Archive for July, 2011

The horrific terrorist attack in Oslo has led to a flurry of controversial accusations among commentators and critics over whether the anti-immigrant, anti-Ismlamic right wing extremism favored by the accused Anders Ehring Breivik are symptomatic—or even directly linked to—other movements on the political right in this country and in Europe. On the one hand, the lone gunman theory (actually the proper term is “lone wolf,” within the community of those who sturdy hate crimes); on the other the environmental and cultural argument. This holds that whether or not Breivik was or was not technically acting alone, he was also acting out crimes justified and enflamed by rhetoric and activism that speaks of “Islamification” of the west, “invasions” of immigrants, and the rejection of modern government as at once Marxist, fascist, multiculturalist, and socialist.

Yes, we have heard much of this before. And many on the left are pointing to the Tea Party. To anti-Islamist crusaders like Frank Gaffney, the group Citizens for National Security, and various conservative columnists.

Is this fair?

I’m going to dodge, and raise another point, about national sovereignty.

Beyond the rhetoric of Sharia-law takeovers and immigrant invasions is a more serious, legal and even philosophical dispute about the nature of nations and national sovereignty. About borders and citizenship. Especially since the Bush era, a cadre of intellectuals on the right have been advancing a “New Sovereignty” theory that is related to this current debate.

At its core, the New Sovereigntists argue that nations and their laws stop at their borders; thus the important of citizenship and immigration are implicated. Sovereignty and rights are enforced by nations and governments, set down in constitutions and codes by responsible governments, ideally democratic ones. Hence these thinkers harbor deep skepticism of “human” rights of “universal” rights, which they see as empty concepts, devoid of real legal meaning and thus potential tools of distant organizations such as the United Nations, which are not elected and therefore cannot be held accountable by the peoples of sovereign nations. A similarly deep skepticism of international bodies such as the U.N. and International Criminal Court usually follows. As does a similarly fierce defense of Israel’s absolute sovereignty–which is seen as perpetually under attack not only by Islamic terrorists on its own soil, but by Islamic nations and their allies at the United Nations.

New Sovereignty found many acolytes in the George W. Bush administration. Much has changed since the foreign policy of the United States has moved away from the his “preemption” doctrine championed by the neoconservatives then in government, who asserted we didn’t need anyone’s permission, thank you very much, to act in self defense. At least self defense as they understood it. In fact the war in Libya is almost Sovereignty in reverse. The United States sought and gained the approval of international bodies, but not the Congress of the United States.

New Sovereignty has interesting and substantial intellectual roots, some interesting, and surprising. One being Carl Schmitt, a German legal philosopher and Nazi collaborator who mostly rehabilitated himself after the war and is now being reexamined by postmodern scholars. Schmitt believed that the only distinction that matters in politics is friend and enemy; this blunt and Bismarckian idea grew in his later scholarship to a view of human and political history that encompassed the “Nomos of the Earth.” Nomos is the Greek word for the concept of rule of law on territory owned by a sovereign power.

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions.” -Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

What we hear today on the right about the incursion of foreign laws into our courts and invasions of foreigners into our communities, diluting our culture and the rule of law has parallels to this. It is happening here with the Tea Party movement and it is happening in Europe as well, in organized and sporadic fashion. I am not, to be clear, proposing a cause and effect scenario. Many of the New Sovereigntists’ arguments are intellectually and legally persuasive. They are important arguments worthy of consideration; my own critique of President Obama’s handling of the war in Libya is, actually, influenced by this thinking to a strong extent.

But ideas, and their followers, do not exist in a vacuum. I do not know if Breivik was reading Carl Schmitt, or anyone else. Or secretly in league with Tea Party Minutemen on the Arizona border. For my purposes, those are only some of the relevant questions. The underlying ideas matter as well, and they go far beyond what a deranged Norwegian scribbled in a manifesto.

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Michele Bachman gets migraines. And this should disqualify her from running for, or being, president?


She isn’t my candidate, but this seems off key, uncomfortably like piling on. Jack Cafferty is on CNN now describing how Bachmann had to take the extreme step of seeing doctors for the symptoms, and that she even had to turn off the lights and retreat for a spell when the symptoms hit. “Serious, potentially debilitating health conditions”: Jack asks whether this should be a “political issue.”

She’s even had to get a note from her doctor.

Does Jack and the rest of the crew not recall that John F. Kennedy dealt with debilitating pain throughout his life and his presidency? His severe back problems, heavy medications, and Addison’s disease did not prevent him from being the leader he was (see Cuban Missile Crisis).

It seems strange to be reacting with such a truism, but: those who suffer from medical ailments don’t choose to do so. JFK did not choose to have back pain or Addison’s; Franklin Roosevelt did not choose to have polio; Ronald Reagan did not choose to have Alzheimer’s. As detailed by historian Joshua Wolf Shenk in his book, Abraham Lincoln did not choose to suffer from depression; in fact Shenk concludes that it “challenged a president and fueled his greatness.”

Shenk reports that upon taking office, Lincoln was “in the dumps” and around the period of Fort Sumter was observed “keeling over with a heachache” (p. 175). Maybe even a migraine.

This is not to make comparisons between the Congresswoman from Minnesota and the 16th President of the United States in terms of stature. None applies. But it is to make a comparison about physical health and personality and perseverance. We all face physical challenges in our lives, some more than others. It does not stop us from being who we are, or realizing our potential.

