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Bush, Executive Power, and the Iraq War

[ 6 ] June 17, 2010 |

To follow up on Scott, it’s fair to say that I find Jonathan Bernstein’s arguments regarding Bush’s lack of influence over Iraq war planning unconvincing:

In fact, in the case of Iraq it seems to be the case that the uniformed personnel disagreed with the civilian political appointees, and the latter won (at least for the critical years 2003-2006). Even then, though, it’s not necessarily the case that the political appointees are on the president’s side. In the case of Iraq, there’s also an important party faction involved, and they were the ones who really got their way.

1. I think that Jonathan is correct to identify this as a conflict within the national security bureaucracy, and that he appropriately characterizes the nature of the conflict; civilian political appointees (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, although for different reasons) favored a small number of troops, while the uniformed military favored a larger contingent. I’m not sure, however, why Jonathan has embraced radical uncertainty regarding the President’s stance on this question. It would be extremely surprising to find that the President’s attitudes were closer to the military bureaucracy (over whom he had very limited influence) than to his own political appointees. Moreover, the fact that the military bureaucracy lost the fight doesn’t prove that Bush sided with his political appointees, but it sure is consistent with that explanation.

2. Bush had an extraordinary degree of freedom in choosing his foreign policy team, a degree of freedom that Presidents don’t usually enjoy. People forget that Rumsfeld and Cheney aren’t actually neocons, and in spite of having some policy similarities with neocons, possessed independent bases of power within the Republican party hierarchy. Rumsfeld wasn’t even particularly popular with the neocons, who believed that he had views which were too “realist”. There’s every reason to believe that Bush chose both Cheney and Rumsfeld not in order to satisfy any particular faction or constituency, but because he was genuinely enthused about their ability to do their respective jobs. The same goes for Condoleeza Rice. The only major foreign policy figure that can reasonably be argued to have been pressed on Bush was Colin Powell, and Colin Powell was, not surprisingly, sidelined from major Iraq decision-making.

Now, Jonathan can argue that the prominence of the views of Bush’s hand-picked subordinates in warplanning doesn’t actually indicate the President’s preferences, but this leads to a situation in which it’s very difficult to lay ANY responsibility at the President’s feet. If the behavior of the President’s most trusted and freely assigned subordinates isn’t evidence of Presidential power, then it’s hard to say what is.

3. While I generally reject the idea that wars can be divided between conflicts of choice and conflicts of necessity, the Iraq War would be an almost textbook case of the former. There were simply no domestic or international constraints which forced this war on the administration. A comparison with JFK and LBJ is informative. Both JFK and LBJ would have suffered substantial attacks from Republicans and right wing Democrats for an insufficiently hawkish approach to Vietnam. Moreover, while it would be wrong to say that the international situation required US intervention, commitment was at least intelligible in the context of commonly held beliefs in the 1950s and 1960s regarding the need to stop Soviet “expansion”. None of this is the case with Iraq; while it’s possible that Joe Lieberman might have tried to attack Bush from the right on Iraq in 2004, it’s not terribly likely that the Democrats would have built their campaign around the idea that Bush was insufficiently hawkish. Again, Iraq is an almost textbook case for Presidential prerogative.

Thus, it’s possible that Bush a) didn’t want the war but was pushed by neocons within the administration who could threaten him with…. something or other, or b) that he wanted a larger contingent but was unable to win a victory over his own political appointees. However, both of these explanations are far less likely than the null hypothesis; Bush’s views were substantially similar to the political appointees he selected, and he got the war he wanted in the way he wanted to fight it.


More On Executive Power

[ 30 ] June 17, 2010 |

Some good discussion in the comments to this thread about the power of the presidency, which merit a response.

