The Arrival of Domestic Drones

The Buzz

A noteworthy editorial in the New York Times today claims that the Orwellian future of drones in America is much closer than we think:

Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to quickly select six domestic sites to test the safety of drones, which can vary in size from remote-controlled planes as big as jetliners to camera-toting hoverers called Nano Hummingbirds that weigh 19 grams.

The drone go-ahead, signed in February by President Obama in the F.A.A. reauthorization law, envisions a $5 billion-plus industry of camera drones being used for all sorts of purposes from real estate advertising to crop dusting to environmental monitoring and police work.

It seems there are myriad potential privacy issues that could accompany the arrival of these domestic drones. While these drones do have the potential for good, the rate of technological advance always seems to outpace our preparedness for booming technologies. The ACLU has already voiced concern that these drones could invite "pervasive surveillance" of private citizens.

TopicsTechnology RegionsUnited States

The Wall Street Journal Goes to War Against Chuck Hagel

Jacob Heilbrunn

One of the most significant lessons of the Cold War is that American toughness led to victory over the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan's defense buildup, coupled with his forthright talk about the heinous nature of communism, accelerated the collapse of the evil empire. The example of Reagan teaches that American presidents who refuse to treat with foreign adversaries and insist upon bringing about change will carry the day. Anything less savors of appeasement, of truckling to bad guys around the globe who will pounce upon any sign of American lack of resolve.

At least this is the line that neocons continue to champion, and the latest Wall Street Journal editorial on Chuck Hagel and John F. Kerry beautifully reflects it. The editorial is entitled "A Flock of Doves." Essentially, it bemoans that Hagel and Kerry are unlikely to lead America into further wars. Tough talk is treated as tantamount to a wise foreign policy. Really, it's as easy as that.

Which is why the Journal complains that Kerry's entire career has been that of a wussbag who, more or less, cowers at his own shadow:

His instincts have typically been to oppose the use of American force abroad and to engage adversaries as if they share our own peaceful goals. Like Joe Biden, he resisted Ronald Reagan's policies that ended the Cold War, opposed the Gulf War in 1990, supported the Iraq war but then changed his mind, and opposed the 2007 surge that salvaged Iraq.

If Kerry is bad news, the paper suggests, then Hagel is worse, much worse. The former Senator of Nebraska is, of all things, George McGovern redux. Now it is true that Hagel, like McGovern, actually fought in a major conflict—McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II, while Hagel saw combat in Vietnam. To be sure, the Journal acknowledges Hagel's bravery, but in a rather backhanded way: "Though he fought he admirably in Vietnam (and has two Purple Hearts),"—did anyone, by the way, fight unadmirably in Vietnam?—"Mr. Hagel's security views have more closely resembled a George McGovern strain of Republicanism." It goes on to accuse him of "neo-isolationism," a rather elastic term in the hands of the Journal and its neoconservative confreres.

Does it really amount to isolationism to advocate, as does Hagel, talking to Iran? The truth is that a truly isolationist policy would consist of espousing that America wash its hands of Iran, distance itself from Israel, and declare that none of the messes in the Middle East are our problem. That does not appear to be what Hagel has said. Rather, he opposed sanctions on Tehran because he believed they would impede a path to resolving peacefully the tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.  Call it naive, foolish, or misguided. But you can't dub this "neo-isolationist."

The Journal also complains about Hagel's stances toward Russia. Once again it sees him as the plaything of Vladimir Putin. Hagel, it warns, "has been a notable critic of missile defenses and he wanted to halt their development as long as Russia is opposed." But there are many reasons to approach the idea of a missile defense with caution—it makes little sense to antagonize Russia needlessly and any system would likely be prohibitively costly. The grumbling about Russia savors more of nostalgia for the Cold War than a rational approach toward a country that is neither friend nor foe. Anyway, Russia has enough internal problems without trying to embark on the kind of role as international troublemaker that those pining for a Russia threat envision.

What the Journal really seems to fear, however, is that Hagel would emasculate the military budget. It claims that he would provide cover for President Obama to "shrink the Pentagon so he can finance ObamaCare and other entitlements." But after a decade of ballooning spending, the Pentagon should be shrunk, and the shrinkage Obama is contemplating is hardly that radical. In fact, Obama is set to spend about $8 trillion on defense in the coming decade. Put otherwise, one-sixth of the annual federal budget will be spent on defense.

The Hagel brouhaha, in short, is more interesting for what it says about his neocon detractors than anything that it says about him. They want to lay down another marker about what constitutes the boundaries of debate over foreign policy on Israel and Russia. Hagel's own record suggests that, by and large, he has got it right on the big questions facing America. Whether President Obama has the determination to stare down the motley crew of neocons who are trying to swiftboat Hagel for his forthright stands is an open question.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/PumpkinSky.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Number One Cabinet Position

Paul Pillar

Time was when the position of secretary of state was regarded as so important in the American political scheme of things that it was the best stepping-stone to the presidency. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth presidents of the United States had all been secretaries of state, with the last three of them moving directly from that job to the White House. When the last one in that series, John Quincy Adams, became president, the job that he gave to the presidential aspirant—Henry Clay—whose eventual support was critical in Adams winning the confusing election of 1824 was that of secretary of state.

Having such high political significance attached to this particular cabinet position was mainly a feature of the early decades of the republic. The only other secretaries of state who would later ascend to the presidency were Martin Van Buren (who besides being secretary of state under Andrew Jackson—the man who would defeat Adams in 1828—was also his political manager, second vice president, and successor) and James Buchanan (who was secretary under James Polk in the 1840s).  That pattern ended not so much because the job of secretary of state changed but rather because the process and politics of presidential selection changed.  Jackson's defeat of Adams marked the beginning of an era of modern politicking in which simple themes with popular resonance beat out brilliance and accomplishment, especially accomplishment in foreign affairs.  