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On Independence Day it seems fitting to offer some consideration of the ongoing debate over our foreign policy, military adventures around the globe and most prominently in the Middle East.

The flurry of activity over Obama’s Libya policy and his violation (or not) of the War Powers Resolution has led to some interesting discussion over conservatism, foreign policy, and “isolationism.” John McCain angered some when he warned against this in his  interview with Christiane Amanpour, which today prompted a withering critique from George F. Will.

Indeed there is a long history of isolationism in the modern conservative movement, with its roots most directly traceable to Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, whose voice seems to be speaking from the past through some of the leading GOP candidates. Taft, the conservative leader who led GOP opposition to the New Deal’s social programs, also clashed Dwight Eisenhower over foreign policy — and foreign aid, namely the Marshall Plan, which he only reluctantly supported. He also voiced strong skepticism over the war in Korea, which in some ways is analogous to the current non-war in Libya. Here is one quote from the Senator known then as “Mr. Conservative:” “In the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained.”

Taft lived and legislated in a pre-War Powers Resolution era, and it would be an interesting thought experiment to consider how he might have regarded the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the entire imbroglio of funding the ensuing Vietnam War, and the eventual WPR “solution” that Congress attempted to put in place. (A comprehensive history of the WPR is available here, from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.) The problem is the WPR is entirely ineffective, and has never been enforced by the courts despite cases brought by lawmakers against presidents for actions including Reagan in Grenada, George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War, Bill Clinton in Kosovo, and George W. Bush in the second Gulf War — a process I covered as a Washington reporter at the time.

In every single case the courts rejected or dismissed the suits, often citing technical issues about “standing” to bring suit in the first place, or, as the Supreme Court under Rehnquist often did, describing the matter as a “political question” that the judicial branch had no role in resolving. Some, including Presidents Nixon (who vetoed it) and Ford, considered the WPR unconstitutional in the first place. The courts have not explicitly agreed, but repeated failure to honor the WPR under all of the scenarios lawmakers have attempted to enforce it sure begins to look like a tacit admission of unconstitutionality. While it is still “on the books” as a law, many legal observers do not consider the WPR “good law” (a term of art) given its unanimously unsuccessful track record as a legal instrument. The rhetorical tussle over “upholding the Constitution” and “enforcing the law” is thus largely political stagecraft, and smart politicians like Speaker Boehner, who have been around long enough seen the WPR fail repeatedly in the courts, know it. The current president, under questioning from NBC’s Chuck Todd on the specific issue of the WPR’s constitutionality, dodged. In classic law professor fashion, he declared he “didn’t have to reach the question” because under his tortured definition of the non-war in Libya, the Resolution is not legally relevant.

Beyond the legal and rhetorical disputing remains the ideological question: When should a political party, in Congress or in the White House, and acting on behalf of what it believes to be the interests of the nation, support (and fund) the use of American military force? The true, Robert Taft, paleo-conservative line is that we should do so only when our national interests are at risk. George Will walks close up to this line, though in his typical, elusive and erudite manner he opts not to drive the point completely home. A clearer explanation of the old conservative line can be found here, in a column written by William A. Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review. Bill, who I was privileged to have known as a political sparring partner, was a keeper of the flame — unafraid in his older years to criticize the neoconservatives whose influence ballooned under George W. Bush. Rusher and some other authentic conservative like Peggy Noonan, called out the neoconservatives’ missionary-like zeal to “spread freedom” as having more in common with Woodrow Wilson (and that great and horrid first world war which did not either end all wars, or make the world safe for democracy). Here is a bit from Rusher, responding to Bush’s second inaugural address:

The president invokes the war on terrorism to sanction a major extension of Wilson’s argument: The world must not only be made safe for democracy; ultimately, democracy must prevail everywhere. In the words of a Bush critic, Pat Buchanan, that is “Wilson on amphetamines.”

But there has always been an argument over what the “American mission” (assuming it exists) obligates America to do in regard to other countries. John Quincy Adams made an important distinction early on: “We are the champion of freedom everywhere,” he declared, “but the vindicator only of our own.” On this basis, it has long been the rule that the lives of American fighting men would be put at risk only where a “vital American interest” was at stake.

Conservatives would be wise to consider this historical perspective, which a guru like Rusher, in typical fashion, takes not only back to Taft but to John Quincy Adams. (Unlike Will, Rusher is less afraid to quote Pat Buchanan.) George Will’s critique of McCain and his neocon desire to use force, sacrifice life, and spend money in defense of our “values” rather than our “interest” is a case that needs to be made loud and clear.  It is rife with partisan and political implications, but as the history of the WPR shows, it is not a party-line matter. Both left and right have, and continue, to confront executive use of the war power. The main problem Boehner and the conservative opposition now face is, in fact, mostly a product of their own party’s adoption of the neoconservative agenda decried by people like Rusher, Noonan, Buchanan, and others willing to speak out against the adventure in Iraq.

To close, a quotation from the great conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, who was of Taft’s generation but lived long enough to see the neoconservative takeover coming. He asked a question of these advocates on the right which we might well now ask of our president on the left, a man many admire for his intellect, cool demeanor, and measured persistence as he surveys the landscape — in Libya and elsewhere, making a calculus. Kirk asked:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, neoconservatives?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

We have knowledge of what is happening in Libya, of what may have happened in Benghazi, of troop movements and bombs dropped. We have information. But is our course wise?

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