Tag: Obama

Ben Rhodes, Part the Second: Or, Journalistic Interpolations are Not Evidence

For those of you not on Twitter.

(yes, I know the post is displaying parent tweets; WordPress is stripping the code to remove them)


Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea is more Responsible than yet another Impossible ‘Vision’ to Solve NK

Newsweek Korea cover 2Newsweek Korea asked me to participate in a debate on Obama’s strategic patience. A friend of mine wrote against it; I wrote in defense. Here is the Korean language text at the NWK website. Below is my original English language version.

In brief I argue that North Korea is so hard to pin down, that big strategies never work with it, provoke it into lashing out, and raise impossible expectations on democratic decision-makers. So Obama is acting responsibly, IMO, by not promising more than he can deliver and by not giving a reason for NK to act out.

After 20+ years of negotiating on more or less the same topics, it should be pretty obvious that NK is insistent on not being placed in some box by outsiders. It will not be treated as some technocratic ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by a conference of experts, like global warming or something. And it will lash out if necessary to remind us of that. Hence, I argue for ‘muddling through,’ and that we should stop expecting our policy-makers to have some great NK strategy that will fix the issue. That’s not gonna happen. We all know that. We just have to wait for China to stop paying NK’s bills. Until then, all the sweeping declarations (‘agreed framework,’ ‘sunshine’,’ the ‘axis of evil,’ the current big idea du jour of ‘trust’) are rather pointless and raise impossible expectations among voters in SK, the US, and Japan. Let’s be a little more honest about what we can expect from North Korea.

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Why I Voted for Barack Obama Today

Amazing how the Simpsons is still pretty funny after 25 years…


In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d list the reasons why I voted the way I did. I know conservative media regularly accuse professors of politicizing the classroom, but an honest discussion of why one chooses the way one did can also be useful exercise of citizenship. (See Drezner for an example of what I was thinking of.) So with that goal, not demagoguery, in mind, here we go:

1. The Tea Party Scares Me

This is easily the most important reason for me. Regular readers of my own blog will know that I vote in the Republican primary and write regularly about the Republican party, but almost never about the Democrats. (Even in Korea where I live, my sympathies are with the conservatives.) I don’t see myself as a Democrat. I see myself as a moderate Republican, like Andrew Sullivan or (less so) David Frum. Unfortunately, the Tea Party has made the GOP very inhospitable for moderates.

Given Romney’s propensity to blow with the ideological wind rather than stake a claim somewhere, I think it is likely he’ll get bullied by the hard right once in office. Following Kornacki, my problem with Romney is not his ideology – because I don’t know what that is – but the party from which he stems, run, as it is, by increasingly radical, Christianist, southern right-wingers. I find it simply impossible to vote for a party so contemptuous of science, so willing to violate church-state distinctions, so committed to a heavily armed citizenry, so obsessed with regulating sex, so strutting and belligerent toward the rest of the world, so unwilling to compromise on taxes to close the deficit, etc. Hint to the RNC: the rest of the country is not Dixie; please stop dragging us down this road. This southernization of the GOP in the last 20 years has made it harder and harder for me to vote for national Republicans, even though I vote for them a lot in Ohio. Not surprisingly, I find Andrew Sullivan’s conservatism quite congenial.

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Why Ferguson’s Newsweek Blather was Even Dumber than you Realized

Most of the attention paid to Ferguson’s anti-Obama Newsweek cover story has focused on his mendacious and unprofessional discussion of the administration’s domestic policies — notably its stimulus and health-care legislation.

Less attention has been paid to his foreign-policy criticisms. These are not so much mendacious as the kind of thing you’d expect from a third-rate op-ed hack. Obama didn’t use the Oval Office’s magical chalice to add +10 protest skills to the Iranian opposition. He didn’t order the NSA to activate its super-secret laser and assassinate the entire Iranian leadership. He had to be “cajoled” into bombing Libya (presumably by a bunch of women, the wuss!) rather than, I suppose, simply bypassing the United Nations and using tactical nuclear weapons at the first sign of trouble. And something about lacking the absolute clairvoyance in Egypt that would have enabled decisive, unerring action at the outset. That sort of stuff.

So it was interesting to read Sam Roggeveen defend Ferguson on the China component of the piece.

The reactions to this graph and Ferguson’s piece point out, firstly, that although China might become richer than the US overall it has four times as many people, and they remain much poorer. Second, China’s rise is a good thing; economics is not zero-sum and a big Chinese market is in our interests. Third, James Fallows points out that encouraging China’s growth has actually been settled US policy for some decades

What strikes me about the Ferguson piece and the reactions is that they largely talk past each other. Ferguson criticises Obama for failing to think through the implications of China’s rise as it relates to American power. Yet none of the critiques address that concern. Only David Frum’s piece engages with Ferguson on that level.

So what is the evidence that Obama has failed to “think through the implications of” the conjunction of US fiscal and economic weakness with the rise of Asian powers? One of them, apparently, is that Obama hasn’t followed Ferguson’s repeatedly discredited claims about the nature of those fiscal and economic challenges. Another, I suppose, is that the national-security bureaucracy is putting significant energy into assessing what kinds of capabilities are best suited to global threats and domestic fiscal constraints. “But wait,” a reader might ask, “isn’t that last part exactly what ‘thinking through’ entails?”
Well, yes. But “failing to think through” is weasel language. None of our likely readers, let alone Ferguson, has the slightest idea of whether Obama has thought through any of these things. It is possible that Ferguson, being a hedgehog-like scholar extraordinaire, simply has extremely high standards for thinking through global policy challenges. But it is far more likely that “failing to think through” means, as it usually does, “I don’t really have compelling criticisms here so I’ll level a vague accusation to buttress them.” And, indeed, Ferguson’s criticisms of Obama China policy come down to this: 

Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.

In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another … The United States does not seek to contain China … On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.

Yes, you read that right: a chaired professor of international history either doesn’t understand the difference between Presidential speeches and policy actions or thinks cribbing from second-tier right-wing blogs makes for effective policy analysis.
In truth, the US pursues a rather difficult and careful policy toward China. Washington’s preferred outcome is for Beijing to be a “responsible stakeholder,” i.e., a status-quo oriented power integrated into the global order. At the same time, US policymakers recognize that there are real chances that China’s revisionist tendencies — on display in places like the South China Sea — will come to dominate its geo-strategic orientation. 
Thus, the US is building what might be called “containment capacity” while trying to reassure Beijing that confrontation is far from inevitable. It isn’t the prettiest or smoothest approach, but it has a lot of merit. At the very least, it takes advantage of offshore-balancing dynamics. And, like other aspects of Obama foreign policy, it involves a great deal more than “hug-a-foreigner” speeches. There exist plenty of grounds for criticizing the administration’s China policy; it may, in fact, be insufficiently hardline. But Ferguson isn’t even close. 
At the end of the day, there’s not much going for the foreign-policy components of Ferguson’s bid for access to a future Romney administration. I hope, at least, that he feels the number of hits he’s getting justifies burning through what little remains of his academic credibility.

Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.


RIP: Habeas Corpus . . . and Normative Power

The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a sad day for those who believe in basic civil and human rights. Equally, this move calls into question optimistic views about international norms and the power of human rights.

Glenn Greenwald and others cover the threat to basic freedoms in posts that are well worth reading. By comparison, the import for scholars of norms may seem minor but is nonetheless worth pondering.

Norms against indefinite detention have long been basic to human rights, along with prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution. Of course, we’ve seen those fall by the wayside too. National security, a norm backed by enormous material power, has made its dominance plain. However, in recent cases where the U.S. has engaged in torture or extrajudicial executions of American citizens, these actions have been purely executive, albeit with many a legislative, scholarly, and public cheerleader.

The NDAA, however, enshrines indefinite detention for American citizens in law passed by Congress and to be signed by the President. The magical incantation “terrorist” is all that’s been needed to throttle a core rights protection.

What has been the power of norms in this case?

It’s doubtless true that the human rights norms I’ve mentioned have more defenders than they once did. There are today many more NGOs who promote and support them than there were in the 1950s, the last time the U.S. passed similar laws (against the Communist menace, only to reverse them decades later after severe abuses). Today, there have been many voices, both domestic and international, raised against the indefinite detention provisions.

But in the end, these fell before trumped up security norms and terror fears. Many Americans appear all too willing to trade basic rights (and trillions of dollars) for an illusion of security against a minuscule threat. I am continually stunned when I hear American citizens saying we don’t need a judiciary to check the Executive in these cases because the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. So much for the judicial branch, so much for checks and balances, and so much for the power of centuries old domestic norms and laws.

Particularly striking in the debate over detention and the broader one over Obama’s civil liberties record is political opportunism. Many Democratic Party leaders who screamed that George Bush was acting unconstitutionally and illegally in the early years of the GWOT, have now fallen into line behind Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush policies, including extrajudicial executions and now summary arrests. It’s striking too that we have seen so few resignations from top posts in the Obama administration even from those regarded as staunch defenders of basic rights. So much for the independent influence of norms.

More broadly, this suggests that other human rights norms are equally fragile and contingent achievements, with little if any independent strength. Of course, anyone witnessing the erosion of these rights over the last decade already knew that. All such norms exist at sufferance of state actors. To the extent states follow them, it is because the “norms” do not run contrary to their core interests, because a sufficiently large threat has not been invented to justify their subversion, or because the states are too weak to challenge them. Any real belief in state “habitualization” and the power of norms as such must be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to promote and resurrect the crucial values and freedoms we have lost. But the only way to do so is through political organizing and activism–through material rather than normative means.


Obama ‘how’s that hopey changey stuff working for ya?”

As the Occupy Wall Street New York movement enters its second week of activity and the movement spreads to LA, Boston, Chicago, Denver and other cities across the country, the silence on the part of the Obama administration becomes more and more noticeable (we can’t count Biden’s weird and incoherent references to the movement in an interview yesterday). Few expected Obama to come out with any statement last week, when the media was still painting the movement largely as a band of hippies who don’t know enough to shower, let alone drive a political movement. Dan Gainor at Fox news pointed out that these individuals did not represent the 99%, that they may not even be real Americans, and they certainly didn’t have a movement with traction.

But its October 5th, and there are thousands (there aren’t any specific ideas of numbers yet) of protesters RIGHT NOW who have marched through the city to Zuccotti Park. Backed by one of the cities biggest unions, and joined by thousands of students participating in a national day of protest, one thing is not undeniable: this is a political movement speaking not only about corporate greed, but also about government failure.
Most of us know all this, what we don’t know is what Obama has to say about all of it. And for the first time since I heard her shrill voice spit out these words, I feel Palin’s taunt “how’s that hopey changey stuff workin for ya?’ somehow seems appropriate here (or at least its the first time I can think of the line and not want to hurt Palin). If Obama doesn’t have the political savvy to come out at least with a statement of understanding and support, surely his advisers must be telling him to do so?
Many of the chants resonating through the Occupy Wall Street movement seem to echo lines from Obama’s election campaign.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
“Change doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”
Can you really run a campaign on change, hope, speaking to the average American and ending Wall street greed but then remain silent when thousands of Americans (likely many of whom voted for you) start a peaceful political movement asking for a voice and for change? In my mind Obama has already missed the boat in terms of his chance to connect with this movement. The initial silence went from tentative, to awkward, and now is just insulting. These are the issues that American’s want to talk about and the longer Obama remains silent, the more he looses his right to cast himself as the hopey changey presidential candidate in 2012.

Morality, R2P, the nature of conflict and the emerging “Obama Doctrine”

There’s been some really interesting posts here on R2P in the last few days. At the risk of kicking a dead horse – although I hardly think this horse is dead – I’d like to raise a few points. (I’ve actually been writing this post over the past few days, and was going to post it later in the week, but Obama’s speech tonight made me want to post it earlier. You know, because hasty blogging is always a good thing.)

Most of my thinking has been on the issue of consistency/inconsistency with regards to R2P. I think I agree with Charli, there is no consistency requirement when it comes to R2P. For better and for worse, the case presently being made for R2P in Libya is that the international community is acting where it can when it can. The better part of this is that it’s relatively easy to protect civilians from conventional military forces (tanks, planes, etc) and this is why I think we see the action in Libya. Boots on the ground are not required, and if they were, it’s clear that they’re probably not coming. As Obama said tonight, boots on the ground would entail a situation where the “dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.”

The worse part of this, as implied by Obama’s speech, is that it is still very hard to end civil wars/ethnic strife (such as that of Rwanda – which provoked so much soul-searching about humanitarian intervention in the first place). And this is why we aren’t really seeing any intervention in Côte d’Ivoire – because everyone knows it would be a hot mess.

This is unfortunate. As the International Crisis Group has indicated in a letter to the UN Security Council today specifying that things are going very badly, very quickly in Côte d’Ivoire.

The security and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire is rapidly deteriorating. Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes.
… the Security Council should immediately authorise military action to ensure the protection of the population by UNOCI or other authorised forces and to support President Alassane Ouattara and his government in exercising authority over the armed forces and ensuring the territorial integrity of the state….
According to the UN, 440 people have been killed and 500,000 have been forced to flee their homes. This toll is still growing. There are reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. Gbagbo’s militias continue to perpetrate violence and organise road blocks controlled by armed men, and elements in the Ouattara camp have also been implicated in targeting civilians.

I think this situation answers the question that Jon raises in his post as to whether a threshold to act has been crossed. (Incidentally, I also agree with his conclusions on Libya, that it was likely a mass-atrocity by Gaddafi forces was about to be raised.)

So how can we morally defend the inconsistency of intervening in Libya and not Côte d’Ivoire? Is Obama’s pragmatism really a sufficient answer?

