Jacob Heilbrunn

The Constitution Project's Vital Terrorism and Torture Report

Jacob Heilbrunn

With the terror attack in Boston, the debate about how to deal with the perpetrators (or perpetrator), whether domestic or foreign, is likely to acquire a new virulence. As terrible as the blasts in Boston are they pale in comparison to 9/11 or the threat of a nuclear detonation in a major American city. One of the debates that has roiled America is the issue of whether or not torture is an efficacious and necessary measure to combat terrorist acts.

Now a new report issued by the Constitution Project that appears today says that what occurred after September 11 was not only unprecedented, but also completely unjustified. I have not yet read the report, but judging by the excerpts that appear in the New York Times, it sounds wholly sensible. Read in the context of Russia's response to the Magnitsky Act, which included banning the authors of torture such as John Yoo from setting foot in the Russian motherland (a move that he seems to be taking in stride), it provides a further reminder of the degradation left behind by the George W. Bush administration, which claimed to be advancing democracy while acting undemocratically. The point would seem to be simple: you can't purport to stand for human rights abroad even as you systematically violate them. This legacy continues to haunt the CIA, which was suborned into acting illegally and whose new chief, John Brennan, now claims he can't really remember with any degree of exactitude what he did or did not witness during the Bush years.

What is novel about the Constitution Project's report is that it was headed by Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, and James R. Jones, a Democrat. It flatly states that America engaged in torture. The report notes that "as long as the debate continues, so too does the possiblity that the United States could again engage in torture." The report also suggests that the use of torture was analogous to one of the darkest passages in America history, the detention of Japanese Americans after World War II. "What was once generally taken to be understandable and justifiable behavior can later become a case of historical regret," the Times says the report concludes. There may be some truth to this.

But the detention of the Japanese Americans also had economic as well as racial motives—in California growers were eager to confiscate their farms, which they did. In both cases, however, it would be mistaken to exculpate officials at the time. There were protests in the Roosevelt administration and there were warning voices at the time in the Bush administration as well. It was high-ranking officials (John McCloy, the John Yoo of his day, in the then War Department) and vice president Dick Cheney and his neocon coterie who pushed through malignant policies that they claimed would help protect Americans even as they subverted constitutional liberties. It also seems clear that President Bush was not always aware of what was taking place in his name, as Barton Gellman's Angler, among other books, has revealed.

Where does President Obama fit into this tawdry saga? He has essentially held his nose when it comes to the torture issue. He stated at the outset that he wanted to "look forward." This was an evasion of his responsibilities. How can you know where you are without knowing where you came from?  So thanks to Obama's pusillanimity there has never been a national commission to study what went wrong

The lawless lawmakers, the proponents of torture—the Addingtons, Yoos, and Cheneys—will doubtless continue to asseverate that they acted, and would always advocate acting, to preserve American freedoms by endorsing the methods they employed to try and extort confessions and information from the bad guys. But apart from the question whether torture even elicits reliable information, it is staggering that they would conclude that it takes the Stalinist conveyor belt system of torture to safeguard the country. Perhaps the Constitution Project's timely report will help preserve us in the future from the fanatics who jeopardize what they purport to protect.

TopicsHuman Rights

Is Dick Cheney Right About North Korea?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Former vice president Dick Cheney has reemerged periodically from wherever he's holed up these days to snarl at the media or complain about the Obama administration's laxity when it comes to national security. Cheney's take invariably seems to be that he did it better and more successfully. Yet his actual record of prognostication over the past decade has, of course, been spectacularly wrong. This is the fellow, after all, who instructed the American public that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes" just as it was really getting under way, not to mention the flowers he predicted would be showered upon invading American soldiers once they liberated Baghdad, as though it would be a rerun of Paris in 1945, when an entire city went on something of a bender after being freed from Nazi tyranny. Cheney, you could say, is a master at specializing in apocalyptic predictions that are aimed at frightening everyone into doing what he wants, whether or not the actual facts merit it. Then, when the rubble starts to rain down on everyone, he says it's only because his prescriptions weren't followed closely enough.

