Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Chapman on Iraq

Here’s libertarian columnist Steve Chapman on Bush’s Iraq report card, released last week:

On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war, and it concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, there has been “satisfactory progress.” That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.

[…]

By now, we should all know that the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday that the results of the surge so far are “cause for optimism.” But in September 2004, he was “pleased with the progress.” In January 2005, he said, “I’m optimistic about it.” A year later, he said “we are winning.” The president’s mood is always good and always wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that the White House moved the goalposts–yet again–in its assessment metrics. The Dems in Congress thought they were being tricky by asking the president to assess whether the Iraqis were making “satisfactory” progress on the various metrics, hemming him in by forcing him to either a) put his stamp of approval on what they suspected would be obvious non-progress, or b) concede publicly that the political process was not progressing. Here was the White House’s response, from pages 7-8 of the report, clarifying its assessment techniques:

Standard of Measurement: Section 1314(b)(2)(A) states: “The President shall submit an initial report to Congress, not later than July 15, 2007, assessing the status of each of the specific benchmarks established above, and declaring, in his judgment, whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is, or is not, being achieved.” In order to make this judgment (e.g., whether “satisfactory progress … is, or is not, being achieved”), we have carefully examined all the facts and circumstances with respect to each of the 18 benchmarks and asked the following question: As measured from a January 2007 baseline, do we assess that present trend data demonstrates a positive trajectory, which is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment in the near term? If the answer is yes, we have provided a “Satisfactory” assessment; if the answer is no, the assessment is “Unsatisfactory.” For those benchmarks receiving the latter assessment, we have explained what, if any, strategic adjustments may be required to improve the present trajectory. (All emphasis in original.)

So the White House defines “satisfactory” as demonstrating a “positive trajectory” that is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment “in the near term,” a date which remains undefined. Thus, the X-axis in this case, time, could be unlabeled; it represents an infinite timeline constrained only by however the White House cares to define “the near term” at any given moment. Any upward trend could be thus deemed “satisfactory.” We got no evaluation from the White House on how fast the Iraqis should be making progress.

The White House decided to grade themselves on a significant curve, and still could only fudge the report card such that they scored a 44%. Chapman is right; if NCLB had standards like this, the future would look even bleaker.

Who’s Causing Trouble in Iraq?

This morning’s LA Times has an interesting piece on who is actually sowing the mayhem that continues to take place across Iraq:

BAGHDAD — Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.

About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.

Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency.

He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.

And yet, apropos of all the recent saber-rattling against Iran that’s taken place lately, the most interesting line in the piece may be this one:

Both the White House and State Department declined to comment for this article.

Why do they have nothing to say about the Saudis?

Conservatives and the Presidency

But for the intriguing–and unsettling–revelation that President Bush’s nickname for his attorney general is “Fredo,” there’s not much new in the Washington Post’s recent four-part series on vice president Dick Cheney.  But the series does serve to remind us of how consistently Cheney has pushed for three decades to expand the powers of the presidency.  That in turn is a good jumping-off point for examining how inconsistent post-Watergate conservatives’ affinity for powerful executives is with conservatism, properly understood. 

Almost to a man, the postwar conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated presidential power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the “conservative” branch.  In 1960 NR senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale, published an influential article called “The Two Majorities,” which made that case.  In 1967, Russell Kirk and coauthor James McClellan praised the late Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for insisting that war had to be a last resort, threatening as it did to “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” 

Even so ardent a Cold Warrior as NR’s James Burnham recognized that “by the intent of the Founding Fathers and the letter and tradition of the Constitution, the bulk of the sovereign war power was assigned to Congress.”  Burnham doubted that congressional control of the war power could be maintained, given the demands of modern war.  But he wrote a book defending Congress’s centrality to the American constitutional system and warning that erosion of congressional power and the rise of activist presidents risked bringing about “plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.”

The politician who represented the culmination of postwar conservatives’ hopes for political success, Senator Barry Goldwater, could sound as extremist in opposition to presidential power as he did on other matters involving “the defense of liberty.” In his 1964 campaign manifesto “My Case for the Republican Party,” Goldwater wrote:

We hear praise of a power-wielding, arm-twisting President who “gets his program through Congress” by knowing the use of power. Throughout the course of history, there have been many other such wielders of power. There have even been dictators who regularly held plebiscites, in which their dictatorships were approved by an Ivory-soap-like percentage of the electorate. But their countries were not free, nor can any country remain free under such despotic power. Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Of course, Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Rollback of communist gains demanded presidential activism abroad, and those demands began to weaken conservative opposition to powerful presidents.

In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly examining congressional voting patterns on executive power, political scientist J. Richard Piper found that “what erosion occurred in conservative support for a congressionally-centered federal system [from 1937-68] occurred most frequently on foreign policy matters and among interventionist anti-Communists.” Even so, post-war, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress “were more likely to favor curbing presidential powers than were moderates or liberals.”

During the Nixon administration, all that began to change.  The 1970s brought increasing tension over foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of what political analyst Kevin Phillips called “The Emerging Republican Majority” in the electoral college. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift; as conservative M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

By the ‘70s, prominent conservatives had begun to see the executive as the conservative branch, and set to work developing a conservative case for the Imperial Presidency. In November 1974, National Review featured a cover story by Jeffrey Hart, “The Presidency: Shifting Conservative Perspectives?” Hart began by noting the “settled and received view” among American conservatives, who “have been all but unanimously opposed to a strong and activist presidency.” Foreshadowing the conservative embrace of Unitary Executive Theory in the 1980s, Hart noted the growth of the administrative state and the corresponding need for a powerful president who could hold the bureaucracy in check. Even more important, according to Hart, was the emergence of a “fourth branch of government” in the form of an activist, left-leaning press. Only a centrist or conservative president willing to use the bully pulpit could check the liberal media in the fight for American public opinion.

