Monday, May 14, 2018

Moving the Embassy Didn't Matter: the Palestinians Were Already Stuck

Now that the Trump Administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel and moved the US embassy there, many are asking what this will mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for future peace. A lot of public discussion, however, tends to be driven not by an analysis of what is and what may happen, but by what people want. This is one of those conflicts where dispassionate analysis is hard to come by - so naturally, I thought I'd give it a shot.

Objective analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult because both sides have very strong narratives rooted in justice and righteousness. That these narratives are largely incompatible is lost on no one, which goes a long way to explaining why there's been no resolution. Even outsiders tend to look at the conflict through the eyes of what they want to have happen, and make predictions that are really attempts to calculate how to get from wherever we are at the moment to that end.

This is particularly true for those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The case for injustice in Palestine is easy to make. Even former President Jimmy Carter, a man of wisdom who knows how to weigh his words carefully, has likened the separation of Palestinians from mainstream Israeli society and the control over their movements and territory, as akin to South African apartheid. The Palestinian population is stuck in a third- (or even fourth-) world existence, both politically and economically, from which there appears to be no escape. There's an easy justice narrative there.

Israel too has a narrative about justice and victimhood. Beyond the Holocaust, which was perhaps the worst targeted crime against a population in human history, and beyond the centuries of violent anti-semitism that preceded it, modern Israel is an island of less than 9 million inhabitants surrounded by a sea of hundreds of millions of Arabs, many of whom have expressed the desire to wipe Israel from the map. However powerful Israel has become - and it is indeed very powerful - it is difficult to fault modern Israelis for believing that the world is a threatening place, with hatred directed against them from all sides.

But if we want to understand the possible and impossible next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of this helps. For a conflict analyst, it is enough to know that the two sides have mutually incompatible, even mutually contradictory, narratives about themselves and the other. This much has been true since 1947, and it hasn't changed.

So what now? Is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol city the end of the peace process? Or will this usher in a new era of opportunity? There answer can't (or shouldn't) depend on whether we like or don't like Donald Trump, or whether we prefer the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative, but on an analysis of the situation.

In any such analysis, it is important to note that neither "side" is a monolith. There are Israelis who are happy about the US embassy move, and those who are upset by it. There are even Israelis who would be perfectly happy to see all the Palestinians expelled from the whole territory, although they tend to be quiet about it. There are Palestinians who desire to "drive the Jews into the sea", and those who would be happy to live beside them in peace. So what we see at any one point in time reflects a rough majority opinion of each side. Feelings and goals can change, and if they do the analysis changes with it. But for now, things are what they are.

As of today, Israel has most of what it wants. It has complete control over its recognized sovereign territory, and (as of today) a slightly greater recognition of its claim to Jerusalem, which it already controls anyway. Since its withdrawal from direct occupation of the West Bank and Gaza back in the 1990s, it no longer has the immediate burden of trying to provide services or a functioning economy for most of the Palestinian population, nor the difficulty of policing it from within. Israel still faces security challenges from terrorism, from the Syrian civil war next door, and from Iran, but these are for the most part as managed as they can be, and the bigger issues (Syria and Iran) are independent of the Palestinian issue.

The status quo, in essence, is one that most Israelis are perfectly happy with. The moving of the US Embassy doesn't really change that, except perhaps in a minor symbolic way. Despite the emotional narratives and (for some) references to the Will of God, the primary interest for the median of Israeli society is peace and security.

There is a subset of Israelis who would like to change the status quo still further, by gradually assuming control over the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, in their parlance). The settler movement is actively engaged in this effort at what Palestinians might call slow-motion ethnic cleansing, encouraged (or at least enabled) by the current Israeli government. Again, the moving of the US embassy doesn't change this calculus much either, except perhaps as a further signal that the US will not actively oppose settler expansion. Then again, no American administration since George H.W. Bush has done much to dissuade this movement, so there again the Trump Administration hasn't changed very much.

On the Palestinian side, of course, no one is happy with the status quo. The economy is a shambles, there is little hope either individually or collectively that their prospects will improve, they are subject to a host of difficulties in being told where they can live, where they can travel to, and what jobs they can or can't have, and their political leaders are largely ineffectual, alternately violent and corrupt. Things have been bad for a very long time, and every year they get a little bit worse.

