I thought that Jon Chait’s long article on leftist disappointment with Democratic Presidents was interesting, but that it succeeded in identification of such discontent without making much effort to explain it. David Atkins has a nice response with two potential explanations, first the unwillingness/inability of the last three Democratic Presidents to break from the evidently increasing economic insanity of the GOP, and second the existence and continued success of progressive-by-American-standards economic models in other OECD states.
While both of these make a lot of sense, I’m not sure they get us all the way there. For one, Atkins suggests that the primary reasons for discontent post-Carter have been economic; in this vision, although Bill Clinton’s tenure is economically successful on many metrics, it amounts mainly to pursuing GOP priorities competently rather than incompetently. The most vocal critics of Obama, however, have attacked on both the imperial executive/warmaking/etc., and socio-economic grounds (insufficiency of the ACA and the stiumlus). As has often been argued on this blog, on these former metrics Obama does fine compared to other recent Democratic Presidents.
Atkins doesn’t suggest that leftist are implicitly comparing US and European models of foreign policy and civil liberties, and it’s not hard to see why. To my mind, the difference on issues such as warmaking and aggressive foreign policy between the US and major European states is largely positional; many states joined the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while Germany and France sat out Iraq, it’s obviously not difficult to find examples of modern French imperialism or German amorality in foreign affairs. On civil liberties questions, I suspect that progressives would have a collective heart attack if anyone proposed London levels of state surveillance in New York City, or accorded US law enforcement many of the anti-terror tools that French and German police take for granted. The case of the intervention in Libya is particularly instructive. Obama’s liberties with the War Powers Resolution are notable only in domestic legal context; by and large, comparable European systems grant warmaking latitude to the executive sufficient to make comparison with the United States moot. Moreover, we have strong recent evidence of European executives (Berlusconi, Aznar) engaging in foreign conflict over nearly unanimous domestic opposition.
And so while I think that Atkins gets us some of the way to explaining the phenomenon that Chait identifies, there’s obviously something left unsettled. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that American foreign policy leftists in general are quite correct in the belief that they are effectively unrepresented by either of the two major parties, and that it has been thus for most of the twentieth century. Consistent criticism of Democratic Presidents, up to and including Obama, is from this perspective entirely to be expected, although such critiques could probably benefit from some comparative perspective. The civil liberties perspective is harder, because it doesn’t fit neatly into a left-right divide; many on the right hold views on “civil liberties” broadly conceived that are quite compatible with leftist attitudes, although generally for different reasons. There are also some inherent contradictions between pursuit of a socio-economically activist state and promotion of a strong vision of civil liberties, as the activist state inevitably tramples on some individual rights.
Worst president of the 20th century, I dunno, but the idea that Vietnam should be laid primarily at LBJ’s feet is ridiculous. I think Oliver Stone’s fervent belief that JFK’s assassination was inevitable because of his left-wing radicalism on foreign policy and civil rights makes JFK one of the funniest movies ever made…
Report: 10,000 Troops Leaving Afghanistan This Year
Kerry and McCain United Behind the Mysteriously Urgent Libya Mission
Iraq Violence Intensifies as Talks Continue on U.S. Troop Presence
In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.
I’ve essentially become resigned to executive branch domination of foreign policy — the only thing that can stop it is for Congress to actually assert its prerogatives, and there’s no reason to believe it will do so. Still, the DOJ lawyers were right: the idea that the attacks on Libya don’t require congressional authorization is not serious, and it represents a further erosion of checks within the executive branch.
Jennifer Rubin provides the inevitable spin, arguing that the killing of OBL vindicates the Bush approach of using military force — including an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and posed no significant security threat to the United States:
Third, this is why we went into Afghanistan and why George W. Bush decided that the United States would go on offense in the war against Islamic terrorism. We cannot sit home, play defense and hope for the best. It was President George W. Bush’s insight that we would need to take the fight to the jihadists. Without doing so, we could not have obtained the intelligence needed to kill the man behind Sept. 11.
