Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Next Up: Democrats’ Plan for Tax Augmentation

The Washington Post reports:

[Sen. Chuck] Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, angrily condemned the “escalation” of the [Iraq] war. “To ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives to be put in the middle of a civil war is … morally wrong. It’s tactically, strategically, militarily wrong.”

“I don’t see it, and the president doesn’t see it, as an escalation,” [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice replied.

Hagel looked stunned. “Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?”

“Escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in,” Rice ventured.

“Would you call it a decrease?” Hagel pressed.

“I would call it, Senator, an augmentation.”

The War Decider

I can answer the question Senator Webb put to Secretary Rice yesterday. The answer is, yes, it is “the administration’s position that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval.” They haven’t yet directly said “we can launch a war with Iran and we don’t need anyone’s permission,” but it’s not hard to read between the lines:

In April 2002, John Yoo, then with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, testified  before the Senate Judiciary Committee that ”the President has the constitutional authority to introduce the U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities when appropriate, with or without specific congressional authorization.” In an internal memorandum prepared shortly after September 11, 2001, Yoo had put it even more starkly: “In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the President’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.” 

That is consistent with Vice President Cheney’s long-held view of the president’s powers, as can be seen in this Frontline interview in which Cheney discusses his role as secretary of defense during the Gulf War:

Q: The Congressional vote. Do you recall discussing with the President what he would have done if he’d lost the votes. 

Cheney: It was my view at the time [that] we were absolutely committed to getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait one way or the other, no matter what we had to do. We had to have the Saudis as allies in that venture, but if no one else had been with us, if it had just been the United States and Saudi Arabia, without the United Nations, without the authorization of the Congress, we were prepared to go ahead. I argued in public session before the Congress that we did not need congressional authorization…. I was not enthusiastic about going to Congress to ask for an additional grant of authority. I was concerned that they might well vote NO and that would make life more difficult for us, or that even if they voted YES and then we had a disaster on our hands and it didn’t work, they’d still be against us….

Q: But if you’d lost the vote …?

Cheney: If we’d lost the vote in Congress, I would certainly have recommended to the President we go forward anyway.

If and when Secretary Rice provides her promised written answer to Senator Webb, I doubt that it will say: “The president has the constitutional authority to launch wars at will, anywhere in the world, at any time of his choosing, without anyone’s permission. So yes, of course he can start a war with Iran.” But that is the administration’s view.

(Hat tip: Matt Yglesias

“Working Through a Lot of Psychological Issues”

Byron York has an illuminating piece on President Bush’s decision to escalate the war in Iraq. York says that in a meeting with conservative columnists in November last year, Bush

described the period in early 2006, after the Iraqi elections but before the formation of the government, as the White House waited — and waited and waited — for the Iraqis to get their act together. “It was just an agonizing period,” Bush said. But the administration had no choice but to be patient with Iraqis who weren’t used to trying to create a multi-party government. “Part of this is a brand new experience for these guys,” the president explained. “We are working through a lot of serious issues, kind of psychological issues with these folks, as well as what it means to actually build consensus.”

The Power of the Purse

Hey, don’t look at us, we’re just Congress: that was Senator Joe Biden’s take on Meet the Press Sunday when asked about stopping the surge and winding down the war.  As Senator Biden put it: “There’s not much I can do about it.  Not much anybody can do about it.  He’s commander in chief.”  A little later, Tim Russert asked him, “Why not cut off funding for the war?” and Biden replied “I’ve been there, Tim.  You can’t do it.”

Actually, you can, as Walter Pincus noted in the in the Washington Post in November

In 1969, Congress’s ruling Democrats began to offer amendments to funding bills – often approved with Republican votes – to limit President Richard M. Nixon’s military alternatives in Southeast Asia. Although the Hatfield-McGovern amendment to cut off money for the war was defeated in August 1970, it accelerated Nixon’s steps toward Vietnamization of the fighting. And three years later, with withdrawal of U.S. forces having begun, Congress voted to cut off all funding for “offensive” military action, sealing the deal.

Some 20 years later, Congress used similar tactics to end our nation-building excursion in Somalia.  A month after the Black Hawk Down incident, in the Defense Appropriations Act for FY1994, Congress used the power of the purse [.pdf] to “cut off funding after March 31, 1994, except for a limited number of military personnel to protect American diplomatic personnel and American citizens, unless further authorized by Congress.”