Here, the moving the US embassy is a small material change in that it signals that the two-state solution - with Jerusalem divided into two capitols side by side - is dead. More importantly, today's events send a signal that the power of the United States is firmly on the side of Israel, the locally dominant power in the conflict. But this is at best a marginal shift, because these things have largely been true for a while. It is arguable that, except for the symbolic location of the embassy, not much would have been different under a Hillary Clinton administration.

It can be argued that outcomes are a function of the intersection between interests and power. Israel holds nearly all the power in the current situation, while the Palestinians have essentially none. Palestinians have not yet discovered any means of leveraging their assets in a way that would exert significant power on the situation. In the 1980s they launched the Intifadah, and although they paid a heavy price for it they did force Israel to reconsider the situation. Since that time, and with a few echoes in the 1990s, Palestinians have been largely powerless.

Palestinians' hopes have always leaned on one of three possible sources of power. Either their Arab brethren in neighboring states would help them, or the United States would help them, or they would somehow find the means to alter the situation themselves. The first hope vanished in 1979 when Anwar Sadat abandoned any significant pretext of sponsoring the Palestinian cause. The second swelled briefly in the Bush 41 and Clinton Administrations, but hasn't been much since; Trump's announcement is the last of a line of nails in that coffin. The third has been slowly leaching away with time, and as Israel has gotten better and better at sealing the borders and preventing any significant weaponry from getting into the Palestinian territories.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that the conflict is stuck. The party which has the greatest interest in changing the situation has no power to do so, and no prospect of acquiring any. The party that has power to change things has no interest in doing so. Barring a truly massive uprising that disrupts Israel's security calculations - and today's events demonstrate that they're willing to be pretty ruthless about meeting the threat of force with much greater force - this isn't going to change.

So it is not true that Trump's decision to move the embassy has killed the peace process. The peace process was already dead. And, although I don't like it and wish the world were otherwise, I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Iran Nuclear Deal and the Death of Rationality

We will find out later today whether the Trump Administration wants to continue to abide by the multilateral agreement limiting Iran's development of nuclear technology. All public indications are that Trump will renege on the deal, although predictability has never been this Administration's hallmark. As Trump himself would say, "we'll see what happens".

Assuming that Trump follows through on his threat and withdraws the US from the arrangement, this will signal a major blow to those who believe that US foreign policy can be understood as an exercise in rational choice. There is no way to square this decision with anything resembling rationality as it is commonly understood.

Rational choice involves a few simple steps. It's easy to understand, though incredibly difficult to practice:

1) Set goals, in priority order

2) Evaluate a range of options (preferably, all available options) in terms of:
a) Their probability of achieving the goals
b) Their likely costs

3) Select the option that maximizes gains and minimizes costs

Let's assume in this case that the US goal is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This is the stated goal not only of the Trump Administration, but every administration before it. If there is one common element to US policy, this would be it.

The multilateral nuclear agreement is one way of achieving this goal. It has relatively low cost (2), and by all objective accounts it has a reasonably high prospect of success for the time being (1). We can argue about the probability of the latter, but it's somewhere above zero and somewhere below 1.0.

What are the alternatives? This Administration has offered few other options. Two possibilities come to mind:

• Renewed sanctions: The cost to the US of such sanctions is relatively low (2), but the probability of success is also low (1), certainly lower than the existing arrangement. Abandoning the deal means abandoning the constraints in it and the inspections that come with the package, which arms control experts have described as the most intrusive inspections regime ever devised. Israel recently revealed that Iran did in fact develop a program for nuclearization some 15 years ago - during a period of sanctions. Renewed sanctions will do nothing to prevent Iran from developing nukes, and will likely given them every incentive to do so if they think sanctions are a prelude to the next option...

