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Executive Authority

[ 0 ] September 12, 2006 |

At the risk of wandering into Scott’s territory, it seems obvious to me that the Framers understood the dangers of executive power in wartime, and that they intendeded that Congress have significant powers to restrain the President. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the Republic had been at war for well over half of its history, and this war was conducted, in large part, with a weak executive. Now, certainly the Constitution was designed in part to remedy the difficulties of engaging in international politics (including the fighting of wars) with a weak federal government, but the institutions established seem to have no particular preference for strong executive over strong legislative power in wartime. Indeed, it would seem quite the opposite…

I suppose that the next argument would be that the character of war and of international relations has changed so much over the last two hundred years that the burden of decision ought to shift, for wholly practical reasons, to the executive branch. Certainly, the conduct of foreign policy has become more complex since 1790, with the duties of even peacetime embassies and foreign stations dwarfing those of a hundred years ago. Warfare, and especially the support of the war-making machine, has also grown significantly more complex. It could be argued that this increase in complexity should result in the shifting of important decision-making from elected and appointed officials to career professionals in both the foreign policy and military services. Even if this is true, I’m not convinced that the trend should affect the balance of responsibility between the executive and legislative branches. The executive branch is every bit as susceptible to political pressure and political difficulty as the legislative, and the legislative has as much (and perhaps more) opportunity to accumulate and act on professional expertise as the executive.

It could also be argued that the tempo of international politics (and war) has increased to the degree that the normal legislative process is too cumbersome to operate properly in response to a foreign threat. It’s probably fair in the context of, say, a nuclear attack that the some important decisions need to be made by the executive without resort to immediate legislative input. But that only goes so far; most decisions, even in wartime, don’t require snap judgements (the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan could certainly have been deliberated upon, as could the various decisions regarding the disposition of detainees), and, moreover, to say that the executive should be able to make some decisions without legislative input does not mean that it can make those decisions without legislative oversight and evaluation. It’s this, in particular, that Yoo and the Bush administration seem most unhappy about, but post hoc evaluation of executive decisions is absolutely critical to the functioning of a liberal democracy, and in particular to the construction of the institutions of governance in the United States.

The final point to be raised is that the assertion of increased executive power during wartime must be limited to some kind of time frame. In other words, even if you think that the gravity of decision-making shifts to the executive during war, there must be some mechanism for determining whether a state of war exists and when that state will cease. In the context of the War on Terror, which is essentially a conflict against a tactic, the war can, almost by definition, never end. It surely was not the intent of the Framers, and it surely is not defensible on its own merits, that the executive should be able to aggregate to itself emergency powers without any specific temporal limitation on those powers.


Early Admission

[ 0 ] September 12, 2006 |


Harvard Ends Early Admission, Citing Barrier to Disadvantaged

Mr. Thacker and other critics said that under binding early admission programs, students have to commit to a college long before they know how much aid they will be offered. Students who apply for admission in the regular cycle are able to compare financial-aid offerings from various colleges before making up their minds in April.

Fear of being committed to a school before having any idea how much financial aid would be available certainly affected my college application decisions. Even though my school councilor explained to me that there was no way they could force me to attend a particular college, I was still concerned about signing a piece of paper that committed me to attendance when I didn’t know if I’d have the cash.

Born to Blog

[ 0 ] September 11, 2006 |

I have to agree with Jack Shafer:

Fools, knaves, and liars. Ignorant journalists. Traitors and more traitors. Marty Peretz was born to blog.

It’s absolutely true. Peretz’ posts have always stood out at the Plank; angry, bitter, capable of containing one thought supported by half a shred of evidence. He doesn’t waste any time worrying about counter-arguments or marshalling evidence. In some sense he’s a perfect conserva-blogger, with the always crucial “I didn’t leave the Democrats, the Democrats left me” schtick to rely on. Blogging is a form amazingly well suited to the way that Peretz writes and thinks.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I plan to actually read his blog. Shafer ends with:

If he didn’t own a piece of the New Republic and didn’t blog, where could Peretz get published?

That’s a damn fine question.

Niall Ferguson is Making Sense

[ 0 ] September 11, 2006 |

There are so few today who are willing to stand up and make a forthright defense of hereditary monarchy.

