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June 28, 2008

A Matter of Definition
Posted by David Shorr

We should get some of our terms straight.

Grand strategy -- An idea to make a quick thousand bucks.

Grand entrance strategy -- A diva's plan for arrival at a party.

Grande latte strategy -- Morning Starbucks routine.

Baby grand strategy -- 1. Piano mover's techniques for reaching the fifth-floor apartment. 2. How parents envision little Janey getting into Harvard.

Delusions of grandeur strategy -- Fallacies of what American power can and should accomplish. (See foreign policy, Bush Administration)

No, The Best Grand Strategy Is
Posted by David Shorr

Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide book cover buy this book. By reading it, you can find out the bipartisan points of agreement on which an Obama or a McCain foreign policy will be built. Two can play shameless promotion, Michael Cohen.

June 27, 2008

My Take on America's Grand Strategy
Posted by Michael Cohen

I think the best grand strategy for America is to buy Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.
Truly it is America's last best hope. Have a nice weekend!


More Fun With Grand Strategy
Posted by David Shorr

Okay, I can try to keep the grand strategy discussion going. I like Ilan's focus on the value of the international system itself and Shawn's invocation of the idea of global public goods. But while there's not much in their approaches I'd disagree with, I don't think either is really pointing toward worthy ultimate objectives or giving a strategy with the kind of heart and soul with which we can inspire a nation. Whatever the strategy, it needs to help guide policy, provide a basis for decisions/commitments/resources, and also strike a resonant chord with the voting public so that there's a sense of mandate and political support. Ilan and Shawn are both correct in some of the links they make to positive traditions in US foreign policy, but they way they do so leaves me kind of cold.

We are indeed reorienting America from being a revolutionary power toward being a status quo power, and properly so. The last several years have been nothing if not a reminder of the hazards and unintended consequences of major disruptions toward the status quo. Much of Ilan's argument, though, lays such a stress on stability that it leaves little room for change or, um, progress. (We're the progressives, after all.) So what kind of guidelines would help wrestle with the central dilemmas of foreign policy and animate it with the right sense of purpose?

Continue reading "More Fun With Grand Strategy" »

June 26, 2008

Russia Flip-Floppery
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Matt Yglesias points out that contrary to the McCain campaign's statement that his desire to kick Russia out of the G8 is  "a holdover from an earlier period" really makes little sense.  After all, that "earlier period" would only be three months ago when he made this point in what was billed as a major foreign policy address. 

Matt believes that this is probably inaccurate and that McCain hasn't flipped on this issue.  But let's assume for a second that he has.  This is a man who is running for the Presidency as the experienced expert on national security issues.  Yet here he is dealing with the country that has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world. A country that is critical to our non-proliferation policy, dealing with Iran, Europe and pretty much every single other major issue facing our foreign policy.  Calling for ousting them from the G8 and then casually reversing yourself through a surrogate is pretty careless and dangerous. 

If McCain hasn't reversed himself than it just shows a willingness to pursue a reckless and dangerous foreign policy.   If he has reversed himself, it still shows a grave error in judgment, cavalier attitude, and lack of knowledge that is quite disturbing.

Critiquing McCain's Foreign Policy in a Nutshell
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

David Morgan's article today in Reuters really nails McCain's foreign policy vulnerability.  Three major points.  The first, McCain has a reckless and dangerous foreign policy.  Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO Institute states:

"John McCain is almost a wholly owned subsidiary of the neoconservative movement when it comes to foreign policy," Carpenter said.

"The Democrats have to go on the offensive and stay on the offensive. The message has to be: John McCain and his foreign policy team are very, very dangerous for America," he added. "A worried American electorate on that score might very well shy away from McCain."

Second, the McCain foreign policy is internally inconsistent and often makes little sense.

They cite for instance McCain's call for Russia to be excluded from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations as a neoconservative position that could inhibit his more moderate call for arms reduction talks with Moscow.

Neoconservative idealism also appears to be behind his idea that world affairs could be addressed through a League of Democracies, analysts say, despite the U.S. need to work with autocratic countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia on vital issues including oil, Middle East peace and terrorism.

Finally, there is the obvious point that on many of the most critical issues of war and peace, most notably Iran and Iraq, John McCain is pushing the exact same policy as George Bush.  The media continues to assert that foreign policy is somehow McCain's strong suit, but it's really hard to imagine that a consistent argument along the lines above won't resonate completely with the American public and do great damage to this supposed strength.