Well, as suggested above, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire are very different conflicts. Libya has been determined to be a conflict that can be solved from 10,000 feet. This is something that Western militaries are far more comfortable with because it clearly is much less of a risk to them AND they can avoid the very bad and messy pictures of boots on the ground which lend themselves to critiques of imperialism – if not just more images of western troops in another Middle Eastern country.

But I wonder if this means that R2P only lends itself to this kind of conflict? That we’re good to go for interventions where western forces can effectively bomb a conventional army into oblivion, but conflicts that require more direct and inherently risky intervention become an entirely different proposition. I think this is an obvious point – but it does point to the fact that anyone who seeks to make R2P a consistent norm is basically out of luck? That our inclination to “prevent, respond, rebuild” is going to be determined by the nature of the conflict rather than the need on the ground?

Certainly this is a concern that Obama alluded to and sought to answer in his speech:

In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all – even in limited ways – in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home.
It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground…

The question is whether or not this then jeopardizes the morality of the norm. Obama’s pragmatism suggests that we have a responsibility to protect, but only where it’s convenient. Only where (American) lives are not at stake. What kind of norm is that? As one commenter argues:

If the “responsibility to protect” is a sacred principle, shouldn’t it be applied everywhere? What about those peaceful demonstrators who are being shot at by the Syrian army? What about the civilians threatened by the fighting between partisans of Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who was elected president of Ivory Coast in November, and those of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but refuses to leave? What about the Shia majority in Bahrain whose aspirations to social equality are brutally repressed by a Sunni dynasty with the help of Saudi Arabia?

In this sense, I think many of our (their) hesitations about R2P are about consistency. We worry about consistency because we like check-boxes. We like certainty. Perhaps it offers predictability. Or, as guest-Duck blogger Chris Brown has written (in his collection of essays) “one of the reasons why so many people look to developing rules that will constrain action is precisely because they do not trust the judgment of those who hold the great offices of state in the Western democracies” (adding that after Iraq, there are understandable  reasons for this mistrust.)

Worries about inconsistency suggest that we’re actually really worried about something different – than rather than circumstances, R2P occurs because of different motivations. Libya has oil and Côte d’Ivoire has cocoa. It’s not surprising that there are accusations of something fishy going on here.

I’m not sure what to say – is this a sorry comfort kind of post? We can only intervene where we can be responsible; only where it’s pragmatic. Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re probably out of luck. Fans of Obama and R2P are going to have to work out the very difficult morality of that.

Ultimately, for me, just because no one is likely to do anything in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean Libya is illegitimate. However, the fact that another bloody and brutal war is clearly getting underway in another poor African country is also reminder of the very real limits of R2P, which neither compels states to act nor solves many of the central problems of HOW, WHEN and WHY we carry out humanitarian intervention. And that such interventions are never going to be consistent.


New Executive Order on Detainees: Guantana-No, but action on the 1977 Additional Protocols (kinda)

Not so much.

Lawfare blog has a post on today’s Executive Order on Guantanamo Bay. (Link to the Obama administration’s fact sheet PDF here). Lawfare tends to be more conservative than most international law blogs, but it’s excellent and an absolute must-read for keeping up-to-date on all things law, national security and the war on terror. (Or as I like to call it, Saturday night!) There’s some good commentary on the refusal of Congress to help fund any progress on Guantanamo and some discussion of the return to military commissions.

More interesting for me is the section at the end of the Fact Sheet titled, “Support for a Strong International Legal Framework”. In it, the administration is basically stating that it is going to push for ratification of the 1977 Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and that it formally sees Article 75 of Additional Protocol I as customary international law. (Article 75 lists the “fundamental guarantees” in the Protocol for those “persons in the power of a party to a conflict”.)

The section says:

Because of the vital importance of the rule of law to the effectiveness and legitimacy of our national security policy, the Administration is announcing our support for two important components of the international legal framework that covers armed conflicts: Additional Protocol II and Article 75 of Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
Additional Protocol II, which contains detailed humane treatment standards and fair trial guarantees that apply in the context of non-international armed conflicts, was originally submitted to the Senate for approval by President Reagan in 1987. The Administration urges the Senate to act as soon as practicable on this Protocol, to which 165 States are a party. An extensive interagency review concluded that United States military practice is already consistent with the Protocol’s provisions. Joining the treaty would not only assist us in continuing to exercise leadership in the international community in developing the law of armed conflict, but would also allow us to reaffirm our commitment to humane treatment in, and compliance with legal standards for, the conduct of armed conflict.
Article 75 of Additional Protocol I, which sets forth fundamental guarantees for persons in the hands of opposing forces in an international armed conflict, is similarly important to the international legal framework. Although the Administration continues to have significant concerns with Additional Protocol I, Article 75 is a provision of the treaty that is consistent with our current policies and practice and is one that the United States has historically supported.
Our adherence to these principles is also an important safeguard against the mistreatment of captured U.S. military personnel. The U.S. Government will therefore choose out of a sense of legal obligation to treat the principles set forth in Article 75 as applicable to any individual it detains in an international armed conflict, and expects all other nations to adhere to these principles as well.

My first quick thoughts on this are that this is a big deal and not a big deal.

The United States has signed, but not ratified, the two Additional Protocols. In the 1980s political appointee lawyers, such as Doug Feith (who declared the Protocols to be “law in the service of terror”) worked to undermine efforts to have the US ratify them. (Although, to be fair, this was a position that was supported by the New York Times during this period.) They were successful, and in 1987 President Reagan declared to the Senate that he would not send API to them for ratification, but that he would send (the much more limited) APII through. However, the Protocol has been languishing there ever since.

So in some ways, this can actually be seen as fulfilling an old Reagan administration policy.

However, I think the clear and strong support for Article 75 is important, and will probably be welcomed by many in the international legal community, perhaps at least as a small comfort for the general sense of disappointment that Guantanamo is still around.

Also, while I feel it is a good thing that the administration has formally declared Article 75 to be customary, I think this may be bad news for API advocates overall. The policy is likely a result of the fact that the administration believes that ratification of Additional Protocol I is still a long way off – particularly with Congress’ attitude towards international law, Guantanamo and the war on terror. Additionally, the fact that the administration states (not entirely unreasonably) that it has “significant concerns” over Protocol I (no doubt related to the controversial provisions in Aricles 1(4) and 44(3))  suggests that the overall sentiment towards API has not really changed that much.

Finally, and related to the above point, I would argue that this “fact sheet” seems to confirm a pragmatic Obama policy of trying to work with international law within the constraints imposed by a hostile Congress. While it may not be able to ratify all of the treaties that it (and many in the international legal community) would (probably) like to, it will seek to at least cooperate and work with the international legal institutions and regimes where possible.

QUICK UPDATE – The always interesting and occasionally controversial Ben Wittes gives his take on it here. Short version: Good policy, but too bad that the President and Congress can’t work it out.

QUICK UPDATE 2: (Geeze this is moving quick!) State Department statement on these developments here.


