Topic: Government and Politics

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

Military Cooperation with China: RIMPAC as a Model for the Future

The Rim of the Pacific Exercise recently concluded in waters near Hawaii.  For the first time China joined the drills.  It was a small but positive step for integrating Beijing into more international institutions.

RIMPAC started in 1971.  This year there are 23 participants, including the People’s Republic of China, which explained that the maneuvers are “an important mission of military diplomacy” and a means to strengthen “friendly relations with countries of the South Pacific through public diplomacy.”

Beijing’s participation comes at a time of significant regional tension.  The PRC’s more aggressive stance in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan have led to dangerous maritime confrontations. 

RIMPAC offers an opportunity to create some countervailing pressure in favor of a less threatening regional naval environment.  At the political level inviting Beijing to participate demonstrates respect for China’s increased military power and international role.   Doing so also counters the charge that Washington is seeking to isolate and contain the PRC.

Moreover, inclusion hints at the benefits for Beijing of a civil if not necessarily friendly relationship with its neighbors as well as America.  No doubt, the direct pay-off for China from RIMPAC is small. 

But to be treated as an equal and regular participant in international affairs is advantageous.  Although any great power must be prepared to accept unpopularity when necessary, in general a friendly environment is more conducive to ensuring both peace and prosperity. 

A Win, But a Major Missed Opportunity: NLRB v. Canning

To expand on Ilya’s earlier post, the Supreme Court today did indeed check President Obama’s unprecedented expansion of his recess appointments power when in January 2012 he filled three vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board with nominees that the Senate, then in “pro-forma” session, had to that point refused to confirm. In NLRB v. Noel Canning, the Court ruled unanimously in upholding the unanimous January 2013 decision of the D.C Circuit, which had vacated an NLRB order against the Noel Canning company, finding the three appointments to be unconstitutional. At issue, therefore, was the scope of president’s recess appointments power, his power “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate” by granting temporary commissions.

That power, however, is subsidiary to the president’s main appointments power, which is to make major appointments to his administration only “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” It was granted because, for much of our history, the Senate was in session only during certain periods of the year. If important vacancies should “happen” when the Senate was not in session, the president would be able to fill them so that the business of government could continue. Recess appointments were thus the exception, not the rule. In particular, the power was not meant to enable the president to make an end-run around the advice and consent of the Senate.

Unfortunately, in writing for the Court today, Justice Breyer has made a hash of Judge David Sentelle’s well-argued opinion below, as Justice Scalia makes clear in his concurrence for himself, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Alito. As Scalia writes, the Recess Appointments Clause restricts the president’s power in two main ways. First, “it may be exercised only in ‘the Recess of the Senate,’ that is, the intermission between two formal legislative sessions. Second, it may be used to fill only those vacancies that ‘happen during the Recess,’ that is, offices that become vacant during the intermission.” The text is clear, Scalia says, and both conditions were clearly understood at the founding. But, he continues:

Today’s Court agrees that the appointments were invalid, but for the far narrower reason that they were made during a 3-day break in the Senate’s session. On its way to that result, the majority sweeps away the key textual limitations on the recess-appointment power. It holds, first, that the President can make appointments without the Senate’s participation even during short breaks in the middle of the Senate’s session, and second, that those appointments can fill offices that became vacant long before the break in which they were filled.

What was Breyer’s rationale for so watering down the clear constitutional text and so expanding the president’s power? To trump the text he offers what can only be called a tendentious reading of historical practice, to which Scalia answers: “What the majority needs to sustain its judgment is an ambiguous text and a clear historical practice. What it has is a clear text and an at-best-ambiguous historical practice.” Indeed,

The majority replaces the Constitution’s text with a new set of judge-made rules to govern recess appointments. Henceforth, the Senate can avoid triggering the President’s now-vast recess-appointment power by the odd contrivance of never adjourning for more than three days without holding a pro forma session at which it is understood that no business will be conducted. How this new regime will work in practice remains to be seen.

