Gun Control Advocates Upset with 'Undemocratic' Senate

The Buzz

You may feel strongly about a particular public policy issue. What happens when you find yourself opposed by members of the political party who should be your ideological kin? You might feel betrayed. Maybe even enough to conclude that these dissenters must have been corrupted by the system—and that political institutions are the real source of obstruction.

Legislation proposed this week by Senators Joe Manchin (D.-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.) to strengthen background checks on gun purchases may be a reasonable measure. But opposition from senators who some call "Red State Democrats"—from small states like North Dakota, Montana, Wymoming and Alaska—may hold up the Toomey-Manchin bill. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis is upset with these turncoats. He's also concluded that the upper chamber is not only broken-down: apparently its design was flawed from the very beginning.

MacGillis, recalling a tense exchange in which he provoked former North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, argues that giving each state equal representation in the Senate was in fact a "not-so-Great Compromise." Constitutional originalists, he says, ignore the fact that James Madison argued for the "Virginia plan," in which larger states would have been given more representation in the upper house.

But even if he can beat the originalists at their own game, MacGillis doesn't tell us what he would prefer to the current arrangements. An upper chamber in which larger states have more votes might require a dramatic expansion of the number of seats. As MacGillis points out, the population disparity "between California and Wyoming is now 66 to 1." What would be a fair allocation of seats?

Dramatically expanding the size of the Senate would surely dampen its ability to foster the kind of collegiality that brought about the bipartisan Toomey-Machin bill in the first place. The ability to deliberate productively (even if not evident today in the way it was in previous eras) would also be hampered by too many members.

One workaround might allow individual senators more votes—as if they owned more shares in a corporation—but this would wreck comity as well. Would California senators be given more time to speak than their Wyoming counterparts?

The individual power of senators is also derived from the body's relatively small size—with more members, who will care if one senator speaks up against the president? The current system, while not always enabling quick passage of legislation, keeps one branch from wielding too much power. That principle is the genius of 1787, whether or not the way it was implemented aligns with all of today's democratic impulses.

Despite worrying expansions of executive power in foreign affairs in recent decades, in domestic affairs the administration's agenda is still limited by Congress. Presidents must occasionally wish for the power of a prime minister: to enact new legislation, simply schedule a vote, whip one's party colleagues—and voila, progress.

The United States does not have a parliamentary system. And if it did, President Obama might not be in office today, at least not under the current allocation of Congressional districts.

One can imagine a revolution in which the 1787 principle of checks and balances is junked in favor of what might be a more efficient (but potentially tyrannical) system. But even with an issue as heart wrenching as guns, Americans don't seem ready to hit the barricades yet.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsThe Presidency

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

A Good Man Leaves the Plantation

Paul Pillar

Salam Fayyad has been just about everything that U.S. administrations could have hoped for in a Palestinian prime minister. The American-educated economist is competent, honest and moderate. In his six years as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority he made admirable progress in instilling order in the bureaucracy that he led. It is no surprise that the Obama administration and Secretary of State Kerry tried hard, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep him in the job. For similar reasons the Israelis were happy to have him around.

The Palestinian Authority or PA is a strange entity that nonetheless—at the time it was created by the Oslo accords that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed 20 years ago—made sense. It was to be a transitional mechanism that would facilitate a change of the Palestinian leadership and political structure from a resistance movement (it was as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization that Arafat signed the accords) to a government. But Rabin, whom an Israeli extremist assassinated in response to his making peace with the PLO, is long gone. For many years now the strange entity has functioned as a stooge of a different sort of Israeli leadership, a leadership whose objective is to delay indefinitely the creation of a Palestinian state and to cling permanently to land conquered through a military invasion 46 years ago. It is misleading to consider the Palestinian Authority still to be a transitional mechanism as it was originally conceived, given that many years have gone by since, according to the timetable in the Oslo accords, a Palestinian state should already have been established. The PA, regardless of what may have been the skills and good intentions of some of those who have led it, is a Potemkin village—a prop that supports a deceptive Israeli story about peace, land, political power and especially the Israeli government's intentions.

No matter how much one might understandably consider the Oslo accords to be dead, having the PA still around serves several purposes for Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Most fundamentally, it preserves the fiction that the Israeli government actually supports a two-state solution. It also appears to relieve Israel from accountability for failing to live up to its responsibilities under international law as the occupying power in territory conquered in war. Of course, Israel really is the true power over all of the West Bank, but by being able to point to another entity that supposedly has administrative responsibilities it can say that problems and deficiencies are someone else's fault.