And yet when it comes to North Korea Cheney may be on to something in telling GOP congressional leaders this week, in a phrase first given prominence by George H.W. Bush, that "we're in deep doo-doo." Cheney's point—and it is not one that can be dismissed—is that we simply don't have a clear handle on what the North's new dear—and very young—leader actually wants or intends, or, to put it another way, thinks he desires. Is he simply trying to establish his bona fides in a Stalinist system? Is he attempting to upset South Korea's economy? Or is he aiming for economic concessions from North Korea's adversaries? Or does he actually mean what he says? Is he, in fact, preparing for war with the South?

In the New York Times, Andrei Lankov, who has written a book about the North, offers what might be termed the cool and sophisticated argument. He treats everything North Korea is doing with a big yawn. Been there and done that is his take. And so he maintains that Kim Jong-un is merely taking the world for a ride on his own giant ego trip. Far from being a fruitcake, the young lad in charge of the Hermit Kingdom, we are told, is unlikely to want to "commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy." Fair enough.

But not dispositive. Cheney is correct to suggest that we simply can't assume that North Korea will behave rationally. Rep. Steve Southerland says that Cheney observed,

Here's a young guy we don't know very much about – have very little intel on him, so we just need to make sure that we don't assume why he's doing what he's doing because he could be doing what he's doing for any number of reasons.

If the North does miscalculate and launch a serious strike on South Korea, President Obama would presumably not hesitate to authorize a devastating strike on the North's nuclear facilities. A full-blown war could result, but only if China was prepared to cut the North loose, which is wholly improbable. The optimal scenario for all the parties is, of course, to muddle through and hope that the North's bluster is exactly that and no more.

For now, North Korea is angering its neighbors, including Japan, which has installed Patriot anti-missile battery systems in Tokyo. It's possible that debris from a North Korean missile launch may rain upon Japan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that North Korea is "skating very close to a dangerous line." As always, the only predictable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. But that is no reason to become habituated to the North's posturing. Ramping up the military response to the North's provocations and trying to work more closely with China to curb them are the right responses.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsNorth Korea

The Lady's Not For Turning: the Thatcher Legacy

Jacob Heilbrunn

Few figures in twentieth century history aroused as much enmity and admiration as Margaret Thatcher, who died at the age of 87. "The Lady's not for turning," she declared, and, for the most part, she was not. The high points of her tenure were breaking the 1984 National Union of Miners strike, winning the 1982 Falklands War, keeping Britain out of the Euro, and, not least, recognizing that Mikhail Gorbachev was the real thing. But then again so was the Iron Lady who snubbed the British establishment—the ultimate boys club—to climb to the top of the greasy pole.

When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, Britain—a swan's nest in an English lake, as Shakespeare put it—had been stripped of its empire, its self-confidence. Thatcher—and Thatcherism—sought to revive what could be revived. To a large extent, Thatcher set the stage for the boom that took place under Tony Blair, though the current downturns that England is experiencing have reemboldened her critics to charge that her legacy was toxic. But Thatcher didn't just have beliefs. She had convictions. In his important new book Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl notes that Thatcher devoted great energy to studying classic texts about economics, that she loved to debate ideas, that she would, more often than not, wipe the floor with her opponents, and that it was "the force of her drive to realize her radically conservative ideas that made her unique."

She was not the greatest prime minister in British history, a claim that even she, who had fallen prey to hubris in her final years at Downing Street, probably would not have advanced. But she was the first great Tory Prime Minister since the incomparable Winston Churchill and certainly one of the most formidable. By the mid-1970s, Great Britain had become a calamitous mess. England, once a byword for gleaming efficiency, had become sunk in sloth and ennui. The miners didn't mine. Teachers didn't teach. Workers didn't work—unemployment had reached 2 million. Manufacturing output had plummeted by about 16 percent in 1980 alone.

