae and were told by the secretary to “hold him accountable.” Now, we’re holding Secretary Duncan accountable as the calls to put an end to this $300 million dollar contract scandal grow louder.

—Chris Hicks

8. Nautica’s Dirty Laundry

In the wake of the largest industrial disaster in the history of the garment industry, United Students Against Sweatshops is working with Bangladeshi workers and their unions to continue pressuring multinational brands to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a groundbreaking, legally binding agreement between unions and brands that gives workers the right to refuse unsafe work and requires brands to finance necessary factory repairs. This year, using the same strategies that helped us win victories over Russell, Nike and Adidas, students will take on the collegiate apparel brands that have not signed the accord. One of our first actions will take place on September 6 at the Nautica Fashion Week event in New York. Nautica’s parent company, VF Corporation, has stubbornly refused to sign the accord, opting instead to join Walmart and Gap in a business-as-usual fake safety scheme—which is why USAS and the International Labor Rights Forum will be turning the heat up during Fashion Week.

—United Students Against Sweatshops

9. ALEC’s Unwanted Offspring

On August 23, twenty-one healthcare workers from the Service Employees International Union’s Millennial program came to Washington from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas. At ALEC headquarters, we joined other young workers and activists to protest Stand Your Ground, voter suppression and the privatization and policing of our schools. The next day, we participated in the fiftieth anniversary March on Washington, which was powerful as our ancestors—including Bob Moses, who spoke to youth organizers and young workers after the march—made it possible for us to walk those streets in a peaceful setting. As a nursing assistant in Chicago, I see high turnover among young healthcare workers—and the space to build a millennial movement to fight poverty, student debt, low wages and racism. On August 29, SEIU Millennials supported fast-food and retail workers on strike for $15 an hour and union rights. On September 20 and 21, Millennials will launch a leadership assembly to choose our next campaigns.

—Lakesia Collins

10. The Two-Minute March

After youth leaders are cut from the August 28 ceremonies, #OurMarch begins.

—Dream Defenders

Help Prevent Military Intervention in Syria

After pressure from Congress and a skeptical public, President Obama announced that he would ask for congressional authorization before launching an attack on Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It’s now up to Congress to weigh the many humanitarian and practical arguments against such an attack and to rise to the moral challenge of the moment.


According to polls, a plurality of Americans oppose striking Syria even if there is definitive evidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Now it is time for democracy to work. Contact your senators and representatives and demand they vote “no” to war with Syria.


This new Nation editorial outlines both the practical and humanitarian reasons to oppose US airstrikes in response to the horrific chemical weapons attack.


During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the administration has irrefutable evidence proving the Assad regime was responsible for the deadly chemical attack in late August. But questions remain over key parts of the administration’s case for military action, as this Democracy Now! conversation makes clear.

Live Updates: A Weak Case for Intervention Before Congress

Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When President Obama decided to ask for input from Congress on a military strike in Syria, it created a crucial opportunity to probe two questions about the intervention: will it be limited? And how effective will it be?

The answers provided by Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday were unclear on several of these points. And few of their answers inspired much confidence. The House will host these officials this afternoon—and hopefully get more clarity.

On the issue of entanglement, Kerry made the biggest headlines by hypothesizing about US troops on the ground in Syria early on in the hearing. The draft legislation sent over by the White House notably contained no prohibition on ground troops, and while Senators quickly confirmed they would add that language, it certainly raised eyebrows about the administration’s intentions.

When Senator Robert Menendez asked Kerry about ground troops, he said this:

SEC. KERRY: Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to [have prohibition language], not because there is any intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground. And I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as has the secretary of defense and the chairman. But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country. So that was the only kind of example, that’s the only thing I can think of that would immediately leap to mind.

The blowback inside and outside the hearing room was swift. Polls show the public is heavily opposed to intervention in no small part because they fear deeper entanglement, and so Kerry’s remarks were seriously damaging to the administration’s case. “In the event Syria imploded” is no doubt an extremely fungible term. Already, the regime has lost control of large swaths of the country; a third of the population has fled and become refugees; daily, grinding violence including, now, chemical weapons, has claimed tens of thousands of lives. What does a real implosion look like, exactly?

Senator Bob Corker, moments later, told Kerry “I didn’t find that a very appropriate answer regarding boots on the ground.” Kerry recanted—again, and again throughout the hearing—and ultimately the White House has agreed to such language in a new draft bill. But surely there are now only larger questions about how deeply involved Obama’s foreign policy apparatus would like to be in Syria.

On effectiveness, there were some serious and probing questions from a wide range of senators, from Republican Marco Rubio to Democrat Tom Udall.

