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Tracking the Imperial Presidency

The Buzz

Much has been written about the “imperial presidency,” and it’s instructive that nearly all political groups—liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party types, occupy people—see imperial tendencies in their opponents. This means that we’re seeing a trend that transcends partisan politics. The presidency, it seems, is becoming less and less tethered to the checks and balances devised for it.

In that vein, it’s worth noting, and lauding, Kimberley A. Strassel’s recent Wall Street Journal column, in which she argues that President Obama has arrogated to himself powers and prerogatives of office far in excess of his predecessors. The value in Stassel’s piece is her extensive catalogue of examples in which Obama’s invocation of executive prerogative has trampled the traditional separation of powers. As Strassel says, this all adds up to a very significant trend indeed.

Thus did the president get around Congress’ refusal to enact the Dream Act by simply invoking “prosecutorial discretion” in declining to enforce the country’s immigration laws. He directed officers to refrain from deporting certain illegal immigrants who were brought here as children. Same with certain federal laws criminalizing the use of medical marijuana, which the president doesn’t like and thus doesn’t enforce. Or consider the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which the president doesn’t like and so declines to defend in court. Or the No Child Left Behind Act, for which Obama issues waivers that are, as Strassel says, “patently inconsistent with the statute.”

Strassel goes on in this vein, building quite a case that this president seems bent on pushing the limits as far as he can on presidential power. She writes, “This president’s imperial pretensions extend into the brute force the executive branch has exercised over the private sector.” She cites specifically Obama’s decision to subordinate bondholders’ rights over its union friends in the auto bailout and its threat of a criminal probe against BP to force it to “cough up billions for an extralegal claims fund.” A similar pattern is seen in the administration’s dealings with the states.

All in all, a disturbing pattern—and a smart look at it.  

TopicsDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency

Libya: A Mixed Bag

The Skeptics

Libyans voted for a new parliament over the weekend. President Barack Obama called the elections “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy.” Political and regional fault lines, though, are derailing that transition.

Libya remains divided between its oil-rich East and its politically dominant West. Even though Western rebels ended up capturing Tripoli, it was Eastern rebels who had fought most of the civil war against Qaddafi’s regime. Qaddafi marginalized the East for decades. New election laws have reinvigorated that sense of political alienation.

The Associated Press reports, “The laws allocate the east less than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely-settled desert south.” [Emphasis added] Particularly noteworthy is that the election laws were issued by Libya’s National Transitional Council, previously chaired by Qaddafi’s former economics minster, Mahmoud Jabril.

Backed by their own council and army, some rebel commanders and tribal leaders have teamed up and declared self-rule. To pressure a cancellation of this weekend’s vote, armed militias and former rebels calling for semi-autonomy for the East attacked election offices in Benghazi and Ajdabiya and captured oil refineries in Ras Lanouf, Brega and Sidr.

Last month, Dirk Vandewalle, who has lived and worked in Libya for almost fifteen years and just recently returned from Libya as a senior political advisor to the Carter Center’s Election Observation Mission in Libya, spoke at Cato on what Libya’s long-simmering East/West division portends for its transition to democracy. Authorities, he finds, have thus far proved incapable of controlling militias that seek greater autonomy.

As a former rebel commander in the East put it: “We don't want Tripoli to rule all of Libya.” The crux of Libya’s challenges, which Vandewalle was careful to differentiate, is state building—the institutions that make a country governable—and nation building—national consensus to govern once institutions are in place. These grievances and divisions are compounded by competing visions offered by ultraconservative Salafists and jihadists inspired by Al Qaeda. Formal elections may give a voice to many in Libya, but their hardest days may still lie ahead.

TopicsCivil SocietyDemocracyEconomic DevelopmentElectionsPolitical EconomyPost-ConflictRogue StatesSociety RegionsLibya

Democratic Form Without Substance in Libya

Paul Pillar

It is easy for those either inside or outside Libya to get enthused about the election there this weekend. For some of those inside the country, the enthusiasm was expressed with horn-honking and the waving of fingers stained with the ink used to discourage repeat voting. Among outsiders, President Obama congratulated Libyans for “another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy.” United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon complimented the Libyan candidates for contesting the election “in a peaceful, democratic spirit.”