First, from Erik, who says that Obama could have “lobbied openly for a public option and had called for rallies to support a progressive plan” because “it might have swayed a couple of more moderate Republican senators at the same time. Moreover, it likely would have turned up the heat on politicians to get a stronger bill passed.” I still don’t buy it, and at best it represents a trivial source of power, for at least two reasons. First, even assuming that using the bully pulpit could substantially affect public opinion (and I actually don’t even believe that, but let’s leave that aside for now), it greatly understates the autonomy of legislators, especially in the Senate. First of all, there are basically only two moderate Republicans left, and 1)Snowe is enormously popular, 2)Collins isn’t up until 2016, and 3)the only thing either of them really have to fear is from Republicans who could fund a primary challenge. The idea that holding some rallies could have caused them to vote for a much more progressive plan when they didn’t even vote for the final compromise is, frankly, absurd. And as Jonathan points out, even if by some magic you can get their votes, you’re still more than 10 votes short of a meaningful public option, and you would have to get most of them from states in which no amount of rallies are going to make health care reform popular. And, second, I think this focus on particular policy details is far too fine-grained in terms of how politics works and what the public understands. Obama did, after all, lobby hard for health care reform in general, and you’re unlikely to get many people to go to the barricades over the important but essentially wonky detail of whether the bill contains a robust public option. After all, if that kind of public opinion mattered, the bill would have had a robust public option, since the public option was more popular than the bill as a whole. Public opinion just doesn’t have that kind of impact on policy details.

Jonathan, meanwhile, argues that I’m still overestimating the president’s power on foreign policy. Responding to my argument that the fact that political divisions in the administration over the Iraq War were resolved in the president’s favor in fact indicates the strength of the president’s position, he responds:

1. Only if he really wanted it; not if he was rolled.

2. And only on that issue. If we think of Bush as the winner of the “should we have war in Iraq” fight, that still doesn’t mean he gets his way without constraints; it just means he won that fight.

On the first question, I’m not really sure how to respond; at some level, it gets to be like speculation about whether John McCain is “really” an anti-abortion zealot or whether George Wallace was “really” a racist. At some point, for public officials, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So if Bush was “rolled” (by who?), this doesn’t really say anything about institutional limitations on the president’s power; it just says a lot about Bush’s weakness and lack of judgment. Nothing inherent in the powers of his office compelled him to side with Rumsfled and Cheney instead of Powell. And while he may (or may not) have been constrained in terms of fighting the war of Paul Berman’s dreams, the fact that remains that he ended up pursuing the war knowing that it wasn’t that type of war. Which makes the most logical inference that this was the war he wanted.

More generally, I don’t think that anyone is arguing that presidents in national security are entirely unconstrained by political or administrative factors. Even in a parliamentary system, there’s no such thing as entirely unconstrained power. The point I take most people to be making is that these constraints are different not only in degree but in kind from the kind of constraints a president faces in enacting domestic legislation. If an evil neocon cabal was pushing Bush towards a war he didn’t want, he could have ignored them or fired them. But potential median votes in the Senate don’t want to vote for new legislation, in most cases there just isn’t much a president can do about it. (And while presidents sometimes need Congress in national security policy, of course, this is less common and generally the president is more likely to receive deference.) So I think it’s fair to hold the president much more responsible for national security policy than for domestic policy.

This Will Only Spur Further Aggression…

[ 4 ] June 17, 2010 |

This sounds like appeasement.

We are pleased to announce the University of Kentucky will provide a one-time, lump sum payment for eligible faculty and staff during the 2010-11 fiscal year. This one-time payment is designed to reward eligible faculty and staff at a time when economic conditions have limited our ability to offer annual merit increases.

Though we regret being unable to offer annual merit increases to our outstanding staff and faculty this year, our University administration has worked in recent months to identify more than $6 million in one-time funds needed for the one-time payment: Over 80 percent of non-UK HealthCare employees will benefit as a result.

Hitler’s take on the vuvuzela

[ 4 ] June 17, 2010 |

When Wingnuts Belatedly Recognize the Insanity of One of their Own…

[ 13 ] June 16, 2010 |

All of this about Debbie Schlussel is just spectacularly entertaining…

Today in 1904

[ 6 ] June 16, 2010 |

At 8 a.m. on the morning of 16 June 1904, two men woke up.  One shaved for class and breakfasted with his usurper and an anti-Semite.  The other, a Jew, purchased a pork kidney and serves it to his wife in the same bed in which she cuckolded him.  He left to pick up a letter from his secret sweetheart and chatted with the people he met on his way to the baths.  Once clean, he attended a funeral and saw a mysterious man.

