GOP Fight Club: Christie vs. Paul

Jacob Heilbrunn

Welcome to the GOP fight club. It's becoming increasingly apparent that a debate is brewing in the Republican party over foreign policy, one that will not be conducted politely over brandy and cigars in an oak-lined room but, rather, with knuckledusters. The latest sign was the dustup between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul. Christie, in an effort to burnish his conservative credentials, which came into some contention when he became palsy-walsy with President Obama at the finish line of the 2012 presidential race, to the consternation of many on the right, has voiced his own disquiet at what he sees as backpedaling by the GOP about the battle against terrorism.

At an Aspen Institute forum, Christie said that libertarians such as Rand Paul are endangering American national security: “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought."

Now Paul is striking back.

On Monday Paul said to Sean Hannity on Fox News,

It’s really, I think, kind of sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims and say, I’m the only one who cares about these victims. Hogwash. If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this "give me, give me, give me all of the money" that you have in Washington or don’t have and he would be more fiscally responsive and know the way we defend our country.

This debate is overdue. It gets to the core of what amounts to an identity crisis for the GOP. This past Sunday the New York Times featured a piece of mine that reviewed two excellent books—Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson and 1940 by Susan Dunn—on the debate over isolationism in the 1930s over entry into World War II. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said that the debabte over intervention was the "most savage political debate in my lifetime," even more impassioned than ones over McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. Many on the left were opposed to intervention because they felt burned by the outcome of World War I when Woodrow Wilson promised the war to end all wars. Instead, the punitive Treaty of Versailles, which laid the groundwork for a new one, was the result. On the right a number of figures such as Charles Lindbergh became admirers of the Nazi movement. The Wall Street Journal stated in June 1940 that Hitler had "already determined the broad lines of our national life for at least another generation" and that there was no point in trying to challenge him. Fortunately, Franklin Roosevelt saw it differently.

Yet the debate over intervention was not entirely stilled within the GOP. After World War II the Robert Taft wing of the party was opposed to entangling alliances abroad such as NATO. Schlesinger, in an illuminating essay in the Atlantic in 1952, distinguished between left and right isolationism. Schlesinger argued that left isolationism was rooted in idealism about America, that it should serve as a model for the world. On the right he diagnosed a fear of the old world—the belief that America would become corrupted by its dark mores: "An image of Europe began to haunt the isolationist consciousness—an image of a dark and corrupt continent, teeming with insoluble feuds, interminable antagonisms; senseless and malevolent wars. Europe was morally and politically diseased and scabrous; and contact with it would bring the risk of fatal infection." What Schlesinger deemed the old "affirmative isolationism" gave way to "negative isolationism." Schlesinger also concluded that figures such as Senators Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy were attempting to disguise their opposition to intervention abroad by backing anti-Communist witch hunts at home. (Still, as the case of Alger Hiss showed, there was some subversion in America itself, though Hiss never had any position of real consequence. And it was none other than Richard Nixon who believed Whittaker Chambers' accusations and exposed Hiss.)

In the end, the Taft wing lost out. It was the moment of the moderate, internationalist Republican such as Nixon. By 1952 had allied himself with Eisenhower. For decades the internationalists were at the helm of the GOP. Then came the rise of the neocons who supplied a more militant edge. The libertarian wing of the party had lapsed into desuetude. But over a decade after September 11, the debate is starting all over again over about the extent to which America should intervene abroad.

It is a debate, however, that the GOP is likely to find very unsettling, at least if it is conducted by Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Neither appeals fully to the party. The neocon wing is virulently opposed to the doctrines that Paul endorses, which is why Sen. John McCain spoke of "wacko birds." But at the same time, conservatives will also have a difficult time cottoning to Christie, who is in many ways the classic Northeast moderate Republican. Unlike many of his political ancestors, however, Christie is not a patrician figure who shrinks from a fight. He is a brawler. A divisive battle over foreign affairs does not loom before the GOP. It has already begun.