The PA, especially with leaders as respectable as Fayyad, has functioned for Israel as the “good” Palestinians in contrast to the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas, enabling the Israelis to continue to pretend to want to make peace with Palestinians even though it has refused to deal with fairly elected Palestinian leaders when those leaders happen to be from Hamas. Meanwhile, the purpose of indefinite postponement of a Palestinian state is served by pointing to a Palestinian movement that does not appear to have its act together while Israel simultaneously does everything possible to prevent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the PA, and thus to keep the movement divided.

The Palestinian Authority embodies the concept, articulated by American advocates for the Israeli government such as Elliott Abrams, that Palestinians must “build” a state rather than merely being “granted” one. But the “building” phase continues indefinitely, with an actual state always remaining out of reach. If the PA seems to be getting too close to statehood, the Israelis can, and do, easily kick it back. After the PA's move to upgrade its status at the United Nations, Israel punished it by withholding tax revenue that belongs to the Palestinians. This exacerbated a financial crisis that has been one of the biggest challenges for Fayyad's administration. The Israelis also, of course, can use their first-choice policy tool—military force—as they did in 2002 when they demolished many of the PA's offices as well as other administrative infrastructure such as police stations. This action made it all the more difficult for the Palestinians to function in a way that demonstrates they are “building” a state. Even without Israeli use of something as blatant as the 2002 action, the many everyday restrictions Israel places on transportation and other aspects of Palestinian life make it impossible for the PA to work in a way that would ever force Israel to acknowledge that a state had been “built.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sometimes spoken of abolishing the Palestinian Authority if Netanyahu's government doesn't take real steps toward a peace settlement. Abolition would end a charade, but it would also come with a cost to the Palestinians, mostly in the form of handing the Israelis an argument, to be used in perpetuity, that it was the Palestinians who destroyed the Oslo accords and gave up on peace. The charade is also a trap.

One can only imagine Fayyad's deepest thoughts at the moment. His resignation reportedly involved disagreements with Abbas, as well as significant opposition to Fayyad within Fatah. But he surely must be feeling some personal relief. He is too smart and too honest not to perceive the stooge-like quality of the enterprise he has been involved in. No one should complain if he were to retire from public life and move into a comfortable academic position somewhere.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsDemocracyInternational LawPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Should Barack Be Bashar's Buddy?

The Buzz

Middle East Forum head Daniel Pipes argues over at National Review that the United States should entertain the idea of supporting the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. He suggests that, though Assad is terrible, “a rebel victory would hugely boost the increasingly rogue Turkish government while empowering jihadis and replacing the Assad government with triumphant, inflamed Islamists.” The best outcome for U.S. interests is a long war that sucks energy from both sides. Accordingly, support should go to whoever is losing. Eventually, “when Assad and Tehran have fought the rebels and Ankara to mutual exhaustion, Western support then can go to non-Baathist and non-Islamist elements in Syria, helping them offer a moderate alternative to today’s wretched choices and lead to a better future.”

On the surface, it sounds like classic realpolitik, even if his optimistic conclusions (and, elsewhere in the article, support for Western force to punish either side for violations of the laws of war) are hardly realist. Absurdity lurks just below—is America to align with its enemy, Iran, against a fellow NATO state, Turkey? Is Turkey, which not two weeks ago began the process of restoring (at Obama’s request) its relations with Israel, “increasingly rogue”? Pipes endorses the U.S. support for Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War while noting that if Iraq had begun to press the advantage, Washington would want to back Tehran. The problem is that U.S. involvement in that war decades ago continues to have consequences. Fighting a brutal war against a neighbor backed by the entire world, a neighbor that seemed to be able to violate international law without the world powers saying a peep, had a critical impact on the formation of Iranian strategy. If the bad guys win in Syria after the U.S. supports the odious Assad, they might have a similarly dangerous view of their neighborhood.

But there is a broader logic to Pipes’ argument. There are four possible outcomes in Syria: Endless, shifting conflict a la Lebanon’s civil war; a victory by moderate factions in the Free Syrian Army; a victory by Assad; and a victory by anti-Assad jihadists. Each outcome has a different likelihood of being realized. Each outcome has different implications for American interests. What Pipes realizes is that while a moderate victory is indeed the best outcome for the United States, it’s far from likely; he further realizes that a jihadist victory has serious drawbacks that many overlook.

The jihadi factions are stronger than ever in Syria. J. Malcolm Garcia, writing of a trip to Aleppo in Guernica, spoke with a young rebel who said that after the conflict he’d support the jihadists, because “when the war is over because the jihadists will kick the FSA’s ass.” That fear is growing among Syrians and in the U.S. intelligence community. Deadly clashes have occurred already. The extremists are widely regarded as the bravest and most effective fighters. If Assad falls (or, more likely, is just driven back from much of Syria), they are not going to suddenly become inept cowards that the FSA can bring to heel. And they are not likely to want a role in Syria’s governance that is smaller than the role they played in Syria’s “liberation.”