The basic problem the senators—and many others—have regarding intervention is that it’s not clear what the actual goal is. Dempsey has already acknowledged that airstrikes cannot stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, and indeed a Rand Corporation study concluded it would be impossible to destroy his capability without a massive infusion of ground troops.

Meanwhile, administration officials have been clear they don’t intend to end the civil war and topple Assad with the airstrikes—if that were even possible—and so the question is, what is the objective?

There was a lot of pablum from intervention supporters on this point. “This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world,” Menendez said during his opening remarks. Kerry repeatedly talked of “reputation” and taking a stand against the use of chemical weapons.

But the closest thing to an actual logistical argument came from Dempsey, who said at several points the idea was to “deter and degrade” the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. He said the strikes could eliminate key launching stations and apparatus, and invoke a certain price to be paid for using chemical weapons that Assad may want to avoid in the future. This would also weaken—but not defeat—Assad, in the administration’s eyes. “The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity,” Kerry said.

John Judis describes the administration’s theory best—by weakening Assad, the United States can force a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.

But Juan Cole sees the opposite result playing out. “The prospect of a US missile strike is emboldening the rebels. They increasingly hope that the US will come in militarily with them. The rebels don’t look at the proposed US missile strikes as a limited affair or as solely related to chemical weapons use,” he wrote. “By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come.”

Several senators tried to unearth what the outcome of intervention will truly be. “Are we really going to be giving them credibility if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won?” asked Senator Jim Risch. Kerry said plainly that wouldn’t happen, but didn’t have much in the way of detail why that wouldn’t be the case.

Ultimately these two issues of entanglement and effectiveness are deeply, and dangerously, related. The airstrikes, by the administration’s own admission, won’t eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capability nor topple his regime. If he indeed emerges more emboldened—with more desperation that could lead to more unconventional warfare—all while the country plunges further into civil war, the situation clearly becomes much more dire.

If that happens and the United States is already militarily involved, it’s a recipe for a drawn-out disaster. Today, administration officials are already sketching out in public scenarios in which US troops could be on the ground. What will they propose then?

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These central questions will hopefully be probed further in the House of Representatives this afternoon. Check back in this space for updates from the hearing, which you can also watch here.

1:18 pm House Syria resolution in doubt? Representative Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, informed Kerry of a “rumor” that the House won’t hold a vote on a Syria resolution. Kerry said hasn’t heard that, and it seems quite unlikely—there will almost certainly at least be a vote—but having one of the top foreign policy Republicans in the House float that possibility is not a good sign for proponents of intervention.

1:32 pm General Dempsey won’t rule out escalation. Representative Gregory Meeks asked pointed questions about the risk of further entanglement in Syria. General Dempsey’s response was honest, but not particularly reassuring. “What we’re talking about here is not [a longer engagement]. That’s not to say that I discount the risk of escalation, which I never discount, but I can tell you we’ve mitigated it to as low as possible.”

2:41 pm Hearing grinds towards uselessness. The House hearing is beginning to drag, re-covering old ground and with members delving into theatrics. Representative Jeff Duncan self-caricatured a Tea Partier by holding up a picture of someone killed in Benghazi. He drew a sharp rebuke from Kerry. “We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to sit here and talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.”

2:46 pm A dollar figure (sort of) for intervention. Hagel was asked about the cost of US military intervention in Syria, as outlined by the administration. He said “it would be in the tens of millions of dollars.”

2:49 pm Cantor promises House vote. An aide to the House majority leader told CBS News that Ros-Lehtinen is wrong, and “We are planning on having a debate and a vote in the House.”

3:05 pm Grayson questions administration’s evidence of regime culpability. Representative Alan Grayson pointedly asked Hagel if he would agree to declassify intercepted communications between Syrian commanders, in redacted form. The administration has already said it will not declassify these documents, which allegedly show commanders talking about a chemical attack. But Grayson referenced media reports suggesting the communications actually reflect surprise among the commanders—making him the first member to openly question the administration’s evidence during these hearings.

Grayson kept pushing Hagel to declassify the documents, but Hagel declined, and said he had “no idea” what Grayson was referring to, and said only he’d have to “go back and look” at the intelligence.

3:28 pm Senate panel approves intervention. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following yesterday’s debate, has approved a resolution to intervene militarily in Syria. The measure allows ninety days of intervention, with a prohibition on any ground troops. The vote was 10-7-1, with new Senator Ed Markey voting “present.” The full Senate will now consider the resolution early next week.

4:22 pm Hearing over, vote uncertain. After over four hours of discussion, the House debate has ended. The administration is likely pleased with how it went; opponents of intervention were somewhat muted, and no solid blows against the administration’s case were landed. But that doesn’t reflect the very tough vote coming up in the House, where at last count only forty-three members were likely to approve intervention.

Why did The New York Times cut its reference to AIPAC lobbying in its Syria coverage?

