Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I think somewhere underlying Thiessen’s article is a deep skepticism of the drone campaign. He’s not alone. Jane Mayer put together a wonderful piece in the New Yorker last fall that did a good job of discussing the use of drones in Pakistan and their severe limitations. Notably, Mayer highlighted the high numbers of non-targeted individuals killed for each targeted individual eliminated. Setting aside human rights concerns, I question the efficacy of the drone campaign in light of our broader regional goals. I particularly wonder about the drone campaign encouraging otherwise neutral individuals to take up arms against the Pakistani state or the United States.
Thiessen, though, uses the drone campaign to accuse the President of endangering the United States by depriving the US of “vital intelligence” and of “shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.”
This is nonsense. Of course it is a truism that dead men tell no tales. But for Thiessen’s thesis to be true, the United States would have to have available to it a capability to capture and question the people targeted by the drones. Now, despite the hypocritical critiques offered by some, the problem with this premise is not the questioning, it’s the capturing.
The vast majority of the individuals being blown up are in the lawless FATA region of Pakistan. Many of the targets are affiliated not with Al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban but with the Pakistani Taliban. Whatever the arrangement the United States government currently has with Pakistan, it is clear that Pakistan does not want US soldiers on its territory—judging by the vitriolic reactions last week, American trainers are not even welcome.
Though Thiessen would have you believe that the Obama administration has put the United States in danger by eliminating a proposed CIA program to kill terrorists because it had an ethereal capture component, this is merely a straw man. This capability never existed. The Bush administration proposed these teams in 2002 and never managed to make them operational—in fact, I have questioned what this says about the US paramilitary operations previously. The last time the United States had a capability that resembles what Thiessen puts forward was, according to Steve Coll, under the Clinton administration, when the US put teams in the field to kill Osama bin Laden. Even then, though, the kill order was never given and the teams were never utilized. Thiessen thus presents a false choice between the use of drones, and a non-existent capture ability.
While I think there are legitimate questions to be raised about the use of drones and our strategic objectives, Thiessen’s piece represent an incredible contortion of the Obama-is-Soft-on-Terrorism narrative.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In fact, Obama’s first year is the story of relentless, futile attempts at bipartisanship. The President has repeatedly reached across the aisle and allowed Republican influence on bills only to see the GOP vote in unison against that bill. The effect of these efforts has been that the President not only ends up with watered-down bill (see, e.g., the Stimulus Package) but he ends up simultaneously throwing away political capital and angering his base. It has been, quite simply, a year of Lucy and the Football.
Yet, there seems to be something different here. Since the State of the Union, and including last week’s Q and A session with the GOP, the President has aggressively communicated his efforts at bipartisanship. Rather than being victimized by his constant, quixotic attempts to invite Republicans into the tent only to have them burn the tent down, he’s put the GOP on its heels. He has made it clear, vocally and repeatedly over the last week, that the door is open to the Republicans, that they can come in, but they’re going to have to compromise. He is doing his very best to convert the Grand Old Party into the Grand Obstructionist Party. For this, I applaud the President.
Rather than castigating himself on the altar of bipartisanship, the President is going to make the Republican Party pay the price, politically, for their nihilism. The President should keep up his vocal, aggressive challenge to the GOP that they participate in government. Good on ye, Mr. President.
Now, go pass Healthcare.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Strictly speaking, the law that governs international armed conflicts—International Humanitarian Law—admits only two categories of individual: combatants and non-combatants. Combatants can both kill lawfully and be lawfully killed. Additionally, they are immune from prosecution for lawful acts committed while engaging in hostilities. A non-combatant is anyone who isn’t a combatant; non-combatants are not legitimate targets except when they forfeit their immunity by engaging in a hostile act.
So, what is the underwear bomber? He is clearly not a combatant as the term is used in the Law of Armed Conflict: he was not a member of the armed forces of a State or de facto State, he was not openly bearing arms, nor had he distinguished himself from non-combatants with distinctive markings. Indeed, even were he a member of a State’s armed forces, he was engaged in an act of perfidy, forfeiting his combatant status. Yet, if he was a non-combatant he was one engaged in a hostile act. Engaging in a hostile act renders a non-combatant a legitimate target while he’s engaged in that act but not otherwise. If he is a non-combatant, then he is a non-combatant who was taken into custody on U.S. soil, no longer engaged in a hostile act, and should be subject to the civilian criminal justice system, as he has been.