Image: Left: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsIdeology RegionsUnited States

Giving Netanyahu a Chance

Paul Pillar

As the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian talks about talks begin this week in Washington, the consensus of expectations is appropriately low. Most of the reasons that expectations ought to be low are too familiar to need reviewing. But there are pegs on which to hang some shreds of hope—real pegs, not just illusory ones illustrating that hope springs eternal. Aaron Miller mentions several of these; the one probably most worth noting is that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly said some sensible things lately about how Israel's future identity as a democratic Jewish state depends on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

One must look for any pegs of hope primarily on the Israeli side, because of the immense asymmetry of this conflict. Israel is the powerful occupier that can make things, including a settlement, happen; the Palestinians are the relatively powerless subjects of the occupation. Queries that ask symmetrically whether the two sides really want an agreement need to be refocused squarely on Israel. For decades now the great majority of Palestinians have realized that ending their current miserable situation can be achieved only through a negotiated agreement with Israel leading to a two-state solution. (The main exceptions to that belief are Palestinians who have so thoroughly given up hope of attaining such an agreement that they are thinking more of trying to assert rights within a binational state shared with Jewish Israelis.) In a separate article Miller translates the asymmetry into political incentives for the leaders when he notes, “The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, needs an agreement on all the big issues, while the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could not sign one and survive politically.”

The preponderance of evidence is still against the proposition that Netanyahu's more sensible statements reflect a change of heart or of direction. He has a history of giving lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state while doing nothing to achieve it and also making clear that his concept of such a “state” is instead a pale imitation of one in the form of subjugated bantustans. He leads a party that explicitly rejects a Palestinian state, and he is in coalition with other right-wingers who are just as explicit about not loosening Israel's grasp on the West Bank. Netanyahu has made a big deal about releasing some Palestinians from Israeli jails, but he has stoutly resisted changing the Israeli policy that is most directly antithetical to the negotiation of a bilateral agreement: the continued unilateral creation of facts on the ground in the form of expanding Israeli settlements in occupied territory. A very plausible, and perhaps the most plausible, interpretation of reasonable-sounding statements from Netanyahu about an agreement with the Palestinians is that such statements are merely tactical and are calculated to help him pose as a man of peace, to buy him some goodwill internationally, and perhaps to give him more room to do other destructive things such as starting a war with Iran.

Looking beyond Netanyahu and his cabinet, the most fundamental reason not to expect change in Israeli policy is that Israel simply isn't paying enough of a price for failing to change, notwithstanding jolts from time to time such as the European Union's recent move regarding not doing business with Israeli activities in the occupied territories. Life for most Jewish Israelis these days is pretty good, relatively safe, and still surrounded by a U.S.-provided political and economic cocoon made possible by the lock on American politics. Many Israelis are comfortable enough in the present not to face realities about the future. Some other Israelis, especially on the Right, apparently genuinely believe that the current apartheid arrangement can be sustained permanently.

Lest recall of these discouraging facts lead us to throw in the towel on peace negotiations, we need to realize that a prognosis—in the sense of an estimate of the most likely outcome—is different from a prescription. Sound policy does not mean merely adapting to what we think is most likely. It means taking into account all the costs, risks and potential benefits of different ways of pursuing more desirable rather than less desirable possible outcomes, while realizing all the while that our estimates might be wrong.

This principle is too often forgotten. It is forgotten in the Israeli-Palestinian context, for example, every time any dealings with Hamas are rejected on grounds that the group is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” or some similar characterization. Such a description is outmoded and inaccurate, and it gives rise to an interesting inconsistency. A decades-old charter, even though it has effectively been countermanded by more recent declarations by Hamas leaders, is taken as the basis for saying that Hamas “does not recognize Israel's right to exist” and therefore should be shunned if not strangled. Yet the charter of the Likud Party, which explicitly rejects the right of a Palestinian state to exist—a rejection that prominent members of the party have in effect reasserted—is not taken as a reason for disqualifying Likud leaders as interlocutors in a negotiation ostensibly aimed at creating a Palestinian state. The important point for the present purpose, however, is that even if one believes that the worst things said about Hamas's objectives are probably true, careful consideration of cost, risks and possible benefits leads to the conclusion that Hamas should be engaged.

Let us approach Benjamin Netanyahu in the same spirit. We are entitled to retain healthy skepticism about his objectives, the more unfavorable interpretations of which may still turn out to be true. But we should give him every chance to demonstrate otherwise. We also should keep in mind how much the incentives, and the price of obstinacy, that are shaped by U.S. policy toward Israel will help determine whether we see a cooperative Netanyahu or an uncooperative one.

TopicsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Eroding the Rule of Law

Paul Pillar

I have spent much time around government lawyers, and nearly all of the ones I have known have consistently conducted themselves with a couple of important objectives in mind. One is to apply legal analysis fully and fairly to whatever subject is at hand, not shying away from noting legal requirements even when they become policy inconveniences. Another is to support the larger missions of those they are advising by pointing out legal ways, if they exist, to accomplish those missions.