Scalia concludes sadly that today’s decision “will have the effect of aggrandizing the Presidency beyond its constitutional bounds and undermining respect for the separation of powers”—just what we need as the House considers whether to bring suit to try to check an increasingly out-of-control presidency. The decision today was a win, but it was also a major missed opportunity to restrain a power that for too long has been abused, flagrantly in this case. At least it illustrates, as we look to future elections, how important a question who sits on the Court is.

Small Is Beautiful

Thank you for reading the Cato blog and doing what you do to help spread freedom. Now you have the chance to advocate liberty every day while you are going to work or running errands.

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The sticker is appropriate for bumpers, hoods, fenders, and windshields, or even around your home on garage doors and mailboxes.

And here’s a special deal for Cato blog readers: the first 25 people to email my assistant Nick (nzaiac [at] cato [dot] org) with their street address will receive a free sticker.

And there’s more: members of Congress and top White House aides are eligible for as many free stickers as will fit on their Lexus and BMW bumpers! More than anybody else, these folks need a daily reminder that Small is Beautiful When It Comes to Government.

Poland’s Alliance with America: Worthless to Whom?

The outspoken Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, apparently believes his nation’s alliance with America is “worthless.”  Washington should not race to reassure him.  Instead, Warsaw should demonstrate why it is worthy of Washington’s support.

A weekly Polish publication received a recording of Sikorski’s conversation in which he declared:  “This Polish-American union is worthless.  It is even harmful because it gives Poland a false sense of security.  Complete [B.S.].  We get into conflicts with the Germans, with Russia, and we think everything’s great because the Americans like us.  Suckers.  Complete suckers.” 

There are suckers in the existing relationship, but they are American rather than Polish.

The United States spends more than four percent of its GDP on the military and accounts for three-fourths of total defense outlays by NATO members.  Poland has been patting itself on the back for recently hiking defense expenditures—to 1.8 percent of GDP.  Overall, America’s contribution to direct NATO expenditures is nearly ten times that of Poland.

The collapse of the Soviet Union exacerbated the discrepancy among alliance members.  While Washington preserved its globe-spanning military, the Europeans cut their armed forces significantly.

Worse, the alliance expanded willy-nilly to the Russian border, bringing in nations combining minimal military capabilities and serious potential disputes with Moscow.  None had ever mattered to American security, but Washington handed out security guarantees like hotels place chocolates on pillows:  everyone got one, including Poland.

American and European officials simply assumed that they would never have to make good on their promises.  Then came the crisis in Ukraine. 

Unanimous Supreme Court Correctly Stops Police from Searching Peoples’ Entire Lives Willy-Nilly

In its ruling today in Riley v. California, the Supreme Court unanimously established a clear new rule for police-citizen interaction: The police can’t, without a warrant, search the digital information on cell phones they seize from people they arrest. This is a big deal because it means that being arrested for, say, not paying a speeding ticket, will no longer open you up to having your entire life examined by law enforcement. Unlike the satchels and billfolds of yore, people now carry essentially all their private documents with them at all times: address books, financial and medical records, photo albums, diaries, correspondence, and more. To allow police to review all of that information just because they happen to have arrested someone would violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection of personal papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

If the police have independent probable cause to access someone’s digital information, they can get a warrant. If they don’t, making an arrest shouldn’t give them license to go on a fishing expedition.

What’s really surprising about this ruling is that it’s both broad and unanimous. Sweeping rulings on high-profile subjects tend to split the Court, whether ideologically or, in criminal procedure cases like this one, between formalists and pragmatists. Unanimous rulings, meanwhile, tend to be cautious, splitting the baby in a way that doesn’t significantly change the law. Yet here we have a loud and unified “bright-line rule” that sets a major standard for the digital age. Kudos to the Court—and raspberries to the federal government, which has now had its expansive arguments rejected unanimously 11 times since January 2012.

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”