Perhaps the job of secretary of state is nonetheless in the process of regaining a bit of its old political standing. John Kerry, whose confirmation as secretary of state seems highly likely, will never become president but has already been the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties. He has the most national and international political stature of anyone who was seriously considered to succeed Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself came close to being a national presidential nominee and is now one of the first names mentioned in the early betting on the election of 2016. Go back two predecessors before Clinton and you have Colin Powell, who would have made an excellent president and certainly was frequently mentioned as such, although he probably recognized that he did not have the traits of a good presidential candidate—which, unfortunately for us, are not the same as the traits of a good president. Three of the last four secretaries of state being presidential timber may be enough to be called a new pattern.

People who will support Kerry's nomination will have various reasons for doing so, including the Republicans who want to get Scott Brown back in the Senate. And of course there will be widely varying opinions about the policies he will initiate and execute as secretary. But the restoration of some of the political standing of the position of secretary of state has at least three advantages.

One, it tells the rest of the world that the United States considers its relations with the rest of the world to be important.

Two, it tells the American people that relations with the rest of the world are important.

Three, with the person in the highest councils of government having responsibility for foreign relations being someone of political stature and clout, this increases the chance that the foreign implications and repercussions of everything the United States does will be sufficiently taken into account before it does them. There is no guarantee this will happen—we should remember Powell's sad relationship with the White House during the George W. Bush administration—but the chance is greater than it otherwise would be. And this is important because U.S. interests are affected in significant ways by foreign repercussions and reactions to many things the United States does that are not ostensibly part of foreign policy, from homeland security measures to presidential speeches intended for domestic audiences.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas True.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Hagel and His Critics: Cuba Edition

The Buzz

In the latest entry in the battle over Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination for secretary of defense, the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday that Senator Marco Rubio “is threatening to place a hold” on Hagel should he be nominated. Interestingly, Rubio’s concerns have nothing to do with Israel, Iran or any of the other major concerns that have already been raised about Hagel. Instead, Rubio focuses on a totally different area: Cuba. The report quotes Rubio’s communications director, Alex Conant, who says:

Promoting democracy in Latin America is a priority for Sen. Rubio, and he’s put holds on other administration nominees over the issue. If President Obama were to nominate Sen. Hagel for a cabinet position, I’m sure we would have questions about Cuba positions.

Rubio’s opposition apparently stems from the fact that Hagel has previously said that “we have an outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy” on Cuba. Hagel has long been a critic of Washington’s embargo and a supporter of trade with Cuba.

Leave aside the fact that this is barely if at all relevant to the secretary of defense’s portfolio. There are at least a dozen other issues that are higher on the Pentagon’s priority list, and the White House and Congress are both far more powerful in shaping the future direction of U.S. policy toward Cuba. More important, if we do want to use this as a test of Hagel’s judgment, his position on Cuba is a reason to support his nomination, not oppose it. He’s totally right: our Cuba policy is an outdated relic of the Cold War, and there’s no reason why we should refuse to trade and engage diplomatically with Cuba when we simultaneously do so with any number of other autocracies. As Doug Bandow argued here at TNI last week, this policy has long since lost whatever utility it had, and it is past time to change it.

There is an old proverb that says that you can judge a man by his enemies. While we should perhaps not endorse this rule fully, it's certainly true that Hagel’s critics have only been making him look better and better.

TopicsBureaucracyDomestic PoliticsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsCubaUnited States

The Loneliness of John Boehner

Jacob Heilbrunn

Where does House speaker John Boehner go from here? It's time for him to resign his leadership post. Boehner staked his influence, his reputation—in short, his street cred—on the so-called "Plan B," which was supposed to shield everyone earning less than $1 million a year from a tax hike starting in 2013. It would have been a sensible stance for Republicans to adopt if they were interested in strengthening their bargaining position against President Obama, who came in at $400,000 a week ago. Instead, House Republicans revolted against their own leader and Boehner pulled the plan, which turned out to be no plan at all.

So what is the GOP planning next? Obama now holds almost all the cards. He has the Inaugural address coming up. He has the State of the Union coming up. And he has sweeping tax hikes coming up. The stock market is almost sure to plunge and Republican instransigence will be singled out as the culprit. Boehner exposed his own inability to lead when he essentially dumped the fiscal cliff problem on Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid's collective laps. But the blame for the fiasco should not really be laid at Boehner's doorstep. He is a victim of his own party. The Washington Post reports that Republican freshman Mike Kelly yelled into a microphone at an emergency meeting in a basement room at the Capitol, "Really, we can't support our speaker?" Apparently not. Republican consultant Craig Shirley told the Post that "The national GOP is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions."

This interpretation fits in well with Ronald Brownstein's observation that the Democrats are becoming increasingly unified, while the Republicans succumb to infighting:

The endgame over the fiscal cliff, like the first stirrings of debate about gun control and immigration, all capture a subtle but potentially consequential shift in the Washington dynamic.

On each front, Democrats are growing more unified while Republicans and conservatives are displaying increasing cracks. That inverts the alignment through most of President Obama’s first term--and indeed most of the past quarter-century.

Obama's adversaries, in other words, are making it easy for him. As he prepares for the inaugural and State of the Union, the civil war among Republicans is making the case for him that he is the only leader left in the capital of the free world. Meanwhile, the economy may well tank as Washington bickers and feuds. It is not a very nice national Christmas present. Let's hope the New Year gets off to a more congenial start.


Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

TopicsPolitical Economy RegionsUnited States