After the funeral, he tried to place an advertisement in a local newspaper but decided more research was required, so he scooted off to the library where, unbeknown to him, the first of our two men was disquisiting on Shakespeare.

Many people walked around, including our Jew, who decided to follow his morning kidney with an afternoon liver.  He ogled the barmaids and thought about his wife who, if his suspicions were correct, would soon be cuckholding him again.  So he exited the bar with the pretty reminders of his pain and entered another full of anti-Semites.  Fists and cans were thrown.

Troubled by thoughts of wife and ancient grievances, he wandered seaside way and publicly co-masturbated with a cripple.  He later attended the birth of a child and the English language before following our first man into the red-light district.  He caught up with him, himself, himself-in-drag, his dead grandfather, Nobodaddy, a giant green crab, a talking hat-stand and ducked out when the police arrived.  Chastened, the two men entered a dive and met a drunken sailor.  They absconded to the home of the Jew and bonded while urinating under the stars.

As 16 June 1904 came to a close, the Jew returned to his troubled marital bed and asked his wife to serve him breakfast in it tomorrow.

She considered his request but never decided one way or the other.

(Happy Bloomsday!  Sorry about the spoilers.  This was originally published elsewhere.)

On Presidential Power, Foreign and Domestic

[ 20 ] June 16, 2010 |

To briefly note some blogospheric discussion that happened while I was away, I essentially agree with Johnathan Bernstein about the power over domestic policy.   In particular, people arguing that a robust public option could have been had if Obama had really wanted it need to be concrete: what specific and usable leverage, exactly, did Obama have over Ben Nelson and the dozen+ Democratic Senators who were clearly opposed to a public option with any teeth?   In most cases, just not very much.    The only caveat I have is that after enactment presidential power grows considerably; the veto points and supermajority rules that give enormous leverage to individual Senators when legislation is being considered before the fact also do a lot to give the president substantial policy-making discretion after the fact.

On the other hand, I also think Matt is right that the president is much more powerful when it comes to national security.   It’s true that, structurally, if it chose to, Congress still has a very substantial ability to check the President’s national security powers.    But given current political configurations these limitations are largely formal.    The president is going to have a massive standing army at his disposal for all of our lifetimes, and once he or she decides to initiate action Congress is likely in most circumstances to defer to presidential decisions; these are long-standing trends, and if anything is going to change them I don’t see it.    I’m also a little puzzled by this specific claim from Bernstein:

Yes, Bush got his war there.  But first, note that at least in my opinion it’s an open question as to whether Bush wanted that war or not.  I think there’s plenty of evidence that the neocons wanted the war in Iraq, but it’s not clear to me whether they manipulated Bush into it or if Bush wanted it from the get-go.

I’m actually pretty skeptical of the idea that Bush was just conned into the war by clever neocons — in particular, Dick Cheney had exactly as much power as Bush chose to give him — but even if it’s true in terms of presidential power it’s neither here nor there. Why Bush decided to attack Iraq doesn’t matter; he decided to, and he got the war with Congress doing little but meekly waving a red flag. I’m also not sure about about the assertion that “the things he needed to do to get the war doomed it to failure.” It may be true, I guess, that Bush really wanted a much larger invading army and really wanted to be more prudent about his decision-making process but was thwarted by external factors, but I find this very implausible. It’s much more likely that the Iraq war was fought the way it was fought because that’s how the administration wanted it. As Matt says, the international system may provide some constraints and a president’s power is never unlimited even in practice, but throughout the Bush administration Congress was often a minor player in national security (and especially warmaking) policy in a way it never is in domestic policy. And, certainly, the fact that the plan and rationale for the Iraq War were incoherent isn’t actually evidence that the incoherence was caused by external constraints.

