Tag: interventionism

How Would I Amend the Constitution? End All Extra-Legal Amendments Thereto

The Fiscal Times recently asked me and a number of others, “How would you amend the Constitution?“ Here’s how the Times categorized my response:

DON’T CHANGE A THING

Several major conservative thinkers suggested that the Constitution does not need to be changed, but rather to have its principle of limited government guide both Congress and the president.

Michael Cannon at the Cato Institute noted that the Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless searches, “yet the National Security Agency tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent.”

First of all, and I fear I will be explaining this to reporters for the rest of my life, I am not a conservative. I support gay marriage, cutting military spending, closing all U.S. bases in foreign nations, and ending the prohibitions on drugs, gambling, and prostitution. Of such stuff conservatives are not made.

Second, the above excerpt scarcely captures my response to the Times’ inquiry. Don’t change a thing?? Here is my response in full:

There are constitutional amendments I want to see. And yet.

Americans don’t need to amend the Constitution so much as they need politicians to honor what the Constitution already says. The Constitution creates a government of enumerated and therefore limited powers; Congress and the president routinely exceed those powers. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, particularly political speech; Congress heavily regulates and rations political speech. The Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches” and requires “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause”; yet the NSA tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent. The states could ratify an amendment that says, “Hey, we mean it!”; but the Constitution already contains two amendments saying that (the Ninth and Tenth). What is the point of amending the Constitution if Congress will just ignore that amendment too?

This could soon become a Very Big Problem. If Congress keeps acting like it is not bound by the Constitution, then eventually the people will conclude that they aren’t either.

That is, I don’t want to amend the Constitution so much as I want to stop politicians and bureaucrats from amending it unlawfully – i.e., without going through the Article V amendment process  – and stop the courts from rubber-stamping those extra-legal amendments. 

It would be great if, as the Times writes, the Constitution’s principle of limited government were to guide both Congress and the president. I would settle for having the plain words of the Constitution constrain Congress and the president. That constraint will have to come from the people, and federal judges.

AEI on the Spectre of ‘Isolationism’

As David Boaz notes below, a few blocks away at 17th and M, the foreign policy and defense analysts at the American Enterprise Institute have discovered a threat that’s even more disturbing than the possibility of a Chinese “Space Force” armed with particle-beam weapons [.pdf].  It seems there’s a spectre haunting America–the spectre of “isolationism.”

It’s such a threat that AEI, one of our leading conservative think tanks, is calling on President Obama to man the bully pulpit and use his magic rhetorical skills to raise awareness. I did a double-take on Tuesday when I saw a post at AEI’s blog titled, “With Growing Isolationism, We Need Obama to Lead Now More Than Ever.” And yet, when I got up the next day, I heard AEI veep Danielle Pletka on NPR, lamenting “Republican isolationism” and the fact that Obama hadn’t yet stepped up to “explain to the American people” the “tough, important decisions” he’d made in foreign policy.

What’s the evidence for this supposedly burgeoning “isolationism” in the Republican party and the country at large? AEI’s Alex Della Rocchetta cites a recent poll showing that only 26 percent of likely voters support Obama’s Libyan adventure and the Pew Center survey David links to below, that has a rising number of Americans agreeing with the statement that the US should “mind its own business internationally.”

But is it “isolationism” to doubt the wisdom of bombing Libya, a country that the president’s own secretary of defense admits isn’t “a vital interest of the United States” or to think minding your own business abroad is better than minding other peoples’ business?  As my colleague Justin Logan has pointed out, “isolationism” has always been a smear word designed to shut off debate. Tim Carney’s sardonic definition has it right: “Isolationist: n. Someone who, on occasion, opposes bombing foreigners.”

But, rhetorical games aside, AEI’s hawks have reason to worry that interventionism is increasingly unpopular. It had to hurt when even sometime AEI scholar Newt Gingrich–a guy so threat-addled that he once called for zapping a North Korean missile test with lasers–struck a note of restraint at the last GOP debate. As the New York Times noted, that debate showed that “the hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view.”

Maybe GOP pols are beginning to catch on that, for quite some time now, ordinary Americans have overwhelmingly rejected the globocop role forced on them by liberal and conservative elites. Indeed, there’s a huge disconnect between the foreign policies Americans favor and those the Beltway Consensus delivers. Nearly three-quarters of the American public wants to get out of Afghanistan yesterday; meanwhile, 57 percent of National Journal’s “National Security Insiders” think we need to waste more blood and treasure on armed “community organizing.”