Knight's End
Posted by Adam Blickstein

This strikes me as a little late in the game, your majesty:

On Wednesday, officials from Swaziland, Angola and Tanzania — the so-called troika empowered to speak for the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc of 14 nations — called on Zimbabwe to put off the voting because the current crisis would undermine its legitimacy.

Taking a different tack, Queen Elizabeth II stripped Robert Mugabe, the country’s president for nearly 30 years, of his honorary knighthood as a “mark of revulsion” at the human rights abuses and “abject disregard” for democracy over which he is presiding, the British Foreign Office said Wednesday.

June 25, 2008

America Afflicted
Posted by Shawn Brimley

So Ilan wanted me to do another post on strategy after his piece last week. Given that we all serve at his pleasure… here is my attempt.

America is suffering from profound strategic afflictions. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, the necessary conversation over the future of American power has yet to begin. What passes for a debate over America's purpose and place in the world occurs in campaign speeches and surrogate rhetoric divorced from the language of real choices and hard tradeoffs. Progressives need to do more than simply respond to attacks, we need to make a positive case for a strategy that can restore and renew American power. We need a grand strategy to make our country not just a great power, but a grand power.

What often goes unaddressed even in progressive circles is the fact that America is suffering from two fundamental and potentially crippling afflictions: strategic myopia and strategic amnesia.

America is suffering from strategic myopia. While the preponderance of American power is devoted to operations in the deserts of Mesopotamia and the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the attentions of other rising and revanchist great powers are focused elsewhere. During the Cold War, America power rested on the ability, along with allies, to retain primacy in the global commons – those sea, air, space, (and now cyberspace) dimensions upon and within which globalization depends. We have taken stability in the commons for granted – emerging powers have not. Welcome to the era of the contested commons.

  • A few weeks ago, Russia declared it would dramatically increase its naval operations in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans to demonstrate its expanding military might. As melting Arctic ice opens new year-round shipping routes, and as rising oil prices make resource exploitation more practical, Russia is making aggressive claims on the far north.
  • On January 11, 2007 China destroyed one of its own aging weather satellites with a ground-launched missile, demonstrating its developing anti-satellite capabilities. A year later, on February 20, 2008, the U.S. military destroyed one of its ailing satellites. With the United States and several rising powers increasingly dependent on space in the pursuit their military and economic interests, 2008 may, in hindsight, come to mark a turning point in the debate over the militarization of space.
  • The digital realm is also a likely venue for future conflict. Recent attacks on U.S. defense computers and even those of several U.S. members of Congress have been publically linked to China. The U.S. Defense Department recent created a new "Cyberspace" military command.
  • Rising powers such as China, India, Russia, and South Korea continue to invest heavily in naval capabilities, portending a future with up to a dozen so-called "blue-water" navies on the high seas – those that can project power far from their home shores. In 2006 near Okinawa, an advanced Chinese submarine surfaced very close to the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk before being detected. With 90 percent of global commerce traveling by sea, new naval powers will test America's ability to maintain stability on the sea – what Mahan in 1890 called "a great highway…a wide common."
  • Also worrisome are broader systemic trends like climate change and increasing competition for resources such as energy, food, and water that will not only strain relations among great powers, but put pressure on weaker states that will struggle to sustain both sovereignty and stability.

These examples only scratch the surface of some of the significant strategic trends taking shape around the world. While conflict is not inevitable, the fact remains that America risks being surprised yet again by fundamental developments in the international system. Progressives cannot afford to be myopic as we consider what a grand strategy for a new Democratic administration might look like.

America is suffering from strategic amnesia. Democrats have been complicit in allowing the Bush administration to turn its back on the fundamental strategic legacy of the Cold War. In our post-Cold War triumphalism and our post-9/11 paranoia, we have forgotten that our power is not permanent, but rests on pillars built and sustained by the so-called "greatest generation." These pillars are eroding, putting American power in jeopardy.

American power and influence are derived principally by providing the key global public goods that overlap with U.S. vital interests: stability in key regions; a vibrant global economy; and fair access to the global commons. Joseph Nye has recently argued that considering the relationship of American power to global public goods helps to unveil "an important strategic principle that could help America reconcile its national interests with a broader global perspective and assert effective leadership." Viewing grand strategy through this prism helps to widen the strategic aperture and reveal just how important the responsible exercise of American power is to the global system.