Against that background it is disconcerting to read that the issue of the most recent Egyptian military coup and its ramifications for U.S. aid is being side-stepped in Washington by just not offering any legal opinion about the nature of the Egyptian generals' move. A senior administration official said, “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say.”

Setting aside the legal issue about characterizing the coup, whether any suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt at this time makes sense is a question about which reasonable people can and do disagree. It is not a clear-cut policy call. I happen to believe that suspension would be an appropriate response to the overthrow by the military of a freely elected president. If the generals' promises about moving back in the direction of democracy are to be believed, such a suspension need not last long. There is good reason to believe a suspension would increase the likelihood the generals will keep their promises. The appropriateness of a suspension is made all the greater by indications since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi that so far the generals are moving less toward democracy than toward a replay of initial installation of military rule six decades ago.

The fact that there is a legal issue, given a statutory requirement to suspend aid in such circumstances, makes the costs of not recognizing the reality of the Egyptian coup all the greater. Failure to recognize this reality is an act of hypocrisy, which fosters additional foreign cynicism about anything the United States says concerning democratic or other values. It also is a staining of our own political culture. It is a compromise of our respect for the rule of law, even when it is our own law. The rule of law represents one of the most fundamental differences between the United States and the least desirable polities of the world. We cannot afford to treat it casually.

To be sure, there is a problem of Congress using legislation to tie the hands of the executive branch in unhelpful ways that can impede effective foreign policy. Congress does too much of this; it ought to do less, especially when doing so is essentially political posturing, as it often is. At a minimum, Congress ought to incorporate more consistently than it does in legislation related to foreign policy the possibility of an executive branch waiver. But this is all a larger problem that is not solved by simply flouting whatever law is, for better or for worse, on the books.

There have been in recent American history too many other indications of an erosion in respect for the rule of law, from those within government whose functions are all about making or executing the law. There has been, for example, the ignoring of judicial review requirements on a matter that, as we see in current debate about electronic surveillance, is controversial enough even when the law is observed. There have been presidential signing statements, which are a way of explaining an interpretation of a law but at times have been used instead to declare an intention not to obey a law. There is the falling into disuse of the Congressional declaration of war, replaced by Congressional expressions that are outdated or unclear regarding the legal basis for the use of military force. If these things are all part of a coherent pattern, we ought to be worried.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsForeign AidThe Presidency RegionsEgyptUnited States

Who Are We at War With? The Answer Is (Still) Classified

The Buzz

It’s long been known that the U.S. government considers itself to be at war with Al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” But exactly which groups does that include? Earlier this week, I noted that the list of organizations that the Pentagon sees as meeting this standard remains classified. In a May congressional hearing, Senator Carl Levin asked Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, to provide his office with the “existing list of groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda,” and Sheehan promised to do so. Since then, the Pentagon has apparently provided Levin’s office with the list, but refused to disclose it to the public.

Today, ProPublica’s Cora Currier followed up on this question to ask for the rationale for keeping the list secret. She reports:

A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”

“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”

So, to summarize, the argument is that if this list were made public, groups that were named as enemies of the United States would be able to use this fact as a recruiting tool of sorts, allowing them to enhance their capabilities and making them stronger.

This is deeply unconvincing. At Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, calls this rationale “weak” and provides a thorough rebuttal. Two points of his are especially worth highlighting. The first is that the Pentagon spokesman appears to greatly exaggerate the harm that might be caused by naming these groups and thus “inflating” them. As Sheehan said at the hearing, to qualify as an associated force a group “has to be in co-belligerent status with al Qaeda operating against the United States.” Presumably, then, as Goldsmith notes, they are already “on the receiving end of U.S. or U.S-supported military operations,” a fact that would already be well known on the ground in whichever country they operate in. That would be “a spur to recruitment” whether or not Washington officially acknowledges it. Put another way, if an organization is already doing something that makes it enough of a threat to the United States to be put on this list, it’s hard to see what officially naming it as such would do to meaningfully add to this threat.

Second, whether or not there is a marginal benefit to keeping the list classified, the Pentagon’s statement fails to take into account any of the corresponding costs. In Goldsmith’s words:

There is a countervailing interest in disclosure that the DOD statement does not discuss: The American People’s interest in knowing against whom, and where, U.S. military forces are engaged in war in its name. Such knowledge – which at the May AUMF hearing many members of even the Armed Services Committee seemed to lack – is minimally necessary for the American people to assess the quality, prudence, and necessity of our military efforts.

This is the key point: it is quite simply impossible for the U.S. public to exercise any level of democratic accountability over its government on issues of war and peace when the government will not even say publicly who it considers itself to be at war with.