In Congress as well, conservatives demonstrated a growing affinity for a strong presidency. As Piper noted, of “37 major roll call [votes] concerning presidential powers of greatest long-term significance [from 1968-86] conservatives took the most pro-presidential power position… often (as on the item veto, impoundment, and war powers) contradicting conservative positions of the past.”

By the Reagan era, prominent right-wingers were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, and conservative conventional wisdom held that the real threat to separation of powers lay not in an Imperial Presidency, but in an Imperial Congress.   And during the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, with Gingrich urging House Republicans to “increase the power of President Clinton…. I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States.”  The bulk of the Republican delegation supported the bill, which failed to pass the House because of Democratic opposition and 44 Republican defections.   

That conservatives were willing to strengthen the powers of the presidency even when the office was occupied by their political enemy shows principle of a sort, but it’s unclear why it’s a conservative principle.  Far more than liberals, conservatives recognize the imperfectability of human nature, and, taking man for what he is, have generally supported restraints on the concentration of power.   Russell Kirk was no libertarian, but on this point, he and most of the postwar conservative movement stood with Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”  As Kirk put it:

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands….

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.   

Do conservatives still hold to that wisdom?  Evidence that they do is difficult to discern.  They spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the country that the nation’s highest office had been seized by a terribly unscrupulous, venal man, a man who would stop at nothing to retain power.  And they’ve spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle. 

True, one of the leading conservative think tanks in D.C. still offers a Russell Kirk lecture.  In 2006, the speaker was the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of presidential war and unbridled executive power, John C. Yoo

You’ve come a long way, baby. 

Secrecy is Unsafe

The latest issue of Foreign Policy includes a commendable piece by Jacob Shapiro, “Strictly Confidential” (summarized; full article behind paywall).

Shapiro makes an intelligent case that opening government improves security. “When government officials curb access to information,” he writes, “they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists, engineers, and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats, weaknesses, and solutions than any government agency.” Shapiro provides a couple of examples where openness has improved security systems.

“Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It leaves security analysts unable to find solutions to other weaknesses in the future. It also leaves government and industry less motivated to find safeguards of their own.”

Good stuff.

You Are Entitled to Your Own Opinions…

..but not your own facts, as the saying goes. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute argued earlier this week in USA Today that the United States should pump more money into Iran in an effort to bring about the overthrow of the Iranian regime. According to Rubin, “those denouncing U.S. funding are not the imprisoned student and labor activists, but reformists loyal to theocracy, and gullible pundits.” Presumably that’s me in the role of gullible pundit, but let’s have a look at these “reformists loyal to theocracy” who constitute the only Iranian opponents to U.S. attempts to bring about regime change in Iran.

This from an article by Negar Azimi in the New York Times Magazine:

It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks. Ganji has refused three personal invitations to meet with Bush. A member of a U.S.-based institution that has received State Department financing and who works with Iranians told me that the Iranians had expressly asked not to have their cause mentioned in presidential speeches. ”The propaganda campaign surrounding the launch of this campaign has meant that many of our partners are simply too afraid to work with us anymore,” she told me on condition of anonymity. ”It’s had a chilling effect.”

This from an article in Time by Scott Macleod:

Several mainstream Iranian reformers tell TIME that from the start they transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks. Besides warning that it could trigger a crackdown, they argued that Iran’s reform movement had strong popular support and did not want or require foreign help. Outside backing has been an unusually sensitive issue in Iranian politics ever since a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1953 installed the former Shah. Instead, many of them argue, Iran’s democracy movement would be better served if the U.S. lifted sanctions and improved relations with Tehran, which would enable trade and cultural links to be expanded. “There is no serious individual inside or outside Iran who is going to take this money,” an Iranian reformer told TIME. “Anyone having the slightest knowledge of the domestic political situation in Iran would never have created this program.”

Note how Rubin has moved the goalpost such that genuinely Iranian voices of political reform with constituencies inside Iran have now been written out of the acceptable-to-the-US opposition to the Iranian government. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate who has most recently been working to spring imprisoned Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari from Evin prison, has become “loyal to theocracy.” And the only folks left are Michael Rubin-approved dissidents who want the U.S. government to become more deeply enmeshed with the opposition to the regime, with only one plausible outcome: poisoning the domestic political legitimacy of the opposition and getting the U.S. government more invested in regime change.

Maybe we need an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi.

Stealing Property

A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:

Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP

The story begins:

The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.

The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.

Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.

The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”

Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.

The Islamofascists’ Reign of Terror

The New York Times reports on American troops’ efforts to push Al Qaeda insurgents out of Baqaba, Iraq, and liberate residents from their strict rule:

The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed, and some have even banned smoking, one resident told Capt. Jeff Noll, the commander of Company B of the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry, during his patrol through the neighborhood.

Banning smoking? President Bush is right — if we don’t stop them in Iraq, we’ll have to fight them in Manhattan, and Montgomery County, and San Francisco….