A Declaration Of War

Georgia Senate Candidate David Perdue Campaigns With Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

Senator Rand Paul has just opened up a new vista in American foreign policy. He is attempting to re-impose constitutional norms on war-making powers – powers so rankly abused by president Obama so many times. His resolution for the declaration of war against ISIS has some classic lines from the past, reminding us how far we have drifted from what the Founders intended:

Whereas Article I, section 8, of the United States Constitution provides, ‘‘The Congress shall have the Power to . . . declare war’’;

Whereas President George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, lectured: ‘‘The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress. Therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.’’;

Whereas James Madison, father of the Constitution, elaborated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: ‘‘The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.’’;

Whereas James Madison wrote in his Letters of Helvidius: ‘‘In this case, the constitution has decided what shall not be deemed an executive authority; though it may not have clearly decided in every case what shall be so deemed. The declaring of war is expressly made a legislative function.’’

Even better, his resolution carefully delimits what the US can do in Iraq and Syria – defending US property and personnel; sunsetting the war to one year; and keeping ground forces to a few limited functions (and avoiding the fiction that there are not boots on the ground already in Iraq). The benefit of such a debate is precisely to insist that, especially in an age of a volunteer military, we need to be reminded of the moral gravity of war-making, and never rush or drift into war without lengthy, deliberate, advance consideration of unintended consequences.

As the signs accumulate that the president is eager to escalate the war in Iraq and Syria beyond anything we have yet seen, this resolution matters. It forces members of Congress to take a firm and clear stand; and it insists on a tight and reliable standard of what war is, a vital rebuke to the countless little wars being perpetrated by the unaccountable, extra-legal CIA all over the globe. It will be fascinating, in particular, to see how Hillary Clinton responds to the question, if she bothers to respond at all. We know where Paul stands on the NSA, the Libya war, and the role of the legislature in alone having the right to declare war. But we don’t know much (as usual) about Clinton’s views.

Where does she stand on these matters? And is she really prepared to run for election backing a more pro-war and pro-executive position than one of her main Republican rivals? It almost makes one look forward to the looming battle. Almost.

(Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

This Is The Way “Benghazi” Ends …

Isn’t there something quite delicious in the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – scandalous about “Benghazi” apart from what we knew already: that the outpost was poorly protected and that the State Department had been complacent about consulate security? Even Paul Mirengoff has to take his lumps:

The Committee concludes, among things, that CIA personnel on the ground in Benghazi during the attack behaved bravely and made reasonable tactical decisions that saved lives, and that the CIA received all military support that was available. It further concludes that after the attack, the administration’s initial public narrative (via Susan Rice) on the causes and motivations for the attack was not fully accurate. In addition, edits made to the Benghazi “talking points” were not fully accurate, and the process that produced the talking points was flawed. However, the Committee stops short of finding misconduct or bad faith on the part of Susan Rice or any other administration official.

Butters, who’s long been having a series of primary-enhanced conniptions about the whole thing, nonetheless evinced the classic Republican denial response: “I think the report is full of crap.” His only basis for saying that is that the report relied on the testimony of Obama administration officials – even though it also sought testimony from a bunch of Republican conspiracy theorists, even though it was packed with Republican ideologues, even though it had enormous reach and subpoena power.

At the Dish, we tried long and hard to find something in the Benghazi story that could really stand the test of moderate scrutiny … and failed.  I even jumped the gun and impugned the honesty of Ben Rhodes at one point in trying to be as skeptical of administration assurances as any journalistic outfit should be. But after a while, we decided to ignore the issue unless something striking or new came up. In retrospect, that was the right call.

When you think of the staggering amount of time and resources devoted to chasing down this rabbit-hole, you have to wonder what is really fueling the GOP. I don’t think it’s a positive agenda to tackle some of our obviously pressing problems: eleven million undocumented immigrants, climate change, Iran’s nuclear potential, Jihadism in Iraq, soaring inequality. I think it’s rabid hatred of a president who does not share their priorities and a desperation to find some kind of quick and easy way of consigning him to a treasonous asterisk. They’ve failed on both counts.

Yes, Obama Is A Phony On Torture

The Obama administration, it is now beyond dispute, is in thrall to the CIA. The president, through his chief-of-staff, Denis McDonough, has been doing all he can to render the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on torture unintelligible, if he cannot prevent its publication entirely. And he is not giving an inch in his now two-years’ war against the transparency and accountability he once said he favored. Readers know I’ve almost given up on them, and am deeply concerned that next year, a Republican-run Senate will bury the report for ever. That’s clearly John Brennan’s strategy, as it has been from the start. It’s also, clearly, Obama’s.

I once saw Obama as a way out of our torture shame. If he was never going to investigate and prosecute, as is demanded of any signatory to Geneva, I never thought he would actively prevent even some small measure of accountability. How wrong I was.