Yet, this answer is unfulfilling. If, as Gen. Hayden describes, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is “the tip of the spear of a complex al-Qaeda plot to kill Americans in our homeland,” then it seems woefully insufficient to treat him as a civilian who has temporarily taken up arms and engaged in a hostile act. Perhaps the answer here lies in not slavishly adhering to the criterion that a combatant be a member of the armed forces of a State (or de facto State). But then, as a combatant, wouldn’t the underwear bomber be subject to the protections afforded Prisoners of War? And isn’t this answer just as unfulfilling—somehow extending too much honor to a fundamentally dishonorable bunch?
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Every now and again there will be a report that, given Rule 22, you don’t have to filibuster to filibuster. That is, invoking a cloture motion is sufficient to spike a bill without refusing to yield the floor. While this has been true in practice for the last two decades or so, it is not strictly speaking true. Cloture is simply a motion to compel the cessation of debate, it is not necessary to invoke cloture to actually vote on a bill. Thus, failure of a cloture means that debate cannot be compelled to end but it does not mean that the bill in question does not come to the floor.
So, make them do it. If the Republicans want to be obstructionists—and, to be sure, they do—then let’s have them expend the political capital, time, and energy required to be the Party of No. All this would require is for the Democrats to schedule votes and maintain 51 Senators on the floor—a quorum. With a quorum, the Republicans would be forced to talk until exhaustion or until there was no longer a quorum to prevent a vote.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
In fact, the little news coming out of Iran today seems to suggest that the only people taking notice of Montazeri’s forty days are in the regime—and they have done so by executing two dissidents.
That said, the large protests following Montazeri’s death occurred seven days after he died, on the day of Ashura. Ashura itself commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein and a smaller commemoration usually occurs forty days hence. Perhaps today’s conspicuously absent protests will occur seven days hence, marking the fortieth day since Ashura.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
On the day of President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, I thought it would be a worthy (and self-indulgent) exercise to give my own SOTU. I also thought it would be a fitting end to a self-imposed hiatus. For you the reader that means a lengthy post talking about topics varied and diffuse. Enjoy. Or don’t.
My fellow Americans (and our small but loyal international readership) the state of the Union is shaky at best. We remain embroiled in two wars. Guantanamo Bay is still open and synonymous with punishment and shame. Our economy, no longer perched at the precipice of the cliff, remains inches from the edge of a calamitous fall. We don’t have global understanding on climate change. China has reasserted its most authoritative prerogatives. Radical Islam remains a virulent opponent of our version of liberty. These are the exogenous problems we face as a nation, and yet I believe they are not the worst problems we face. They are the by-products, the outcomes, of our own governmental dysfunction.
We face an extreme right movement that foments, indeed breeds on, fear, misinformation, and disdain for their fellow Americans. We face a loyal opposition held hostage by this movement that ignores reason, rejects or contorts facts, rendering impotent those of the opposition that would be guided by their better angels. We face a majority, in turn, held hostage by the “moderates” of their ilk, leaderless, lacking a uniformity of voice in change. Faced with this political environment with an opposition kowtowed by its own fringes and a majority crippled by its own ineffectual leadership, the work of the government has ground to a halt. The air of debate is noxious with claims, counterclaims, elusive facts, and putrid lies. What are we as a nation to do?
To the Democrats, and specifically President Obama, I implore you to lead. Two million people didn’t descend onto America’s front lawn last January to see such dithering one year on. They connected with a message of change and the majority of Americans are still hungry for change. The problem is that they haven’t seen any change. My critics will say that I’m wrong. That America has changed and that people want the change to stop, but that is nonsense. In an attempt to foster bi-partisanship the president and the leadership of his party has conceded time and again.