Far from a radical strategic departure, focusing U.S. power on leading the effort to sustain these basic features of the global system is well within America's strategic tradition. In many ways such an effort has dominated U.S. foreign policy for decades but has been obscured in recent years by a foreign policy dominated by the "war on terror" and, more recently, the President's so-called "freedom agenda." Both efforts are important, but necessarily subsidiary to the fundamental need to reinforce and sustain the global system. Recall that America's Cold War defense and national security policy was predicated on exactly these priorities. The United States used all the elements of its power to contain what George Kennan called "Russian expansive tendencies," but it also helped construct and then sustain an international system whose pillars continue to support today's world. Little since the end of the Cold War – including the 9/11 attacks – is cause to forget or ignore this powerful strategic legacy. As James Steinberg recently argued: "Far from justifying a radical change in policy, the evolution of the international system since the collapse of the Soviet Union actually reinforced the validity of the liberal internationalist approach." Containment was only one side of the Cold War coin – we have allowed ourselves to forget about sustainment, the more important strategic legacy from that twilight struggle.

These two core ideas – that myopia has blinded us to the emerging contest over the global commons, and that amnesia has led us to forget the powerful strategic legacy of sustainment – set up a powerful challenge to us all. How does America reset and renew its place in the world if we can neither see where we're going nor remember where we've been?

But these ideas, properly utilized, can also form a conceptual backdrop from which progressives ought to be able to construct a new vision that pivots off what we know works in order to chart a positive direction for America. This is our challenge.

Another incoherent policy proposal: McCain calls for expanding ground forces by 200,000!
Posted by Max Bergmann

John McCain's comment on the draft should draw attention to one of his most jaw-dropping policy proposals. Last winter, John McCain in his Foreign Affairs article proposed expanding the ground forces by an additional 200,000 troops (ie That is 150,000 more than the current expansion target). McCain pledged:

“As president, I will increase the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps from the currently planned level of roughly 750,000 troops to 900,000 troops. Enhancing recruitment will require more resources and will take time, but it must be done as soon as possible.”

This is a massive massive proposal that could not only blow a massive hole in the budget - but would either require major cuts in the procurement of weapons systems or would require a significant increase in DoD's budget.

To be clear the ground forces are currently attempting to expand by about another 50,000 over current levels (roughly 700,000) to a total active force of about 750,000. A loose bi-partisan consensus emerged in favor of increasing the ground forces early in the decade. In fact, the Center for American Progress has argued for increasing the size of the Army since it was founded in 2003. But Rumsfeld resisted and it wasn't until Gates came in that the administration authorized a permanent expansion of the Army and the Marines by 92,000 bringing the total size of the ground forces to about 750,000. Obama has supported this expansion as well.

But there are two massive massive problems in increasing the size of the ground forces - even by the currently proposed amount.

First, is the cost. Expanding the ground forces costs a lot of money because expanding requires not just paying additional soldiers and Marines, but procuring additional equipment to outfit them, as well as paying for the added benefits etc. The CBO estimated that increasing the ground forces to the current goal of about 750,000 would cost about $110 billion over seven years this is roughly $15 billion per year. Applying those projections to McCain's proposal - increasing the size of the ground forces over this same period would cost roughly an additional $25 billion per year. But even this number may be a conservative projection, since McCain is proposing a roughly 25 percent increase in the size of the ground forces and attracting that many more volunteers would likely require significantly more funding as more incentives will be needed to attract new recruits.

But the biggest difficulty in expanding the ground forces isn't cost - it's getting the recruits. We are in the midst of an incredibly unpopular war in Iraq. The ground forces, especially the Army have struggled to meet both current recruiting goals and to maintain recruiting standards - meaning any expansion while the U.S. is mired in Iraq will not only be very very difficult but could force the ground forces to further abandon their recruiting standards - leading to a degradation of the overall quality of the ground forces. This very fact has led many expansion proponents to argue for a slow growth approach that does not compromise these standards.

It is important to note that this isn't some proposal McCain submitted 5 years ago. This was six-seven months ago in the article which he lays out his defining vision and goals for U.S. foreign policy. In short, you would expect that a candidate running for President would have THOUGHT THROUGH the ideas that he was espousing in the most influential foreign policy journal in the United States and would stand by them.

He therefore should be held to account for the implications of this proposal and the implications of this proposal are massive. Look at his website - McCain calls for "modernizing the Armed services," which "involves procuring advanced weapons systems." He then also call for smarter defense spending. So if he is increasing the ground forces by 25%, and modernizing weapon systems, either we should expect a MAJOR increase in defense spending (which make his already bleak budget projections even worse) or he is talking about cutting many many weapons programs. Which is it? And what weapons programs are you cutting? Is he going to abandon recruiting standards?

Or is this just another case of John McCain having a completely contradictory and incoherent policy approach - and this being the issue that he has most emphasized his knoweldge and experience.

