Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Dear Mr. President: It’s Time to Ignore the Polls on Syrian Refugees

The latest polls are clear: Americans want little to do with the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama has promised to take in, much less any part of dealing with the more than 4 million refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. According to Gallup, 60% oppose the United States taking in refugees, compared with just 37% who approve.  As clear as the figures seem, however, there are four good reasons that Obama should avoid following the majority’s lead.

The first reason is that Americans are wildly ignorant about Syria, Islam, and the situation in the Middle East. A Pew survey in 2012 caused a kerfuffle when it revealed that 50% of Americans couldn’t identify Syria when it was highlighted on a map of the Middle East. The same survey found that just 42% could identify the crescent and star as the symbol for Islam from a set of four symbols, one of which was the Christian cross and another was the Star of David (about 34% chose Om, the symbol associated with Hinduism). This ignorance would be bad enough, but at least presidents might be able to count on American opinion, if they could only figure out which half of the people to trust!

What’s worse, however, is the collective ignorance that Americans have shown regarding major political issues over time. Thanks to fear, nationalism, religious and cultural biases, and historical circumstances, American majorities have been wrong about a number of very important issues, often over long periods of time; slavery, the treatment of native peoples, and women’s rights are just a few obvious examples. Regarding foreign affairs, the majority’s track record is very spotty. The public was far too slow to recognize the threat of Hitler, far too acquiescent when Kennedy and then Johnson escalated Vietnam to pointless disaster, and over eager to take on Iraq a second time in 2003. Regarding refugees, in particular, the current hysteria has prompted reminders that very similar majorities opposed accepting Jewish children from Germany in 1939, opposed accepting Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet control in 1958, and more recently opposed taking in refugees from Kosovo in 1999. None of those episodes seem, in retrospect, to reflect wise counsel from the public.

The third reason the president should ignore public opinion on the refugee crisis is that American attitudes are irresponsible. Even in the best of times, American public opinion does not reflect one of the most critical requirements of policy evaluation: a consideration of trade offs. Since individual Americans are not responsible for making tough decisions between guns and butter, they tend to respond to poll questions in a vacuum, unhindered by the context in which policy decisions must actually be made. When you ask Americans what they want, they want it all – military strength without economic strain, influence without upsetting the allies, and victory without casualties. In the wake of Paris, public attitudes are all the more suspect. Terrorist attacks produce fear and fear produces emotional responses, not rational ones. Of all surveys, presidents should least trust those taken in the middle of a crisis.

The fourth reason to question the will of the majority is that it is the toxic byproduct of the political echo chamber. Whether glued to the television or to Twitter, research shows that the mass public remains dependent on the foreign policy establishment for almost all the arguments and cues necessary to form opinions about foreign policy. Since the Paris attacks we have heard the Republican candidates trip over themselves to take ever more extreme positions on the refugee situation. Senator Ted Cruz has called it “nothing less than lunacy” to take in refugees; Carson called it a “suspension of intellect” to consider accepting refugees. Donald Trump has called accepting refugees “just insane” while suggesting closing mosques and considering the creation of a database of all Muslims living in the United States. In today’s information environment, such outrageous statements not only make news but they spread quickly through social media, pushing aside calmer and more reasoned assessments and proposals. Unsurprisingly, then, 60% of the public – and 84% of Republicans  – oppose Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees despite the fact that the United States has an extensive and lengthy security review process for screening refugees and despite the fact that the U.S. experience with refugees provides no support for exaggerated perceptions of a terrorist threat.

Given all this, neither President Obama, nor Congress, nor the various candidates for president should put too much stock in today’s majority opinion about Syrian refugees. Instead, Obama should lead a patient and vigorous national debate about the benefits and costs of accepting refugees, working toward a policy that meets the long-run interests of the United States. Over time, as the fear and panic from Paris subside, we should be mindful that today’s “wisdom of the crowd” may eventually look like yesterday’s folly.

The Two Koreas Talk: Time for Thanksgiving?

Whenever North Korea heads to the negotiating table one remembers the traditional description of a second marriage: the triumph of hope over experience. We’ve been here before. Or, more accurately, the two Koreas have.

Still, as Winston Churchill famously said, better to jaw-jaw than war-war. The last Korean conflict left millions of casualties and refugees. Even a minor league war could be catastrophic.

Nevertheless, the Republic of Korea should have no illusions about the latest negotiations, scheduled for America’s Thanksgiving. Nothing much is likely to emerge from that gathering. And nothing that emerges is likely to survive very long.