• War: The cost to the US (and participating allies) of a war with Iran is catastrophically high (2). Such a war would almost immediately close the Strait of Hormuz, skyrocketing global oil prices and potentially sending the US economy back into recession. The immediate monetary and human cost to the US military would also be high. Iran is not Iraq - it is large, mountainous, and populated by a fiercely nationalistic people numbering in the tens of millions. The nuclear facilities we would most want to destroy are buried deep under mountains. Airstrikes or missile strikes won't work, and invasion is suicide. The human toll of such a campaign would be catastrophic. Moreover, the odds of such a campaign successfully denuclearizing Iran are extremely low (1), because of the aforementioned mountain bunkers and because in the long run, Iranians will have every reason to want to develop a deterrent to prevent another attack.

Few if any have argued that the current negotiated deal is perfect, and it doesn't address other kinds of behavior (missile development, support for Syria and Hizbollah) that the US would rather Iran didn't engage in. But there are no perfect solutions - there aren't even many good ones. If these are the options on the table, then abandoning the existing arrangement in favor of either sanctions or war is, quite simply, irrational.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that preventing nuclear proliferation isn't really the goal - the goal is regime change in Iran. That does indeed change the calculus, because the existing negotiated arrangement has a zero probability of achieving that goal. Sanctions likewise won't topple the regime, especially as they will be unilateral on the part of the US - Europe, China, and Russia won't join in, so their impact will be low on Iran. The only possible avenue that leads to regime change is war - and even that has a low probability of success, if you define success as "overthrow the existing regime and replace it with one consistent with US interests". If we learned anything from Iraq, it is that our ability to control what happens politically inside a country after we knock over its government is close to zero.

Very few, of course, have accused Trump himself or his administration of acting in a rational fashion. This is a Presidency driven by gut feelings, fear, and the desire to be the anti-Obama. Those things do help explain a decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear settlement. Let's just stop pretending that rationality can explain any of this.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Fear - on a College Admissions Tour?

Some have suggested that college campuses are just a reflection of the society we serve. That certainly proved to be the case at Colorado State this past week:
The Admissions Tour That Went Horribly Wrong
I encourage you to read through this article, or at least the facts at the top. The basic facts are these:

1) A parent on an admissions tour at Colorado State University called campus police to report two people (both Native Americans) who came late to the tour, whom she considered out of place
2) The campus police arrived, briefly detained the students for questioning, and then released them. The students were cooperative throughout.
3) Because of the delay, the students missed the tour and returned empty-handed to New Mexico - a seven hour round trip essentially for nothing.

Lots of the issues we're used to seeing these days surface here, including the selective use of law enforcement and the apparent pervasiveness of racism in our society. None of this is particularly new.

I call attention to this story only because it points once again to the root problem: Fear. This woman called police because she was afraid - afraid of people who looked different, who dressed different, who acted in ways she did not expect. Afraid, in her mind, of what they might do if allowed to roam unchecked. This was nothing but simple, irrational, soul-crushing fear.

In one sense, I feel sorry for this woman. What must it be like to go through life so afraid of your fellow human beings - your fellow Americans who walk the same streets, shop in the same stores, visit the same college campuses - that you feel the need for police protection simply because someone is near you? That must be absolutely awful.

And although she likely doesn't see it this way, it's a condition that's entirely self-inflicted. She can walk away from her fear at any time. Nothing needs to change - only her way of seeing the world.

I know that's not easy. But it's far easier than many of the other things we strive for. For each of us, our fear is entirely under our own control - if only we can see it that way.

Not for nothing, I suspect, is the most common commandment in the Bible: "Do not be afraid". No one ever made a good decision out of fear. This woman certainly didn't.

And so again is Yoda proved right:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Good Faculty Governance: The Power of the Policy Wonk

My last blog post, "In Defense of the Dark Side," set off a lot of good conversation among friends across academia. One common refrain: there are indeed terrible administrators who make poor (usually unilateral) decisions that have seriously bad consequences for the faculty, and (more importantly) for the universities where they work and the students they serve.

This led to other side conversations about the selection processes that go into picking administrators, the benefits of "cross-cultural marriages" (faculty married to administrators), and other such things. This is what happens when you get a lot of well-educated people talking about stuff they care about.

One question that occurred to me as I read through the various threads: given the common occurrence of "bad administration", what can faculty do about it? "Shared governance" is supposed to provide a bulwark against excesses of power, but it often doesn't. Besides complaining (or snarking) on the internet, what can be done?