Senator Rockefeller calls it like it is after yet another meeting with John Brennan’s best friend, Denis McDonough, a Catholic for some reason dedicated to ensuring that torturers not only face no punishment or reproach, but that their crimes are protected from public accountability for ever:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who served as intelligence committee chair before Feinstein, was furious after the meeting, and accused the administration of deliberately stalling the report. “It’s being slow-walked to death. They’re doing everything they can not to release it,” Rockefeller told HuffPost. “It makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad, which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future,” he continued. “The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it.”

As negotiations continue, Rockefeller said Democrats were thinking creatively about how to resolve the dispute. “We have ideas,” he said, adding that reading the report’s executive summary into the record on the Senate floor would probably meet with only limited success. “The question would be how much you could read before they grabbed you and hauled you off.”

In this game of brinksmanship, it’s clear that Obama is prepared to risk the burial of the entire report. The Senators therefore need to come up with a way to bypass him and the rogue agency he refuses to hold to account. If they can’t read the report into the Congressional Record, there must be another way. To leave this rogue agency with the knowledge that it can do anything, commit any crime, violate any treaty, spy on its overseers, and never even face a public accounting, let alone punishment, of its crimes, is an invitation for these lawless agents to do anything they want in the future. And under a pro-torture, pro-war, pro-secrecy future Republican administration, we can only begin to wonder what they will get away with next.

Illiberal Feminism Strikes Again

This is a truly clarifying argument:

The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if it’s a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.

Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets. In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.

The context for this is the inability of a group called Oxford Students For Life to find a place on campus for a debate on abortion between two men. They were planning an event in Christ Church’s Junior Common Room, a typical place for a small-scale discussion. The group has had similar debates including women in the past. The pro-choice side was represented. But men, it seems, are not allowed to debate abortion at all, according to a fem-left group at my alma mater. Because: men. Even pro-choice men. In a country where pro-choicers greatly outnumber pro-lifers, and where the right to an abortion is deeply rooted in law. And their contempt for even the idea of free debate is palpable:

This Tuesday Oxford Students for Life are putting on a super cute debate with two cis guys on whether people with uteruses deserve to have any choice over their own bodies. We don’t think this is okay so (assuming the event is still going ahead) we thought we should go and say hi! … We are still hoping this gets shut down by the college (Christ Church).

The college canceled the debate in part due to concerns about “physical security” of the students – the danger that the college would be mobbed by protestors, making a debate impossible – and their “mental security” as well. What on earth does “mental security” mean? This apparently:

Mental security here refers to students’ emotional well-being, avoiding unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion. With a 300 person protest expected, the event could not have been self-contained and it would have been impossible for those in the closest staircases (at a minimum) to avoid being made acutely aware of the event.

Let me put this simply enough: Once free speech is made contingent on no one’s feelings being hurt, we no longer have free speech. Once that applies even within a university – the one space in our culture where free speech should be absolute – we have left liberalism behind on the march toward progressivism. That’s why the logic of “hate crimes” is so pernicious; that’s why the language of “micro-aggressions” leads to a public sphere in which some individuals, simply because of their gender or sexual orientation, are deemed unworthy of being allowed to debate. And those of us who speak out against this are damned in the same way: our integrity as human beings impugned, our characters wantonly besmirched, our views dismissed, and our arguments made to look as if they are mere prejudices.

Any movement that seeks to win this way is not a movement I want to be a part of. And feminism is too vital a cause and too integral part of our discourse to be hijacked in this fashion.

Live-Blogging Obama’s Immigration Speech


Well, I should confess something up-front. I found the president’s peroration deeply moving as an immigrant myself who has experienced a little of the fear and insecurity that being in some way on the wrong side of the immigration services can incur. The paradox of living somewhere and building a life and knowing that it can all be suddenly swept away; the thought of being separated from those you love – for ever; the stresses within families and marriages that such a shadowy existence can create. We need a full-throated defense of immigration in these cramped and narrow times, and the president was more than eloquent on that tonight – and made his case with a calm assurance and intensity. I’m gladdened by it – and I can only begin to appreciate how his words will have felt to millions of others.

Did he make the case that a mass deferral of deportations was the only option for him? Not so effectively. His strongest point was simply the phrase: “pass a bill.” Saying he is doing this as a temporary measure, that it will be superseded as soon as a law reaches his desk, gives him a stronger position than some suppose. There is more than one actor in our system. The president and the Senate have done their part; the House has resolutely refused to do its – by failing even to take a vote on the matter. Why, many will ask, can’t the Congress come up with a compromise that would forestall and over-rule this maneuver? What prevents the Republicans from acting in return to forestall this?

At the same time, he did not press the Reagan and Bush precedents. And his description of the current mess as a de facto amnesty was not as effective as he might have hoped. His early backing of even more spending on the border, his initial citing of the need for the undocumented to “get right with the law” by coming out of the shadows to pay back taxes, among other responsibilities, was a way to disarm conservative critics. It almost certainly won’t. But it remains a fact that the speech – in classic Obama style – blended conservative stringency with liberal empathy in equal parts.