Into this morass strode one Margaret Thatcher, determined to restore not only economic liberty but also traditional morals. Her determination impressed even her most ardent detractors. In his memoir, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens recounted that in the late 1970s, the "worst of 'Thatcherism,' as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right." The tough economic medicine she administered—cuts in public spending—unsettled the Tory wets. Rather than try to placate them, Thatcher mocked them at a 1980 Tory party conference, where she told them they could cut and run, but she would not.

What might she have been right about? For one thing, she went about selling state-owned enterprises such as the British Gas and British Telecom. She refused to accept that the state, and the state alone, had a responsiblity to shore up faltering businesses or to keep the population on the dole permanently. Instead, she stressed thrift and hard work. She was also interested in ideas—ideas about private enterprise, liberty, morality. She refused to accept that Great Britain was a spent force. Instead, she argued that it could become great again, partly by maintaining its distance from the European Union.

In the long sweep of the twentieth century, she, together with Ronald Reagan, exercised a decisive impact on the fortunes of the West, both in domestic and foreign policy. When it counted, she also bucked up George H.W. Bush, telling him not to "go wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. Thatcher is perhaps best-known in America as a cold warrior who was vigilant in warning about the Soviet threat. But she was also the first to declare that she could "do business" with Mikhail Gorbachev, then a young, by Kremlin standards, reformer who ended up demolishing the Soviet system of government. One of the few to pick up on the centrality of Thatcher's stance toward the Soviet Union is the Los Angeles Times, which notes "it was Thatcher who heralded his rise as more than another new face on a failed ideology. She urged President Reagan to give Gorbachev a chance to make good on pledges to stand down from the nuclear face-off and work for a less confrontational relationship between the superpowers." Together with Reagan, she helped to wind down the cold war that both had done much to fight. It was a great act of statesmanship.

So was a Thatcher a realist? No doubt her great mistake after the Cold War ended was to oppose German reunification. Here she was stuck in the past. But once again, her concerns were rooted in a balance of power. She had fought to preserve Britain's reputation and credibility and honor in the Falklands War. So, too, she tried in vain to persuade France's Francois Mitterand that they should together oppose the rise of a new and united Germany. She failed. She never seems to have lost her antipathy toward the Germans, the notion that they were itching for a fresh try to subjugate the continent and England. She was wrong.

But her overall record suggests a fairly pragmatic record when it comes to foreign policy. Thatcher left an indelible mark not only on England, but also the rest of the world. Perhaps her true proteges now reside in Beijing, where a kind of unbridled capitalism reigns that even she could never have reintroduced to the United Kingdom. Thatcher's economic legacy is once again the subject of debate, particularly in England, where the battles over the implications of her tenure have never really ended. But no one can dispute that she made the free market, not socialism, the center of that dispute. Thatcher may be gone, but not Thatcherism.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsUnited Kingdom

Who Says North Korea Is Bluffing?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Why is everyone assuming that the latest supreme leader of the Hermit Kingdom is bluffing when he says he intends to settle accounts with South Korea and the United States? Apart from Victor Cha in Foreign Policy, the consensus seems to be that Kim Jong Un doesn't really mean anything he says. But maybe he does. Maybe he's spoiling for a fight. As he orders rockets to be readied for attack, the Dear Leader may be out to show that he's not so dear and that he has other things on his mind than hanging out with the eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman.

It's not like anyone in North Korea could really stop him. The Generals would be hard-pressed to countermand an order to attack. If he lobs some short-range missiles at South Korea, how would America and its ally react? Would they stand by passively? Or would they respond and risk all-out war? In a situation like this the fruitcake has the upper hand, and Kim may just be delusional enough to go for it. The reckless gamblers, the Hitlers who try to overthrow the board and dice of international relations, don't show up that often. Before Hitler it was Napoleon who tried to thwart the natural balance of power. He failed. But it didn't stop either of them from trying. Perhaps young Kim is operating on the same faulty logic, though Victor Cha suggests that it would be premature to conclude that he is insane. Though anyone who runs North Korea, which amounts to a massive concentration camp, must, by definition, have a somewhat different grasp on reality than most other leaders.

