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The US Turns Its Eyes to Syria September 4, 2013

Posted by Afflatus in Uncategorized.
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A couple quick thoughts on the impending Syria intervention by the United States:

Over the weekend the President stated that while he has the legal authority to proceed unilaterally and without Congressional approval, he will seek Congressional approval prior to engaging the armed forces in Syria. The legal authority for the President to engage — both from an international law standpoint, and a domestic law standpoint — is very ambiguous, and I would be very curious to read the administration’s legal memos on the subject. But ultimately the gray areas are where law is created, right!? I have written previously about the War Powers Act and the legality of the Libyan operation, so I’ll put this issue aside for now.

Unlike the Libyan operations — where the President did not seek Congressional approval, but Congress attempted (and failed) to assert its authority — the President with Syria is affirmatively seeking authority from Congress. The President argues in his speech that having a national debate, through our Congressional leaders, is the right thing for our democracy. Then he proceeded to lay out the case for why intervention in Syria is a good idea.

Seeking congressional approval is a good thing, whether or not Congress “rubber stamps” the issue, unquestioningly providing the authority to intervene, because it inherently demands that a deeper debate occur. I’m happy to see that this is already happening. Moreover, I would argue that Congress is not merely “rubber stamping” but rather they are providing meaningful checks on the executive: a limit on the duration of engagement to either 2-3 months, no boots on the ground, and the requirement that the President submit to Congress a report detailing U.S. aid to opposition groups in Syria. This is valuable, and it is to Mr. Obama’s credit that he jump-started this debate.

Again, the proposals coming out of Congress lead us back to whether any of this matters because ultimately if the President doesn’t need Congressional authority in the first place, then what meaningful checks can Congress place on the Executive? This is the stuff that gets decided in the court of public opinion. Precedent is being set here, and the judgment of public opinion will affect the “legality” of future interventions. (Precedent was set in Kosovo in 1999 even when President Clinton affirmatively stated that the intervention should not set precedent.)

Lastly, I’ll say that Congressional leaders would do themselves and the institution of Congress well by making sure to come up with reconciled language that authorizes the President to conduct a limited intervention. It’s clear that President Obama is going to intervene on a certain scale. If Congress wants to avoid its authority as an institution from being further undermined, it should produce a reconciled resolution authorizing the use of limited force in Syria, and it should do so fairly quickly.

I’ve yet to address the normative question of whether or not this is actually a good idea. I tend to think a limited intervention in Syria is, in fact, a good idea for the United States and the world. I’m persuaded by the argument that the chemical attack was tragically heinous and the world should not stand idly by. I believe we need to bolster the rule of law in the international community, and I think a small-scale intervention, hopefully with Arab, Asian, and European partners, bolsters a rules-based international regime (though I acknowledge that there are arguments supporting the view that this merely undermines the rule of law internationally). In general, though, I’d rather stay away from this normative question because, ultimately, I am so far from being in a proper position to address this question with any sort of accuracy or informed opinion. For better or worse, foreign policy is a facet of policy-making where we must trust our leaders.

Libyan “Hostilities” Revisited June 20, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in Politics, World Affairs.
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It’s already time for me to revisit the debate over Libyan “hostilities.” I’m not happy with my post last week, and a lot has happened since then. The House of Representatives is likely to consider two measures this week (probably on Thursday) relating to the US Libyan operation: an amendment to the FY2012 DOD appropriations bill offered by Rep. Kucinich to defund the entire operation, and some sort of Republican alternative, the exact language of which is still being worked out by GOP leadership. There are really three questions at stake here, which I feel like my last post did not delineate clearly:

1: Are American military operations in Libya justified?

2: Is the President legally bound to receive authorization from Congress in order to conduct these operations?

3: Regardless of the answer to question 2, should the President seek authorization from Congress?