Live from the Campaign Trail
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Lftctcover250So, when he isn't blogging for Democracy Arsenal he's writing books.  Michael Cohen that is.  He has a new book out this week.  I would try to describe the book myself, but Michael emailed me his views about it recently, so I figured I'm better off just using his words, which you can read below.  Anyway, go buy it.

Live from the Campaign Trail is more than simply a collection of great speeches; it is at its core the story of American politics in the 20th century.  The speeches in this collection not only demonstrate the power of speechwriting and speechmaking to inspire and motivate the American people (for both high and low purposes) but they are also a repository of the ideas that have shaped our national discourse. Live from the Campaign Trail tells the tale of a quadrennial discussion that we have been having as nation about two competing visions of American democracy. For much of the 20th century, Americans have passionately debated two fundamental questions on the campaign trail – what is the role of government in the lives of the American people, and what is America’s proper role and responsibility in the world. How presidential candidates have sought to address these two questions serves as the very foundation of this book and informs the debate we are having on the campaign trail today between Barack Obama and John McCain.

Afghanistan in Peril
Posted by Patrick Barry

Today’s story in the LA Times drives home that Afghanistan very much teeters on the brink.  The news is sobering.  Attacks in Afghanistan’s once stabile regions to the east have risen by over 40%, and U.S. fatalities have nearly doubled from where they were this time last year.  Admiral Mullen struck an alarming tone, commenting on Monday that “Violence is up this year by every single measure we look at,” and that  “the Taliban, by and large, have moved -- not unlike what happened in Iraq -- to the asymmetric, IED-style warfare." In short, the situation in Afghanistan is dire.

Sadly, Afghanistan’s plight is a direct result of the Bush Administration’s failure to elevate the strategic importance of the country.  Military commanders there are struggling to implement a better strategy, but they have been completely handicapped by the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to address any other imperative outside of Iraq:

“Last year's troop buildup in Iraq and the overall strain on U.S. ground forces have made it almost impossible to increase force levels in Afghanistan.”

You would think that with Iraq experiencing unprecedented success on the security front that the President would encourage some kind of reconsideration of priorities, but it is clear that Afghanistan is still held hostage by his strategic drift.  Such is the myopia that Pentagon strategists can’t even plan for the worst contingencies in Afghanistan because the command in Baghdad is in an indefinite holding pattern:

“Still, other officials said that Pentagon planners do not know when they would have additional troops for Afghanistan because the outgoing commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, has not ordered further troop reductions.”

I give Admiral Mullen and the Pentagon credit - they’ve made unquestionable progress under the worst circumstances.  Their proposal to bring U.S. and NATO forces under one command is especially welcome, an idea that progressives at places like CAP and NSN have been pushing for months.

But ultimately, neither Admiral Mullen, nor even Secretary Gates can define success or failure in Afghanistan.  That is the job of the President.  He has to set the strategy. President Bush has had numerous chances to make Afghanistan a bigger priority.  He had every opportunity to deploy more troops to the region, improve strained relations with our NATO allies, or give clarity to an incoherent policy toward the terrorist safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Instead, he has let the situation devolve into the crisis we face today.  There is still time, in the waning days of his Presidency, to make the changes that Afghanistan so desperately needs, but today's news makes clear that the country cannot suffer his inattention any longer. 

The Iran Consensus
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I have a new piece up on the American Prospect on Iran.  The basic point:

in a feat that defies conventional wisdom, Barack Obama is more than just holding his own against John McCain. When it comes to Iran he has the American public and most foreign policy experts squarely behind him.

June 23, 2008

The Feckless and Craven Democratic Majority at Work
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today in the Congress we see more examples of the Democratic majority caving and capitulating to GOP demands . . . oh wait a minute:

After weeks of gridlocked negotiations, President Bush threw his support behind the legislation yesterday despite the tens of billions of dollars in domestic spending above his original demands.

Despite his original preference for a slimmed-down version, Bush embraced the veterans plan drafted by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). . . Under the program, often called the new GI Bill, veterans would receive enough money to pay even the most expensive state university tuition.

In addition to opposing the Webb bill, Bush originally contended that increased unemployment benefits were premature because an economic stimulus package enacted in February needed time to take effect, and he opposed an additional effort to rein in his power over Medicaid, the medical insurance program for the poor.

"He is reversing three distinct veto threats and signing them into law. If that ain't a victory, I don't know what is," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Unemployment insurance extensions and expanded veteran's benefits not your cup of tea - how about housing relief:

The Senate is also likely to vote on a major housing bill that includes a rescue plan aimed at helping thousands of homeowners at risk of foreclosure as well as a sweeping regulatory overhaul for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage financing giants.