A nice trick — putting things at this level of abstraction (“go on offense”) justifies any possible military reaction without requiring any actual argument. But the reality is rather different:
Yet it was not our sheer military or technological strength that finally finished off Osama Bin Laden on Sunday; it was human intelligence, careful preparation, and patience. We don’t know the whole story yet, and we might not hear it for some time. But according to first reports, an intelligence tip-off led U.S. analysts to Bin Laden’s trusted courier; observation of the courier then led special forces to Bin Laden’s compound, which has now been under surveillance for many months.
In other words, the killing of Osama Bin Laden did not take place in a hail of bombs and bullets, or after a shoot-out involving hundreds of troops. It was the result of careful preparation, followed by the competent execution of a plan.
Precisely why it was necessary to invade Iraq in order to obtain this information remains…unclear.
My WPR column this week is on American Exceptionalism:
Does the United States have a special responsibility to manage international affairs? This question has come to inform much of the debate about the role that the U.S. is currently playing in military operations over Libya. Glenn Greenwald of Salon has argued that the idea that the United States has the right to intervene in the internal politics of other countries has its source in a widespread acceptance of American Exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is different, special and privileged compared to other nations. Writing from a realist perspective, Stephen Walt echoed this claim, arguing that both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists hold exceptionalist views of the U.S. role in the world.
Both Greenwald and Walt suggest that the idea of American Exceptionalism has a destructive effect both on world politics and on U.S. domestic politics, with Greenwald phrasing the question in this way: “Does the U.S. indeed occupy a special place in the world, entitling and even obligating us to undertake actions that no other country is entitled or obligated to undertake? And, if so, what is the source of these entitlements and obligations? Is it merely our superior military power, or is there something else that has vested us with this perch of exceptionalism?”
Four points worthy of slightly longer discussion:
- American Exceptionalism is, as a phenomenon, wholly unexceptional. Almost every state or nation has an ideologically charged vision of its own relevance. More powerful states tend to have the most expansive of such visions. The French understanding of civilizing mission is an example of this, but there are obviously also Exceptionalist understandings of German, British, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and Chinese global responsibilities.
- Anyone who rises to the leadership of a major world power is extremely likely to have internalized some sort of Exceptionalist vision. Anyone who rises to such a position without having internalized the Exceptionalist vision is extremely likely to act as if they have internalized such a vision.
- On the whole, these Exceptionalist understandings of foreign policy roles are probably unhelpful from several angles. On the one hand, they detract from the rational, realist calculus of foreign policy means and interest that someone like Stephen Walt might prefer. On the other hand, they tend to grant the presumptive, hypocritical “right of interference” in the affairs of others that so irritates Glenn Greenwald.
- The case for “aspirational exceptionalism” is complicated, but I think there’s something there. As I suggested, not all visions of American Exceptionalism are the same, and some (although not the strain most recently dominant) are actually anti-interventionist. Consequently, I think that it can be worthwhile to try to fight the fight on the ground that Exceptionalists choose, although much care must be taken. For example, I think that How Would a Patriot Act is most definitely a book that would fit comfortably in the “aspirational exceptionalist” milieu.
I generally agree with Mark Tushnet that Robert Jackson is overrated. But I also agree that he did have a talent for good lines, and this bit from his famous-if-overrated Steel Seizures concurrence was prescient indeed:
But I have no illusion that any decision by this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that “The tools belong to the man who can use them.” We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers.
I have a new article up at the Prospect on this general theme. While I agree with Paul and Bruce Ackerman that it’s hard to square the current presidential dominance over military and security policy with the constitutional framework established by the framework, on some level the argument becomes like debating the fine points of constitutional grand theory: presidential dominance is the de facto constitutional order. I draw the line at suggestions that the president can just ignore congressional statutes, but if accepted practice means anything (and I’m not going to selectively pretend to be an originalist) the president’s ability to initiate military force with congressional delegation or acquiescence is part of our constitutional order, and certainly Obama isn’t breaking any new ground. The only thing that can change things is for Congress to assert the formal powers it still possesses, but there’s little reason to believe it will do so.
