Tag: Iraq

Libya, Limited Government, and Imperfect Duties

Glenn Greenwald observes that we’re hearing a familiar false dilemma from advocates of intervention in Libya—the same one that was trotted out so frequently in the run-up to the war in Iraq: Either you support American military action, or you must be indifferent to the suffering of civilians under Qadaffi. Bracket for a moment the obvious empirical questions about the general efficacy of bombs as reliable means of alleviating suffering. What I find striking is the background assumption that whether the United States military has a role to play here is taken to be a simple function of how much we care about other people’s suffering. One obvious answer is that caring or not caring simply doesn’t come into it: That the function of the U.S. military is to protect the vital interests of the United States, and that it is for this specific purpose that billions of tax dollars are extracted from American citizens, and for which young men and women have volunteered to risk their lives. It is not a general-purpose pool of resources to be drawn on for promoting desirable outcomes around the world.

A parallel argument is quite familiar on the domestic front, however. Pick any morally unattractive outcome or situation, and you will find someone ready to argue that if the federal government plausibly could do something to remedy it, then anyone who denies the federal government should act must simply be indifferent to the problem. My sense is that many more people tend to find this sort of argument convincing in domestic affairs precisely because we seem to have effectively abandoned the conception of the federal government as an entity with clear and defined powers and purposes. We debate whether a particular program will be effective or worth the cost, but over the course of the 20th century, the notion that such debates should be limited to enumerated government functions largely fell out of fashion. Most people—or at least most public intellectuals and policy advocates—now seem to think of Congress as a kind of all-purpose problem solving committee. And I can’t help but suspect that the two are linked. Duties and obligations may be specific, but morality is universal: Other things equal, the suffering of a person in Lebanon counts just as much as that of a person in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Once we abandon the idea of a limited government with defined powers—justified by reference to a narrow set of functions specified in advance—and instead see it as imbued with a general mandate to do good, it’s much harder for a moral cosmopolitan to resist making the scope of that mandate global, at least in principle.

An analogy with private ethics seems instructive. Most people would probably agree that the well-off have some obligation—as a matter of personal morality, if not “social justice”—to use some portion of their wealth to help the less fortunate. But with respect to humanity in general, we generally treat this as an “imperfect duty,” to use Kant’s phrase. That is, someone might well say: “You really are so rich that you ought to be giving a larger percentage of your income to charity.” But as we scarcely expect anyone to contribute to every worthy cause, any dispute here would properly be about what is an adequate total amount to give, and what general priorities that giving should follow. Someone who gives far less than they could easily afford might be charged with “not caring enough about the badly-off” in general, but it would be bizarre to charge someone with indifference to the plight of Steve in Albuquerque if their (otherwise adequate, by whatever standard you accept) charitable giving did not include an earmark to help poor Steve with his medical bills. Steve’s friends and relatives might owe him a specific duty of assistance, but for everyone else, the only legitimate question is whether they’re doing as much as ethics requires on the whole. With that in mind, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait seems to me to be rather missing the point in this blog post:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there’s no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children’s health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we’re covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Chait is surely right that our failure to intervene in other cases, or to prevent global suffering by other means, doesn’t exactly prove anything about this case. Perhaps those other cases are different, for either practical or moral reasons, or perhaps we simply fail to act in many cases where we ought to. But he’s surely wrong—and I think tellingly wrong—to reject the implicit demand for a general principle to govern those interventions, whether military or otherwise.

Stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that Americans do have some collective obligation to prevent suffering elsewhere in the world, and that this obligation is properly met, at least in part, via government. (Perhaps because governments are uniquely able to remedy certain kinds of suffering—such as those requiring the mobilization of a military.) Given that we have finite resources, surely the worst possible way to go about this is by making a series of ad hoc judgments about particular cases—the “how much do I care about Steve?” method. The refusal to consider whatever global duty we might have holistically is precisely what leads to irrational allocations—like spending billions to protect civilians and rebel troops in Libya when many more lives would be saved (again, let’s suppose for the sake of argument) by far less costly malaria eradication efforts. Unless there’s an argument that we have some specific or special obligation to people in Libya—and I certainly haven’t seen it—then any claim about our obligation to intervene in this case is, necessarily, just a specific application of some broader principle about our obligation to alleviate global suffering generally. The suggestion that we ought to evaluate this case in a vacuum, then, starts to seem awfully strange, because if we are ever going to intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons (rather than to protect vital security interests), then the standard for when to do so has to be, in part, a function of the aggregate demands whatever standard we pick would place on our limited resources.

Reading between the lines slightly, here’s what I suspect is behind Chait’s rejection of a more holistic approach. (I hate putting words in people’s mouths, and encourage people to read the full post and judge for themselves, but I don’t think I’m stretching very far here.) Politically, we seem to be rather perversely amenable to pursuing putative humanitarian goals when this entails dropping bombs at massive cost—at least in cases that trigger our collective attention for whatever reason—than we are to more prosaic (and less lethal) interventions, even when these save more lives at lower cost. Chait infers—perhaps correctly—that Americans would reject any general, cost/benefit sensitive principle of intervention that could possibly justify action in this instance. Since Chait thinks Americans aren’t sufficiently willing to risk lives and money on behalf of foreigners as a general matter, but will occasionally go along with an insanely expensive intervention in particular stirring cases, he’d rather not have to generalize explicitly, because the ad hoc approach gets us closer to the level of assistance he thinks is morally required than any politically viable neutral rule.