In answer, I want to trumpet the value of the often-underappreciated oddball: the policy wonk. A true policy wonk is someone who doesn't just care about the policy outcomes; they immerse themselves in the rich details of how policies are made. Unlike most, they really do want to see (in Bismark's words) how the sausage is made.

Why do policy wonks matter? Because the chief problem that faculty everywhere are trying to solve is, How do we hold administrators accountable? The reason why this is so difficult to do most of the time is that there is no good answer for the question, accountable for what?

Usually, faculty want to hold an administrator accountable after the fact for a decision they feel was a bad one - that is, for a policy outcome. But whether decisions are truly good or bad in their effects is often not known until significantly later. Prior to that, people can express opinions but it's hard to hold someone accountable because they have an opinion different from yours.

Much better if you can hold administrators accountable for how decisions are made - that is, for the process rather than the outcome. The reason why this is a more promising field is that process can be agreed upon ahead of time. We can't necessarily agree with the Dean on what decisions she will make next year, because we don't know what those decisions will be or even what they will entail. But we can agree on the rules by which those decisions will get made.

This is where the policy wonk comes in. Policy wonks love process, and in particular they love to codify process in policies and procedures. They are the folks who will delve into the details of your university's policy manual (which no one else ever reads).

The keys to accountability are simple: agree ahead of time on the process by which decisions will be made, and write those agreements down. That seems really boring when you're doing it, but it comes in great handy later on.

Take an example one of my friends brought up: a senior administrator decides to break a College of Arts & Sciences up into multiple units (a College of Science and one or more Colleges of Other not-Science Stuff). If there is no policy written down about how such a decision should be made, then the administrator is unconstrained. You may not like the idea of breaking up the college, but how do you hold someone accountable just because you disagree?

This was actually a problem for my current employer in the past. Colleges were broken up, renamed, and recombined with astonishing rapidity. The running joke was that you had to check in every morning to see who you were working for that day. Faculty, unsurprisingly, were not amused, especially because they were often not consulted.

In response, we (the administration and faculty together) wrote a policy that guides decisions about recreating or changing academic units - everything from renaming an academic department to restructuring colleges. The policy provides for thorough consultation at every level, including all affected faculty as well as all relevant administrators. This consultation has to proceed in order, starting with the faculty in the affected department(s). Only when all of the steps of the process have been followed can a proposal move forward.

It's not a perfect policy - a Provost determined to cram change down the faculty's throats could still do so. But she would first have to listen to everyone's objections, and document them. You can't walk in tomorrow to find you're in a different college or department without knowing about it. And if the process isn't followed, faculty have a set of rules in writing - rules which the administration agreed to - to which administrators can be held accountable.

It's not necessary that all faculty become policy wonks. But they should identify, and value, the wonks among their number, and use their wonk powers in the service of accountability. A reasonable administration will welcome such an effort. And if the administration resists, you will at least have shifted the conflict to a far more important set of questions.

Go forth and wonk!

Monday, April 16, 2018

In Defense of the Dark Side (Academic Administration)

Since I have spent my entire career in higher education across six different institutions, I have many friends in many places. Since I built most of that network as a faculty member, and continue to attend faculty conferences, many (most?) of those friends are faculty. One of the constants of having a broad network: there are always at least a few institutions in my circle of friends where faculty-administration relations are terrible.

These situations are always worse when budgets are bad, when cuts are happening, and/or when a new contract is at stake. Given the condition of higher education these days, some confluence of these circumstances is pretty common. Why this is true is the subject of another day (or of previous posts - see here and here for examples).

What I'm interested in today is the kind of tribal circling of the wagons that these conflicts create - and how that behavior makes finding solutions harder. Recently I have witnessed a significant amount of internet chatter among friends (at an institution other than my current employer) complaining about their university in the midst of both budget-cutting and negotiating a new contract. Many of these comments are laced with snark aimed at various generic vice presidents and associate provosts and senior executive VPs who want to fire half the faculty and take away the printers from the other half.