Given controversy among Libyans about the terms of the election and disruptions associated with that controversy, maybe congratulations are indeed in order for holding any election at all. Protestors stormed polling stations, armed militias prevented some voters from entering their assigned stations and tribal warfare in the South kept some polling places closed altogether. In the days preceding the election, other protests shut down oil-export terminals and closed the coastal highway. On Friday, a helicopter carrying election materials was shot down near Benghazi. These were only the most visible signs that Libya has a very long way to go to become a workable democracy.

The principal grievances underlying the violent disruptions concerned dissatisfaction over the allocation of legislative seats among regions, with the easterners of Cyrenaica being especially dissatisfied with their allotment. This was a reminder of how fragile any sense of national unity is in a country that is a patchwork of what were different provinces in imperial times. Less than two decades separated Libya's independence (before which it was ruled by Italy, which snatched it from the Ottomans) from the coup d'etat that initiated the more than four decades of Muammar Qaddafi's highly personal, institution-destroying rule. Libya has not had sufficient time and experience to develop a well-entrenched sense of nationhood.

Western press coverage of the early, unofficial election results has applied what has become the usual yardstick of how non-Islamists did versus Islamists. This is not a useful way to view results, partly because that dimension does not correlate with prospects for a stable democracy or even with support for other U.S. interests. It also is not useful in the Libyan case because the large number of newly born parties and alliances that contested the election do not divide clearly with regard to the favored role for Islam in public life.

Religion was less important an influence on voting decisions than such personal and candidate-specific factors as association with the old regime. Most important were sentiments based on tribe, family, and all of the patronage considerations associated with tribal and family ties. One candid member of the Warfalla tribe (the same tribe to which former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the alliance reported to have done best in the election) explained before the voting, “We are racist and each will vote for his own tribe—and not only his own tribe, but the family within the tribe closest to his.”

Missing from the electioneering in Libya was the sort of debate over ideologies and governing principles that we routinely associate with representative democracy in the West. That absence in turn is part of a pattern that has been seen elsewhere in the Middle East during the Arab Awakening: people welcome the idea of democracy and are happy to participate in it, but they have little understanding of what it entails beyond that it is an alternative to a despised dictatorial regime and that it has something to do with casting votes, along with the ink-on-the-finger business. This is a far cry from developing widespread understanding, let alone the ingrained habits, necessary for Western-style democracy to function.

An added piece of confusion, similar to what has arisen next door in Egypt, concerns what the representatives being elected will be empowered to do. Originally, the elected body was supposed to function not only as a temporary legislature but also as a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. Then the self-appointed Transitional National Council determined that the new body would not write the constitution itself but instead would choose a separate group to perform that task. Then two days before the election, the council said the constitution would be written by a completely separate body to be chosen in the future by a separate vote.

Despite the confusion and controversy, the process we are seeing may still in the long run—perhaps a very long run—lead to a political structure that is in some respect democratic, is better for Libyans than what they had before and is better for the rest of the world that has to deal with Libya. In the meantime, however, the post-Qaddafi Libyan story as it has played out so far has a couple of lessons. One concerns how much messiness and instability are apt to follow the overthrow of regimes in this part of the world. The lesson becomes all the more acute when bearing in mind two other things. One is that Libya has fewer complications regarding sectarian and ethnic divisions than do some other regional states, such as Syria. The other is that there is good reason to believe that the worst instability in Libya is yet to come, once disagreements are even less held in check than they are now by post-Qaddafi good vibrations.

The other lesson concerns how premature it is to put the NATO military intervention of last year into the win column, as it so frequently is.

Image: Al Jazeera English

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsNATOElectionsHumanitarian Intervention RegionsEgyptLibyaSyria

Netanyahu’s Unstable Coalition

The Buzz

The surprising formation of a coalition between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the more liberal Kadima party seemed to provide Netanyahu with nearly unlimited power. The addition of twenty-eight Knesset members from Kadima bolstered his already considerable sway over Israeli politics, and the move appeared to endow him with miles of political maneuverability.

