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Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.

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Posted in Law, National Security, Political Philosophy, Politics, The Bush Legacy, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism | 58 Comments »

The intellectual deterioration of the conservative movement

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Richard Posner has written one of those posts that gets talked about despite it’s lack of hyperventilation – it’s a thoughtful, reflective piece on what he calls the “intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States.” Posner summarizes the deteriotion:

[T]he policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings [such that]the face of the Republican Party [has] become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals [have] no party.

Posner sees this decline as a symptom of the movement’s success. I think he’s half right.

Philip Bobbitt posited some time ago his theory of the evolution of the state – from princely city-states to kingly states to imperial states to the modern nation-state. The next step – according to Bobbitt – the one to which we are already evolving – is the market-state. And while a nation-state was legitimized in the eyes of it’s people by ensuring people were provided for (thus setting up the economic battle of the Cold War, as capitalism and Communism competed on this front), the market-state is legitimized by offering the maximum amount of opportunity for it’s citizens. Bobbitt’s theory is interesting – and if not entirely perfect, it is certainly useful. 

Given this structure, you can easily understand how the nation-state liberalism of Lyndon Johnson gave way over time to the market-state liberalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. By this reading, conservatism did not so much win any more than nation-state liberalism “won.” Both were appropriate responses to their times.

Unfortunately for it’s proponents, conservatism (like nation-state liberalism in the 1970s) did not evolve with the times, but remained staticly committed to the principles that worked so well three decades earlier. The innovative ideas of the 1980s have become the brittle orthodoxies of the present. As conservative historian Niall Ferguson explained – “only the left” has a credible response to the issues of our day. The Right is still fighting the battles they won decades ago.


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Posted in Barack Obama, Conservativism, Criticism, Economics, Financial Crisis, Liberalism, Political Philosophy, The Opinionsphere | 3 Comments »

Stimulus Is What We Need

Friday, February 13th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]It is commonly stated that China’s ruling power has struck a kind of bargain with it’s people – that they will accept the one-party rule and other political restrictions – as long as the government is able to keep the standard of living rising. Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several books on China, gives a typical explanation:

…it would not be excessive to say that everything – economic health, social stability, political reform, environmental modernization, etc. – all depend on China’s economy maintaining at least a 6 percent to 7 percent growth rate. This is something that most market economies cannot do in perpetuity given the nature of cyclical growth cycles.

When this topic is brought up in foreign policy discussions, it is often understood as a uniquely Chinese problem – this bargain between the people and the state that they will accept an authoritarian government in return for a growing economy. But a government’s dependence  on its ability to increase opportunities for its people for its legitimacy is not a uniquely Chinese problem. The Chinese government may only be able to survive as long as it continues to provide economic growth to it’s citizens, but how different is this bargain the Chinese people have made with their government from the bargain the America people have with ours? As long as American citizens have their basic needs met and a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a polarized distribution of wealth, corruption of various sorts, and sundry other injustices. And as long as the Chinese citizens are moving towards having their basic needs met and have a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a single-party state, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and other restrictions.

Any state’s constitutional structure is legitimated by whether it provides for the needs of it’s people. In another age, the state merely provided security against hostile invasions and criminals; later, it provided an identity as well; by the middle of the 20th century, a state was legitimated by the extent to which it could provide for the basic needs of it’s citizens. The Cold War was, to a large degree, a competition between the capitalist states and the Communists states to see which could provide more ably for the needs of it’s citizens. Today, the state is evolving from providing for the needs of it’s citizens to providing opportunities for it’s citizens. The basic problems of sufficient housing, food, clothes, and other necessities are able to be met with our global prosperity.1

This evolution of our state into a market-state can best be seen by looking at the long-term trends in politics, shaping both the left and the right – as politiciains, with their ears constantly attuned to changing expectations, have sensed this evolution before most. Looking from Carter to Clinton to Obama, we can see how each has progressively embraced a different sort of liberalism – each less focused on a government providing services and more focused on government providing opporunity. Carter was a traditional big state Great Society liberal; Clinton favored free trade, ending welfare, and reining in the deficit; Obama’s liberalism accepts a number of libertarian premises and seeks as it’s goal the maximization of opportunity – as his health care reform plan, for example wouldn’t force people to join any particular program while offering a stable base for a necessary service that often causes people to remain in jobs they would not otherwise. A similar evolution can be seen in Nixon to Reagan to Bush – as Nixon favored big government programs; Reagan attacked big government; Bush focused on creating an ownership society among other reforms. Even when misguided – as for example his Social Security proposal – it was focused on offering greater opportunity.