This is an old trope in faculty circles - that universities hire too many high-salary administrators and not enough faculty to actually teach the students. It feels good for faculty to repeat this narrative, in much the same way that it feels good for Rush Limbaugh dittoheads to fulminate about "libtards" who want to destroy the American way of life.

The comparison is intentionally aggressive. In both cases, the purpose of the name-calling is not to make an argument for why one is right, but to feel good in the company of others of one's own ilk. We are comforted in knowing that we are members of the tribe, different from Those Evil Ones over there who would destroy us. We feel righteous and secure at the same time.

In both cases it is also true that the accusations being flung about are based largely on ignorance. In most cases, those sharing the snark do not actually know the people on "the other side", nor do they understand much about their motives. Malice is assumed, not on the basis of objective evidence, but because it feels right.

This tendency to rally the troops around snark has a couple of unfortunate consequences. First, in this age of broadband communications very few messages only reach their target audience. Hyperbolic statements meant primarily for internal consumption can become external positions in public. If you've been denigrating the other side in full view of everyone, it's much harder to compromise with them when compromise would create a solution.

The second and more lasting problem is that snark becomes a cultural habit. Long after the new contract has been negotiated, after the finances are righted and the budget cuts stop and faculty hiring resumes, faculty who engage in anti-administration snark will be left with a lingering feeling that "they" can't be trusted, they are evil, they have malicious motives. That emotional poison takes a long time to work its way out of the system. And long before it can, another conflict will come along to reinvigorate it, perpetuating the cycle.

I am not about to argue that all administrators are flawless and of pure intent. I have seen (and suffered under) some truly terrible ones in my career, just as I have encountered lazy and malicious faculty. But to seize on the bad examples and assume this must be true for the entire class is intellectual and ethical nonsense. Moreover, it's counterproductive nonsense because it generates conflict where there need be none.

Faculty who look around and wonder why the environment at their university is so toxic need to include self-examination in that mix. Yes, Presidents and Provosts have a lot of power and influence. But the average length of service of a tenure-track faculty member is FAR longer than that of the average administrator, and there are far more of the former than the latter. Who has the greater influence on the culture, the many who are there for decades or the few who are there for a half dozen years?

By all means, hold administrators accountable - especially the bad ones. But retire the snark. It's not doing you any good, and in the end makes things worse for everyone. If you want things to be better, help make them better. You may be surprised at how much you can do.

A Syrian Escalation Ladder?

Amidst the long run-up to last week's somewhat anti-climactic missile strikes against Syria, a few folks raised a concerning specter: could a US bombing campaign lead American into a wider war?

For all the talk of a "new Cold War" between the US and Russia, we're nowhere near that point. The Syria case illustrates this nicely, and helps understand why Syria is unlikely to be the flashpoint for World War III.

First, even with the end of the Cold War in 1991 the United States and Russia remain strategic nuclear-capable states, meaning that each possesses the capability to threaten the existence of the other as a functioning society, and indeed to threaten life on the planet. Strategic nuclear arsenals have declined from their peak in the early 1980s, but both sides retain plenty of capacity to effectively annihilate the other.

What has changed since the Cold War is that the US and Russia no longer seek to actively destroy or overthrow the other. Putin enjoys messing with the West, but largely because he wants to create some breathing space within what he regards as Russia's sphere of influence so he can do what he wants. Today's Russia, unlike Stalin's USSR, has no grand ideology for taking over the world. Putin may be a local megalomaniac, but a global megalomaniac he is not.

Because of this shift, the US is no longer nearly as concerned as we once were that Moscow could try to destroy us at any moment. This used to be a real, if debated, concern, but there is no equivalent to the Committee on the Present Danger today - no more talk of Nuclear Vulnerability Windows and Strategic First Strike capabilities and the other sorts of things we used to worry about.

All of this is to say that, compared to the 1970s and early 1980s, the global superpower stakes are a LOT lower. If anybody wants to replace the US as global hegemon, it's China, and they seem content to focus on economics as a tool for doing so. They also have the good sense to stay the heck out of Syria, and indeed the Middle East as a whole.

