The turmoil in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, turned violent in the past 36 hours as anti-government protesters clashed with pro-Mubarak groups. During this period, and specifically today, the government crackdown widened to targeting foreign media. Journalists and their crews were arrested, prevented from reporting, and beaten. The anti-government protesters are pointing to Friday as a possible climax in what they are calling the “Friday of departure.”
President Mubarak, in an interview with ABC, said he would like to relinquish power now, but claims chaos will erupt if he did. If he were to step down, or if he follows through on his promise not to run in the presidential election, the million dollar question in Washington becomes: who would the United States like to see as the new leader of Egypt? And should Washington act to influence the outcome?
Over at The Skeptics, I address this by asking: Might it be better if the United States were to avoid micromanaging Egyptian politics altogether? Whenever a crisis erupts in the world, policymakers usually approach the problem with the premise that Washington has to “do something.” But must that include anointing another leader?
…Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.
I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.
We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting -- or doubling or tripling -- U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.
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The new Egyptian cabinet was sworn in today amidst a seventh day of protests across the country. For the White House, the continual tweaking of their response to the crisis, and declining to call for Mubarak to step-down, has left many in Egypt and the region wondering if the United States does in fact want to see the arrival of democracy to Cairo, or if it is simply content with allowing the status-quo to remain, with minor reforms. Or perhaps they are just waiting for the chips to fall where they may.
This illustrates the conundrum facing the Obama administration. Over at The Skeptics, I examine this a bit further:
The Obama administration is stuck with a policy not entirely of its own making – decades of U.S. taxpayer support for the Mubarak regime – but it also seems trapped by the dominant worldview in Washington that is preoccupied with finding a solution to every problem in the world. This global view flows from deeply flawed assumptions about the likelihood of a worst-case scenario transpiring in every case, and then exaggerating the impact of that worst-case on U.S. security. In many instances, the impact is presumed to be nearly catastrophic. In actuality, they almost never are.
Might Egypt be an exception? It is an important country in its own right, traditionally a center of the Arab world. Its population of 80 million people is larger than that of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. Egypt is the second leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Israel, and it straddles one of the most important choke points in the world, the Suez Canal. Given its size, influence and location, there is the possibility that this spreads elsewhere. Protests have also broken out in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. The Saudis and Jordanians are nervous.
So how should the U.S. respond? In the short-term, the U.S. government needs to strike a balance, and not be seen as pushing too hard for Mubarak’s ouster; but Washington should not anoint a would-be successor, either. The message should be: this is for the Egyptian people to decide.
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For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan's slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia "risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”
On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?
After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a "secret" security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: "I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like 'Lady Gaga' … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing... [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history." Manning said he "had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months."
I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly "confidential" communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.
Today ForeignPolicy.com has a feature article examining possible “Plan B’s for Obama,” with contributions coming from numerous experts. My contribution to the feature is titled “Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending.”
It is time for President Obama and the administration to finally notice the increasing calls—from across the political spectrum—that the Pentagon’s budget should not be off limits when reducing the deficit. From the Foreign Policy article:
Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon's $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the U.S. government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining U.S. security -- but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.
The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country's unique advantages -- wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise -- by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. The United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that's far easier for taxpayers to swallow.
Click here to read the full article
As Wally points out in his Supreme Court/Kagan roundup, the Court did further damage to principled constitutional interpretation in citing foreign law as support for its holding that life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences are unconstitutional as applied to juveniles committing non-homicide crimes. As I blogged when we filed a brief in the case, Graham v. Florida, "Cato takes no position on the wisdom of these types of sentences, but when evaluating their constitutionality the Court should only consider American law."
That is, regardless of the criminological or moral merits of juvenile LWOP sentences, the Court ought not consider non-binding provisions of international human rights treaties, other countries' laws, or customary international law in its analysis (as it unfortunately has in several death penalty cases). The Court should leave to the political branches the decision of whether to transform international norms into domestic law and only allow duly ratified international agreements to override domestic law — as I've also described in the Cato Supreme Court Review. Reliance on indefinite international norms undermines both the democratic process and the rule of law, casting considerable uncertainty over many U.S. laws. Although looking to international example is prudent when designing constitutions and drafting legislation, it is simply not relevant to interpreting the nation’s founding document.
There are other problems with Justice Kennedy's opinion. For example, apparently the fact that 37 states plus the District of Columbia allow juvenile LWOP sentences does not mean that there is a national consensus. This is so even though a similar number of states did constitute a consensus against the death penalty for an adult's rape of a child in Kennedy v. Louisiana (which Roger discussed in the pages of the Supreme Court Review) -- even though there the federal government itself had recently passed a law authorizing the death penalty for such an offense! The point is that the whole idea of "consensus"-based constitutional interpretation is flawed. As Josh Blackman and I wrote in our Privileges or Immunities Pandora's Box article:
If the Supreme Court could not properly analyze the extent of the consensus among state laws governing the sentencing of child rapists, an area that any first-year law student could understand with the proper Lexis search, how can we expect judges to understand consensuses on nebulous and polarizing social issues -- on which public opinion ebbs and flows -- such as the right to health care, the right to education, or reproductive rights?
Moreover, what constitutes a national consensus? Half the population? Two thirds? Ninety percent? To paraphrase Justice Brennan’s quip, why not whatever five duly confirmed justices think? Should the Court commission its own Gallup Poll? What standard should the consensus be based on? How long should it exist? These are inherently subjective determinations, not reducible to judicially or legislatively manageable standards.
Finally, Eugene Volokh points out the judicial policy-making (the imposition of a judge's own views) inherent in Justice Stevens's concurring opinion -- likely the senior associate justice's last pronouncement on the death penalty. And for more on the case generally, see Lyle Denniston's write-up at SCOTUSblog.
In short, this is a dog's breakfast of a case -- again, regardless of what one thinks about the underlying criminological/moral issues -- and truly an unfortunate day for principled jurisprudence and constitutional limits on power (in Graham's case, judicial power).
Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense's big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline -- keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.
For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets -- one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.
The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first. We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines -- adding 90,000 new troops -- and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget. And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget -- essentially the day to day cost of running the military -- has also been growing fast when measured per service member. (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)
That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget -- research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don't want to cut manpower.
That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.
What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars. Preparation for these wars didn't much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does.
An additional note: Gates' criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process -- what we want, not how we buy it.
Since January 2007 there have been more than 6,800 drug-war related deaths in Mexico, and Mexican drug cartels continue to expand their operations in American cities. Washington's response has been to expand its prohibitionist efforts with the Mérida Initiative, a U.S.Mexico anti-drug-trafficking program. Historically, however, prohibitionist policies have had little success in reducing the flow of drugs. Ted Galen Carpenter, Cato's Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, suggests a new strategy must be tried.
You can view the full event here.