It’s almost like there’s a “culture war” going on, but not one of the usual God, Guns, and Gays variety. On one side, you’ve got the sound, mind-your-business instincts of the American people; on the other, there’s a gaggle of intellectual elites, determined to extend the reach and power of the American state. A “Battle,” if you will. You could write a book about it.

Six Bad Arguments for Bombing Libya

In his speech last night defending U.S. participation in Libya’s civil war, President Obama repeated the justifications for bombing Libya that I attacked in a post written for the National Interest last Friday, “Three Phony Reasons to Bomb Libya.”

1. The President argued that Qaddafi recently “lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead.” I’ll again quote George Will on that:

Such meretricious boilerplate seems designed to anesthetize thought. When did Gaddafi lose his people’s confidence? When did he have legitimacy? American doctrine — check the Declaration of Independence — is that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. So there are always many illegitimate governments. When is it America’s duty to scrub away these blemishes on the planet? Is there a limiting principle of humanitarian interventionism? If so, would Obama take a stab at stating it?

2. Obama said in his speech that humanitarian concerns caused U.S. military action. Here’s what I wrote about that:

Certainly humanitarian concerns influenced some Libya hawks, including the President and his advisors. But that rationale is more selling point than motivation. Libya’s is a not particularly brutal civil war compared to others we ignore.

Nor is it clear that bombing Libya serves humanitarian ends. True, absent outside intervention, the Libyan government would likely have reasserted its authority in the east, killing rebellious civilians. But the civil war that intervention prolonged will probably kill more. In his March 18 speech justifying war on humanitarian grounds, Obama quoted Qaddafi’s promise to show “no mercy and no pity,” but failed to note that the dictator was threatening rebel fighters, not civilians, and explicitly excluded rebels that surrendered. The point is not that we should bank on such promises but that the path to minimizing violence is uncertain.

3. The President claimed that if Qaddafi defeated the insurgency:

The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security.

I summarized my argument for why this is a terrible reason for war this way:

Credibility rationales for wars suffer two crippling deficiencies. First, there is little evidence credibility travels much. Second, even if it did, fighting limited wars of questionable value seems likely to damage one’s perceived willingness to fight elsewhere. Western intervention in Libya may encourage Middle-Eastern dictators to crush dissenters rather than accommodate them.

Three other arguments that the President made last night need response.

4. He again claimed that while U.S. policy aims to replace Qaddafi with democracy, our military efforts serve only to defend civilians. That’s a useful fiction meant to keep the coalition unified and mitigate worries about mission creep. We are now giving the rebels close-air support (though our military spokespeople aren’t allowed to say so) and attacking the Libyan military even where it does not threaten civilians. As I’ve said, although I oppose fighting in this war, insofar as we are in, we should have a military policy consistent with our goal of helping the rebels win. So this is good mission creep. But even with stepped-up air support, the rebels likely still lack the organization to overtake western cities, meaning that stalemate and de facto partition remain likely.

5. As if to undermine that last claim, the President used the word freedom a half dozen times in his speech, concluding with soaring rhetoric about how promoting freedom is good for Americans. The trouble with this argument is that, as Stephen Walt argues, research on the history of interventions meant to overthrow leaders of weak states shows that the “probability that our intervention will yield a stable democracy is low, and that our decision to intervene has increased the likelihood of civil war.”

6. To convince us that this war is not rash / Bush-like, the President argued that he went to war with the support of the U.N. Security Council, European allies, the Arab League, and the Libyan opposition. Left off the list of consenters are Americans and their congressional representatives. Maybe the President now agrees with Jack Goldsmith that candidate Obama’s 2007 opposition to bombings undertaken without congressional authorization is constitutional formalism rendered moot by decades of congressional supplication before presidents. Maybe he agrees with Hillary Clinton’s contention that the United Nation’s Security Council can legalize what Congress does not or Congressman Jim Moran’s notion that it shouldn’t vote on wars because it is “too easily influenced by public opinion.”

The whole point of separating powers, of course, is to check executive whimsy with congressional power that reflects public opinion. That fact that Congress has authorized plenty of dumb wars shows that the check is insufficient, not that it is useless. It is probably naive to think that Congress would have blocked this war, but by exercising its atrophied war powers Congress at least might have caused the war to be waged with more wisdom and forethought.