But as William Galston points out at The New Republic, “nothing is straightforward” in Israel. Netanyahu’s seemingly stable coalition already is fraught with fractures, the largest of which stems from the heated debate on national service. The state of Israel was founded on the understanding that Arab citizens and the most religious Israelis were exempt from the requirement of military or civilian service incumbent upon other Israeli citizens. While these exemptions initially applied to a negligible amount of the population, the number of highly observant, or haredim, youth eligible but not performing service is now over fifty thousand.

In recent years, the burden these exclusions place on serving Israeli citizens has become increasingly untenable, and cries for reform have grown louder. Netanyahu, closely allied with several religious parties, has steadfastly resisted. But he faces pressure from his new Kadima allies and members of right-wing secular parties, who decry exemptions not only for the haredim but also for Arab Israelis and liberal conscientious objectors.

According to Galston, the issue of national service is “heightening just about every fault-line in the country—religious versus secular, Jews versus Arabs, left versus right.” As the country splinters, so too might its novel unity government. Months ago, Netanyahu appeared to have captured an unstoppable majority, to have quieted the opposition and secured his position at the top. Now it seems the foundations upon which he has built his power are cracking. And if Galston’s smart analysis is any indication, it may not be long before they crumble.

TopicsMilitary Strategy RegionsIsrael

Rupert Murdoch's Bogus Attacks On Romney

Jacob Heilbrunn

Someone should tell Rupert Murdoch to shut up. You might think that a news magnate with as sordid a record as Murdoch would have the sense to refrain from commenting publicly on the American presidential race. Murdoch may try to deny culpability as much as he can, but he is the press baron who presided over the scandals afflicting his news empire in England, where one nasty revelation after another has emerged about the antics of his minions, a number of whom may be facing jail sentences. A period of silence and personal reflection might seem to be in order.

No such luck. As the New York Times reports, Murdoch has moved on from the royals to bash a new target: Mitt Romney. Murdoch has been propounding unsolicited advice for Romney. Most of his complaints are commonplace, but because he is the one making them, they are attracting inordinate attention. In part he's suggesting that Romney dump members of his campaign team, a move that would suggest panic if a wholesale massacre were to take place. Plus, disenchanted former employees hardly miss a chance to snipe at their old boss.

Another Murdoch brainstorm is that Romney simply isn't conservative enough. Murdoch's heroes seems to be Rick Santorum, the hapless senator from Pennsylvania, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who lacks the polish to be a serious presidential candidate. Earth to Murdoch: the primary is finished. Romney won. Get over it.

Now, being told by the likes of Murdoch that you aren't doing a good job running the campaign is something that Romney may regard with humor—a trait that, it must be said, he has not displayed in much abundance during the campaign. And being criticized for not being conservative enough may also be a criticism that the campaign welcomes as it tries to pursue independent voters. Nevertheless, there is something petty about the criticisms of Romney that Murdoch is voicing. For one thing, he's bashing Romney for the one trait and success—his discipline and business record—that he can plausibly point to as assets in his run for the presidency. To complain that Romney walked into a meeting with the Wall Street Journal and focused on facts and figures rather than ideology? Please. Moving further to the Right is not going to aid Romney. A rerun of the George W. Bush presidency is hardly a winning ticket for the 2012 election. Murdoch's animadversions point to a broader problem assailing the conservative movement, which is that it often sounds like a bunch of crybabies whining that Romney isn't conservative enough.

There a number of possibilities here that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For one thing, conservatives clearly are preparing for a new George H. W. Bush—or at least they want to warn Romney off that path. By assailing him as lacking the cojones to be a real conservative, they hope to prod him to the Right. It's also the case that the Right may figure that Romney is doomed and that it's better off without him as president. In this instance, conservatives would be preparing to run the real thing in 2016. Given the tenor of Wall Street Journal editorials about Romney, it seems clear that any support for him from the Right (and Murdoch) would be at best halfhearted.

Whether or not the Journal really enters the lists for Romney, however, is not going to decide his electoral fortunes. Romney, stiff and verbally maladroit, is simply not a very good candidate, but he is the best one that the GOP could produce after eight years of the Bush regency. But the state of the economy means he will be able to mount a challenge to Obama, no matter the bellyaching from the right. The truly scary prospect may be that Murdoch, who has become infra dig in London, may now be trying to set up shop in America. Give this Australian parvenu credit for audacity. But it would be foolish to heed his musings about American politics.

Image: World Economic Forum

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

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