So what does all of this mean for the US involvement in Syria? In the short term, we got through the strikes over the weekend without any obvious escalation. Trump, despite his proclaimed aversion to telling people what he's going to do, had telegraphed the attack for a week, so everyone had time to prepare. The US military also had plenty of opportunity to warn the Russians, who do have personnel and equipment on the ground in Syria. That warning was undoubtedly passed on to the Syrian regime, possibly lessening the impact of the strikes, but the whole thing was mostly symbolic anyway.

The fact that the US military can warn the Russian military directly in a theater of operations shows how far the two sides have gone to avoid direct confrontation, which neither of them wants. Syria isn't important enough to either side to consider risking a broader crisis, and unlike the Cold War era there's no "domino theory" today that would link a conflict in a minor regional state to an existential threat to the US.

There are only two things the US can do in Syria that could provoke a significant Russian military response. The first is to kill actual Russian soldiers (not mercenaries, whom all sides agree are on their own - the whole point of those forces, on both sides, is plausible deniability). If the US were to target a Russian facility and kill uniformed Russian forces, particularly in significant numbers, Russia would almost certainly feel compelled to respond in some way. Ongoing communication between US and Russian commanders in the area is a way to keep this from happening by accident, which so far has worked well.

The other thing that could produce a significant Russian reaction would be to directly threaten the survival of the Assad regime. Were to US to launch a truly massive bombing campaign, possibly combined with ground forces, that threatened to overthrow Assad and replace him with a more pro-Western alternative, we would be forcing Russia to make a choice: risk war with the US in order to protect their ally, or abandon their alliance and retreat. That's a difficult choice, given all that Russia has invested in the Syrian regime.

Luckily, it's a choice that Russia will almost certainly never have to make. Current US foreign policy, taken collectively, doesn't care nearly enough about Syria to try to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Trump himself dislikes the whole thing and, now that ISIS is mostly defeated, wants to get the heck out. Others in the administration may have other views, but together they haven't been able to come up with a coherent Syria policy. In the absence of consensus on Syria, and given Trump's indifference to its future, it is extremely unlikely that the US will do anything that might push the situation towards a Russian response.

So much, then, for starting World War III. The other escalation axis people have been watching is Israel-Iran, but this too probably isn't going anywhere. Iran's support for Syria, while significant, is mostly through weapons and money, not Iranian forces on the ground. Iran doesn't like it when Israel bombs things in Syria, but there's not much the Iranians can do about it. Iran lacks a counter-deterrent to Israel's nuclear arsenal, and it lacks any other significant capacity to strike Israel except through terrorist proxies. As many scholars in my field have pointed out, proximity is a major factor in the likelihood of war, and Israel and Iran are not near each other.

Syria is a good example of how the most powerful state in the system doesn't always get its way. In this case that's because the US, despite its significant military advantages over all competitors, doesn't care as much as others do about the outcome. The American body politic is extremely unwilling to suffer any serious costs over Syria - Trump may be able to shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose voters but if he gets a couple thousand Americans killed fighting in Syria he may see his support cut in half. There's no agreement in Washington among foreign policy elites (of any party) as to what to do either. And so we dither and muddle along, while those with clearer goals and greater commitment forge ahead.

This is unlikely to change any time soon, and the end result is likely Assad remaining in charge of a significantly damaged Syria. On the way to that outcome, we can at least rest assured that this war is unlikely to spiral outward into a wider one.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Laws, Norms, and War: We Have Met the Enemy (again)...

As President Trump continues to flirt with the idea of hitting Syria with missiles, some in Washington have started asking whether the President has the legal authority to do so. This question makes little sense to most Americans, who have long assumed that Presidents (whom we refer to as "Commander-in-Chief" more often than by any other title) can do whatever the heck they want with the US military.

But the question does bear consideration. Lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan opined today that the President doesn't need any legal authority beyond the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11. Others have pointed out that that particular AUMF is a little long in the tooth (nearly 17 years), and it's stretching the original meaning well past any reasonable interpretation of the original intent to suggest that an authorization to go after al Qaeda and its affiliates somehow covers military strikes on the Syrian government, which hates AQ and its ilk.