In my last post, I only really answered question 1, and I did so indirectly. I fully support US military operations in Libyan and believe they are justified. The United States and its allies prevented a massacre, upholding the R2P norm, at little cost. While the US took the lead at first, we did so in conjunction with a broad coalition that included Arab and African countries. Qaddafi’s regime was causing insecurity in North Africa and the world, and there was a serious threat to the stability of Arab Spring hopefuls Tunisia and Egypt, which Libya borders. The alternative, withdrawing our support for the NATO mission, would undermine whatever levels of trust we have with our allies. While the mission of the NATO military operation is not regime change, that is the stated political goal. Establishing a new regime in Libya (one of the most tribal countries in Africa) will certainly be messy, but I agree with the administration’s decision to make regime change the explicit political goal. This is a very low-cost way for the US to achieve a desired long-term goal.

Regarding question 2, there is really no clear answer. The controversy over this particular question intensified over the weekend when it was reported that President Obama overruled the legal advice of his Attorney General and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. These two offices are charged with providing the Oval Office legal counsel, and to overrule them both is a major statement. Admittedly, the President knows a thing or two about the constitution, and he does have the final say. The statute in question, the War Powers Act, is extremely ambiguous, and the judicial branch has not, and seemingly will not, issue a formal ruling. Thus, Congress could clarify the law, or it could use its tools to make Obama suffer for this politically. It will definitely do the latter, and it may attempt to do the former. While Obama may suffer political consequences, he will not suffer legal ones.

Ideally the answer to question 3 is yes. The more debate and oversight that takes place in Congress, the more democratic America becomes. However, things are not that simple when politics are involved. My former professor, and respected Arab world commenter, Marc Lynch posits that the administration did not seek Congressional authorization early on in its Libyan operation because it correctly believed there would be significant, unwanted riders attached to the legislation like repealing health care reform, reinstating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, or more budget cuts. I think he is right. The truth is, nobody knows what would have happened had the administration tried to receive authorization from Congress last week before the 90 day threshold expired. The administration judged the wiser choice was to claim it does not need Congressional authorization because the War Powers Act does not apply to its current Libyan operations.

Marc Lynch also wishes that the administration would seek Congressional authorization and make a “full-throated case for the Libya intervention– why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.” Now that is has made it official policy that the administration does not need Congress’ approval, this will not happen. I am satisfied that the 30 page memo to Congress fulfills this explanation on the part of the administration. While it may not be the unabashed defense of the Libyan “hostilities” that Lynch desires, it persuasively answers the questions of “why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.”

PATRIOT Act Extension February 8, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in Politics.
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Today the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass legislation which would have extended until December three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act which are set to expire at the end of February. The three provisions are:

1. “Roving Wiretap” authority, which allows government to wiretap multiple electronic devices used by a single suspected terrorist; 2. “Lone Wolf”, which allows the government to pursue warrants to conduct surveillance on non-U.S. citizens, engaged in ‘international terrorist activities’ alone; 3. A provision granting the  government access to business records relating to a terrorist investigation.

The legislation was considered under a suspension of the rules, which means that a 2/3 majority was required to pass the bill. Support fell 7 votes short of 2/3, so it failed. It’s important to understand that this bill will almost certainly pass the house in the coming weeks under regular rules which will only require a simple majority. For more on these special rules: wikipedia.

Some interesting things about this vote were that 26 Republicans opposed it, including Ron Paul (obviously) who was given time to speak on the floor in opposition to the bill by Democrat John Conyers, which is a rarity in today’s polarized political climate. True to its support for retaining the expanded executive powers the Bush Administration passed along, the White House supports an extension of these three PATRIOT provisions until 2013. It argues law enforcement needs a longer time horizon than 10 months to successfully operate (something which I’m in no position to dispute). The Obama Administration also quietly supported this legislation last year when Congress had to decide whether to extend these same provision for the year of 2010.

The standard analysis in the media of this vote is that it’s an example of the Republican leadership’s inability to maintain rank. The division within the Republican party among Tea Party members and traditional conservative ones has been a much hyped story line. Using this vote as an example of this division seems like somewhat of a stretch considering that a 2/3 vote was needed to pass. If this hadn’t been the case, and the bill passed under regular rules, the media would hardly mention the fact that 26 Republicans voted against. The Republican leadership miscalculated by bringing this up under suspension of the rules. Beyond that, it’s worth knowing that these provisions will be extended.

P.S. Even those that hate the USA PATRIOT Act must admit that its acronym is pretty damn impressive. It’s full name: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. Wow!