Topic: General

On Corrupting the Constitutional Order

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to Bush the Younger and perennial libertarian antagonist, has denounced Rand Paul’s foreign policy views. That should surprise no one, but the manner in which he did so bears discussing.

Gerson’s bill of particulars is as follows:

The younger Paul has proposed defense cuts, criticized foreign aid, led opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria, raised the possibility of accepting and containing a nuclear Iran and railed against “possible targeted drone strikes against Americans on American soil.”

Each of these is its own argument, but what’s more interesting is how Gerson broadens the discussion in an attempt to paint the younger Paul in a conspiratorial light:

His libertarian foreign policy holds that America is less secure because it has been “too belligerent” and that decades of international engagement have both corrupted our constitutional order and corrupted other nations with our largess or militarism.

Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which U.S. foreign policy has gone off the deep end in recent decades. Also, with due acknowledgment of the victims of U.S. “engagement” in places from Laos to Iraq, people could also disagree about the extent to which our militarism has “corrupted other nations.” But nobody with a lofty perch like Gerson’s should dispute the idea that international engagement has corrupted our constitutional order.

You could fill a library with the volumes that demonstrate how war and preparation for war—which is what Gerson means by “engagement”—have contributed to the growth of the state and the evolution of American political, economic and legal institutions. As that last link shows, influential American legal scholars are hailing Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt as “our hero” in providing the legal case for an unchecked presidency, with James Madison playing the republican bad guy.

And it is the height of irony that Gerson holds up for ridicule the idea that our foreign policy has corrupted our constitutional order the very same week that a U.S. Senator—who is a strong partisan of the CIA—gave a 40 minute speech lambasting the Agency for spying on the legislature in the context of the latter’s investigation of the CIA’s use of torture, or if you prefer, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Warrantless NSA spying on Americans, senior Executive Branch officials baldly lying to Congress about it with no consequences, the tortured legal reasoning that led to Guantanamo Bay, the American president claiming the power to assassinate a US citizen with no meaningful legal or legislative oversight on the grounds that he’s talked it over with his legal team, the internment of more than a hundred thousand American citizens for the crime of having had the wrong ancestors… One could go on.

The people who framed our constitution were the sort of people who opposed forming a standing army at a time when European empires were mucking around in the Western hemisphere. So whatever his disagreements with Rand Paul on foreign policy, Gerson could stand to consider—or better yet, do some reading—about how war and militarization have “corrupted our constitutional order.” It’s a bit of an open-and-shut case.

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).  

Europeans See Ukraine and Fear Russia? Time for Them to Take over Europe’s Defense

Had the U.S. been so foolish as to bring Ukraine into NATO, Washington would have a treaty responsibility to start World War III.  Today’s game of geopolitical chicken might have a nuclear end.

Still, the West cannot easily ignore Russia’s Crimean takeover.  It was an act of aggression against Kiev, yet a majority of Crimean residents may welcome the move.  Although secessionist sentiment has been largely dormant of late, the Western-supported putsch/street revolution against President Viktor Yanukovich inflamed pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine. 

Of course, Moscow intervened for its own ends.  And Putin is wrong, dangerously wrong, to use force.  But how to punish Moscow?  America’s direct stake in the controversy is essentially nil. 

Cambridge Resists a Changing World

The noted biographer Justin Kaplan, who won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for his biographies of Mark Twain, Lincoln Steffens, and Walt Whitman, has died at the age of 88. He had a long and distinguished career in American letters, not just with his biographies but as an editor of such writers as Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Nikos Kazantzakis, and C. Wright Mills.

He also edited the 16th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, published in 1992. I wrote a review of that book. I can’t recall where it appeared, nor can I find it on the web. But along with praise for many of the changes he made, notably in making it fresher and more multicultural, I did note one concern with his selections, which I suggested was common among East Coast intellectuals:

The dozen years since the fifteenth edition have been marked by a worldwide turn toward markets, from Reagan and Thatcher to the New Zealand Labor Party’s free-market reforms to the fall of Soviet communism.  This historical trend seems to have escaped editor Kaplan, of Cambridge, Mass., who has given us more quotations from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Robert Heilbroner, while virtually eliminating F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, the intellectual gurus of the free-market revolution.  A bust of Hayek now sits in the Kremlin, but Cambridge is holding out against the tide.

Hayek has been reduced to two quotations, neither of which reflects his particular contributions to social thought.  Friedman is represented by three, including the wrongly attributed aphorism, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  Meanwhile, the towering figure of John Kenneth Galbraith receives 11 citations.  (William F. Buckley, Jr., is unrepresented.)

As in 1980, the Bible is second only to Shakespeare in the number of quotations included.  But Ayn Rand, who came in second to the Bible in a 1991 Gallup survey on most influential authors, gets only three citations.  Margaret Thatcher likewise is represented with three quotations, none of which captures her free-market radicalism.

Obama’s New Budget: Burden of Government Spending Rises More than Twice as Fast as Inflation

The President’s new budget has been unveiled.

There are lots of provisions that deserve detailed attention, but I always look first at the overall trends. Most specifically, I want to see what’s happening with the burden of government spending.

And you probably won’t be surprised to see that Obama isn’t imposing any fiscal restraint. He wants spending to increase more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

Obama 2015 Budget Growth

What makes these numbers so disappointing is that we learned last month that even a modest bit of spending discipline is all that’s needed to balance the budget.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the President also wants a $651 billion net tax hike.

That’s in addition to the big fiscal cliff tax hike from early last and the (thankfully small) tax increase in the Ryan-Murray budget that was approved late last year.

P.S. Since we’re talking about government spending, I may as well add some more bad news.

Finding a Way Back From the Brink in Ukraine

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president.  But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico will change little.

Washington also triumphed.  Without doing much—no troops, no money, few words—Americans watched protestors frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea.  Moscow has created a tinderbox ready to burst into flames.  The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. 

In 2010 Yanukovich triumphed in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean.  His corrupt proclivities surprised no one.  However, while tarred as pro-Russian, in accepting Putin’s largesse last November Yanukovich actually refused to sign the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Still, protestors filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union.  As I point out in my latest Forbes column:  “The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protestors, had nothing to do with democracy, human rights, or even sovereignty.”  As such, it was not America’s business, but up to the Ukrainian people.

And Ukraine is divided.  Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo-friendly. 

Demonstrations quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution.  Yanukovich’s ouster was a gain for Ukraine, but similar street violence could be deployed against better elected leaders in the future.

Moreover, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich feel cheated.  There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown.  Some of them, especially in Crimea, prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia.

Kiev should engage disenfranchised Yanukovich backers.  Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine will not join any anti-Russian bloc, including NATO.  But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. 

There is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices Ukrainians make.  The violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country.  Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically. 

Russia could still play the new Great Game.  Unfortunately, rather than play Vladimir Putin upended the board by taking effective control of the Crimea. 

Yet Putin tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents.  A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground.  However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. 

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention.  Who controls the Crimea ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically-driven superpower Soviet Union.  Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination.  Yet bringing Ukraine into NATO would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia.  For instance, Moscow withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian-leaning areas. 

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate.  The allies could impose a range of sanctions, though most steps, other than excluding Russian banks from international finance, wouldn’t have much impact. 

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, though the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow.  The other problem is the tougher the response the more likely Russia would harm American interests elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea. 

The Ukrainian people deserve a better future.  But that is not within Washington’s power to bestow.  Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. 

A new cold war is in no one’s interest.  A hot war would be a global catastrophe.