Those of us who cherish the principle of limited government sometimes conflate it with our specific conception of what the limits should be—we have in mind a particular set of functions that government is uniquely qualified to take on, for one reason or another. But implicit in these last few paragraphs, I think, is a distinct and more abstract argument rooted in a particular ideal of democratic deliberation—one that is in theory equally compatible with any number of different views about the proper role and functions of government. We all know that individuals often make quite different choices on a case-by-case basis than when they formulate general rules of action based on a longer view. We routinely make meta-choices designed to prevent ourselves from making micro-choices not conducive to our interests in the aggregate: We throw out the smokes and the sweets in the cupboard, and even install software that keeps us from surfing the Internet when we’re trying to get work done. Faced with a Twinkie or a hilarious YouTube clip, we may predict that we will often make choices that, when they’re all added up, conflict with our other long-term goals. Marketers, by contrast, often try to induce us to make snap decisions or impulse purchases when, in a cool hour of deliberation, we’d conclude their product isn’t the best use of our money.

Following a diet or a budget is one form of choice; so is the impulse buy or the fast food snack. The meta-choice about which kind of choice to make depends on a judgement about which best comports with one’s ideal of rational autonomy given the facts of human psychology. A marketer who hopes to trigger an impulse buy can legitimately say he’s giving consumers what they choose, but there’s a clear sense in which someone acting in accordance with a general rule, formulated with a view to long-term tradeoffs, often chooses in a more deliberative and fully autonomous fashion than someone who does what seems most appealing in each case unfettered by such rules.

Something analogous, I want to suggest, can be said about democratic deliberation. A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

Monday Links

  • The New Health Care Law: What a Difference a Year Makes,” featuring a keynote address from constitutional attorney and counsel in Florida v. HHS David Rivkin, and panels including economist and former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Cato director of health policy Michael F. Cannon and vice president for legal affairs Roger Pilon, and many more, begins at 1pm Eastern today. Please join us as we stream the event at our new live events hub, or watch on Facebook. If you prefer television, the forum will be broadcast live on C-SPAN 2.
  • “The next time gun-control advocates point to violence in Mexico and call for more restrictions on gun sales or a revived assault-weapons ban, they should consider that the problem may not be with the laws on the books, but with those who enforce them.”
  • The Bush administration far underestimated the divide between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Iraqis before 2003–the Obama administration may be making the same type of mistake in Libya.
  • The U.S. military currently far exceeds its legitimate function of national defense:

No Mr. Secretary, It Is Not in America’s “Interest” to Stay in Iraq

In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the United States has an “interest” in keeping troops in Iraq past the agreed date of withdrawal, December 31, 2011.  Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pressed Gates by asking:

How can we maintain all of these gains that we’ve made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don’t have any military there whatsoever,” Hunter asked. “We’d have more military in Western European countries at that point than we’d have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?

The logic of Rep. Duncan’s question provides some interesting context. His logic implies that the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in wealthy, developed, Western Europe is both necessary and beneficial to our current interests. But this is not a very good argument as European countries continue to cut their defense budgets in large part because they are sheltered under the American security umbrella. It is in fact highly questionable why Americans should be willing to accept massive deficits as far as the eye can see and spend still more on our military, so that our allies can continue to shirk their fundamental obligations to their own people. There is no reason why we should want to adopt the same model for Iraq.

And yet, Rep. Duncan assumes that U.S. troop deployments in Europe are the model for providing political and economic stability everywhere in the world. If U.S. troops withdraw, all of our “gains” in Iraq would be lost.

This assumes that, first, U.S. troops can provide this stability, and second that our strategic interests in Iraq are on par with those in other parts of the world. But leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another two, five, or seven years will not advance American security. It is not now, and should never have been, the responsibility of U.S. troops to create a functioning state in Iraq. That is the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their government. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

There is no doubt that there are political and security challenges in Iraq, but these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for a continued presence. And these risks will persist no matter how long U.S. troops stay. The future of Iraq lies with the people of Iraq, and it is well past the time when they must take the reins.

A handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. As we are currently seeing with European defense budgets, the United States has been in the business of doing for other governments what they should be doing for themselves.  Now would be a good time to start to change this pattern.

The Pentagon’s Faux Cuts

President Obama might want it to appear as though he is reining in defense spending with his budget submission for FY 2012, but his approach to the Pentagon’s budget reveals the opposite.

Perhaps the president hopes that his adoption of the faux cuts that Secretary Gates put on the table last month will be seen as responsible. Perhaps he is taking a prudent first step and signaling to the military, and its suppliers and contractors, that the days of double-digit increases are over. That may be; but far deeper cuts are warranted. . If the president had truly wanted to send a signal, he would have followed the advice of his own deficit reduction commission and endorsed far deeper cuts in military spending.