They hate soccer and are racist.

[ 82 ] June 15, 2010 |

Jonah Goldberg wrote something stupid. It feels like I never left. So what was it this time?

I am willing to concede that some conservatives get carried away in their anti-soccer tirades, usually just for fun, but I’d very much like to see a few more liberals admit that at least some of the soccer-mania here in the states is driven by a faddish desire to seem hip and worldly.

He’s clearly only talking about white people—and not white people like me, as I’m so attached to my Sambas I once wrote a paean to them. Now, I live in a predominantly Hispanic community—largely first and second-generation Mexican immigrants—and during the South Africa-Mexico match, I noted that I

considered it odd that everyone on Facebook is rooting for South Africa, because me and everyone else in my apartment complex are clearly rooting for Mexico. If I didn’t have to grade while half-watching, I’d be in the rec room with the rest of the complex, by which I mean: my neighbors, the gardeners, the pool guys, the cleaning women, and the office staff.

Of course, every single one of those people is clearly an illegal immigrant in Goldberg’s mind, but that’s a failure of imagination on his part. He’s unable—or, more likely, unwilling—to accept that the demographic shift in the United States is against him. When he writes:

But being told that all the smart and decent people love something is a sure way to get the Irish up in a lot of Americans.

He does so because he’s incapable of imagining an American who lacks any Irish to get up.

Moreover, he mistakenly believes that the article that started him on his anti-soccer tirade argues that “Racists Hate Soccer,” when it does nothing of the sort. (Though there is an incidental connection, as noted in my title.) He even quotes the very paragraph in which the author, Dave Zirin, argues conservative soccer-hatred is not about racism, but losing:

But maybe this isn’t just sports as avatar for their racism and imperial arrogance. Maybe their hysteria lies in something far more shallow. Maybe the real reason they lose their collective minds is simply because the USA tends to get their asses handed to them each and every World Cup.

I can imagine no better support for this argument than the fact that every four years conservatives are tremendously excited about sports infinitely more boring than they think soccer is, e.g. competitive swimming. Because so long as there is a chance for them to flex their patriotic muscles by proxy, conservatives will embrace a sport. As Zirin notes, the existence of countries like Brazil and players like Messi prohibit them from doing so.

But, to circle back to where this post started, Zirin’s article itself is a response to Glenn Beck’s comment that

It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.

If Goldberg really wants people not to consider him in league with racists, he needs to explain how Beck’s “we” is inclusive enough to accommodate my soccer-mad neighbors. If he can’t—and he can’t—then he has to admit, to paraphrase what David Cross said of Irvine Spectrum when he performed there, that his imagination contains all the colors of the rainbow from white … to white.

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No shit.

[ 14 ] June 15, 2010 |

12 years after commencing work, and 38 years after the event, the Saville Inquiry finds that those killed murdered or injured in the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Derry were innocent civil rights marchers / protesters, and the shootings by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment of the British Army were unprovoked and unjustified.

Unsurprisingly, Bloody Sunday enflamed the Troubles and led to a boon in recruitment for the provisional IRA, in effect legitimizing it in the eyes of many in the Republican and Nationalist communities, while simultaneously delegtimizing the British Army in the eyes of the same; ironic considering the army was originally brought in to protect the civil rights marchers and the Nationalist community from attacks by Loyalists . . .

Votes That Matter

[ 20 ] June 15, 2010 |

Our commenter David Nieporent remains very confused about the argument I’ve been making for years about Sam Alito, although it’s very straightforward:

The point is that this is, well, an incredibly stupid metric. Why is failing to cast a “liberal swing vote” the sign of lack of moderation? It’s a cherry-picked non-stat created by throwing out most of the data.

Now, if he’s the sole ‘conservative’ vote, or one of two — that is, if he’s on the losing side of a bunch of 8-1 or 7-2 decisions — then that might show lack of moderation. But 5-4 votes, almost by their nature, don’t show anything at all.