Whether or not he actually wants a conflict, the Korean imbroglio also suggests that, like the man searching for his keys under the streetlamp because that's where it's bright, most American analysts have been focusing too much on Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and not enough on the country that already possesses them. It's an interesting irony that Iran hasn't really made the kind of threats against America that North Korea has uttered against Washington, but it has been Iran, by and large, that has been the dominant topic of debate over the past year. Perhaps Kim is only seeking to rectify the imbalance by drawing attention to himself. Perhaps he's just in a snit because the U.S. sent several B-2 bombers over the Korean peninsula to drop dummy munitions.

But given the stakes, the U.S. is doing all the right things. Contrary to the prescriptions of some self-described realists, it would be wholly unrealistic for Washington to abscond from the area. It would be deserting an ally. It would effectively cede a sphere of influence to China. And it would be tantamount to deserting Japan, which would be bound to develop, almost overnight, its own atomic weapons. This is not a prospect that Washington could contemplate with indifference.

Still, the country that probably has the most to lose isn't America. It's China. The sight of America being further drawn into the region is anathema to it. But already President Obama is beefing up American defenses against North Korea. Maybe Kim figures time is not on his side. Better to take a swipe at South Korea and the imperialist running dogs sooner rather than later. He is, after all, running a country that doesn't have all that much to lose. The scary prospect isn't that North Korea is playing a game. It's that it might not be playing.

Image: Flickr/(stephan). CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The CIA's Moral Abyss

Jacob Heilbrunn

The CIA is once again staring into a moral abyss. Its new head John Brennan, who I argued should not have been confirmed to run the agency, is now confronted with a dilemma, as the Washington Post reports, about whether or not to approve the appointment of a senior official who was deeply involved in the torture program of suspected terrorists and who, moreover, sanctioned the destruction of dozens of torture tapes to head the clandestine service. The brouhaha further suggests why Brennan was a dubious selection on President Obama's part.

What Obama—and, by extension, the CIA—faces, or is refusing to face, is the corrupting legacy of the Bush administration. As a new documentary about vice president Dick Cheney shows, he remains unrepentant about his destructive role in the administration, claiming that he had "a job to do." What he did, however, was pull off a con job on both the president and the rest of America. He blustered and prevaricated his way to war in Iraq, attempting to scare the bejeezus out of ordinary Americans and inflating the terrorist threat out of all significance to its true proportions. In dealing with this legacy, Obama has stumbled.

There can be no doubting that Brennan has performed ably for Obama and has, according to numerous reports, pushed for a codification of drone policy. To deem him a villain would be stretching matters. But as someone who truckled to Bush and Cheney and who, despite his professions of an inability to recall all of his actions, appears to have been involved in some of the more unsavory interrogation practices not only countenanced, but actively promoted by the Bush camarilla, he is not an official who has the standing to rehabilitate the CIA.

The woman whom Brennan is considering to run the clandestine service apparently has an extremely accomplished record when it comes to her overall career. But Brennan is hedging his bets. The Post says the official "was also heavily involved in the interrogation program at the beginning and for the first couple of years." Brennan has convened a board composed of three former officials to "evaluate" several candidates. This is unprecedented. It testifies to Brennan's irresolution and desperation, for, as the Post notes,

The move has led to speculation that Brennan is seeking political cover for a decision made more difficult by the re-emergence of the interrogation controversy and the acting chief’s ties to that program.

But what does it say about his young tenure as CIA head that he doesn't even feel comfortable making his own pick to run the clandestine service? Does he really want someone who was, in effect, the torturer-in-chief to be promoted to a position of high responsibility?