Yes, I understand that he’s (probably) joking, but reading this column was much like re-reading Colossus; the inclusion of things that are not like one another (constitutional and absolute monarchs), an ill-defined sense of what a monarchy is or what it does, an invocation only of the most positive aspects of the governmental form, and a blind eye turned to any negatives. I don’t know whether to bang my head against the table or to congratulate Niall on some truly inspired self-parody…

Model Emergency

[ 0 ] September 11, 2006 |

This is odd.

[ 0 ] September 11, 2006 |

Drunken Orson Welles

I can taste the bitterness… but where are the fish sticks?


[ 0 ] September 10, 2006 |

So here’s a question that I’ve been contemplating for the last two days in Council Bluffs, Iowa; what is the ugliest state in America? I’m going with Iowa, although I’ll also entertain Ohio, Kansas, Rhode Island, or Ohio as answers.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: RN Littorio

[ 1 ] September 10, 2006 |

The Regia Marina was one of the busiest navies of the interwar period. Four old battleships were rebuilt so completely that they barely resembled their original configuration. This helped Italy achieve what was really, by the late 1930s, significant ship-to-ship superiority over the French Navy. The re-construction of these ships helped generate ideas as to what their new battleships should look like. The new ships were to have enough speed to catch Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and enough firepower to destroy them. The result was the first post-treaty class of genuine fast battleships, the Littorio class.

Littorio displaced 42000 tons, could make 32 knots, and carried 9 15″ guns in three triple turrets. Although well protected from shellfire, Littorio was built with an experimental underwater protection system designed by Italian naval architect Umberto Pugliese. This system proved disastrous in practice, and limited the effectiveness of Littorio and her sisters, and they were forced to be unusually wary of torpedo attacks. Like the German Tirpitz but unlike Allied battleships of the day, Littorio did not carry a dual purpose secondary armament, a measure that would have saved weight and improved her anti-aircraft capabilities. The Italian 15″ gun was also something of a disappointment, as it fired a very heavy shell at a high velocity, but was difficult to reload, inaccurate, and incurred serious barrel wear. Finally, Littorio had a very short range, although this was of little concern in the Mediterranean. All in all, Littorio and her sisters were probably the least capable of the final generation of fast battleships, with the likely exception of Bismarck and Tirpitz. Nevertheless, they were useful ships, and in battle the difference between Littorio and, say, Prince of Wales, Richielieu, or Washington probably would have been minimal.

Littorio had an active war career. She participated in numerous convoy escort actions, resulting in the first and second Battles of Sirte, in which she briefly exchanged fire with Royal Navy vessels. Littorio also engaged in occasional missions to hunt and intercept British convoys. Her most notable battle service, however, was less than distinguished. On November 11, 1940 HMS Illustrious, escorted by a few Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers, launched an air attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto. One of three ships hit, Littorio suffered three torpedo impacts. The damage sank Littorio at anchor, although the damage was not so severe that she couldn’t be salvaged. Repairs took about four months, limiting the effectiveness of the Italian Navy at a critical point in the war. The Taranto attack was carefully studied by Japanese naval planners, and provided a model for the Pearl Harbor attack of December, 1941.

In September 1943, the Italian govenment decided to seek an armistice with the Western Allies. The surrender of the Italian fleet was a prominent condition of this agreement. Littorio had been renamed Italia upon the fall of the Fascist government, and was in preparation with her two sisters (Roma and Vittorio Veneto) to attack the Allied landing force at Salerno when the armistice was signed. Instead of heading to Salerno, Italia and her sisters laid a course for Malta. Along the way, the fleet was attacked by German glider bombs, of the same sort that later damaged HMS Warspite. Italia narrowly avoided one of the bombs, but Roma was hit twice, exploded, and sank with nearly all hands. Italia and Vittorio Veneto arrived at Malta without further molestation, and were then transferred to Egypt.

Some consideration was given to the idea of incorporating Italia and her sister into the USN or the RN. Italia technically became US war booty, while Vittorio Veneto was given to the United Kingdom. The ships certainly had the speed to operate with fast carrier groups in the Pacific, but there were several problems. Neither the USN nor the RN had the appropriate ammunition or spare part stores to operate the ships over a long period of time. Moreover, the short range of Italia would have proven a severe handicap in the Pacific. Had the war situation been more critical, the two ships might have been used nonetheless, but by 1944 the USN, the RN, and the Marine Nationale had overwhelming superiority in fast battleships over the IJN. Italia saw no further service, although she was physically returned to Italy after the war. Struck from the US list in 1948, she was scrapped in the 1950s.

