Archives: 01/2013

The Neocons’ Fight over Chuck Hagel Moves to Act Two

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, after an excruciatingly long period of uncertainty and speculation, President Obama has demonstrated that he is disinclined to follow the advice of the neoconservatives who have been his harshest critics. Bill Kristol’s aggressive campaign to dissuade Obama from picking Hagel failed. Now the attention turns to a fight over his confirmation in the Senate. In the end, I believe he will be confirmed.

After all, such fights are rare. Presidents are generally granted wide latitude in picking members of their cabinet, and it is unlikely that many of the 55 Senators who caucus with the Democrats (including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will pick a fight with a just-re-elected Democratic president. Such a fight would erode Obama’s political capital, capital that he will need to push through his—and their—domestic agenda.

The remaining unknown, therefore, is whether the neoconservatives’ grip over the Republican Party has finally been broken. Kristol and the neocons will argue that Hagel should not be confirmed. Will Republicans, aside from the predictable voices in the Senate’s interventionist caucus, listen?

It is remarkable that the party continues to consult with the same people who championed the wars that have so tarnished the GOP’s once stellar brand. But consider the case against Hagel on its merits. Hagel is not a pacifist, and certainly not the dove that his critics have claimed he is. He remains firmly within the foreign policy mainstream in Washington, and has supported past wars that I have opposed. But his general inclination, hardened after the debacle of Iraq, is to avoid foreign crusades, and to resist pressure to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in pursuit of unclear objectives that do not advance U.S. interests. That is a mindset that the neoconservatives cannot abide.

But there are broader principles at play, including traditional deference to a president’s wishes with respect to nominees, a deference that is warranted when the person only serves at the discretion of the president (unlike, for example, judges who serve for life). Even conservative commentators who have questions about some of Hagel’s views, including George Will, have signaled that Hagel should be confirmed. Other respected foreign policy hands who came out in favor of Hagel before the nomination was announced include: Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni (and nine other retired senior military officers), nine former ambassadors, including Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker Daniel Kurtzer, and Thomas Pickering. In a separate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker reaffirmed the group’s support for the Hagel nomination, praising Hagel “as a person of integrity, courage and wisdom.” The neocons, therefore, by picking a fight over Hagel, have also taken on a distinguished roster of foreign policy experts. Republican senators wishing to put distance between the party and the neocons should be happy to confirm a nominee who shares their views on most issues, and who is supported by people who have not been so badly wrong, so often.

I don’t believe that Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel in order to humiliate the Republican Party. I don’t think he intended to shine the light on the bitter divide between the neoconservatives and traditional foreign policy realists. I think he picked Hagel because he likes him, and trusts him. But I agree with an anonymous Obama administration official about what the Hagel fight could mean for the GOP (via BuzzFeed): “If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out.”

Do Tax Cuts “Starve the Beast”?

There’s a debate among policy wonks about whether a no-tax-hike policy is an effective way of restraining the burden of government spending.

At the risk of over-simplifying, the folks who support the “starve the beast” theory argue that there are political and/or economic limits to government borrowing, so if you don’t let politicians tax more, you indirectly impose a cap on total spending (outlays = tax revenue + borrowing limit). We’ll call this the STB approach, for obvious reasons.

Critics of the theory, by contrast, say that a low-tax policy creates fiscal illusion by making government spending seem artificially cheap. After all, standard microeconomic analysis tells us that people will demand more of something when the perceived price is low (get a $1 of spending for 80 cents of tax = recipe for higher outlays). We’ll call this the “pay for government” approach, or PFG.

There’s almost surely some truth to both arguments, but the real issue if whether one effect is dominant – particularly in the long run. In other words, should supporters of small government fight tax increases? Or welcome them?

Why Americans Should Care about the Hagel Nomination

Chuck Hagel favors a much more ambitious American role in the world than I do. To answer one of the more ridiculous questions posed during the pre-nomination controversy (and that is saying something), he is not a pacifist. He is, however, a sensible, cautious person who has fought and bled for his country. And he is an independent thinker who is not cowed by Beltway politesse as so many in this town are.

The reason people should care about his nomination is fairly simple. Hagel successfully running the DC gauntlet could be a perestroika moment in the American foreign and defense policy debate, and possibly even loosen the neoconservative stranglehold on the GOP. That’s something worth caring about.

As to what effect Hagel would have on DOD and/or U.S. defense policy, it’s actually tough to say for sure. He has admitted that the Pentagon is bloated and deserves to be cut. So he is unlikely to strike the Situational Keynesian pose that the GOP defense policy establishment have. He has historically been a skeptic about the benefits of bombing Iran and seems to favor a more serious effort at diplomacy. But I hope the hearing will smoke out the nominee’s views a bit better on these issues.

There’s a certain sense that this whole debate is about neocons vs. people who disagree with neocons, and to be frank, there’s something to that. But it’s not about settling old scores or schadenfreude. It’s about slightly reshaping the American foreign policy establishment.

Take Bill Kristol. The “Hagel hates Jews” nonsense owes everything to Kristol. In case it still needs to be said, Hagel is not an anti-Semite. There are too many testaments to this reality to point to (including notable reality-checks from David Brooks and Bush the Younger’s Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim), and the entire effort to brand him as America’s Ahmadinejad should not have been considered even for a moment.

But this sort of nonsense is Kristol’s stock and trade, at least on foreign policy issues. On December 19, he announced in a podcast that the reason Hagel should be opposed is that he is “a bitter enemy of Israel.” In the intervening weeks, he quarterbacked a monomaniacal campaign of yellow journalism and innuendo against a candidate who, by the rules of tradition and decorum, could not answer the slurs directly.