If you’re a Democrat, stop apologizing for that fact. If you believe 46 million of your countrymen and women that don’t have health insurance deserve it then say so and say it proudly. The Democrats have taken up a defensive posture demonstrated by the sound bite ready, but policy ridiculous spending freeze. I’ve been told that’s what you have to do to remain in power, but I challenge that notion. Leadership is how you remain in power. Sharing your ideas and your evidence with the electorate is how you remain in power. This leadership has to begin at the top. Talk straight with the American people. Advocate for tough policy choices and defend those choices as a matter of necessity and common sense.
To the Republicans, I implore you to come out from under the heel of the most venomous of those that lie along your fringes. The party of Lincoln has become the party of Limbaugh and Beck. You have a responsibility to this epublic to provide an opposition, but you also have an obligation to confront the misinformation that limits your own policy options. That confrontation shouldn’t take the form of a Friday evening press release. It should be a full-throated refutation of blatant lies, whether voiced by your opponents or members of your own camp.
If you are a Republican, come to the table in good faith and with new ideas. Your party has perfected obstructionism to the detriment of discourse. The American people deserve a proper discourse based in facts, over ideas, without deliberate misinformation. If elected members of your party do not agree with that statement then perhaps you should consider if they should be a part of your party.
That’s my wish list for the two primary political parties in America. That’s what I want to see from them, because neither party is doing much to govern America. What do I want to see from our elected officials on a national level this year (beyond, you know, action)? Here’s my policy wishlist:
· Pass healthcare reform, not so Dems can get a victory, not so Repos can suffer a defeat, but because 46 million Americans don’t have health insurance and the Senate version of the bill, rooted in private insurance models, would help a great majority of those Americans to be insured.
· For the next two years let the budget deficit be damned. We need to spend money in this country to restart the economy and while we might have avoided the worst, we still face over 10% unemployment. Hand wringing over the debt that is held and will need to be held by China is misguided. Yes, they hold a lot of our debt, but that is largely inconsequential because 1) the yuan is still pegged to the dollar and 2) they need us to buy their stuff to keep growing.
· Regulate the financial industry. I don’t know what this looks like but when banks becomes “too big to fail” we have to consider if that means they’re too big to exist in their present form. Government intervention is required for regulation because government intervention was required to bail out the unregulated.
· Continue the drawdown in Iraq while taking one last shot in Afghanistan. We have liberated Iraq and have done much to help them rebuild their nation. Most international affairs analysts would agree that a measure of victory has been achieved, so let’s get the hell out. Perhaps I’ll sound a bit jingoist, but leave Iraq to the Iraqis. In Afghanistan, this current surge should be our last shot at nation-building in the country. If we fail to gain traction with this attempt then our mission focus should be building strategic tribal alliances to more effectively facilitate the prosecution of small scale incursions against groups actively seeking to harm the United States.
· Continue reaching out to the less-hardened of our enemies. President Obama has done much to spread a message of respect for the rest of the world, including some of our traditional adversaries. He has been criticized because this has not paid immediate dividends. Diplomacy doesn’t work like combat. We took Baghdad inside of a week, but it has taken years to restore our image in the rest of the world to be considered a good faith partner. The pay offs will come with time. I’ll use a metaphor as we enter Super Bowl hype time. If you run your halfback off tackle and he’s stopped at the line, you don’t burn the play and never use it again. You come back to that play time and again because you know it will work with time.
These are five real goals our government can accomplish within the next year. They are goals that could find broad support in spirit and vigorous, respectful debate in application. All of us, all Americans, all global citizens need to approach the myriad of external problems we face without the internal rancor that has defined us. We have a responsibility to be reasoned in our opinions, respectful in our tone, and honest in our facts. In the face of those that would not abide be these tenets, we must be diligent and clear of mission to disregard those that would determine only to derail advancement. This is our obligation to the republic and to the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our Union is shaky at best, but the hands to secure its foundations are our own. The ideas that move us forward lie in our minds. The regard and respect for dissent is in our hearts. We can rally around what binds us or fracture at what divides us. Perhaps now, more than at any point in our history (save the Revolution and the Civil War) does our Union appear so strained and tenuous. Yet, our nation has witnessed a great many rebirths before. The moment is ours to share in triumph or lament in division and defeat.