(Images courtesy of, which has some outstanding photos and data about the Italian Navy in World War II.)

Trivia: What three battleships were sunk by Italian frogmen?


[ 0 ] September 9, 2006 |

Blogging will be light for the next couple of days.

One of these is more pleased than the other…

But I Thought it was about the Tariff…

[ 0 ] September 8, 2006 |

I’ll write more a bit later about Jeff Record’s latest on counter-insurgency, but I’d like to one of Matt’s comments. Wondering why the Confederacy didn’t engage in an insurgent campaign rather than a conventional military campaign that favored the strengths of the North:

The trouble is that insurgency couldn’t possibly have achieved some of the major political goals of the CSA leadership — namely maintaining slavery and the plantation economy. Insurgents could have made it impossible for the federal government to effectively govern the South, but wouldn’t have been able to maintain the apparatus of repression necessary to shore up the socio-economic system. You couldn’t fade away into the hills (or wherever) while simultaneously keeping control over the South’s black population, who would have run away, rallied to the Union cause, etc., etc., etc. just as they did wherever CSA territory came to be occupied by the Union. By contrast, surrender actually proved reasonably effective as a method of maintaining the plantation economy and, if not slavery, white supremacy.

The Confederacy did employ guerrilla tactics in some areas (Missouri, Northern Virginia), but Matt is largely correct in noting the conventional focus of the Confederate Army. He’s also right about the reason why; maintaining slavery (and, more generally, the institutions of white supremacy) was much more important to the Southern aristocracy than indepedence. Given the choice, they opted for a strategy less likely to succeed, but one that gave them the chance to maintain their property and social position. Propertied aristocrats, with some notable exceptions, just don’t make great revolutionaries. Now, in fairness, parts of the Confederate power structure (Davis, Lee) preferred independence to slavery by 1865, but they arrived at this position only after four years of brutal struggle and still weren’t able to convince the bulk of the Confederate political class that this was the right choice.


[ 0 ] September 8, 2006 |

Via Ezra, Ralph Peters wrote an outstanding column on modern warfare this week. Money quote:

Precision-targeting systems and other superweapons are dangerously seductive to civilian leaders looking for military wins on the cheap. Exaggerated promises about capabilities — made by contractors, lobbyists and bedazzled generals — delude presidents and prime ministers into believing that war can be swift and immaculate, with minimal friendly or even enemy casualties.

It’s a lethal myth. The siren song of techno-wars fought at standoff range makes military solutions more attractive to political leaders than would be the case were they warned about war’s costs at the outset. Inevitably, the “easy” wars don’t work out as planned. Requiring boots on the ground after all, they prove exorbitant in blood, treasure, time and moral capital.


Why are defense contractors and partisan generals nonetheless able to convince Congress and one presidential administration after another that technology has all the answers? Because Congress and the White House want to believe machines will get them off the hook when it comes to sending our forces into battle. And there are huge practical incentives to buy big-ticket weapons systems from politically supportive defense contractors.

The defense industry silences military leaders who know better by employing them on generous terms after their retirement from service. The system is legal, but it’s morally corrupt and ethically repulsive.

Meanwhile, the impressive-in-theory capabilities of the latest weapons cloud the vision of military planners, leading them to focus on what the systems can do instead of concentrating on what needs to be done. Rather than buying the weapons we really need, we twist the conflicts we face to conform to the weapons we want to buy. The results are flawed war plans based on unrealistic expectations — in short, Iraq.

I would add that there’s some variance across the services in their attachment to the technological fantasy (the Air Force, always, is the worst), although that may be changing. One of Ezra’s commenters noted that different implications can be drawn from this argument; the inherent nastiness of war might incline some to avoid conflict, while it might incline others to eschew any effort to make war less destructive. Peters probably falls into the latter camp, but this doesn’t invalidate his analysis of the situation.

[ 0 ] September 8, 2006 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Starbuck and Nelson

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