Obama’s Lesson on Audience Costs

One line that caught my attention in Obama’s Q/A with the House Republicans last Friday was his rationale for toning down the demonization of one another. He argued, for example, that when Republicans portray him as someone out to destroy the country (i.e., health care reform is a Bolshevik plot), it radicalizes their constituencies and ultimately limits their ability to engage in any bipartisan efforts with him to deal with the country’s problems — lest they be accused of being an accomplice with a socialist.

Audience costs don’t come as a surprise to many of us in IR. James Fearon’s 1994 APSR piece articulated the concept and suggested that because democracies would likely have higher domestic audience costs than authoritarian regimes, they would be able to make more credible threats. Michael Tomz has elaborated on the theoretical mechanisms and developed stronger empirical evidence showing how audience costs actually shape and constrain elite behavior. Focusing on national security issues, Tomz finds that domestic audiences are concerned with reputation and credibility and routinely punish leaders who say one thing but do another thing.

I found it interesting that Obama made these references last Friday — the same day Tony Blair defiantly testified before the British Iraq Inquiry. Audience costs don’t constrain elites who are true believers like Blair who continues to hold that Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to global society. He told the Inquiry: “I believe he was a monster, that he threatened not just the region but the world.”

But, I’ve argued that domestic audience costs did have an effect on Bush’s U.S. domestic mobilization for war against Iraq. The legacy of a decade of demonization of Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s opened the political space for President Bush and the Neocons to maneuver the US towards a preventive attack on Iraq. Several of the Democrats who voted to authorize the war in Iraq in October 2002 were clearly uncomfortable with their vote, and yet, they feared a public backlash a month before the mid-term elections. That backlash wouldn’t have happened without their own participation in the decade-long rhetorical conditioning that Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to the United States — they couldn’t oppose war with Iraq without the risk of seeming to coddle a tyrannical dictator hell-bent on destroying America.

Obama’s caution — that demonization of your political opponent could very well box you in — is certainly worth noting whether it pertains to domestic politics or international diplomacy.


Obama Administration Won’t Join Landmine Treaty.

According to CNN, administration officials just announced that after a “review” of US landmine policy, they will maintain the policy of previous administrations in refusing to sign the Ottawa treaty. According to State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly:

“We made our policy review and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention.”

Organizations like Human Rights Watch are disappointed in the decision, but especially with the process – the deliberations apparently took place internally without consultation by landmine advocates.

Huffington Post has more, including statistics on mines as a human security problem:

A report this month by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines found that mines remain planted in the earth in more than 70 countries and killed at least 1,266 people and wounded 3,891 last year. More than 2.2 million anti-personnel mines, 250,000 anti-vehicle mines and 17 million other explosives left over from wars have been removed since 1999, the report said.

This is probably just another example of the US refusing to commit while planning to comply. Still, from our “multilateral” President, this strikes me as another disappointment.


Obama’s Decisionmaking Style

There has been a lot of criticism of President Obama’s decision making style in the last couple of weeks. Last week, Dan Balz had this description:

The president, according to one official, came to last week’s meeting with his top advisers armed with a list of questions, carefully written down in his precise handwriting, that were designed to generate a thorough airing of the choices available and the underlying analysis behind them.

So far so good by my reading…. But, apparently this approach is problematic and Balz jumps to this conclusion:

…The longer Obama waits to make this decision, the more he will be subjected to questions about whether he is tough enough and resolute enough to be commander in chief. This was the very question that dogged him throughout his campaign for president. Did this relatively young and even more inexperienced politician have the skills needed to lead the country in a time of war and terrorist threats?

…These are important differences worth debate and analysis by the experts. But for Obama, the risk is that this decision will be framed simply as a question of his fortitude — his willingness to make a tough decision (as he seemingly did last spring in announcing an initial troop increase) and then stick to it. Not just his political opponents at home but leaders around the world will make potentially lasting judgments about the president’s strength based on what happens over the next weeks or months as he weighs his options.

Now we have Thomas Ricks with this gem:

No matter what you think President Obama should decide on Afghanistan, what do you think of his decision-making process? He appeared to make a decision in March, and then indicated five months later that he hadn’t, and then engaged in a very public discussion that appears to pit the White House against U.S. generals. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable with how he has handled this. Do you?

Let me take a stab at this. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past fifteen years studying presidential decision making and the use of force and this is one of the best processes I’ve seen. A couple of points: First, in the post-World War II period most presidential decisions on the use of force have been relatively rapid decisions in response to particular crises or triggering events. Circumstances often dictated the necessity of quick decisions, e.g., Truman on Korea in June, 1950; Eisenhower on Lebanon; Reagan on Grenada; Bush 41 on Kuwait, Clinton on Kosovo. The situation in Afghanistan is an entirely different type of case. The situation is deteriorating, but there is no immediate time pressure.

Second, as a result, we should be comparing apples to apples and we have had a number of cases in which presidents have had some luxury of having time to weigh a change in strategy or resources. What is interesting about many of these cases is how quickly and casually various presidents have made decisions on troop escalation or changes in strategic objectives without thorough analysis or consideration of various counterfactuals. Truman, for example, was seduced by MacArthur’s early successes and MacArthur’s promises/wishful thinking that he gave the go-ahead to cross the 38th parallel without a full analysis of likely Chinese responses. Johnson’s decision making processes were faulty on so many grounds.

George H.W. Bush’s decision to shift from Operation Desert Shield to Operation Desert Storm was based largely on a series of individual conversations and small-group briefings with advisers than with a full-scale deliberative process. While the outcome of the Persian Gulf war may seem to be a validation of this approach, it nonetheless generated significant anxiety at the time within the administration and the military about timing of the war, resources, military planning and logistics, etc…

The bottom line is that there is no set of exigent circumstances dictating a decision today or tomorrow in Afghanistan. Obama has tasked his advisers and their staffs to do a thorough review of the strategic objectives and then a review of the various approaches to meet those objectives. The White House also has been clear that this will not be an open ended process and that Obama will make a decision by the end of this month. Ultimately history will judge Obama more on the outcome of his policy decision than the process, but for those of us who study decision making processes, this is about as sound as it gets.



The National Brands Index is out with its 2009 survey results and the United States has taken the top spot. It “soared” from seventh place in last year’s survey to number one. How can this be?

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that you won’t read this in The Weekly Standard, from the National Brands Index press release:

“What’s really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009,” explains Simon Anholt, NBI founder and an independent advisor to over a dozen national governments around the world. “Despite recent economic turmoil, the U.S. actually gained significant ground. The results suggest that the new U.S. administration has been well received abroad and the American electorate’s decision to vote in President Obama has given the United States the status of the world’s most admired country.”

OK,OK… we all knew Obama was going to rescue America’s global reputation. Great, but I’m still a bit of a skeptic:

First, for the data wonks out there, here’s the only mention of methodology I could find anywhere about the survey and its only this simple description from the press release:

Conducted annually in partnership between independent advisor Simon Anholt and GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media beginning in 2008, the Nation Brands IndexSM measures the image of 50 countries with respect to Exports, Governance, Culture, People, Tourism and Immigration/Investment. Each year, approximately 20,000 adults ages 18 and up are interviewed online in 20 core panel countries.