Despite a strongly worded veto threat by the White House, bipartisan support for the bill seemed to gain momentum late last week and some Republican senators said they doubted that President Bush would refuse to sign the bill if it passes with wide support.

What about energy issues:

The angry war of words between Mr. Bush and Congressional Democrats over domestic oil drilling is likely to get louder and angrier this week, especially as the House moves to take up four bills intended to address high energy prices, including a measure tightening oversight of oil futures trading.

President Bush last week demanded that Congress end a federal ban on offshore drilling and open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. . . Far from being cowed, Democrats on Capitol Hill seemed to relish a battle over energy policy with a president and vice president viewed as closely tied to oil companies.

Democratic lawmakers in recent days have shown uncommon discipline in responding to Mr. Bush’s demand, repeatedly insisting that energy companies should first be forced to make use of 68 million acres of federal lands already leased to them for oil and gas exploration before they are granted access to more territory, and that the country needs to turn more aggressively toward the development of alternative energy sources.

Yes for progressives everywhere, it is rather unfortunate that Democrats won a Congressional majority in November 2006.

Below the Mendoza Line
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The Bush administration's judicial batting average on detainees and Guantanamo just dropped even lower:

A federal appeals court, in the first case it reviewed, has overturned the Pentagon's classification of a Guantanamo detainee as an enemy combatant.                                                 

A three judge-panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim known as a Uighur, is not an enemy combatant, undermining the basis for his more than six years in detention.

The court rejected the Bush administration's argument that the president has the power to detain people who never took up arms against the U.S

This is the first ruling from the 130 pending detainee appeals and first since the Boumediene decision. Needless to say, between Boumediene  and the Parhat decisions, it's looking less likely that September's detainee show trials will proceed unabated.

My Attempt at Grand Strategy
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Lately we’ve seen a slew of interesting writing on America’s role in the world and grand strategies for the 21st century (This seems to happen during election years).  Some of the best stuff I’ve seen lately includes:  A new CNAS Report (Shawn Brimley, Michelle Flournoy and Vikram Singh), Fareed Zakaria, Richard Hass, Matt Ygleisas, and Richard Betts.  Based on some of these writing and my own ideas, I thought I’d try my hand at what a new American strategy for the 21st century should look like.  This post is longer than usual, but it’s also been in my head for a while so please oblige me.

In terms of a word, I agree with the folks at CNAS that the overall strategy should be one of SustainmentThe goal of American foreign policy should be to sustain the international system that that has served the United States and mankind so well for the past 60 years. 

Two questions pop out from this basic statement.  Why should this be the goal of American foreign policy and how can it be accomplished.  So let me run through those.

Continue reading "My Attempt at Grand Strategy" »

June 22, 2008

More on FISA
Posted by Michael Cohen

Here at Democracy Arsenal it's all FISA all the time!

Over at Salon, my good friend Glenn Greenwald has made some rather incendiary charges about the FISA bill that seem to reflect much of the debate going on in the liberal blogosphere over this bill. I think it merits a response:

Glenn argues:

The very idea that Democrats would lose elections if they didn't support this bill is false on numerous levels. They could have easily removed the issue simply by voting to extend the PAA orders for 6-9 months. More importantly, Karl Rove's central strategy in the 2006 midterm election was to use FISA and torture to depict the Democrats as being Weak on Terrorism, and the Democrats crushed the Republicans and took over both houses of Congress.

I would invite Glenn to review the past forty years of American political history to see why the first part of this statement is pretty hard to swallow. As for the notion that Democrats won in 2006 because they fought the Republicans on terrorism; this is not really accurate. They beat the Republicans on Iraq, which unlike 2004 (when Democrats lost) most Americans saw as separate from the war on terror.

It is worth noting that even today most Americans favor the GOP when it comes to fighting terrorism and think by a 53-39 difference that John McCain is better able to handle the issue than Barack Obama. This is the one political issue on which Republicans have the greatest political advantage. If our intelligence capabilities were eroded in August because of the failure to agree to a FISA compromise this would have been a campaign issue in November; and I'm hard pressed to believe that it would have favored Democrats. In fact, considering that 61% of Americans think it was wrong for the Supreme Court to give habeus corpus rights to Gitmo detainees, I think I know the answer.

But the second part gets to the issue I'm trying to focus on here. Simply extending the Protect America Act (PAA) would not have allowed this situation to go away, because there is virtually no chance that the White House would have signed off on a PAA extension that didn't include retroactive immunity.