If the question is, “Will Alito ever vote against the Chamber of Commerce?”, then the answer, as defined by this study, is yes. So why isn’t that “moderation”?

I don’t see what’s complicated about the argument.   There are two sets of data in question. The first set of data shows that Alito is more likely to cast pro-business votes than any other justice, which in itself is inconsistent with assertions that Alito is a relative moderate (assertions that have never had a shred of evidence in their favor to begin with.)

The second set of data is additionally important and isn’t merely arbitrary, because it shows the likelihood that a justice will cast meaningful vote in a heterodox direction. I suspect it is true, looking at cases overall, that Thomas is the justice most likely to write a solo dissent or a more-extreme concurrence in a politically salient case, but these votes matter very little — if you’re bringing a lawsuit you don’t really care if you win 9-0 or 8-1.  (It’s not that these votes don’t show a “lack of moderation,” just that they show a less consequential lack of moderation.)   On the other hand, if you’re a plaintiff in a tort suit or a criminal defendant, there’s a chance that Scalia and Thomas might actually cast a decisive vote in your favor, while Alito’s vote is in play only if you’ve already won. In other words, this second set of data doesn’t show that Alito never votes against the Chamber of Commerce’s position, and I never claimed that it did. What it does show is that Alito has yet to cast a vote of any consequence against a position advanced by the Chamber of Commerce. Which goes to reinforce the always-obvious point that if you’re a class of person whose interests are disfavored by the contemporary Republican Party and are bringing a lawsuit, you’d actually rather have Scalia than Alito.

As it happens, yesterday’s decisions provide another case in point. Alito did cast a superfluous vote in a habeas corpus case making the result 7-2. On the other hand, there was another case in which Alito could have joined the Court’s most liberal member and three of its other conservative embers to hold that if the state wants to require that restitution be paid to victims the state has to follow its own explicit statutory guidelines. But of course he didn’t, because as long as his vote matters Alito will always side with the state in a criminal case. It’s a consistent pattern.

You may remember me as the blogger whose Spring started with being stranded by a volcano.

[ 8 ] June 14, 2010 |

I know there’s no excuse for not trashing Jeff Goldstein et al. on a regular basis, but since said volcano, my life has turned into a country song: my wife left me (on a two-month research trip to Italy); my apartment was nearly destroyed in a forest fire; and I was hospitalized overnight with what turned out to be something so painful look what it did to a man much more manly than I … all while being three weeks behind on my teaching.  As you’ll note, those are about the only three posts I’ve composed at my place this past month, so it’s not as if I’ve been neglecting you guys in particular—the entire internet has had to suffer my absence (inasmuch as it did) (which is not that much).  Why am I telling you this?

Because getting back on the horse is much more difficult than it seems.  There’s pressure to return with the perfect post.  To make people remember exactly why it is they might have had reason to miss you.  But as there’s no such thing as the perfect post, I thought I’d start with one full of excuses and hope that gets me over the hump.

Droning On…

[ 2 ] June 14, 2010 |

Are you ready for this?

The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law-enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act. Officials are worried that they might plow into airliners, cargo planes and corporate jets that zoom around at high altitudes, or helicopters and hot air balloons that fly as low as a few hundred feet off the ground.

On top of that, these pilotless aircraft come in a variety of sizes. Some are as big as a small airliner, others the size of a backpack. The tiniest are small enough to fly through a house window.

The obvious risks have not deterred the civilian demand for pilotless planes. Tornado researchers want to send them into storms to gather data. Energy companies want to use them to monitor pipelines. State police hope to send them up to capture images of speeding cars’ license plates. Local police envision using them to track fleeing suspects….

One major concern is the prospect of lost communication between unmanned aircraft and the operators who remotely control them. Another is a lack of firm separation of aircraft at lower altitudes, away from major cities and airports. Planes entering these areas are not required to have collision warning systems or even transponders. Simply being able to see another plane and take action is the chief means of preventing accidents.

Judging by the UK’s precedent, I suspect there are some concerns about civil liberties as well, but perhaps I’m just being paranoid…