So there you that it. My SOTU for what it’s worth. I welcome comments (Colin), and I’ll get out ahead of the first one. Every one of my policy recommendations is basically already a recommendation of the Democratic party. I am a Democrat, but I also think those prescriptions are right. If you disagree, tell me why.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Friday, January 22, 2010
The crux of what I'm saying is: Healthcare reform is not unpopular; the healthcare reform process is unpopular. The two are difficult to disaggregate which is part of the reason why I discount the polls that say Healthcare reform is unpopular. Given the wide agreement that the healthcare system in this country is too expensive and broken to a greater or lesser degree, I think that the passing the bill and putting some reform in place may ex post facto render Healthcare reform popular. I may be wrong and, whether it becomes popular will depend on the ability of its proponents to present it convincingly in a popular light, but three things are true today: 1. The healthcare reform process is unpopular; 2. the duration of the healthcare reform process has hurt the Democrats politically; and 3. healthcare reform is necessary. If the Democrats are going to pay a political price regardless of its passage—and they will—then passing something, giving them the opportunity to change the conversation and demonstrate an ability to govern, is the better tactic.
UPDATE: David Plouffe writes in today's Washington Post:
[P]olitically speaking, if we do not pass [healthcare reform], the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside. If we do pass it, dozens of protections and benefits take effect this year. Parents won't have to worry their children will be denied coverage just because they have a preexisting condition. Workers won't have to worry that their coverage will be dropped because they get sick. Seniors will feel relief from prescription costs. Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted -- such as the so-called death panels -- were baseless. We own the bill and the health-care votes. We need to get some of the upside.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Win or lose, Coakley’s campaign—like Deed’s campaign in Virginia last year—offers important lessons for the Democrats going into the midterm election. Unfortunately, without exit polls, it will be difficult to construct an extensive post-mortem on the campaign. However, it seems that we can already draw two lessons: 1) don’t take elections for granted; 2) Congress must get something done.
As to the first point, lest we forget Coakley is running to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. In Massachusetts. And there is a very real possibility that she will lose. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this point. The lack of intensity, the lack of campaigning, and the lack of focus on this race has let Scott Brown become the favorite to win. Clearly, if Democrats are vulnerable in Massachusetts, they are vulnerable anywhere. Were I the RNC, I would throw money at every Congressional race in the country coming out of today.
As to the second point, Democrats, it’s clear that we are going to sink or swim together. The last year has been a terrible example of our party’s inability to control the message. The American people appear to be frustrated with Congress’s performance and its seeming inability to get anything done. Stop playing to the Republican’s message that Democrats can’t be trusted to govern: put a healthcare bill on President Obama’s desk; confirm the outstanding administration appointees; speak in consonance as a caucus about the issues confronting the nation. Without both tangible results and a coherent defense of Congressional action for the next 10 months, the midterm election will be a disaster. We may be nostalgic for 1994 at the end of this cycle.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
But other militants allied with the Afghan Taliban factions and Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, too, leading to another troubling possibility: that all those militant groups are cooperating more closely than ever.
Cooperation between militant groups is certainly a possibility. Indeed, there are many disparate groups that are embroiled in the AfPak conflict who routinely take on Afghan or NATO forces—the Uzbek Islamist Movement is a good example of a non-Taliban, non-Al-Qaeda organization with its own goals but that cooperates with the Afghan and presumably the Pakistani Taliban.
And, while competing claims of responsibility may indicate cooperation, it seems more likely that the bombing of the CIA’s operating base in Afghanistan—given the coverage it has received and the nature of the target—is high profile success for which ever militant group that can lay claim to it. Such successes would likely raise the standing of the group responsible for it and may improve its ability to recruit fighters and garner support. Thus, the competing claims of responsibility are less indicative of cooperation than of the desirability to have owned the operation in question. Further, the ebullient praise that the suicide bomber levels on Baitullah Mehsud in the video in question buttresses the notion that the Pakistani Taliban is solely responsible for the bombing.