The Democrats were in a bind here; make concessions to the GOP on retroactive immunity or let the PAA expire and get beat up in the fall election by Republicans saying that the Democrats have weakened America's defenses against terrorism (a point by the way that would actually have a kernel of truth). Oh and also letting PAA expire would have weakened our ability to eavesdrop on potential terrorists. Does any progressive believe that weakening the Democratic majority in Congress and possibly electing John McCain as President would be good for progressives or the hope for enacting progressive legislation next year? Honestly, this is just cutting one's nose to spite their face. If you think that retroactive immunity is the single most important issue facing the country then I suppose you might think I'm wrong, but I prefer to take a broader view.

Now on to Greenwald's even more incendiary charge:

What the Democratic leadership is saying is quite clear: we will continue to trample on the Constitution and support endless expansions of the surveillance state because that is how we'll win in swing districts and expand our Congressional majority. . . . The only objective of Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer is to have a 50-seat majority rather than a 35-seat majority, and if enabling the Bush administration's lawbreaking and demolishing core constitutional protections can assist somewhat with that goal, then that it what they will do. That's what they are saying all but explicitly here.

Ignoring the larger question as to why Democrats might want to have a 50-seat majority (maybe to enact progressive legislation, like say measures to fight climate change or enact universal health care) this just flies in the face of reality. If Pelosi and Hoyer et all wanted to enable the "Bush Administration's law-breaking" then why did they resist passing the Senate Intelligence bill last Spring? A move, by the way, that was praised at the time by Mr. Greenwald.

Here again is what the New York Times had to say about the Democrats resistance to rubberstamping a bill highly favored by the White House:

The decision by the House Democratic leadership to let the law lapse is the greatest challenge to Mr. Bush on a major national security issue since the Democrats took control of Congress last year.

By refusing to pass the Senate bill, the Democratic Congress was able to get a BETTER FISA bill in the end - a view shared by an opponent of the current FISA compromise bill, Senator Pat Leahy.

All of this is ignored by those who prefer to beat their chests, call this bill a "capitulation" and fail to acknowledge the political realities that exist today in Washington. They ignore the fact that no matter how unpopular George Bush might be; he is still President of the United States and he still gets some say in how this legislation will look. They ignore the provisions in this legislation that will lead to improved oversight of domestic surveillance, they ignore the tools to modernize FISA and data collection writ large. Read here for a more detailed discussion of some of the important legal restrictions and modernization tools included in this legislation and here for another perspective on some of the problems in the compromise bill. And they ignore the fact that some Democrats, like Speaker Pelosi, might actually believe improving the intelligence community's ability to gather intelligence is a critical national security objective.

Pelosi had another reason for backing the compromise: unlike some on the left, she actually believes domestic surveillance laws needs updating in light of the new terror threats. "We can't go without a bill," she said on the House floor Friday, "That's simply just not an option." Existing U.S. surveillance law, passed in 1978, needs to be improved, she believes, not just to protect Americans at home but to protect U.S. troops in the field. "Our troops in the field depend on timely and reliable intelligence," she said

Finally, as I've said before the fact that White House has agreed to bind itself to FISA oversight is an important concession that should not be underestimated. Now many have argued that this was a key element of FISA for the past 30 years. This is certainly true, but clearly the White House and key Republicans disagreed and this was holding up the passage of FISA modernization legislation. Making this understanding a part of statutory law will bind future Presidents, either Obama or McCain. And while I have confidence in Barack Obama on this issue, I would also add that nothing in John McCain's background leads me to believe that he has much disrespect for the rule of law as this Administration or that he adheres to the belief in a unitary executive. So this seems to be an important tool in obligating future Presidents to the centrality of the courts in conducting domestic surveillance.

Now again some will argue that the concession on retroactive immunity is simply too much to bear and that this legislation is thus horribly flawed. Clearly I don't agree, but I can't say that I don't respect the argument. I am bothered too by the lack of accountability for both telecom companies and the officials who put this surveillance system in place. (Although I am pleased to note that the IGs of various agencies will be forced, under this legislation, to issue a report on its legality).

I understand that people can disagree; but respect for genuine disagreements seems to be a one-sided game. Take as a final example, Greenwald's argument that progressives should raise money to target Democrats who supported this bill.