The fundamental problem is that the CIA needs to be shielded better from the whims of presidents. Contrary to its image, at least in the past, of a rogue agency, the CIA has, more often than not, been the plaything of presidents. Its reputation suffered a body blow in the mid-1970s when reports of its ineptitude and assassination plots surfaced during the Church committee hearings, but it was the Kennedy brothers who had urged it to devise various schemes to overthrow the Castro regime. The George W. Bush administration once again soiled the reputation of the CIA by involving it in torture interrogations. Ambitious officials such as Brennan were only too happy to cater to the demands of their superiors rather than consulting their consciences.

Obama could have cleaned house. Instead, he shunned conflict and failed to repair the agency's moral deficit. Now the CIA is enmeshed in a fresh crisis that is a direct product of the Bush-Cheney era that Obama refuses to confront.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Does Obama Get Too Many Presidential Perks?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is President Obama getting too perky? That seems to be the latest charge directed at him from the right. Michele Bachmann, speaking at CPAC, thundered that Obama is living high off taxpayer money, complaining that he has five chefs on Air Force One and even a presidential dogwalker. Confronted by CNN, however, she punted, blathering on about how the real issue was that Obama messed up in Benghazi. Bill O'Reilly has gone on to bash Bachmann and others--"cut the nonsense"--for failing to focus on the real issue--Obama's handling of the economy.

The source of these allegations is one Robert Keith Grey, a staffer from the Eisenhower administration, who introduces himself as "Bob." He's the author of a book called Presidential Perks Gone Royal: Your Tax Dollars Are Being Used For Obama's Re-election. He's an old codger and doesn't make the best case for himself in this video. Bob, if I may use the informal address, wants to appear folksy, but doesn't appear entirely confident of his case. He strains somewhat for effect--he even trots out the presidential dog walker story, claiming that someone on Obama's staff is paid over $100,000 to keep his cuddly Portuguese water dog named Bo exercising. Not so. It appears that the White House gardener takes him for a stroll. As has always been the case. It's also the case that Bo was the star of the 2012 presidential Christmas card. Did the White House waste too much money snapping his photo?

The problem that Grey has is that he is trying to pin the blame on Obama. That's unfair. But he actually could have made a broader case. The real problem--an ongoing problem--is that we treat presidents like royalty. The British thinker Walter Bagehot divided democratic government into dignified and efficient branches. The monarchy represents the country; the prime minister runs it. In America we don't make that distinction. The presidency is both ceremonial and governing. So the presidency is treated with reverence, which isn't necessarily the way the founders wanted it.

The cold war has greatly exacerbated this tendency. With the emergence of the atomic bomb, the president really does have life or death power over human civilization. So his importance has been further magnified.

All this translates into the kind of perks that Grey is talking about--an enormous White House staff, presidential limos, helicopters, airplanes. The president gets to live like a potentate. Given the stresses of the job, you could say that it's small potatoes next to what's demanded of a president.

But Grey is on to something. The more the president is treated like a monarch, the greater the powers he (or, eventually, a she) will assume. This was surely the case in the recent flap about drones. Senator Rand Paul drew a clear distinction between our democratic form of government and a despotism. The president, he noted, doesn't have the authority, will-nilly, to aim a drone at whomever he deems a threat inside American borders. That would turn him into judge, jury, and executioner.

This isn't the debate that Grey is trying to promote. Instead, by raising a host of picayune objections aimed at depicting Obama as living larger than he deserves, Grey and his ilk are further debasing American democracy. If the right wants to attack Obama, it will have to do better than to pick on his dog. Doggone it!

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Europe, Russia, and the Mess in Cyprus

Jacob Heilbrunn

If you were a stolid burgher living in prosperous Bavaria who had conscientiously salted away his savings over the past several decades, would you really want to hand them over to Greece, Portugal, and even Cyprus? That's the conundrum facing the technocrats who are striving mightily in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Berlin to hold together the rickety contraption known as Europe. Now that Cyprus--which is more like a city-state than a country, with its one million inhabitants--needs a big bailout, the unresolved tensions of the European unification are becoming increasingly acute.