The Department of Defense will spend $78 billion less over the next five years than previous projections. This amounts to a drop in the bucket – technically just over 2% – of total Pentagon spending over that period. Nonetheless, in Washington-ese, this constitutes a cut. But the base budget (excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) will increase – from $549 billion to $553 billion, the largest budget in the department’s history. In the past 12 years, the budget that has doubled in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

Deeper cuts should be made along with an effort to lessen worldwide defense commitments, reducing the strain on the force. It will be up to outside pressure – either from Congress or from interested groups outside of government – to force Washington to cease acting as the world’s policeman, and forcing other countries to take responsibility for their own defense.

On Not Leaving Iraq

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq expects to have 17,000 people on his staff after the United States “withdraws” from Iraq at the end of the year, he told the Senate this week. This is astounding. A typical American embassy in a small country might have 100 employees, in a big country such as Great Britain or Russia maybe a few hundred. A staff of 17,000 (including contractors) is not an embassy, it’s an occupation force. Or at least a viceroy’s staff. Here’s the Washington Post report:

The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq on Tuesday defended the size and cost of the State Department’s operations in that country, telling lawmakers that a significant diplomatic footprint will be necessary after the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of this year.

James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his staff of 8,000 will grow in the coming year to about 17,000 people, the vast majority of whom will be contractors.

And while the State Department is spending about $2 billion annually on Iraq operations now, it plans to spend an additional $1 billion on the construction of facilities in each of the next several years….

We’re spending $2 billion a year now on State Department operations in Iraq alone, and we intend to spend $1 billion a year on construction for some years to come. That’s some withdrawal! I know that when Sen. Barack Obama asked to be entrusted with the presidency by repeatedly saying, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home,” he only said “troops.” But I can’t believe that the voters who heard him anticipated leaving thousands of Americans and spending billions of dollars in Iraq for many years.

If members of Congress are looking for ways to cut a trillion-dollar deficit, they might look at our construction and employment and nation-building plans in Iraq.

Egypt’s Iraq Connection

Overall, President Obama was right to applaud the Egyptian military for defending (at least for now) rather than killing Egyptian civilians, potentially avoiding  the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square. Whether Obama’s rhetoric could have been more supportive, as we saw with Tunisia, is up for debate. But it appears that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to shape an orderly transition is running into trouble.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Suleiman used to be head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat).

According to U.C.S.B. Professor Paul Amar, the mukhabarat, which detains and tortures foreigners more than Egyptians, is less hated than the Interior Ministry’s State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla), and different than the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi), “the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as ‘the police.’” Mayer reports that Suleiman Suleiman was also the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheikh al-Libi. “The Libi case,” Mayer reports, “is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq.”

How ironic that America’s attempt to export democracy to Iraq was aided by a repressive government like Egypt’s.

Did We Miss Out on the Bargain of the Century in Iraq?

Stuart Reid’s Twitter points to this Condi Rice discussion with Katie Couric in which the following exchange takes place over the decision to invade Iraq:

RICE: …I’m also, frankly, just very glad [Saddam Hussein is] out of power. Now, to be frank, we tried to take him out of power without going to war. We tried to take him out of power by – we got a report from an Arab state that shall remain nameless that he would take a billion dollars to lead – to leave. We said, deal. Right? (Laughter.) We tried to (find ?) him –

COURIC: Has that – has that been made public before?

RICE: Yeah, I – it may be in President Bush’s book. I’m not sure. I don’t remember. But we did. We said, if he’ll go, everybody’s happy.

A colleague intrepidly Googled this, and turned up this 2007 article in the Washington Post.  The article reports that for a billion dollars and if allowed to “keep information on weapons of mass destruction,” Saddam Hussein told Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak that he would have been willing to go into exile.  President Bush’s own book, per Secretary Rice’s mention, covers the matter in this way:

…Our last ditch hope was that Saddam would agree to go into exile.  At one point, an offer from a Middle Eastern government to send Saddam to Belarus with $1 to $2 billion looked like it might gain traction.  Instead, in one of his last acts, Saddam ordered the tongue of a dissident slashed out and left the man to bleed to death.  The dictator of Iraq had made his decision.  He chose war.

Lots of people like to make fun of President Bush’s prose style, but even for him (or his ghostwriter) this is pretty peculiar.  First of all, it isn’t clear why “person who cuts off dissidents’ tongues and leaves them to bleed to death” is mutually exclusive with “person willing to take a billion or two dollars and go into exile.”  Saying Saddam cut a dissident’s tongue out doesn’t necessarily bear on his willingness to take a payout and go into exile.

Second, it’s almost certain that this was pursued and didn’t go anywhere, but if there was anything approaching a realistic opportunity to make this happen, we really missed out on the bargain of the century here.  You’re looking at something like 500%-1000% returns, not counting several thousand American and a-hundred-or-so-thousand Iraqi lives saved.

Thirdly: Belarus?