If, as a result of their destruction of the Fourth Amendment and the rule of law, they see that they lose seats -- that John Barrow and Chris Carney are removed from Congress and Steny Hoyer's standing in his district is severely compromised and that list of targets continues to grow -- then they'll conclude that they can't build their Vast and Glorious Democratic Majority by dismantling the Constitution and waging war on civil liberties. The Democratic Party in Congress is enslaved to the goal of winning more "swing districts" by supporting extremist measures -- such as the FISA "compromise" -- that please the right-wing. They need to learn that they won't benefit, but will suffer, when they do tha

"Dismantling the Constitution," "waging war on civil liberties;" honestly this is pure insanity. Does anyone truly believe that Democrats in Congress are intent on "dismantling the Constitution?" Seriously, Greenwald and others need to get a grip. You want to disagree with those Democrats who supported this bill, fine - I'm not here to tell you that you're wrong. But to suggest that progressives should then raise money to lessen the Democratic majority in Congress and subsequently ignore the fact that the only reason we are even having this debate is because of the lawless practices of George Bush; well if you think this is a good idea, you need to have your head examined.

This is the sort of "logic" that underpinned Ralph Nader's 2000 run for the White House, and we all know how well that worked out. There is a significant difference in how the two parties view the issue of domestic surveillance. This recent Congressional debate demonstrated that fact. Those who would imperil a Democratic majority ignore this highly salient fact at their own peril.

I have said this once and I will say it again until I am blue in the face; this is an imperfect bill, but Democrats were NEVER going to get a perfect bill out of this President and this divided Congress. They were NEVER going to get a bill that didn't feature retroactive immunity. They got a bill that was a policy improvement and a political victory. This is the way Washington works; there is a no such thing as a perfect bill and even if Barack Obama is elected in November and he has a strong congressional majority simply ramming legislation down the throat of the Republicans is a neither politically smart, nor a terribly effective way to run a country. We have a political system that embraces political compromise and rejects one-sided solutions to serious policy challenges. This bill is a good example of that approach to governing.

We should stop making perfection the enemy of good.

FISA Compromise II
Posted by Michael Cohen

So a few folks have responded to my Friday blog on the FISA compromise and I wanted to take this opportunity to say a few more words about it.

I should start off by saying once again that I am not thrilled with this bill; and I'm bothered by the retroactive immunity pass (though I'm fairly convinced that even without it telecom companies would never have been held legally responsible for this actions). But, I continue to believe that this was the best bill Democrats were going to get out of this White House and that the Democratic leadership made a smart and pragmatic decision to agree to this compromise.

Clearly I am in the minority in the liberal blogosphere. One of the more pernicious criticisms of Congressional Democrats has been the notion that the party "caved" on FISA. Indeed this argument is everywhere on the TPM website and the New York Times called it a "capitulation." Glenn Greenwald, in his usual understated style, accused the Democrats  of appearing to be "surrendering and fearful." But these criticisms are wildly off-base and represent, on some levels, a fundamental misreading of how our legislative system works and the larger national security issues at play.

The FISA Compromise would only be a "cave" if the Democrats had another option than the bill which passed - they didn't. It was either this bill or no bill at all, because as I've noted before the White House would never have gone along with legislation that did not include retroactive immunity. (And of course from a technical standpoint the current bill does not include retroactive immunity, but instead forces the telecom companies to show in Court that they received written assurance from the White House that the spying was illegal). If the Democrats passed an extension of current FISA law, it seems clear that the White House would have vetoed it and Republicans in Congress would have not supported an override.

Frankly, many opponents of the bill have been overly blase about the consequences of such a development. In August, the one current one-year extension of FISA would have expired, with dangerous consequences for our intelligence-gathering ability. Here's how the Times describes the problems in a June 10th article.

A return to the old rules, they said, would mean that government lawyers, analysts and linguists would once again have to prepare individual warrants, potentially thousands of them, for surveillance of terrorism targets overseas.

Telecommunications companies would also have to spend considerable time shutting down existing wiretaps, and then start them up again if ordered under new warrants, officials said. In some instances, the broad orders given to the companies starting last August cover tens of thousands of overseas phone numbers and e-mail addresses at one time, people with knowledge of the orders said. A senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration was concerned that reverting to the older standards and requiring individual warrants for each wiretap would create a severe gap in overseas intelligence by raising the bar for foreign surveillance collection.

In some cases, the government might simply be unable to establish in court why it suspected that a foreign target was connected to terrorism. Part of the problem, officials said, is that communications going from one foreign country to another sometimes travel through a telephone switch on American soil and, under some interpretations of the older rules, could not be tapped without an individual warrant.

Even some Democrats, at odds with the White House for months over the surveillance issue, said they were worried about the summer situation. “Until August, we’re O.K.,” said one senior Democratic Congressional aide involved in the negotiations. “After August, we’re not O.K.