I’m intrigued by the use of online polling, but I’m not buying the whole top “brand” result until I see some evidence and methods which apparently are not released for proprietary reasons. Oh well….

Second, the whole thing of reputations in IR tend to be over-rated. I still like Jon Mercer’s work on the topic. Dan posted months ago on the whole values vs. policy angle on anti-Americanism and the broader trends on America’s current image seem to track with an expectation that Obama will change American policies.

Finally, Canada dropped to seventh? What’s up with that?


The Politics of Personal Integrity

The confluence this week of the Eliot Spitzer resignation and yet another round of discussions about the Barack Obama-Tony Rezko connection led me — like, I’m sure, many of you — to wonder a bit about the political consequences of the fact that “personal integrity” seems to have become the most important commodity that a whole slew of U.S. pundits and even large swaths of the U.S. electorate looks for in a candidate for public office. Besides the usual concerns, such as the fact that I can’t for the life of me understand why participation in shady real estate deals or a habit of visiting prostitutes has anything whatsoever to do with someone’s capacity for governing, the thing that really struck me in watching these stories unfold is exactly how much misunderstanding is involved in this focus on personal integrity. And I mean “misunderstanding” in a strict sense: criticizing someone’s personal integrity is, literally, a misapprehension both of how political rhetoric works and of how social action arises in the first place.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that people mistakenly assume that the truth-value of the statement “X is a person of great personal integrity” tells us something about what person X is likely to do in the future. If that were the case, then knowing that someone always behaved in accordance with various ethical precepts would give us confidence that the person would go on doing so. But it’s not the case, and so there’s something rather absurd about trying to evaluate someone’s future performance — especially a public someone, virtually all of whose statements about everything have been carefully vetted and test-marketed and engineered to achieve a desired effect — based on a judgment about their personal integrity. To do so strikes me as a classic example of a category mistake, in this case a misreading of a practical-moral claim as though it were an empirical description.

What does it mean to have personal integrity? In my usual Wittgensteinian / pragmatist manner, the only way I can think to cash out the operational meaning of the phrase “personal integrity” is to look at how it’s used. And at least politically, “personal integrity” seems to refer to a consistency between someone’s words and their actions. If someone makes a statement of principle and then undermines that principle with all of their subsequent behavior, then they get accused of not having personal integrity; if they “stick to their guns” and refuse to compromise, then they are esteemed as having great personal integrity. This is especially the case when it comes to the relationship between public statements and private behavior — remember Nannygate? That’s a good example.

If we take consistency between public words and private actions as a working definition of “personal integrity,” then it seems to me that one of three things is likely the case about any public political figure esteemed for her or his personal integrity:

1) he or she has a very good set of spin doctors and PR people;

2) he or she is very good at explaining away seeming discrepancies, perhaps with the help of the aforementioned spin doctors and PR people; or

3) he or she actually does conform actions to words.

Options 1 and 2 tell us nothing whatsoever about whether the public political figure has any personal integrity, and seem a very weak basis on which to evaluate what they are likely to do in the future. Indeed, all they tell us is that if the public political figure changes her or his position, someone from the Ministry of Truth, er, the political staff, will make it appear as though the public political figure has always been strongly opposed to / strongly in favor of whatever the option now on the table is. But option 3 is hardly any better, because it is impossible to decide between

3a) he or she is really, really concerned with acting in accord with her or his declared principles


3b) he or she is really, really concerned with appearing to act in accord with her or his declared principles.

Once again, there’s no secure basis here for making a prediction about future actions, since 3a and 3b are empirically indistinguishable — and if 3b is the case then perhaps the public political figure might be a bit more inclined to take advantage of options 1 and 2 in an effort to shore up her or his image . . . leaving us right back where we started.

The more profound problem here is that we misread “X is a person of great personal integrity” if we regard it as an empirical proposition. If we did try to read it that way, then we’d be saying something like “X’s words and actions have corresponded in the past,” and the proposition could only be evaluated if no more words or actions were forthcoming, i.e. if the person were dead or otherwise completely incapacitated. But that’s not how the statement functions, because it’s a practical-moral claim rather than an empirical one. “Practical-moral” is a term I borrow from John Shotter; it highlights the extent to which such claims do important social and cultural work in a given context, since they arise from and participate in a whole complex ecology of commonplace notions on which people draw to make sense of things. The truth-value of a practical-moral claim is irrelevant, or undecidable, or nonsensical. Saying “X has personal integrity” is like saying “we are a just society” or “we are a compassionate and environmentally-friendly organization.” On one hand, it means nothing in particular, and on the other hand, it can exercise a profound shaping effect on future action — which is what practical-moral claims are supposed to do in the first place.

Consider “we are a just society.” If “justice” exists as a commonplace among both speakers and the audience for such a statement, then the practical-moral claim functions not to describe the society, but to guide and shape subsequent discussions about possible courses of action: from here on in they have to make reference to “justice,” and various participants in those contentious conversations can deploy “justice” as a way of impressing their positions on others. The same is true of “X has personal integrity,” which I submit ought not to be thought of as a description but instead as a contribution to the shaping of an ongoing flow of action — after the practical-moral claim is made and accepted, debates and discussions about options have to take “integrity” into account. This does not mean that any particular action is excluded as much as it means that the whole terrain on which actions are considered has shifted; that’s the kind of effect that a successful practical-moral claim has.

It’s silly to try to evaluate anyone, especially a public political figure, on the basis of their supposed internal disposition towards “integrity,” visible in their past behavior. Any living breathing human being, I’d posit, has some morally questionable actions in their past someplace, actions that involve a compromise of principle; whether this looks like a violation of their “integrity” probably depends on the vim and vigor with which the media pursues their investigation, and the skill and resources of the media handlers trying to spin the story back in a direction that the person in question finds more acceptable. So we’re all imperfect, we’ve all compromised, we’re all flawed. And? Does this make all of us unfit for anything? Such would be the logical consequence of treating “personal integrity” as an empirical judgment.

Instead, if we re-think the claim in practical-moral terms, we discover that claiming to have (or being claimed to have) “personal integrity” means that future actions can and should be evaluated for consistency with previous declarations of principle. This can obviously get someone in trouble — Eliot Spitzer is a good case — if they are discovered to have large gaps between principles and behaviors. But you can’t evaluate that in advance, because such gaps are always produced and made meaningful in the present, and the process of doing so is always social and political. It is futile to look for a person who appears to empirically manifest “personal integrity” and declare them a better candidate for public office; better by far to examine the constellation of commonplaces surrounding the candidate, size up the potentials for various courses of action to be justified, and choose the candidate whose rhetorical universe inclines in your preferred direction. And if “personal integrity” is part of the mix, watch out — that’s an avenue that opponents are almost certain to be able to exploit, most likely at a time and place of their choosing.