James Glassman speaks for many doctrinaire anti-government conservatives when he suggests we allow our economy to contract – as eventually, it will reach bottom and bounce back. Stimulus – he says – is the wrong metaphor:

“We’re going to have to jump start this economy with my economic recovery plan,” [Obama] said on January 3. According to the image, one can jolt a dormant economy into action just as one can hook up polarized cables to a car battery, clamp a defibrillator to the chest, or breathe into the ear of a reluctant lover. Suddenly, the object of our attention will be back in action, aroused…

In fact, stimulus may be precisely the wrong metaphor. Rather than getting jazzed up, we need to be calmed down and to take the time to learn from the Great Depression, a time when government did too much, not too little.

Putting aside the non-consensus historical take on government action in the Great Depression (discussed here), Glassman misses the point our political leaders do not: our societal order is premised on the idea of continuous growth. A growing economy in a market state is like a beating heart – without it, we cannot survive. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is a business not making a payroll – the company can’t continue if it’s employees don’t get paid. The employees will no longer consent to subject to their employer’s authority – and the company will dissolve. When the nation-states of the early 20th century were not able to legitimate their structure by providing for the basic needs of their citizens, radicalism, revolution, and war ensued as the old order broke down and fascism and Communism took it’s place. Today, if market-states are unable to provide opportunity their citizens, they will not survive going forward. 

Our politicians and the elites sense this – which creates the manic desire to arrest this free fall and start our economy moving forward again – before it’s too late.

  1. Clearly, the problems associated with deficiences in these areas aren’t gone. But technologically, we have solved them. The problems remaining are systematic – how to satisfy the needs of those who don’t have access to the excess prosperity of the developed world. []

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Posted in China, Economics, Financial Crisis, Political Philosophy | 53 Comments »

Not Taking the War on Terror Seriously

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

…[T]his nominalism [is not] confined to the U.S. administration’s critics. In his conduct of the war in Iraq, George W. Bush has cast considerable doubt on whether he actually does consider operations there as part of the Wars on Terror, for he has chosen to fight in Iraq as if it were a theater of conventional operations. It is as if he, too, has been using a word for practical political reasons – to rally the public, to gain support for appropriations – without regard for the reality the word is supposed to reflect. Had the president really believed that the use of the term “war” was compelled by reality and not just by the instrumental purposes to which he put the word, he would surely have raised taxes (not significantly lowered them), brought Democrats into the cabinet, enlarged the army, and ardently sought American alliances abroad. These steps have invariably characterized the measures taken by U.S. presidents who have led the U.S. in war since 1917.

Philip Bobbitt on page 174 of Terror and Consent.

I just wanted to point out that it’s not merely liberals who don’t properly understand the threat of terrorism. I’ve been focusing on that aspect because that’s where I started, and since I’ve been dealing with the blowback.

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Posted in National Security, Politics, The Bush Legacy, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

Law as a Guide Rather than an Obstacle in National Security

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Philip Bobbitt in the New York Times:

Preventing any attacks on the United States since 9/11 is something for which the Bush administration must be given credit, but credit must also go to the American public, which decisively rejected offshore penal colonies, spurious rationalizations for warfare, secret torture chambers and contempt for the constitutional and international laws that would forbid such practices. Indeed, by selecting a former law professor as its new president, the country has thoroughly dismissed the notion that law is an obstacle rather than a guide to achieving security.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Law, National Security, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

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