One could argue easily that a jihadi-run Syria is a more threatening outcome for America than an Assad-run Syria. Assad’s Syria is certainly a threat. It’s an ally of Iran. It’s a vital supporter of Hezbollah, and it’s a chemical-weapons state that’s dabbled with nuclear weapons, too. It let the forces of international jihad move through its territory to attack our troops in Iraq. It’s a bitter enemy of our ally Israel, and it has a long history of backing factions we don’t like in Lebanon. Yet it was also a bounded threat. Assad wasn’t trying to launch attacks on American soil. We had done plenty of business with his father, allying with him against Saddam Hussein and shepherding serious (though ultimately fruitless) peace negotiations with the Israelis. The Assads are brutal men with few moral scruples. But they aren’t crazy.

An Islamic Emirate of Syria, on the other hand, could be a source of international terror. Al Qaeda-type groups could get permanent bases, which they haven’t enjoyed anywhere in the world for just over a decade. Those bases would let them train operatives that they could dispatch around the world. The U.S. would be forced to take the war on terrorism into Syria in one form or another. That will not happen with Assad.

If there is anything to be gleaned from Pipes’ essay, it is that those in the West who are so eager to have Assad gone, and who see this civil war as a fight between good and evil, are dangerously naive. That doesn’t mean we have to start supporting Assad’s butchery. The rise of the jihadists has prompted the formation of anti-jihadi forces within the FSA. It’s also sparked, according to the Washington Post, rumors “that [Syria’s eastern] tribes are hoping to form a “Sahwa,” or Awakening, movement similar to the one that the United States sponsored to quell al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Many of those tribesmen have cousins who, just over the border, supported the U.S.-backed Awakening. Should the jihadists prevail, the tribes of the east—not Bashar al-Assad—will be Washington’s first and most reliable partners.

TopicsDefenseFailed StatesPost-ConflictRogue StatesTerrorismWMDSecurity RegionsSyria

Which Military Opinions to Listen To

Paul Pillar

A recent study by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp and Peter Feaver published by the Center for New American Security examines the effects that public statements by senior military officers have on public opinion about the use of force. The study is based on survey research in which respondents were presented with real and hypothetical questions about whether the United States should apply military force to certain situations overseas. Some respondents were told that U.S. military leaders favored the contemplated action, others were told that the same military leaders opposed the action, and still others were given no cues about what the military thinks. The main finding of the research is that publicly expressed military views do make a difference on public opinion, especially when such views oppose a military action. Military opposition reduced public support for the use of military force abroad by an average of seven percentage points, while military support increased public support by three percentage points. The surveyed sample was large enough that these were significant differences.

The authors discuss some concerns suggested by these findings, especially the hazard of what they call “a problematic politicization of the military.” Their concerns are legitimate, but the study fails to make an important distinction between the sort of military opinions that ought to worry us (worry us, that is, because they are being expressed publicly) and the sort that ought not.

The public (and policymakers in the executive branch and Congress) ought to pay careful attention to what senior military officers say on questions that are contained within the military's area of expertise. That is where military officers can offer opinions that are more firmly grounded than what anyone else can offer. Such questions would include the costs and time required to accomplish a military mission, risks incurred in accomplishing it such as collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of being able to accomplish it at all.

A military officer's opinion ought not to be considered worth more than anyone else's when it goes beyond the area of specifically military expertise. Outside that area would be questions such as political and diplomatic costs of an action, national priorities in the allocation of limited resources, and how important attainment of the military objective would be to the national interest. Because these sorts of questions are just as important in any decision to apply armed force overseas as are the ones on which military officers are specially qualified to speak, an overall judgment on whether any given application of force ought to be undertaken also goes beyond the area of military expertise. Thoughtful and intelligent military officers are going to have opinions about these things and are entitled to have them, but that is not the same as having a special claim on the public's attention.

If there is a norm to be cultivated here, it is that active-duty military officers ought to insist on being heard on military questions (which is not the same as the question of whether a particular military action ought to be undertaken), while being mindful of the politicization hazard that Golby, Dropp and Feaver mention and thereby not taking advantage of their prestige, their uniform and their credibility to offer publicly their opinions on other things.

Unfortunately, too often military opinion gets handled in exactly the opposite way. On one hand, armchair generals sometimes do not defer to the military on military questions. A well known and egregious example is the public disparagement by civilian Pentagon leaders of the army chief of staff's judgment about the U.S. troop presence that would be required in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, military officers' opinions on questions that go beyond strictly military judgments sometimes are given excessive prominence, usually because politicians either want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision by pretending that a military opinion can be treated as a surrogate for a policy judgment, or want to use military officers as supporting props for promoting their own point of view.

TopicsDefensePublic Opinion RegionsUnited States