No Longer a Hypothetical: Russian Plane Shot Down

Earlier today, Turkey, a NATO ally, shot down a Russian jet, killing at least one pilot, and leaving the other in the hands of insurgents on the ground (and possibly also dead). The Turks claim that the Russian jet was operating in Turkish airspace, and was warned away on numerous occasions. Thus, when its F-16 fighter jet attacked the Russian SU-24 bomber, it was a legitimate act of self defense. The Turks have called for a NATO meeting later today to explain their side of the story, and, presumably, game out next steps.

Russia claims that its plane was operating over Syrian airspace. It initially reported that it was downed by ground fire, but has since changed its story. Putin is calling it “a stab in the back,” but may stop short of using it as a pretext for substantially widening a conflict he may already regret having been dragged into. There are conflicting reports about whether Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has canceled a planned meeting in Turkey tomorrow.

This story bears watching, and I’m reluctant to spin out the historical analogies too far. Very few brush fire wars become world wars, and not all allies behave as the allied and entente powers did in July 1914. Plus, technological changes go a long way to explain why the world today is very different from 100 years ago. I have reason to doubt, for example, that a nuclear-armed Germany would have risked war with a nuclear-armed Russia over Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia.

But I nervously tweeted this morning that we might soon appreciate the difference between fighting wars against terrorists and wars against nation-states. We’ve avoided having to think seriously about such things for many years, which may explain the apparent enthusiasm for a no-fly zone over Syria (favored by at least 8 of 11 major presidential candidates). The possibility of Russian jets being shot down, and Russian pilots killed, was dismissed as a hypothetical (Though not by everyone).

It isn’t hypothetical any longer.

Terrorism in Paris: Blowback for Yet Another Unnecessary War

The latest Paris attacks rightly horrify us, but they should surprise no one, least of all the French. After all, France started bombing Islamic State forces 14 months ago. The targeting of civilians is morally monstrous. However, it is sadly predictable, an almost common practice by weaker powers.

A century ago ethnic Serbs and Russian anarchists employed this hideous tactic. More recently Sri Lankan Tamils and Iraqi Sunnis used it. Now the Islamic State is perfecting a weapon it had heretofore left to al-Qaeda.

The Paris killings weren’t an attempt “to destroy our values, the values shared by the U.S. and France,” as claimed by Frederic Lefebvre of the National Assembly. Rather, admitted French academic Dominique Moisi, the Islamic State’s message was clear: “You attack us, so we will kill you.” As America learned on September 11, 2001, intervening in other nations’ political and military struggles inevitably creates enemies and blowback.

Explanation is not justification. But any government that attacks the Islamic State should realize retaliation against people innocently going about their lives, as in Paris, is likely.

Paris Changed Nothing. We Still Have Every Reason to Welcome Syrian Refugees

This week, we’ve heard calls from all quarters to close our doors to the modest number of Syrian refugees President Obama proposed welcoming to the United States. Thirty governors have vowed to bar Syrian refugees from entering their states; the House of Representatives voted 289-137 to place impossibly tight restrictions on admission of refugees from Iraq and Syria;  and 2016 presidential candidates disingenuously decried the possible influx of “100,000,” “200,000” or even “250,000” refugees that no one has proposed — remember Obama only called for letting in 10,000 Syrians next year.

But after the Paris terrorist attacks of a week ago, not only should we not give in to this paranoia, we should offer entry to as many Syrian refugees as we can — it’s more important than ever to demonstrate to both our allies and our adversaries that America will live up to the values of sheltering innocents and constructively intervening to end civil war.

Not only that, in the long run, it’ll make us safer.

Democracy Triumphs in Burma—If Military Will Yield Real Power

In 2010, Burma’s military junta–misnamed the State Peace and Development Council–began a controlled move toward limited democracy. The process was highly imperfect and there has been backsliding of late.

Nevertheless, national elections were held last week.

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy annihilated the regime’s Union Solidarity Development Party, winning 78 percent of the seats. Voters rejected many top military and USDP leaders.

The losers were surprised that the people gave them so little credit for the end of dictatorial rule. “All of our calculations were wrong,” said one. Yet this happened before.

After ruthlessly suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations, the military regime sought to improve its image with an election in 1990. The NLD similarly won about 80 percent of the legislative seats. The embarrassed junta promptly voided the results, suppressed protests, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the last quarter century.

No one expects a similar response this time, however. The military made a far more calculated move toward democracy, writing the constitution to guarantee its influence. Moreover, after inviting in the West, the military could not easily return to isolation, the almost certain result of any electoral repudiation.

However, is the military prepared to allow reform to move forward?

Suu Kyi and the NLD face extraordinary challenges, made more difficult by people’s high expectations. People across Burma voted for The Lady, but she has never held office or participated in the give and take of politics.

She faces what remains an authoritarian state. Human Rights Watch recently warned that “the reform process has stalled.”