It seems like every few months Europe confronts a fresh crisis and then muddles through. But this time the Cypriots are putting up more resistance than usual to the financial engineers in Brussels and Berlin. What's more, there's a Russian connection that is also causing more than a bit of consternation among the Eurocrats. Cyprus is, at bottom, an old-fashioned kind of place--a country where you can park billions earned licitly or illicitly and figure, with a pretty high degree of confidence, that no pesky inspectors from the international community will be able to snoop around and discover the amount stashed away. Now that Switzerland is getting more transparent, Cyprus looks to be one of the last redoubts of a great banking tradition.

Which is why Russian president Vladimir Putin is having conniptions over the notion that a tax will be imposed upon deposit holders in Cyprus as an integral part of the bailout package. He's making the uncomfortable discoverey that Russia, too, is not immune to the European banking crisis. Putin says it would be "unfair, unprofessional, and dangerous" to impose a 9.9 percent tax on accounts worth over 100,000 Euros--a move that could cost Russian investors billions. For all we know, Putin himself may have stashed away a goodly amount in Cyprus. There is a solution: he could simply have Russia back its own bailout and buy Cyprus outright, turning it into an appanage of Russia. This would take Brussels off the hook and provide Moscow with a convenient banking station abroad. Putin wouldn't have to demand that the Cypriots learn to read and write Cyrillic, but he would certainly be within his rights to have the flag of the Russian federation flying over the island nation. In addition, Russian suzerainty would be another way of taking a swipe at the Cyprus-loving British, with whom Putin has frosty relations. 

For now, it looks as though Cyprus and its 56-member parliament will reject the bailout package sanctioned by Brussels. The plucky Cypriots don't want to pay what amounts to a tax on their own debt. Who can blame them?

But at the same time, it's more than a little peculiar that Europe would be so eager to rescue Cyprus. As the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung points out, Cyprus is of negligible importance. It accounts for 1.2 percent of the European Union's economic activity. Whether a contagion would really spread from Cyprus to the rest of Europe that afflicts its banking system is dubious. Berlin, for one, would probably be better off letting Cyprus sink.

At the moment, Cyprus is on bank holiday. But the moment its bank do open, the chance of a run on them is dauntingly high. There is one plus to the crisis. At least the chance of renewed conflict between Greece and Turkey over the nation is low. Greece doesn't have the money to go to war, Turkey is preoccupied with Syria, and, by now, who other than Russia would really want to possess it?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsGlobalization RegionsGermany

Wacko Birds And Republican Foreign Policy

Jacob Heilbrunn

Senator John McCain has apparently become a foreign policy ornithologist. He recently dismissed his fellow Senator Rand Paul and others who share his views on a less expansive American foreign policy as "wacko birds," a term, one might think, that would most appropriately apply to the woman from the frozen wasteland of Alaska that he selected to become his vice-presidential candidate. Paul's feathers appear to be unruffled. At the CPAC convention, Paul, fresh off his drones filibuster triumph, which earned him kudos on both the left and right, gave as good as he got, suggesting that McCain and his chum Senator Lindsey Graham are mossbacks, relics of a past era.

These verbal fusillades have prompted the media to conclude that a civil war is taking place in the GOP on foreign affairs (though the current attacks look more like preliminary shots than all-out combat). A case in point is an article about the GOP by Michael D. Shearer in today's New York Times. Shearer correctly suggests that the GOP is starting to revisit the question of whether America should intervene abroad or mind its own knitting. He quotes Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass (the author of a new book called Foreign Policy Begins At Home), who appears to approve of some aspects of Paul's approach to foreign affairs and worry about others. He also zeroes in on the views of neocons such as Dan Senor who profess to be worried about the prospect of a Pauline conversion in the GOP. Shearer's conclusion:

The question for the Republican Party is whether Mr. Paul and his followers will emerge as a vocal enough part of the Republican electorate to reshape the party’s foreign policy without taking it back to the strictly isolationist approach.