Tuesday Links

  • Still think the War on Drugs is a good idea, or that it’s working? Decreases in cocaine production in Colombia have been almost fully offset by increases in Peru and Bolivia.
  • Why is nobody talking about the right of Wisconsin taxpayers to not deal with unions?
  • “If you’re the rare bird who favors limited government at home and abroad, you can hardly expect good news from a poll of this generation’s Tracy Flicks.” (Maybe not.)
  • NPR and PBS are using taxpayer dollars to lobby for… more taxpayer dollars. But that’s hardly a new game in Washington.
  • Afghanistan: nation-building on crack.
  • Saying no to a no-fly zone over Libya should be a no-brainer:


No to No-Fly Zones

My Washington Examiner column this week is on the growing drumbeat for military action in Libya.  That allegedly serious people are proposing, as Defense Secretary Gates puts it, “the use of the US military in another country in the Middle East,” ought to be appalling.  If the last ten years haven’t convinced you that a little prudence and caution might serve us well in foreign policy, what would?

Recently Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the Bobbsey Twins of knee-jerk interventionism, chastised Obama for dragging his feet on the path toward war.  They called for arming the rebels and implementing a no-fly zone, for starters.

“I love the military,” Sen. McCain complained “but they always seem to find reasons why you can’t do something rather than why you can.”  Alas, “can’t is the cancer of happen,” as Charlie Sheen reminded us recently.

Even so, I argue in the column, there are good reasons to resist the call for this supposedly “limited” measure.

Excerpt:

But let’s stipulate that NATO warplanes (mainly U.S. fighters, of course) could deny pro-Gadhafi forces the ability to deploy air power. That would not impede their ability to murder on the ground. What then?

NATO flew more than 100,000 sorties in Operation Deny Flight, the no-fly zone imposed over Bosnia from 1993 to 1995, yet that wasn’t enough to prevent ethnic cleansing or the killing of thousands of Bosnians in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

It did, however, help pave the way for a wider war and a 12-year nation-building mission. In for a penny, in for a pound – intervention tends to have a logic of its own.

This is a good occasion, then, to reflect on a fundamental question: What is the U.S. military for? Humanitarian interventionists on the Left and the Right seem to view it as an all-purpose tool for spreading good throughout the world – something like the “Super Friends” who, in the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, scanned the monitors at the Hall of Justice for “Trouble Alerts,” swooping off regularly to do battle with evil.

Our Constitution takes a narrower view. It empowers Congress to set up a military establishment for “the common defence … of the United States,” the better to achieve the Preamble’s goal of “secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Armed liberation of oppressed peoples the world over wasn’t part of the original mission.

Funny enough, when he first got to Washington, John McCain occasionally appreciated the virtues of foreign policy restraint.  As Matt Welch recounts in his book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick: “In September 1983, as a freshman congressman and loyal foot soldier of the Reagan revolution, John McCain voted against a successful measure to extend the deployment of US Marines in war-torn Lebanon.”  In a speech on the House floor, McCain argued that “The fundamental question is, what is the United States’ interest in Lebanon?…. The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave.”

Later, Welch writes that, in 1987, when President Reagan reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, offering them “US Navy protection against a threatening Iran, McCain was livid.”  He took to the pages of the Arizona Republic to complain that the move was “a dangerous overreaction in perhaps the most violent and unpredictable region in the world…. American citizens are again be asked to place themselves between warring Middle East factions, with…. no real plan on how to respond if the situation escalates.”

It’s been a long time since Senator McCain made such good sense on foreign policy.

Reagan’s Libertarian Spirit

At the Britannica Blog I take a look back at Ronald Reagan on the occasion of his impending 100th birthday (February 6):

Libertarians have mixed feelings toward Ronald Reagan. When we’re feeling positive, we remember that he used to say, “Libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.”

Other times, we call to mind his military interventionism, his encouragement of the then-new religious right (“I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”), and his failure to really reduce the size of government. But the more experience we have with later presidents, the better Reagan looks in retrospect….

And in those moments we’re tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Bonus: The entry contains links to Encyclopedia Britannica entries on such topics as libertarianism and individualism, normally available only to subscribers. More Britannica reflections on Reagan here. Some other Cato thoughts on Reagan here.