This would be completely unacceptable from a national security standpoint. The three months before a US presidential election are a prime moment for a terrorist attack. To leave the United States even one iota vulnerable would be an example of the Congress abdicating its national security responsibilities. As I've said before, this bill is hardly what I consider ideal, but with the recognition that the White House had made retroactive immunity it's red line in these negotiations, Democrats had a responsibility to do the right thing here. Lord knows expecting responsible behavior from the White House on this issue is a fool's errand.

Some have argued that Democrats could care less about the policy implications of FISA and only care about maintaining their congressional power, but again it's a bit more complicated than the hyperbole would suggest.

As Nate Silver points out at, 23 out of 31 swing district Democrats voted for this bill. One can wonder whether it's because they are simply more conservative than other Democrats or because they are concerned about holding on to their seat, but for Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer to have allowed this issue to be used as a political tool against them, they would have been undercutting their own caucus. That hardly seems like smart leadership to me.

As for Barack Obama's support for the compromise, Nate hits is right on the head:

I'm not sure that he had much choice but to come out in support of the legislation. Was he really going to throw Nancy Pelosi under the bus and pick an intraparty fight when she was as instrumental as anybody else in Washington in getting him the nomination? Was he really going to run afoul of the Blue Dogs when they are probably his swing voters in passing some version of national health care legislation?

For those who argue that the Democrats are not interested in the particulars of the FISA bill and just want to take it off the political table, well what about the fact that back in February they stood up against the White House and refused to rubberstamp an extension of the FISA bill?

Truth be told, Congressional Democrats actually deserve praise on one level. In February, they resisted White House pressure to pass an immediate extension of the Protect America Act (passed last August) and demanded more significant changes to the law - hence the agreement we have today, which even Patrick Leahy (an opponent of the most recent compromise) agrees is a significant improvement.

With respect to the surveillance authorities, I believe the bill represents an improvement over the flawed legislation passed the Senate earlier this year.  I applaud Representative Hoyer and Senator Rockefeller for their diligent work in negotiating this package.  They added protections to the surveillance authorities that bring it closer to the bill the Senate Judiciary Committee reported last year.  If the bill passes, I will work with the next administration to make additional improvements.

Finally, one of the greatest criticisms of the Bush Administration has been that they have played partisan politics with national security. I think all of agree that we need more bipartisanship on these issues and if Democrats think it's a smart thing to ram legislation down the throat of Republicans come January then we risk falling in to the same cycle of recrimination and bitter divisiveness on foreign policy decision-making. Passing legislation is fundamentally, in our political system, about compromise and it's not always pretty.  Democrats backed down on retroactive immunity, the Bush Administration conceded that the judicial branch must have oversight of domestic eavesdropping and the nation has a better ability to conduct domestic surveillance and, hopefully, prevent the next terrorist attack. It's not ideal, but under the circumstances it's not a bad deal.

(Tomorrow, I will write a few words about why I think telecom companies are getting a bum rap here.)

Security Commitment to Iraq
Posted by David Shorr

National Security Network, host of this bog, has a new paper about the status of forces and security framework agreements under negotiation with the Iraqi government. It makes a number of important points (a couple of which highlighted by Matt Yglesias), especially regarding provocations to Iraqi sensitivities over national sovereignty (and dignity) and the question of US security guarantees. There's a very important procedural issue regarding the latter, and something about the surrounding debate has been gnawing at me.

With just seven months until the inauguration of a new president, these negotiations have drawn much scrutiny to see exactly what commitments the current administration is making. The focus and the frame has thus been (understandably) an issue of our forthcoming transition of government and any associated reformulation of Iraq policy. The key distinction is drawn, including in the NSN piece, between the legal matter of the status of US forces and the strategic choice of a durable commitment to Iraq's security. It has also been noted that such security guarantees are properly a matter for a treaty, and therefore the advice and consent of the US Senate. If we talk about this purely as a question of the hand-off to the next administration, though, we're missing a critical Constitutional point about the separation of powers.

It's not just that security guarantees would tie the hands of the next president. More fundamentally, it would commit us as a nation. And that is the point about senate ratification; the Constitution requires the consent of the legislature (half of it, anyway) as a political mechanism to ensure that the country does not enter such commitments lightly. [For a couple of closely related 20th Century texts see: Walter Lippmann's definition of a solvency in his US Foreign Policy - Shield of the Republic and Sen. John Stennis' lecture in his 1971 AEI-sponsored debate on the role of Congress with Sen. William Fulbright.]

So whatever the proper connection between future Iraqi and American security, not only is it too large an issue to be handled in a SOFA agreement, it could be the next test of the overreach of executive powers. 

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