It's true that the GOP was strictly isolationist before World War II. At the outset of the cold war, however, the GOP was more interested in Asia than Europe. To call it isolationist is a bit of a misnomer. Still, the point is clear. Paul does represent a challenge to both the realist-internationalist and neocon wings of the GOP. Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush were realists rather than neocons. But that didn't mean that they scanted the importance of international relations. Quite the contrary.

But it's premature to concludes exactly where Paul will land in these debates. For one thing, it's hard to believe that a truly isolationist platform would have much electoral appeal beyond a hardened rump of libertarians. The significant thing is that, after about a decade of neocon suzerainty, the GOP is recognizing, however belatedly, that it needs to entertain ideas other than the reflexive interventionism championed by the old guard. Once a realist, McCain, for reasons known only to himself, has turned himself into the handmaiden of the neocons. These days he doesn't espouse realism, but mindlessness. It is good to see him get his comeuppance. Wacko bird indeed.

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

The Egregious Joe Lieberman Heads to AEI

Jacob Heilbrunn

There is no shortage of windbags in the Senate. Nor is there ever likely to be one. But among his colleagues, Joseph Lieberman has stood out in out in recent years for his particularly grating blend of pomposity and hubris, prattle and sanctimony. Seldom has a Senator who has been wrong so often on foreign affairs trumpeted his alleged superiority more loudly. Whether it is Iraq or Syria or Georgia, the orgulous Lieberman seems never to have met a war he wouldn't like to fight. He is a champion about whining that his extreme views don't meet with greater approbation in the Democratic party.

Now Lieberman is heading to the American Enterprise Institute to co-chair a group with former Senator Jon Kyl called the American Internationalism Project. It is supposed to be bipartisan and set a new agenda for foreign policy. Lieberman and Kyl should spare themselves the work of assembling their little group. The conclusions are already preordained. Far from being bipartisan, it would require super-resolution microscopy to discover any real distinctions between Lieberman's and Kyl's views, not to mention AEI's. Lieberman, a preeminent neocon, should feel right at home there. There is nothing remotely bipartisan about his views. They are those of an unreconstructed neocon. His tenure at AEI will allow him to continue pontificate to a sympathetic audience about why he regards even mild opposition to his intransigent bellicosity as benighted obstructionism.

Lieberman's most egregious mistake, of course, has been not only to endorse the Iraq War, but also never, ever to acknowledge that it was a calamitous mistake, one that has stoked anti-Americanism around the globe, tarnished America's image, and led to the senseless deaths of thousands of American soldiers, who were sent improperly equipped into battle and became mired in fighting for...what?

No, Lieberman serenely overlooks what went wrong. Instead, when it comes to explaining the war, Lieberman's stance has been pure Cheneyism. Here he is engaging in obfuscation and denial in 2011 on the "Morning Joe" program:

Saddam was threatening the stability of the entire region. He’d shown that by his actions. I believe that the evidence is very clear that he was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Obviously we don’t have evidence that he had a big program. But the most official and comprehensive report show that’s true. He was also, the evidence shows, beginning really tactically to support the terrorist movements that had attack us on 9/11 and today, to make a long story short, instead of a brutally repressive dictator in Iraq, we’ve got a government that was elected, that’s self-governing and the country is self-defending. By the end of this year, we’re going to have most of our troops out of there. I think that’s had a major effect on the entire region. Iraq is now the most democratic country in the Arab world. so, yes, I think it was the right thing to do. Terrible cost we paid in life and treasure, but ultimately I think the right decision.

Obviously? The Bush administration claimed that it was patently clear. Didn't have evidence that he had a big program? There was no evidence that he had any program. Nor was there any that he was supporting outside terrorist groupings. Far from being friendly to America, Iraq's democratic government has been cozying up to Iran. Lieberman is purveying delusions, not realism. Like many neocon proponents of the war, however, he has refused to examine it forthrightly. Instead, he is purveying self-exculpatory ideological pap. The mind reels at the notion that he would now have the temerity to instruct America on its future course in foreign affairs. His counsel should be shunned, not followed.