In his May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama said, “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This is an entirely sensible reframing, both for the government in conducting its operations and for the public in making sense of them. But if the president is really interested in getting the public to think about the conflict as a series of “targeted efforts” rather than a boundless global war, the least he could do is define for us exactly who those efforts are targeted against.

TopicsDefenseTerrorismSecurity RegionsUnited States

Congress Challenges the NSA

Jacob Heilbrunn

Edward Snowden is winning. He may be holed up in a transit lounge in Russia, but Snowden, view him as a traitor or hero, is having a profound effect on the debate in America over the extent of spying conducted by the National Security Agency. The most telling sign is the House’s rejection Wednesday of a bill impeding the agency’s collection of phone records by a vote of 205-217. The interesting thing is not that the bill, which was drafted by Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. John Conyers, Jr., failed. It is how close it came to passing.

Only a furious effort by the Obama administration and the Republican leadership, including John Boehner, ensured that it did not. Here was true bipartisanship but perhaps not in the service of a greater goal, or at least one that mounting numbers of Americans, worried about the intrusiveness of federal government spying efforts, are likely to applaud. Lawmakers such as Jerrold Nadler who have long been critical of the NSA and the expansive counter-terrorist measures instituted after September 11 are seizing the opportunity to press their case with renewed vigor; others like James Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, say that it is being contorted to justify policies they never envisioned. Revulsion over elastic interpretations of surveillance by the government is prompting Democratic and Republican lawmakers to revolt.

President Obama is clearly hopeless when it comes to this issue. He doesn’t seem to challenge the panjandrums of the intelligence services, but reflexively accedes to their demands. For whatever reason—passivity, cravenness, fear?—the man who once voiced anger and skepticism about the excesses of the Bush administration’s approach to civil liberties has become complicit with the vast bureaucracy that purports to defend American liberties even as it undermines them. Yes, the balance between liberty and surveillance will always be a treacherous one. But we know that when the government is scooping up every telephone record that there cannot even be a pretense of balance but, rather, the attempt to construct an omnicompetent state that vigilantly scrutinizes the behavior of the most innocuous citizen. Professor David Bromwich of Yale University, one of our most trenchant critics of the sprawling apparatus that has arisen since September 11, notes that the Obama administration is endorsing a policy of snatching up private information that can be likened to stocking a vast fishpond:


The new protocol allows the government to vacuum up the entire pond, while preserving a posture quite innocent of trespass, since it means to do nothing with the contents just then. The test comes when a discovery elsewhere calls up an answering glimmer of terror or a terror-link from somewhere in your pond; at which point the already indexed contents may be legally poured out, dissected and analysed, with effects on the owner to be determined.

As James Bamford shows in the August 15 issue of the New York Review of Books, the government has, more or less, been lying about its efforts to fill that pond. After September 11, the Bush administration decided to flout the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. According to Bamford, it “decided to illegally bypass the court and began its program of warrantless wiretapping.” At the same time, George W. Bush announced in 2004, “Anytime you hear the United States government talking about a wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.” Since then, misleading statements from key figures have proliferated. General Keith Alexander of the NSA declared at an Aspen Institute conference, “To think we’re collecting on every US person…that would be against the law.” Snowden's documents remind us that this is not true. Yes, there are genuine threats against America. But it is statements such as Alexander's that induce a sense of vertigo—the sense that America's leaders are misleading the public rather than telling the truth about the scope and nature of their own work, not to mention the number and gravity of the plots that they boast about having uncovered.

There is not necessarily anything consciously nefarious about the efforts of the intelligence agencies to expand their reach and influence. If you want to get a glimpse of what the government is up to then you apparently need to travel to a nine-story building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. There AT&T has its regional switching center and there in 2003 the NSA, Bamford writes, “established a “secret room…and filled it with computers and software from a company called Narus,” which specializes in “equipment that examines both the metadata—the names and addresses of people communicating on the Internet—and the content of digital traffic such as e-mail as it zooms past at the speed of light.” The sense one derives from the Bamford article is that one computer program—PRISM, UPSTREAM, and so on—is leading to the next, that the desire to obtain information, in whatever form, has become an end in itself, which is what is leading to the construction of a massive electronic records holding facility in the desert in Utah, one that will likely become a monument to future generations of the folly of the current one.

The stirrings of rebellion in the House are a welcome sign. Obama has not simply abdicated leadership on civil liberties, but is actively endorsing policies that undermine them. It is up to Congress to stop him.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States