Objectively, this is surely the moderate middle. Obama’s position on immigration – as on healthcare – has always been that. It’s utterly in line with his predecessor and with the Reagan era when many conservatives were eager for maximal immigration. His political isolation now is a function, first and foremost, of unrelenting Republican opposition and obstructionism. From time to time, then, it is more than good to see him openly challenge the box others want to put him in, to reassert that he has long been the reasonable figure on many of these debates, and to remind us that we have a president whose substantive proposals should, in any sane polity, be the basis for a way forward, for a compromise.

They are not, of course. And this act of presidential doggedness, after so long a wait, may well inflame the divisions further. I still have doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. But I see why this president refuses to give in, to cast his future to fate, to disappoint again a constituency he has pledged to in the past, and why he is re-stating his right as president to be a prime actor rather than a passive observer in the last two years of his term. That’s who many of us voted for. And we do not believe that the election of a Republican Senate in 2014 makes his presidency moot. Au contraire.

The branches are designed to clash and to jostle over public policy. And the Congress has one thing it can do now that it has for so long refused to do. It can act. And it should. The sooner the better.

The Culture Wars And … Manners

We really are back to the 1990s when I find myself agreeing with Jonah Goldberg:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing — mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone — a little — but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

One way to defuse the issue of, say, cat-calling is to insist on decent manners, rather than to turn the question into a bloody fist-fight over patriarchy. One way to have avoided “shirtgate,” for example, would have been to parse that micro-aggression as a failure of appropriate taste in the context of a public appearance, rather than seeing it as another micro-aggression against an entire gender. Of course, this can obscure deeper issues. And I’m sure not advocating that we constrain robust feminist critiques of clueless or sexist boorishness. But a question of manners can be neutral and less emotive grounds for actually achieving what we want to achieve in creating a culture more aware of what the world feels like for many women. Demand that men be gentlemen, rather than something other than men.

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. Conor has a typically smart and nuanced take on this in its particulars. When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitterstorm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

But all this means, of course, is that we actually need a set of manners for this age more urgently than in many others. Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Update from a reader, for the record:

Jonah Goldberg sighs about society’s lack of manners and decency:

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(Sidebar photo by Flickr user Butupa. This image was cropped by the Dish.)

Chewing Over Executive Action On Immigration, Ctd

I’ve been struggling with the issue of precedents for Obama’s proposed deferral of deportation initiative, so it behooves me to link to Mark Krikorian’s argument that the Reagan and Bush deferrals should not be counted as apposite. His first point is numerical:

Despite claims at the time that “as many as 1.5 million” illegal aliens might benefit from the policy, the actual number was much, much smaller. In 1990, Congress passed legislation granting green cards to “legalization dependents” — in effect codifying the executive action Bush had taken a just few months earlier. That (lawful) measure actually cast the net wider than Bush’s action, and yet only about 140,000 people took advantage of it — less than one-tenth the number advocates claim.

But could it be that the purported beneficiaries of the current deferral are also being over-estimated? What matters, surely, is how many children Reagan and Bush thought would be protected by their executive actions, if we are looking for a precise precedent of presidential intent. And the Reagan/Bush precedent did give the deferred the right to work. There’s also the argument that as a percentage of the total population of illegal immigrants, the numbers are not so dissimilar. In 1990, there were an estimated 3.5 million illegal immigrants in the US – so deferring deportation for 1.5 million meant deferring it for 43 percent of the relevant population. In 2014, there are 11.7 million illegal immigrants, of which up to 4 million would be affected by the proposed deferral. That’s 34 percent or 42 percent if you include the DREAMERs. Seems like a rough precedent to me.

Then Kirkorian argues that the Reagan/Bush precedent was a mere tidying up after the 1986 amnesty – and not a unilateral attempt to bypass the Congress:

It was a coda, a tying up of loose ends, for something that Congress had actually enacted, and thus arguably a legitimate part of executing the law — which is, after all, the function of the executive. Obama’s threatened move, on the other hand, is directly contrary to Congress’s decision not to pass an amnesty. In effect, Bush was saying “Congress has acted and I’m doing my best to implement its directives,” while Obama is saying “Congress has not done my bidding, so I’m going to implement my own directives.”

But a tidying up can mean many things. In this case, it meant giving a reprieve from deportation that the law did not itself contain. Yes, it was subsequently superseded by the 1990 law – but that indicates to me that it needed a law to make it more than an executive decision. And yet that executive action nonetheless went ahead.

It seems pretty clear to me that Obama may not be as out on a limb as some Republicans are claiming – but that he is pushing his luck in ways that, as I’ve argued before, are likely to hurt him and even the cause he seeks. He could make immigration a political liability for Democrats rather than for Republicans; or at the very least be credibly described as an initiator of partisan conflict, with unforeseen consequences. If I were advising POTUS, I’d urge that he use this threat as a way to negotiate an expeditious immigration reform bill. If that fails, by all means blame the Republicans. But it would be an act of great recklessness – both for his future and his legacy – to press ahead regardless.