Posts Tagged ‘Jim Manzi’

Obama and the Rule of Law

Monday, May 18th, 2009


Right-wingers and some conservatives are trying out a new approach in their attacks on Obama – as you can see from the growing meme on the right that Obama has no respect for the Rule of Law. I’ve come across this meme in a George Will column, a Wall Street Journal editorial, and in a blog post by Jim Manzi for the National Review / The American Scene all last week. All three authors have focused on one particular event – Obama’s role in the Chrysler sale/bankruptcy/bailout. I for one am glad to see the National Review and Wall Street Journal finally coming around to accepting the importance of the Rule of Law after eight years of promoting George W. Bush’s blatant disregard for the law – but I digress.

The past eight years have demonstrated to many Democrats and liberals the vital importance of the respect for the Rule of Law to a well-functioning state – as President Bush concentrated more and more power in the White House and asserted authorities both beyond and over the law – which is why an accusation that President Obama is not respecting the Rule of Law must be taken seriously.

It is hard though to take the example all three authors use seriously – Obama’s intervention in the Chrysler mess. I can understand why people might object to what Obama did – if you consider unions to be a malevolent force, you certainly don’t want them helped out – and it is unseemly that they donated so much to Obama only to be rewarded now (of course, the creditors also gave Obama a great deal of support.) But neither of these objections is based on Obama disrespecting the Rule of Law.

Certainly, even these authors are not accusing Obama of disrespecting the Rule of Law in the same manner as George W. Bush – who did not believe he was bound by law when acting to protect Americans. The unitary executive theory he accepted and Cheney, Addington, and others used, is a direct assault on the idea that the president is bound by the law. Obama does not take this position.

These authors make a big point of the fact that Obama is abrogating contracts – but this objection is a bit silly. Obama is not a party to these contracts – and thus has no obligation to honor them personally. The Contracts clause of the Constitution – the Law which it is being alleged Obama has broken – was meant to constrain the individual states rather than the President or even the Congress. Congress was in fact given the power to abrogate contracts through bankruptcy proceedings in the Constitution. Obama – in intervening in the case of Chrysler – helped to negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the matter. Out-of-court settlements happen all the time – and are welcomed by overburdened judges who see it as better to allow all sides to come to an agreement rather than having to order them to agree.

To call this a violation of the Rule of Law is disingenuous at best.

What these authors are right to be concerned about is the concentration of power that undermines the system of the Rule of Law – as the government’s role in backstopping the finance and auto industries leaves it with enormous leverage. But their fears should be allayed by the fact that most of these interventions are temporary. (Of course, George Will is on the record disbelieving this based on the old adage – as are all of Will’s beliefs – that once government has taken a power, it will not give it up.)

Liberals have continued to voice a different set of concerns about Obama’s respect for the Rule of Law – pointing to the many Bush administration positions Obama has accepted. But they key difference between Bush and Obama is that even as Obama may be putting forward positions on these issues which are controversial, Obama has given the sense he will concede if his legal means of asserting these claims are defeated. Bush in at least one instance refused to end a clearly illegal program despite the fact that his own Justice Department had declared it illegal. 

I do find a few areas of concern. The power of the executive branch has grown enormously in the financial crisis – between the Stimulus Bill and the bank bailout. While in the short-term this may be necessary, if steps are not taken, this would undermine the balance of power between the federal government and the states. While this in itself is not a violation of the Rule of Law – it does weaken the system which together helps maintain the Rule of Law. And it is this that conservatives and right-wingers seem to be ojecting to – but their rhetoric about the Rule of Law being disregarded is hyperventilationist – and for those who did not likewise say the same of our previous president, hypocritical.

But by far the most disturbing manner in which Obama is undermining the Rule of Law is in how his administration is keeping Bush’s policies on the matter of Bagram. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the rights of detainees to certain basic rights at Guantanamo was in a large part based on the idea that our government should not be able to deprive an individual of rights merely by moving them to a particular location. But this is exactly what the Obama administration is claiming with regards to the detainees brought to Bagram from around the world. Our nation’s freedoms are grounded in our traditions. This includes a respect for contracts, a balance of various powers, and an energetic chief executive – but at it’s base, our traditions are grounded in a single, fundamental restriction on the state. To quote Winston Churchill:

The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

Ideology Above Country

Monday, September 29th, 2008


[Image courtesy of Barack Obama over at Flickr.]

Jim Manzi over at National Review‘s The Corner calls the House Republicans’ actions today “Irresponsible Folly” and writes:

Well, apparently the House Republicans have decided to run a neat little experiment to test the actual odds of the current financial crisis turning into another Depression in the absence of a bailout plan.

Kathryn Jean Lopez – also at The Corner – tries to spin this as proof of the Democrats’ lack of unity and suggests this wouldn’t happen under a Republican Congress.

Other Republicans are apparently attempting to blame their votes against the only plan to stave off another Great Depression on a few comments made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her speech to introduce the bill.

Marc Ambinder asks: “Where were you when the world economy collapsed?” That might be overdoing it a little. But not by much – seeing as the Dow is down over 5% as we speak and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq are down almost 7% each.

Regardless – it seems certain that McCain failed in this – and deserves a good deal of blame for this failure.

The Democrats gave up a lot in order to win over some Republicans – but now it looks as if they’ll have to ditch them and pass a much more left-friendly bill. That leaves them without political cover on an issue that isn’t politically popular. But it is the only responsible thing to do, which is why I have confidence the Democrats will pass something.

The Republicans today have proved that they will place ideology above their country. They have proved that they will place politics above their country. Whether they voted against the bill because of their fundamentalist belief in the power of markets or because they wanted to be on the short-term popular side of a major issue is unclear. Presumably, it is a combination of both.

But they have proved that they are not willing to be grown-ups and accept the pragmatic best alternative when there are no good options. They do not take responsibility for any portion of the chaos which deregulation has contributed to here. They have not proposed some better, other plan – they have instead just been oppositional – representing the final deathblow to conservatism as a governing ideology.

This is the latest in a series of events – where conservatives have placed ideology above country, and ignored the pragmatic solutions to hard reality. From Iraq – where ideological certainty led to insanely rosy projections of the post-war period; to Iran – where diplomacy was rejected out-of-hand, and Iran’s offer to cut back on their nuclear program as part of a comprehensive discussion of US-Iran issues in 2003 was ignored; to the constant prescription of tax cuts in the face of mounting deficits; to the opposition to any pragmatic solution to the immigration problem.

It’s not that there weren’t good reasons to oppose this bill. It’s that the Republicans were unwilling to take the basic responsibility needed to govern.

Barack Obama meanwhile, says the bailout will go through. Not because he likes it – but because, as distasteful as it is, it’s necessary. As Obama said, speaking in the midst of a storm yesterday, “The skies look cloudy and it’s dark. And you think the rains will never pass. But these too will pass: a brighter day will come.”

It’s not the rhetoric that matters as much as the tone. Obama’s calm, measured, steady public presence, even in the midst of a storm, contrasts with McCain’s hysteric, dramatic, volatile one.