Of course, Congress is not about to start cutting off funding for the Iraq war anytime soon.  To the extent that the new Congress invokes the power of the purse over Iraq, it’s likely to pursue an intermediate strategy of attaching appropriations riders to the funding it authorizes, passing the funding, but barring troop increases, for instance.  What seems likely to happen with that strategy is that the president will take the money and ignore the strings.  Consider the signing statement Bush issued while signing the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2005, summarized here by the Boston Globe :

Dec. 23, 2004: [Congress] Forbids US troops in Colombia from participating in any combat against rebels, except in cases of self-defense. Caps the number of US troops allowed in Colombia at 800.

Bush’s signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces, so the executive branch will construe the law ”as advisory in nature.”

Thus, in the president’s view, Congress cannot prevent him from using American troops in a shooting war with Colombian drug traffickers, should he decide that’s a good idea.  His position is, in essence, shut up and pay, it’s my army and my call. 

Faced with that sort of intransigence, those members who want an end to the war in Iraq are probably going to have to demonstrate their willingness not to pay.  Of course, that strategy leaves one vulnerable to charges of undercutting the troops.  (“Supporting the troops” apparently entails extending their tours and sending more of them to die in an operation that just about no one thinks will work).  Clearly, sending the president a letter–as Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid just did–isn’t going to do it.  

Pressure on funding pushed Nixon out of Ahab mode on Vietnam.  It may be the only thing that can force this president to change direction in Iraq. 

Plug-In Pablum

One can’t swing a dead cat in Washington these days without hitting someone who’s ranting about how plug-in hybrid vehicles (part gasoline engine, part battery-powered engine, but rechargeable like a wall appliance) are the wave of the future.  Of course, if they really were the wave of the future, there would be no need for ranting in Washington - automobile manufacturers would be busy making them as we speak.  It’s only when corporate America is cool to an idea that the prophets turn to the taxpayer or the regulator.  This illustrates Taylor’s law - “the commercial merit of any particular technology is inversely related to the degree of political tub-thumping heard in Washington for said technology.”

Which brings us to plug-in hybrids.  Noted automobile engineers James WoolseyFrank Gaffney, and Gal Luft, among others, have been going into overdrive of late to demand federal action to compel the manufacture and sale of these sorts of cars, which they assure us perform so splendidly and can be so wildly profitable for both buyer and seller that only some sort of inexplicable insanity explains their absence from car lots all across America.  This “Neo-Cons for Neo-Cars” alliance is picking up steam and is increasingly embraced by all sorts of smart opinion leaders who can barely program a VCR, much less design an engine.

An invaluable reality check, however, can be found in the Sunday New York Times.  There, reporter Lindsay Brooke notes that, while automobile companies are busily developing plug-in prototypes, there remains one little problem - the battery necessary to make such a car go from here to there has yet to be invented.  While the industry is optimistic that something will come along in the near future, industry executives confess when pressed that the cars would be so expensive to manufacture that they probably wouldn’t sell without government subsidies or consumption mandates.

Why are Neo-cons and other assorted hawks so obsessed with automotive powertrains?  My guess is that they fear U.S. foreign policy is being terribly constrained by our need to import oil.  Plug-in hybrids would liberate the country from worrying about how our actions play on the Arab street, freeing Uncle Sam to act even more uninhibitedly around thew world.

Look, if the auto industry wants to make these things and consumers want to buy them, fine with me.  But before we start bossing Detroit or their customers around and turn over automobile manufacturing to the very same crowd that manufactured the war in Iraq, consider yourself warned.     

Should the U.S. Use its Soldiers to Spread Democracy around the Globe?

For a very interesting exchange of views on the tension between limited government and the idea of spreading democracy abroad, go here and listen to a panel discussion from a Federalist Society conference. 

My colleague Tom Palmer takes on Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard, who has argued that American troops should occupy Iraq until democracy is in place there, and perhaps beyond. 

This panel discussion was actually held last November, but the audio has just recently been made available for web surfers. Mr. Francois-Henri Briard of the Federalist Society’s Paris Chapter is also on the panel and starts it off. Federal Judge Raymond Randolph moderates. Good stuff here.

“Isolationism”

There’s a mini-buzz in the blogosphere over the concept of isolationism today, since Jonah Goldberg is using the term in the LA Times and Jacob Weisberg is at Slate.

When the President kept referring to the specter of isolationism around this time last year, I wrote this piece in response, noting that

The term “isolationist” didn’t arise until the late nineteenth century, when it was made popular by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an ardent militarist, who used the term to slur opponents of American imperialism. As historian Walter McDougall has pointed out, America’s “vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”

Bizarrely, libertarians, even given our support for unrestricted trade and extremely liberal immigration policies, have been victimized by the epithet.  So in some ways I think Jim Henley put it best when he pointed out that in many contexts today,

“isolationism” means a reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense. I say, let’s have some of that.