Whether the current balance of power is constitutional a different question from whether it’s desirable, and on the latter question I remain highly dubious:
But it’s also true that recent American foreign-policy blunders would suggest it’s not entirely desirable for the president to have so much power. As Stephen Holmes argued at length in his brilliant 2006 book, The Matador’s Cape, an executive branch unconstrained in its military power is dangerous. “It turns out,” Holmes says, “that an executive branch that never has to give reasons for its actions soon stops having plausible reasons for its actions.” The Vietnam and second Iraq wars, in particular, suggest that there was real wisdom in the power-sharing over military policy Madison envisioned. Both wars provide classic examples of the pathologies one would expect from unilateral executive power: wars fought under largely false pretenses, with increasingly blurry aims and essentially no cost-benefit analysis. And the theories of unilateral executive power advanced by John Yoo and others in the executive branch under George W. Bush also led to arbitrary torture and other appalling civil-liberties abuses.
At any rate, my combination of outrage and fatalism is expressed in full at TAP. I’ll have more on Posner and Vermeule later today…
Juan Cole has another argument in favor of Allied intervention into Libya. As an open-to-persuasion skeptic, I would like to raise a couple points. First, I’m suspicious of this characterization of the opposing arguments:
1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.
We can quibble over whether this is a litany of strawmen — I suppose there are people who fall into these categories — but they certainly don’t represent counter-arguments in their strongest form. Let’s make clear up front that there are no absolutes, that there are cases in which military attacks by world powers can be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s still neither here not there in terms of whether any particular intervention is justified. I agree that every potential intervention needs to be evaluated on its own merits. So how strong is the case here? Well, here’s the key point for me:
Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.
This may well be right. But, er, that’s a hell of an assumption, isn’t it? What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.
It’s rather disconcerting that of the two Libya op-eds in the Times this morning Ross Douthat’s is easily the more sensible and persuasive. In particular, I think Slaughter lacks a good answer to the question of what happens if the no-fly zones don’t work.
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I really like this Peter Beinart much more than the guy with the same name who used to edit The New Republic.
People generally understand that the domestic politics of a large liberal democracy reflect a contending set of interests in which the controlling coalition need have no relationship to the true interests of the nation. America’s agriculture policy, for example, reflects the interests of ranchers, corn, soybean, and cotton farmers rather than vegetable growers or food consumers. But this same thing happens in foreign policy…
This kind of thinking can sometimes reflect an accurate assessment of what’s good for the country. But it’s also redolent with interest group capture. When the USA assembles a large coalition of allies that is, among other things, a large coalition of customers for American defense contractors. What’s more, the allies then often need defending, both in terms of military bases and general expeditionary capabilities. So we have a controlling domestic political coalition that’s defined our “interests” in the Middle East as consisting of collecting a large and diversified portfolio of local allied regimes who we then directly and indirectly subsidize. But the proposition that this reflects the real interests of the American population is contestable. The connection to real interests is that the price of gasoline is very important to the welfare of the average American household, and that Middle Eastern politics are important to the price of gasoline.
What Yglesias is suggesting is that there’s no such thing as the “national interest”; rather, different groups within society have different foreign policy interests. There may be broad swaths of agreement on certain interests, but even in these cases distributional preferences may differ. That this point is incredibly obvious and cannot be whispered by anyone with a serious interest in working for the United States government is unfortunate, but not particularly contradictory. I tend to find explanation of US government policy that center on “the Village” and other similar constructs sloppy and prone to over-explanation, but surely the uncontested idea that there IS a national interest that can be pursued without reference to interest group politics stands as pillar of elite domination of foreign policy debate.