Much must be done. Civil and political freedoms must be further expanded. All members of parliament should be elected. Judges must be made independent and fair criminal procedures need to be established.

Moreover, power must be fully vested in civilians. Today, the Ministries of Defense, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs are formally under military control, while the army has seeded its personnel throughout the nominally civilian bureaucracy and judiciary.

Fundamental economic reform also is necessary. The Economic Freedom of the World index places Burma at a dismal 146 of 157 nations. Little progress has been made toward a market economy. The new government must make Burma attractive to domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investors alike.

Conflict continues among a number of ethnic groups. Peace requires allowing substantial self-government, creating trust after decades of military atrocities, and reintegrating ethnic and religious minorities in Burmese institutions.

Riots and massacres have continued in Rakhine State targeting the Muslim Rohingya, encouraged by radical Buddhist nationalists. The national government must protect vulnerable groups from organized violence.

Standing in the way of real change is the military-drafted constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from the presidency and requires a 75 percent vote in parliament to amend the constitution, while guaranteeing 25 percent of the seats to the military. Forging a relationship with the army while edging it aside will require extraordinary sensitivity.

Suu Kyi also must overcome her own limitations. Although a heroic figure who has suffered much for the cause of democracy, she has failed to delegate and develop a broad leadership within the NLD.

And her plan for governing sounds anything but inclusive: “The president will be told exactly what he can do. I make all the decisions, because I am the leader of the winning party.”

It has been more than a half century since the people of Burma have been able to rule themselves. They face tough questions of media freedom, political reform, economic liberalization, ethnic conflict, military accountability, and more.

As I argued on Forbes online: “For too long the Burmese people could only look to the future and hope for change. Today they have a chance to enjoy the opportunities that the rest of us take for granted. Hopefully now, after decades of conflict, the future finally has arrived for Burma.”

Do the Paris Attacks Authorize President Obama to Wage War under NATO’s Article 5?

At the Washington Post online, Ilya Somin claimed that the Paris attacks gave “the Obama administration an opportunity to legalize its previously unconstitutional war against ISIS.” He continues, though invoking Article 5 may not appeal to the Obama administration it “is nonetheless the only sound legal justification for continuing the war against ISIS, unless and until the president gets a new authorization from Congress.”

International legal scholar Julian Ku disagreed, noting “Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that ‘[t]his Treaty shall be ratified and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.’ (emphasis added).”

In response to Ku, Somin wrote: “in the event of an enemy attack on the US itself, the president has the legal authority to use force of his own volition, without additional congressional authorization.” And Article 5 “gives him the same authority to use force as he would have in the event of an attack on the United States itself.” Indeed, Somin enthused that “Empowering the president to assist an ally under attack without having to seek congressional authorization…makes the US commitment to defend its European allies more credible and certain.”

I am struck by Somin’s enthusiasm for allowing Barack Obama to circumvent the Congress’s war-making authority, and take the United States to war in Syria on account of attacks in France.

This is the same Barack Obama, mind you, who a number of scholars have criticized for exceeding his Constitutional authority. It seems particularly odd, given the importance that the Founders invested in the principle of legislative supremacy over the executive with respect to the war powers – Madison famously said that it was the most important passage of the entire document – that anyone, but especially advocates of limited, constitutional government, would be quick to make an exception in this case.

Will these advocates of greater executive power be now similarly inclined to allow the president to usurp a number of the other legislative powers enumerated in the Constitution? Should Obama be allowed to levy taxes and fees? Or initiate massive new domestic spending programs, independent of the Congress? Say, to implement a health care plan?

That is doubtful. What we are seeing, instead, is a manifestation of the fear-driven politics of the post-9/11 era, which has created a worrisome double-standard: presidents supposedly have nearly unlimited authority to send Americans abroad to be killed or maimed, but they are severely constrained when acting here at home. This attitude is perhaps best exemplified by Bush-era lawyer John Yoo’s claim that, in light of the supposedly uniquely dangerous threats confronting us today, “we should not…adopt a warmaking process that contains a built-in presumption against the use of force abroad.”

Actually, we should. The supposed dangers are precisely that: we do not live in a uniquely dangerous world. Americans today, in particular, enjoy a measure of safety that our ancestors would envy, and that our contemporaries do envy. Given this state of affairs, we should be extremely reluctant to intervene in others’ disputes when our vital interests are not directly threatened. And we should never forget that efforts to create a strong executive abroad will inevitably lead to a strong one at home.

The United States should maintain military power capable of deterring attacks against the United States, and fighting and winning wars when deterrence fails. That military will also be large enough to assist other nations in need, but the authority to deploy forces in that way should never be pre-delegated to circumvent the Congress – and, by extension, the people – of the United States.