Thursday, May 23, 2013

Obama's invitation to collaborate

There's a lot to talk about in the President's far-ranging speech on dealing with terrorists, including such matters as presidential war powers, drone policy, lethal targeting of Americans, Benghazi, Boston, and prosecution of leaks of classified information.  What I think is most promising is this:

Now, all these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact, in sometimes unintended ways, the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.
The 2001 law was consciously limited to those involved with the 9/11 attacks or linked to them. Something needs to be done to deal with continuing threats by groups that are not specifically associated with al Qaeda or only vaguely linked to them. The President  has opened the door for congressional involvement. That's good. I hope they get together and work out a reasonable system for handling these issues.

Monday, May 20, 2013

president 1, advisors 0

Accountability confers enormous power.  White House advisers may fight battles in their memoirs, but only the President is held accountable for presidential actions. Presidents also tend to be held accountable, at least by the political opposition, for actions of distant subordinates. [See Benghazi and Cincinnati IRS office for the latest examples.]

Fred Kaplan has a fine piece listing several important presidential decisions against the advice of his national security advisers, including Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan on "star wars," and G.W. Bush on the 2007 "surge" in Iraq. Obama's reluctance to get more deeply involved in Syria is just the latest example.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

incompetence, not conspiracy

The IRS controversy over tax exempt organizations illustrates a point I often make about foreign policy: when you suspect a conspiracy, look first for incompetence. The Benghazi talking points emails revealed bureaucratic in-fighting, not a political coverup. The same appears true of the IRS.

The New York Times has a long piece showing how inundated the Cincinnati office was with requests to have 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 tax status, propelled not only by a Citizens United case allowing political groups but also by a small change in the law regarding purely charitable organizations that required some re-filings.

The overworked bureaucrats struggled to handle the paperwork -- and it was mostly on paper, making the process even messier. And they made politically embarrassing mistakes, for which two Bush-appointed offiicials have now paid with their jobs. I can understand the GOP yearning for scandals, but I wish they'd show a little mercy for the civil servants.

Another irony in this case is that the really suspect organizations that have huge political operations were able to avoid the backlog because they had clever tax lawyers helping them.

Furthermore, Tea Party groups did themselves no favors by filling out the applications in an amateurish manner, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the New York Times and columnist at David Cay Johnston. “It’s like applying for a mortgage,” Johnston told Salon. “If you write it out wrong, you’re going to get flagged. And there are examples of these groups saying they’re not political and then saying their goal is to influence legislation.”

Friday, May 17, 2013

Syria breaking up?

My mind has been elsewhere, figuring grades for students and seeing grandchildren. Now I discover that Emma Sky says Iraq is "spiraling out of control." And today the New York Times says Syria is on the verge of breaking up.

Two key quotes. From reporter Ben Hubbard:
Increasingly, it appears Syria is so badly shattered that no single authority is likely to be able to pull it back together any time soon.
Instead, three Syrias are emerging: one loyal to the government, to Iran and to Hezbollah; one dominated by Kurds with links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq; and one with a Sunni majority that is heavily influenced by Islamists and jihadis.
And from a military analyst:
“The only real outcome I see in the next 5 to 10 years is a series of cantons that agree to tactical cease-fires because they are tired of the bloodletting,” said Mr. Holliday, the analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. “That trajectory is in place, with or without Assad.” 
No wonder the president has ruled out unilateral U.S. action.
"This is … an international problem," Obama said at a White House news conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "It's not going to be something that the United States does by itself. And I don't think anybody in the region would think that U.S. unilateral actions … would bring about a better outcome."
I can't see how the supporters of U.S. intervention in this messy conflict could ever make this work in America's interests.