Still, it is unlikely that he will retain much influence. Even if he commands some lingering stature in Washington, the correlation of forces, to use the old Soviet term, is shifting inexorably against him. President Obama, compelled by mounting budget deficits and the hideous costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is scaling back America's commitments abroad. Meanwhile, the GOP is starting to begin a painful reassessment of its own foreign policy stances that have, again and again, led to disaster. It seems safe to conclude that Liebermanism—the pose of ostentatiously pretending to be a beleaguered moderate internationalist while endorsing the most retrograde Republican foreign policy stances—is reaching its terminus.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastian Zwez. CC BY 3.0.

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Rand Paul Is Right To Filibuster John Brennan

Jacob Heilbrunn

Senator Rand Paul is taking the kind of gutsy move that is almost never seen in today's GOP, which has routinely elevated militarism above common sense. His decision to filibuster John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA is right-on. Brennan is a slippery character who has oiled his way up both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. His answers about his knowledge of CIA torture during the Bush administration were evasive and unconvincing and his nomination should never be approved. Now Paul is calling him out on the administration's secret drone war policy in particular and its contempt for civil liberties in general.

To his credit, Paul is doing it the right way. The Senate has gotten lazy about filibusters, which is to say that Senators aren't required to talk continuously to maintain one. This is a reform that Sen. Harry Reid should have insisted on in his negotiations with the GOP. He didn't. Paul, however, says "I will speak until I can no longer speak." That Americans, he said, could be assassinated by a drone sitting in a cafe in San Francisco is an "abomination."  Strong words. But they are also merited. Paul's defense of the constitutional rights of Americans is stirring and admirable.

The kinds of questions that Paul is raising about the drone program have not been aired enough on the floor of the Senate. Who is to say that the drone program won't rebound on America? Will our leaders be targeted by them? Will drones be used in American airspace to kill civilians? Isn't the cost of drones higher than the reward? Are we simply stirring up more enmity in the Muslim world by wantonly killing civilians as well as terrorists?

It's easy to see why the antiseptic drone program appeals to American officials. As Andrew J. Bacevich has argued, Americans have become enamoured of air power and the notion that warfare can be conducted like a video game. The drone program is the quintessence of that ethos. With a push of a button, officials can take out someone that they believe is plotting against America. But the easiness with which they are making these decisions is redolent of former vice Dick Cheney's contempt for democratic procedures. As Maureen Dowd points out in today's New York Times, the hideous Cheney doesn't even maintain the fiction in the new documentary about him called The World According to Dick Cheney that Bush was in charge during the first term. In the Obama White House it's clear that the president, who has constructed a national security team that he tightly controls, is in charge. But the secrecy that surrounds the drone program suggests that the Obama White House may not be all that different from the Bush one when it comes to the war on terrorism.

So far, Obama has pretty much gotten a pass. But the Brennan nomination suggests the extent to which Obama has become entangled in a secretive world that may be better at protecting its own perks and prerogatives than American security. "Where is the Barack Obama of 2007," Rand Paul pointedly asked. He is setting himself up, Paul said, to become "executioner-in-chief." Obama may be undermining the very liberties he purports to be protecting. No one person, Paul noted, should, willy-nilly, have the power to order the death of an American citizen.

Paul's protest will probably prove to be an ineffective one, at least when it comes to blocking Brennan. But he is laying down a marker as an independent-minded conservative who will not simply go along with the claustrophobic party line on national security. "If there were an ounce of courage in this body, I would be joined by many other senators. Are we going to give up our rights to politicians?" For an answer to that question perhaps he need look no further than the cover of the current National Interest, which features a cover story by his fellow Senator James Webb on congressional abdication over foreign affairs.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States