Superbowl ads

My favorite– the Godfather take-off by Audi. I thought that was pure genius.

The other ad I though was pure genius–Obama’s spot. Apparently he bought it regionally instead of nationally, so you all might not have seen it, but it was on here in the DC area. Brilliant, I thought–a good ad, and there is no other event that will have so many viewers, so many potential primary voters 2 days before Super-duper Tuesday. Primaries in NY, NJ, Conn, and Mass–I’m sure viewership there was high.

I thought it a pretty savvy move.


Obama on campus

A first hand account of my brush with Campaign 2008.

Barak Obama gave a big speech at American University today with the Kennedy’s to receive the endorsements of Ted, Caroline, and Patrick Kennedy. The speech was announced to the campus community over the weekend, and it instantly cause a palpable buzz of excitement. Thousands converged on our campus to hear the speech.

The speech was scheduled for Bender Arena (our gym / all purpose room) at 12:15, doors opening at 10:30. I teach from 9:55 – 11:10. Over the weekend, several students in my morning class emailed to say that they were skipping our riveting session discussing David Kang’s ISQ article on North Korea in favor of waiting in line to see Obama. I decided to have class anyway, figuring that a) the event didn’t start until an hour after the class ended, and b) I (and anyone else from the class) could go over after class, jump in the line, and sneak into the back of the rally.

Oh how wrong I was. After class, myself and several colleagues walked over to the arena to scope the line. People were entering the arena, and we started to hike toward the end of the queue. (For those of you not familiar with AU geography, you can see a map here) We went from Bender arena, up the road to the main entrance to campus. The line then turned left, down Massachusetts Ave., down several blocks past the seminary, and then turned left onto University. At its height, I think it got to Quebec, and perhaps down that road as well. It was easily the longest line I’d ever seen for anything at our school.

We waited for a bit as the line filled up behind us and slowly started to move. After about 20 minutes, the line really started to roll and picked up pace. We hiked back up the hill, and as we got to the main gate of camps, people were saying that the doors to the event had closed 20 minutes ago with a capacity crowd inside. Overflow venues were full as well. A number of people went over to the outdoor amphitheater (and would eventually be rewarded when Obama and Kennedy would come out and greet them after the speech). My friends and I bailed at this point, and eventually returned to our office.

We decided to still watch the speech, however, as it seemed too big of a deal to miss. Plus, we were already invested and wanted to see how it went. So, we went to the new media lab next to our office and started to stream the feed on the very nice 30-something inch monitor they have. After about 30 minutes, nothing was happening and we almost gave up. They were just late in starting. Finally, the folks in the lab down the hall got the stream working from the local NBC website. They threw the image up onto the overhead projector and we had a movie-sized view of the speech. In all, there were about 20 of us from the floor in the lab watching the show.

After it was over, it was back to work.


More than 2 Americas

Peter has a great post about the meaning of wealth in America — and the diverse problem that voters making upwards of $97,000 annually pose to the Democratic candidates in the 2008 election campaign.

After all, Democrats have long been said to represent the interests of the downtrodden. Think about FDR’s “New Deal” or LBJ’s “Great Society.” Yet, Democratic members now hold many House seats in districts that are viewed as affluent by income measures.

Though Peter framed this debate around the positions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it arguably reflects the “two Americas” theme that John Edwards has been talking about since ’04. He hasn’t been able to gain quite enough traction to emerge as a serious contender.

Keep in mind that the affluent tend to vote at higher rates than do those making less than them. The underclass feels almost completely powerless in many political debates.

In any case, I want to devote this post to a different problem: income isn’t the only difference dividing these urban & suburban residents on the coasts from the rest of the country. The journalist Thomas Frank has famously discussed the importance of the cultural divide separating red and blue states. However, in the context of intra-Democratic struggles, the cultural divide is perhaps best explained in the scholarship of Richard Florida.

Republican candidates seem to make overt appeals to their cultural base and the business class voters understand that the talk about abortion and gay marriage (it used to be school prayer and drug policy) is mere window-dressing. As a cynic, I suspect the immigration issue is the 2008 version. These business class voters (whether on Wall Street or Main Street) know that Republican office-holders reliably bring tax cuts, deregulation, and weak government oversight. They know that post-election, the Republicans won’t prevent the low paid migrant workforce from entering the US.

In the end, the economics trump the culture wars.

In contrast, the Democratic cultural base is quite diverse and creates different cross-cutting problems on economic questions. The Democrats cannot readily make a cultural argument that won’t truly offend some of their constituency. If they go too far to the right, as the 2000 Nader problem revealed, many of their voters may go Green instead.

It is difficult for some Democrats to appeal to union, Catholic, and many minority households that are often culturally — and even fiscally — conservative. Those constituencies historically vote blue, but many union voters became Reagan Democrats and some Republican candidates have received large number of Catholic votes based on the abortion issue. African Americans have remained loyal to the Democratic party, but many Hispanics have shifted their votes in different elections.

Generally, those constituencies do not make $97,000 per year. The classic way to appeal to them is via economic arguments about government’s role in providing a safety net — college tuition assistance, Social Security preservation, child care tax credits, etc.

As Richard Florida demonstrates, numerous highly creative, tolerant and socially liberal people from the heartland tend to migrate to large cities and the coasts. Many become wealthy (this is often the $97K crowd) and vote for Democrats anyway because they abhor the dominant “Republican” cultural values they left behind in Nebraska. Most are not very likely to vote Republican simply because that move would bring lower taxes.

These voters want to hear appeals based on the environment, perhaps, or the role of government in promoting the information age. They are quite open to culturally progressive ideas like gay marriage. They don’t care all that much about the classic Dem arguments about government’s role providing a safety net.

They don’t think they need such a net.

Interestingly, however, while many of these voters’ “native” suburban neighbors are nearly as tolerant culturally, they are far more economically conservative. They are Republicans making $97K and up.

Perhaps the best way to explain the culture problem for the Democrats is to consider the Velveeta/Brie divide.

Remember that anti-Howard Dean commercial from 2004 (video link)?

“I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government- expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading. . .” — and then his wife picks up the litany: “. . . body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

Well, it turns out that most Brie eaters are “soft Republican” voters who support abortion rights and legalization of marijuana. Democratic candidates, conceivably, could appeal to those voters — at the risk of losing some of the culturally conservative traditional base.

More likely, however, many of those “soft Republicans” will become hardened as their economic situation continues to improve relative to the rest of the country and they grow attached to the same Republican virtues that appeal to the business classes. In fact, they become the business class.

Here’s the culture clash for the Dems in a nutshell: Most Velveeta buyers are conservative Democrats who support school prayer and listen to Christian music.

So far as I can tell, none of the 2008 Democratic candidates is able to cross the intra-party cultural divide in the way that Bill Clinton could. Clinton effectively appealed to many different constituencies, but it is far from an easy task. He was a Rhodes scholar and policy wonk who attended Yale, but he was also a white southern man who ate at McDonald’s, loved college sports, and played saxophone.