By January 4, Kristol was patting himself on the back, praising the “substantive” campaign waged by his merry band of bloggers against Hagel, but once again deploying the nonsense about Hagel harboring an “unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews.”

Unfortunately, people like Kristol hold outsized sway over wonky, inside baseball decisions like the Hagel nomination—decisions that are influenced almost entirely by elites, without input from voters. So the neocon modus operandi isn’t to win elections with neoconservative candidates, but rather to shape the contours of the conventional wisdom in Washington such that people who don’t have passionate views about defense spending or the Middle East at least confront a severely circumscribed range of acceptable opinion from which to choose.

So I think the reason Kristol and his comrades are fighting so hard on this is to ensure that people who speak out against Kristolian policies like the war in Iraq and a prospective one on Iran cannot survive. That would serve as a powerful deterrent for the large numbers of Republicans who know in their hearts that something is wrong with the neoconservative program.

If Hagel survives this process, it will show that you can stare down the neocons and live to tell the tale. And if the Hagel nomination can demonstrate that you don’t need to fear Bill Kristol, the country and our foreign policy will be better off for it.

The AEA’s Annual Meeting: plus ça change

The American Economics Association, the granddaddy and most prestigious of professional economic organizations, opens its annual meeting in San Diego today. Even though not all of its 18,000+ members will show, it will certainly be a big affair.

One of the AEA’s founders was Prof. Richard T. Ely, an ardent Christian Socialist and prominent faculty member of The Johns Hopkins University. Ely and five other “young rebels,” as Ely describes them in his autobiography Ground Under Our Feet, were fresh from graduate studies in Germany when they founded the AEA in 1885. The young rebels had studied at the feet of the leaders of the German historical school of economics, who were at war—the great Methodenstreit—with members of the Austrian school of economics and others who harbored laissez-faire attitudes.

The AEA’s founding fathers saw themselves as social reformers. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Prof. Ely described the primary motivation for the founding of the AEA as “a protest against the system of laissez faire, as expounded by the writers of the older ‘orthodox’ American school of economics.”

While they would probably frown on what their baby has become, Prof. Ely and the other rebels would certainly rejoice at the fact that their ideas are now en vogue in American political culture.

Our Rushed Debate on NSA Spying

While the news media were obsessing over the Fiscal Cliff, President Obama quietly signed a five-year reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, which the Senate hastily approved after defeating a string of common-sense amendments that would have provided a modicum of additional protection for the civil liberties of Americans.

Our resident video ninjas, Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg, assembled this short video explaining just what happened using footage from that all-too-brief Senate debate—and revealing how little interest Congress seems to have in protecting us from dragnet surveillance by the National Security Agency.

The El-Masri Case

Robyn Blumner’s 2012 award for civil liberties:

Typically at year’s end I give out the “Freeby” award to the person or institution that did the most to advance civil liberties. This year I look beyond our borders to a courageous stand against the CIA’s mistreatment of prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights gets the “Freeby” for finally giving Khaled El-Masri a measure of justice.

Earlier this month the court handed El-Masri, a German national, a victory against Macedonia for its complicity in his torture within the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program nine years ago. America was not directly on trial, but our guilt was clear.

On Dec. 31, 2003, El-Masri was detained after his name was found similar to that of an al-Qaida suspect. Macedonian security officials held him incommunicado for 23 days at America’s request. After that he was turned over to the CIA at Skopje Airport, where, the court found, he was severely beaten, stripped and forcibly sodomized with a suppository and flown to Afghanistan. For months El-Masri was held in a cold, unheated cell at the “Salt Pit,” a secret CIA-run prison. Even after it became evident his detention was a mistake, El-Masri wasn’t immediately released. Finally at the end of May 2004, he was taken and dumped at a roadside in Albania, left to find his way home to Germany.

Since then, El-Masri’s efforts to get justice in U.S. courts failed. The “state secrets” defense defeated any consideration of his claim. Astoundingly the United States has never apologized for what happened to him or even publicly acknowledged it.

Read the whole thing.

Who Needs William and Kate When You Have Jong-un and Sol-ju?

The United States was born in revolution, as some unruly colonists revolted against the world’s greatest power. The latter empire no longer is so great, but it retains a strange hold over Americans; witness the media frenzy when it was revealed that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William, is expecting a baby.

Another royal pregnancy and perhaps birth is also receiving attention: Ri Sol-ju, wife of North Korea’s Great Successor (and many other titles, even more than possessed by William) Kim Jong-un, may have been pregnant and, even more important, may have given birth.

Little is known about anything in the modern Hermit Kingdom, but rumors recently swirled both north and south of the border that Ri was pregnant. In December she was seen “wearing a billowing black dress that covered what appeared to be a swollen belly,” according to one Associated Press report. But the news service went on to report that “The seemingly pregnant belly sported by the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in mid-December appeared to be gone by New Year’s Day.”

This has created great excitement in South Korea. And if there is an appealing baby to go along with the more telegenic “Cute Leader,” we are likely to hear a new round of speculation about the likelihood that Kim is a committed reformer determined to pull his desperately poor, isolated, and repressive nation into the 21st century.

Unfortunately, this belief reflects the continuing triumph of desperate hope over depressing experience. Talk of economic liberalization so far has yielded few practical results. There is no evidence of political reform: The Workers Party of Korea, the North Korean communist party, appears to be exerting its control over the military, not relaxing its hold over the people. And Pyongyang actually has tightened border security to prevent escape across the Yalu River into China.

Some day the North’s bizarre system of monarchical communism will come to an end. Unfortunately there is no evidence yet that Kim Jong-un is an agent of “hope and change” for the North Korean people.