Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Should Utahns be feeling better about Syria now?

Published: Sunday, Sept. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

This Friday, June 10, 2011 file photo taken during a government organized tour for the media, shows Syrian army soldiers standing on their military trucks chanting slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as they enter a village near the town of Jisr al-Shughour, north of Damascus, Syria. After two-and-a-half years of civil war, President Barack Obama’s larger Syria policy is in disarray even as his administration with help from Russia averted a military showdown for the time-being.

Associated Press

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Early fall thunderstorms have delivered needed precipitation as summer winds down. But politics stays hot as ever. We review current topics:

President Barack Obama spoke to the nation last week regarding a military strike against Syria and a potential diplomatic resolution. Should Utahns feel better about this situation?

Pignanelli: "The presidency is a famously lonely job. But it takes hard work and some really bad decision-making to alienate nearly everyone along the entire political spectrum worldwide." — David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy

As a former constitutional law professor and politician who received the nomination because his party was frustrated with the American invasion of Iraq, this president is uniquely qualified to confront military intervention issues. Obama utilized this expertise to … um … huh … (readers should insert the appropriate adjective, verb, object and dangling participle).

But there is good news. First, Ivy League educated Obama — as were his three predecessors — again demonstrated that Eastern elitist intelligentsia are clueless fools in foreign relations (a source of smugness for us alumni of public universities). Second, Syria would not entertain Russia's proposal to surrender chemical weapons without a realistic perception that the United States will undertake some action. We are still feared, notwithstanding the dithering. Finally, in his speech Obama did not provide details for military intervention, but did offer a moral imperative thereby regaining some control of the process. In the event the Russian plan fails, Obama suggested no other options other than military intervention — which should have occurred months ago because it is the least worst alternative.

Webb: I try to cut our presidents a little slack in matters of war and foreign affairs because I obviously lack the data and intelligence they have. For now, we ought to be grateful we're not going to war and may be avoiding a quagmire. Still, it's hard not to be chagrined and embarrassed over the Obama administration's handling of Syria and its use of chemical weapons.

I don't believe peacenik Obama ever wanted to bomb Syria, but he had drawn his red line and didn't want to appear weak and ineffectual. It was almost humorous to see him and John Kerry make many of the same arguments the Bush administration made before attacking Saddam Hussein. Now, in the face of overwhelming public and congressional opposition, and with a face-saving solution offered by Russia, Obama has his way out and he'll use it.

So instead of facing an "incredibly small" attack, Assad gets off with a slap on the wrist, the Syrian civil war continues, Russia's Putin gains stature, America's credibility takes a hit, and other rogue regimes in Iran and North Korea are certainly not shaking in their boots over America's strength and resolve.

Salt Lake City, authorized by the mayor and council, sent every resident a ballot to vote on an "Opinion Question" inviting residents to instruct their elected officials to enact laws clarifying that corporations are not human beings entitled to constitutional rights and that money is not speech and can be limited. The organization "Move to Amend" is promoting this effort in cities across the country. Any implications?

Pignanelli: I wept with joy when I received my ballot, because city hall has opened a new frontier of politics. Pushed by the infinite number of advocacy groups, Utah municipalities will conduct opinion questions on gay rights, environmental causes, foreign-policy controversies, colonizing the moon, etc. (the list is endless). These wonderful initiatives are at taxpayers expense and have nominal impact on legislative and judicial deliberations. The truly beautiful element is that proponents and opponents will require the insightful analysis and expertise that public affairs firms like LaVarr's and mine offer. We salute this noble endeavor (aka, economic development for political hacks).

Webb: This is another national do-gooder effort to undo U.S. Supreme Court decisions on political contributions and free speech. Certainly, independent groups are receiving and spending millions of dollars, often distorting elections, with little accountability. But the answer is not to pile on even more regulation, which will make things worse. Candidates, parties and political organizations always figure out ways to circumvent campaign finance laws. The answer is to deregulate contributions and spending to candidates and political parties, which are far more accountable than independent groups. That would reduce the income and clout of independent groups. We should eliminate restrictions, but require complete and immediate reporting and transparency.

"Count My Vote" has raised more than $500,000. Is the effort to change the delegate/convention system on its way to success?

Pignanelli: The proposed initiative is a worthy cause, but Utah law allows opponents to derail it at little cost and effort. Supporters must have resources beyond this to counter these moves.

Webb: This effort (of which I am a part) to open up the political process to broader participation has strong support among the general public and most business and community leaders. That bodes well for its success. However, law-making via ballot measure is a long, difficult process, and it will be strongly opposed by liberal and conservative grassroots activists who have enjoyed control of the nominating process. Utah's mainstream/centrist citizens and leaders have long had an uneasy relationship with the far right and far left. This issue forces a confrontation to determine whether the mainstream or the extremes control Utah's political future.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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