The Framers of the Constitution never intended the President to be the one to decide whether the US goes to war. The power to declare war is listed under the Enumerated Powers of Congress (Article I, Section 8). That same section also gives Congress the power to create (or not) an Army and a Navy. For all that conservatives in the vein of the late Antonin Scalia like to talk about the Doctrine of Original Intent, none have ever felt any qualms about the complete abandonment of the obvious intent of the Framers on this issue.

That being said, here we are. The US Congress has not declared war since December 1941, and appears unlikely ever to do so again, even though the United States has been involved (often heavily involved) in a great many wars since the end of WWII. Sometimes, in a salve to the Constitution, they pass an AUMF as a way of saying, "See! We still have a say!" But often, even that doesn't happen.

My friend Vaughn Shannon pointed out recently that, while President Obama came under a lot of criticism for not striking Syria militarily back in 2013 when the question of chemical weapons first came up, this is not nearly the whole story. President Obama believed that, in order to strike a sovereign government in Syria, he would need (at minimum) authorization from Congress. That Congress, controlled by Republicans disinclined to given Obama anything that might benefit him politically and still stinging from the Iraq debacle, declined. Under the rules as he understood them, therefore, President Obama could not strike Syria. The fault was not his, it was Congress'.

All of this is to say nothing, of course, of international law. The UN Charter expressly forbids an attack on a sovereign member state except in self-defense or under the authorization of the Security Council. Most Americans have long since forgotten that the United States wrote those rules, though we have long ignored them. (Bonus points for anyone who can name the two incidents in history where the UNSC actually did authorize war.)

Usually, the way to settle questions of law is to go to court. But US courts have long declared that they have no intention of touching this question with a 10-foot pole, so there's no help there.

Congress, of course, only exercises the war power when they feel like it politically, and when the President feels like asking them to. This has devolved into a situation where the President is given broad leeway, and where people support or oppose acts of war based on which party they belong to. So much for politics ending at the water's edge...

How did we get here? Like a great many bad decisions, the roots lie in fear. After the Cold War, we very quickly became afraid of a resurgent Soviet Union and the global Communist menace. In that fear, we allowed successive Presidents to commit US forces to various and sundry military adventures, including the Vietnam debacle now memorialized by over 50,000 names carved in black stone in Washington.

The problem with using law as a guide to the US' use of force is that the law must be interpreted first. As another friend of mine, Steve Saideman, pointed out recently, everyone in Washington has their own lawyers. The White House has lawyers, the Pentagon has lawyers (both in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and in the Joint Staff, which serves the military side), the State Department has lawyers, Congress has lawyers. Lawyers generally come up with arguments explaining how whatever their masters want is on the right side of the law - witness the infamous "torture memos" drawn up in the George W. Bush administration by John Yoo and his colleagues.

So the original question - does the President have the authority to launch strikes on Syria - isn't actually a legal question at all. It's a political question. And how we answer it turns very much on how we understand both the rules supposedly enshrined in law, as well as the norms underlying those rules.

In general, laws only function when people accept their legitimacy - that is, when they buy into behavioral norms that underpin the laws. Take those norms away, and the law becomes merely a rhetorical device, a talking point for pundits to argue about. The very idea of being a "nation of laws" rests on our willingness to actually behave as if the laws matter more than what we happen to want to do at any one moment.

As Steve Saideman and others have pointed out, this is where the Trump Administration has done perhaps more damage than in any other area. Norms have been eroding for years, of course, and any reference to a "golden age" of norms in the past is probably mythical. But Trump, who more than any other President is the embodiment of his own administration, actively rejects all norms. He doesn't think they exist, or if they do they only exist for suckers and losers. He believes himself to be unconstrained by any rules - laws, norms, social understandings of shame, you name it.

And so in the coming days, the Trump Administration may attack Syria with missiles or bombs. Such an attack will likely accomplish nothing, as I have argued elsewhere. But as it will come with neither blessing from the UN nor authorization from Congress, it will be one more erosion of the norms that once governed US military force, however imperfectly. In so doing, we model the behavior that the rest of the world will emulate. We are creating the world we claim we don't want, and then blaming everyone else for it. Perhaps we, like our President, need to grow up and face the world like adults.