In sum, the problem Peter identifies separating the appeals offered by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is not exclusively about economics. I suspect both candidates are getting a lot of cash from the affluent members of the party that are culturally liberal. Obama must figure that he won’t offend them much by threatening to raise taxes, so long as the new brand of politics he is selling continues to appeal to their intellect or values.


Ducking the Issues: $97,000 isn’t as much as it used to be

Time for another installment of Ducking the Issues, where we here at the duck take a closer look at issues in the 2008 campaign.

David points out an interesting article, reporting a study by the Heritage Foundation that asserts that the Democrats are now the “party of the rich.” When combined with a discussion between Obama and Clinton in a debate in Las Vegas the other week, you end up with an interesting and revealing set of income and class dynamics at play in the presidential election.

As the Post reported:

The two front-running Democratic presidential contenders, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), sparred over tax policy and quickly got entangled in the question of whether someone making more than $97,000 a year is middle class or upper class. That’s upper class, Obama said. Not necessarily, suggested Clinton.

This raises a very interesting question that we often talk around but rarely discuss in the open:

Who, exactly, can afford to pay more? Who is rich?

Not me. Probably not you. Indeed, most Americans tend to identify themselves as ‘middle class’ whether they have a $50,000 or $150,000 or even $300,000+ annual salary.

The idea of who is Middle Class and who represents the Middle Class has important political implications. The Heritage study, as revealed in an FT op-ed claims that:

For the demographic reality is that, in America, the Democratic party is the new “party of the rich”. More and more Democrats represent areas with a high concentration of wealthy households. Using Internal Revenue Service data, the Heritage Foundation identified two categories of taxpayers – single filers with incomes of more than $100,000 and married filers with incomes of more than $200,000 – and combined them to discern where the wealthiest Americans live and who represents them.

Democrats now control the majority of the nation’s wealthiest congressional jurisdictions. More than half of the wealthiest households are concentrated in the 18 states where Democrats control both Senate seats.

This new political demography holds true in the House of Representatives, where the leadership of each party hails from different worlds. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, represents one of America’s wealthiest regions. Her San Francisco district has more than 43,700 high-end households. Fewer than 7,000 households in the western Ohio district of House Republican leader John Boehner enjoy this level of affluence.

Now, Heritage is using this study to argue (in this op-ed) for further tax cuts, asserting that Democrats will wake-up and realize the intrinsic interests of who they really represent, thereby creating a Congressional ant-tax majority. The empirics I buy, but as we’ve recently discussed here at the Duck, its not so much the empirics as the social narrative and meaning attached to those empirics that is more politically significant and salient.

In the campaign, the politics of who is Middle Class does have important policy implications. In this case, how would the two candidates ‘solve’ the social security crisis? Who pays? Each agree with the broad Democratic narrative that those with more should pay more, while those with less shouldn’t be asked to support others until they can first support themselves. The difficulty comes in drawing the hard line between poor, middle class, and rich.

The exchange between Obama and Clinton began when the senator from Illinois said he was open to adjusting the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax. That’s the tax that the government prefers to call a “contribution” to Social Security. Under current law, a worker pays a flat percentage (and employers match it) of wages up to $97,500. Wages beyond that aren’t taxed.

Clinton responded by saying that lifting the payroll tax would mean a trillion-dollar tax increase, adding that she did not want to “fix the problems of Social Security on the backs of middle-class families and seniors.”

Obama replied: “Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 a year. So 6 percent is not the middle class. It is the upper class.”

Clinton: “It is absolutely the case that there are people who would find that burdensome. I represent firefighters. I represent school supervisors.”

Online calculators allow anyone to make an instant city-to-city cost-of-living comparison. One such Web site calculates that someone making $97,500 in Washington could live just as comfortably on $67,846 in Ames, Iowa.

Both Obama and Clinton make important points. To most people—the 94% of Americans who make less–$97K / year is a lot of money. These are the people that the Democrats are supposed to represent, and Obama, trying to become the standard-bearer of the party, is trying to speak to these folks. Clinton, on the other hand, is speaking to the people she, and the party (according to the Heritage study) actually do represent. New York—especially The City—is home to many of those wealthy Americans and 97K isn’t all that much money in a very expensive urban metroplex like New York (or SF or LA or Boston or here in DC). For instance, did you know that:

The three richest large counties in the country are in the Washington suburbs: Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard. A recent survey showed that 43 percent of people in the core counties of metropolitan Washington live in households with incomes of at least $100,000 a year.

The people Clinton needs to win the race—those Northern VA suburban voters in Fairfax and Loudoun counties who now vote Democrat and have turned Virginia from a Red to a Purplish-Blue up for grabs—these folks are the ones who make the 97K and feel as if they are stretched thin.

But :

Median household income in America in 2006 was $48,201, which, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1999.

These are the people Obama needs to win over to his side to win the primary, the main-line democratic primary voters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina.

I think there’s maybe a follow up post to this on why the Republicans have become more anti-immigrant, diverting the economic insecurity of their lower-income constituents away from economics and onto social-cultural issues (with a security overlay), allowing them to be anti-tax, for example, by arguing that all those making over $97,000 shouldn’t pay any more into the social security fund. But this post is getting a bit long, so we’ll save that for later (though feel free to comment about it).


Sarah Sewall and COIN

This past week, I’ve read Sarah Sewall’s name three times in different magazines and blogs.

Perhaps you are asking, who is Sarah Sewall?

Well, Sewall is director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I first heard her name more than 20 years ago when I worked briefly at Center for the Defense Information in DC — a left of center think tank that studies the military. Sewall also interned at Institute of Policy Studies. She must have worked at IPS when Michael Klare ran the Program on Militarism and Disarmament.

So, what’s up with Sarah Sewall these days? Why would she suddenly appear on the blog radar?

First, on October 4, Dan Drezner blogged about the foreign policy wonks who are advising various presidential candidates. Click on his link to a William Arkin piece in The Washington Post and you’ll find Sewall listed as an Obama advisor. She and better-known colleague Samantha Power are helping the campaign in various ways. Sewall seems to approve of Obama’s plan for “military disengagement” from Iraq.

OK, that seems pretty normal for someone working on human right at the JFK School.

Then, in a book ad in The Atlantic Monthly, I noticed something a bit different. Sewall wrote the introduction to the University of Chicago Press 2007 edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This is au courant — General David Petraeus coauthored the foreward. This link seems to be a free sample.

Writing an introduction for the manual is perhaps not surprising, given that Sewall was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance from 1993-1996.

However, the third mention is definitely much more unusual.

Sewall was excoriated by Tom Hayden in The Nation last month for her defense of “the new counterinsurgency.”

the Petraeus plan draws intellectual legitimacy from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, whose director, Sarah Sewall, proudly embraces an “unprecedented collaboration [as] a human rights center partnered with the armed forces.” Sewall, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored a “doctrine revision workshop” at Fort Leavenworth that prepared the Army and Marines’ new counterinsurgency warfighting Field Manual.