Jon Stewart Returns With Tough Hit on Syria

After a summer abroad directing his first film (with John Oliver a surprisingly fine fill-in), Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show last night, after cutting his beard at the start.

After a goofy opening, he offered a hard-hitting if fun look at the drive to strike Syria, leaving no doubt where he stood. Watch it, with appearances by Dubya, Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld and more. Also includes: “The ‘red line’ is just a dick-measuring ribbon.” But may lead to “Operation Just-the-Tip.”

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Then he brought on the United Nations official in charge of the massive Syria refugee problem in Jordan and elswhere in the region.

Go here for results of two polls finding Americans much opposed to attack on Syria. I will modestly suggest that as war nears again, certain people ought to read or reread my book on the media and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.

Katrina vanden Heuvel urges congress to think carefully before intervening in Syra.

'Nobody Wants This Except the Military-Industrial Complex'

A man sits in front of houses destroyed during a Syrian Air Force air strike in Azaz, Syria on August 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, backs President Obama’s request for authorization to intervene militarily in Syria, as does House Democratic Minority Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is similarly “in,” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in mum.

The president has done a pretty good job of selling his plan to congressional leaders.

He has not, however, sold it to the American people.

Thus, when members of Congress decide which side they’re on in the Syrian intervention votes that are expected to take place next week, they will have to consider whether they want to respond to pro-war pressure from inside-the-Beltway—as so many did when they authorized action against Iraq—or to the anti-war sentiments of their constituents.

Reflecting on the proposed intervention, Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Florida, allowed as how “nobody wants this except the military-industrial complex.”

The level of opposition might not be quite so overwhelming.

But it is strikingly high.

And, even as the president makes his case, skepticism about intervention appears to be growing.

A Pew Research survey released Tuesday found support for air strikes had collapsed from 45 percent to 29 percent, while opposition had spiked. “The public has long been skeptical of U.S. involvement in Syria, but an April survey found more support than opposition to the idea of a US-led military response if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed,” Pew reported Tuesday. “The new survey finds both broad concern over the possible consequences of military action in Syria and little optimism it will be effective.”

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, released after the president announced he would seek congressional authorization for an attack on Syria, and after several days of administration lobbying for that attack, found that voters are overwhelmingly opposed to intervention.

“The United States says it has determined that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in the civil war there,” the Post/ABC poll asked. “Given this, do you support or oppose the United States launching missile strikes against the Syrian government?”

* Sixty percent of registered voters (59 percent of all respondents) express opposition. Just 36 percent support intervention.

* Self-identified Democrats are opposed 54-42—a 12 point gap.

* Republicans are opposed 55-43—a similar 12 point gap.

* The fiercest opposition is among independents, who disapprove of intervention by a 66-30 margin. That figure suggests that members of Congress who represent swing districts might actually be more vulnerable if they vote to authorize the attack.

In addition to being broad-based, the opposition sentiment runs deep. Even if US allies such as Britain and France join in, a 51-46 majority is still opposed to missile strikes.

The idea of going further and trying to topple the Syrian regime appears to be a political non-starter. Seventy percent of those surveyed oppose supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, while just 30 percent support the proposal that has been floated by President Obama and Republican hawks such as Arizona Senator John McCain.

What is especially notable about the polling data is the intensity of opposition to any sort of intervention—including missile strikes targeted at suspected chemical weapons sites—among groups that lean Democratic at election time.

* Sixty-five percent of women surveyed for The Post/ABC poll oppose missile strikes, while just 30 percent favor them. (The Pew survey found an even lower level of support among women: just 19 percent)

* Among Americans under age 40 who were surveyed for the Post/ABC poll, 65 percent are opposed.

* Among Hispanics, 63 percent are opposed.

* Among African-Americans, 56 percent are opposed.

On the question of arming the rebels, opposition numbers skyrocket.

* Seventy-six percent of women surveyed for the Post/ABC poll are opposed.

* Seventy-four percent of those under age 40 are opposed.

* Seventy-three percent of African-Americans are opposed.

Regionally, the Democratic-leaning states of the Midwest and the Northeast are more opposed than the Republican-leaning states of the South.

It is true that foreign policy is not always made on the basis of polling data. It is true that patterns of war weariness and concern about how to address the use of chemical weapons makes the current circumstance volatile. And it is true that poll numbers can change. But it is worth noting that discomfort with launching air strikes—let alone any other intervention—is running strong among voters who have followed the story closely and among voters who have only recently begun to engage with it. Pew reports that “opposition to the idea is prevalent regardless of people’s level of interest—nearly half oppose airstrikes among the most and least attentive segments of the public.”

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Or, as the Washington Post analysis puts it: “there is deep opposition among every political and demographic group in the survey.”

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No on Military Intervention

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