Hayden, the famous foe of the Vietnam war and former spouse of Jane Fonda, continues:

Yet Sewall of Harvard’s Carr Center suggests that intellectuals have a moral duty to collaborate with the military in devising counterinsurgency doctrines. “Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose,” she writes in an introduction to the Field Manual. In a direct response to critics who argue that the manual’s passages endorsing human rights standards are just window dressing, she adds, “The Field Manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words lack meaning.”

One would think that past experiences with death squads indirectly supported by the United States, as in El Salvador in the 1980s, or the recent exposure of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan’s Bagram facility and Guantánamo, would justify such worries about complicity. But Sewall defends Harvard’s collaboration through a pro-military revisionist argument. She says, “Military annals today tally that effort [the war in El Salvador] as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America’s indirect role in fostering death squads.” Can she mean that the Pentagon’s self-serving narrative of the Central American wars is correct, and that critics of a conflict in which 75,000 Salvadorans died–the equivalent of more than 4 million Americans–most of them at the hands of US-trained and -equipped security forces, including death squads, simply need to “get past” being squeamish about the methods? Instead of churning out self-deluding platitudes about civilizing the military, Harvard would do well to worry more about how collaboration with the Pentagon impairs the critical independent role of intellectuals.

In his last paragraph, Hayden accuses Sewall of being someone who urges us to “get past the shame of death squads.”


In response, Sewall had some comments for the Harvard campus paper:

“The Carr Center’s mission is to make human rights principles central to the formulation of public policy,” Sewall said. “Civilian protection in war is premised on core human rights and has become a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Helping to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully embraced in military doctrine will contribute to human rights protection.”

…“How can you hope to change the conduct of war without engaging those who practice it?” Sewall said. “We should all hope to live in a world without war, but there are many steps we can take to minimize war’s horror along the way.”

Actually, Sewall’s response seems pretty reasonable to me, given civilian casualties — though I do worry about COIN strategy.


Ducking the Issues: Campaign 2008

Its always exciting when foreign policy comes front and center in an election. Usually its “The Economy” or some other domestic issue that separates the candidates, so its particularly interesting that the Democrats have turned to foreign policy as the first major issue on which the major candidates have (or have at least manufactured) a stark difference. Today’s installment of Ducking the Issues examines the Clinton – Obama dust-up over meeting with foreign leaders.

Lets go to the Transcript:

QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

COOPER: I should also point out that Stephen is in the crowd tonight. Senator Obama?

OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous. (APPLAUSE) Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq — one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses. They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.

Obama did get this answer right, despite the significant criticism he has endured for it, and its important to note why. First, look at the question–it asks if the candidate would be willing “to meet, without precondition” a number of leaders, and frames it in the spirit of bold diplomacy and leadership from past global peacemakers. Obama seeks to pick up that mantle of global leadership, and does so with his answer. He draws a sharp and important contrast with the current administration, which has chosen confrontation over negotiation in dealing with hostile regimes, and says that he’s willing to chart a diplomatic course.

The key line, of course, is “without precondition.” Now, every world leader, including Bush, is willing to meet with any other world leader, including the aforemention rogues gallery, if the right conditions are met. Were Castro willing to announce his abdication, or were Kim Jong Il willing to de-militarize, they could both win a White House invitation tomorrow. In fact, a hallmark of the Bush administration has been to lay out such stringent conditions on any diplomacy that it renders it all but impossible, thereby creating a rhetorical justification for unilateral action. Obama wants to draw a sharp contrast, and does so.

COOPER: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy. And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be. (APPLAUSE)

COOPER: Senator Edwards, would you meet with Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il?

EDWARDS: Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton’s right though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting’s not going to be used for propaganda purposes, will not be used to just beat down the United States of America in the world community. But I think this is just a piece of a bigger question, which is, what do we actually do? What should the president of the United States do to restore America’s moral leadership in the world. It’s not enough just to lead with bad leaders. In addition to that, the world needs to hear from the president of the United States about who we are, what it is we represent.

Clinton (with Edwards tagging along for the ride) does two important things with her answer. First, she draws a contrast between her and Obama. This is the well-reported story, she trumpets her White House (albeit East Wing) experience vs. his youthful inexperience, which when cast as naive, becomes dangerous rather than refreshing and undermines Obama’s campaign mantra of sound judgment. Second, though, notice how she shifts the question to make such an answer possible. Clinton says that she will not promise to meet anyone without some sort of positive deal (negotiated at lower levels) is in place. On the one hand, such is the case–this is how Presidents have historically used the power of the office and the power of a Presidential visit, as a reward for making a deal with the US. On the other hand….

Obama never “promised” to meet with anyone. He said he’d be willing to meet with them, and that he’d be willing to set up such a meeting without a laundry list of preconditions. This does not necessarily imply that he would actually meet with them, let alone become some propaganda on Hugo Chavez’s behalf (do you really think Chavez or Ahmadinejad wants to meet with the American President? It could hurt them as much as us.) Obviously, the President of the United States doesn’t just drop by Fidel’s place for coffee. Obviously, there’s the prep work that Clinton spoke of. But, notice how Edwards and Clinton then take the opportunity to back Obama’s main point–that the current Administration has ignored diplomacy, and in doing so has weakened American’s global leadership.

Moreover, and here’s where I think Obama is in fact justified in his position, Clinton says that she wants to know the “way forward” before she meets with these types of world leaders. Typically, that’s how most high-level meetings happen. But, it also displays a certain degree of foreign policy establishment conservatism (with a small c, as in slow to change). As the questioner points out, bold diplomacy such as Sadat going to Jerusalem or Reagan meeting Gorbachev requires meetings between heads of state without preconditions. It is sometimes the fact that diplomats, operating in a standard policy framework, can’t see a way forward, and need a jump start from an involved President personally willing to invest credibility to move an international reconciliation forward. Could there have been a Camp David Accords without Sadat taking charge and making such a bold statement? If he had left it to his foreign ministry to work out all the details before he took his trip, would the trip ever have been made?

The point is this. Clinton’s answer is a good one, and plays to her real strength as a candidate: 8 years of presidential-level experience in the White House, and a sense that she is a real leader fully capable of making the right decisions for the nation on tough choices. It also knocks her opponent down a peg, attacking what he is trying to play up as his key strength–judgment over experience–by casting him as naive.

However, Obama’s answer does not deserve all the bad press its getting. Its a good response, a fresh response, and reflects an inherent dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration’s approach to foreign policy–especially Iraq. It is in fact rather responsible to offer to talk to Iran, despite our obvious historical and policy differences, in order to make sense of the future of Iraq. Indeed, the very problem with Iraq is that no one has a clue “what the way forward would be” and Obama’s alternative is to suggest that perhaps talking with the Iranians might help improve the situation. Its a reasonable alternative and legitimate policy criticism of the Bush Administration.


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