Balkinization  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sleepwalking

Sandy Levinson


I am close to finishing a truly great (and thoroughly depressing) book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Cambridge (England) historian Christopher Clark.  It portrays how a group of decisionmakers from many different countries chose actions that eventuated in the true catastrophe of 1914-1918 (which led quite directly to the even greater catastrophe of 1939-45).  No one "chose" World War I, of course; most of them believed that a show of force would lead to a relatively quick victory.  They were wrong.

I discovered a few moments ago that I'm in the 30% of the people responding to a Washington Post poll (obviously scientifically unreliable) who think the Administration is correct in not cutting off military aid to the dreadful people now running Egypt.  Listening to stories about what happened in Cairo yesterday is wrenching, and Obama was surely correct in cancelling the joint military exercises with Egypt.  If he can cancel the meeting with Putin (which I also oppose) because of the relatively minor Snowden episode (there is, obviously, no extradition treaty with Russia, and there is a millennium-long tradition of offering political asylum to political refugees), then, obviously, the military exercises had to go.  But cutting off the $1.5 billion of aid, however satisfying as a statement--but about what, the savagery of the repression yesterday, or the decision to displace the elected president who was himself proving to be a disaster on a variety of grounds?--could well threaten a variety of American and world interest.  Think of Donald Rumsfeld and "known unknown" as well as the more dangerous "unknown unknowns."  What might happen if we cut aid off?  Perhaps the military would be tempted to renounce the peace treaty with Israel; indeed, that treaty is a major explanation of the aid in the first place.  Perhaps more serious, as a threat to American interests, would be a decision to cut off trade through the Suez Canal.  Or perhaps that would happen simply through the dissolution of the Egyptian State.  Are we prepared to send in American troops on the ground--I'm afraid drones will prove completely irrelevant--to capture the Canal?  Israel, France, and the UK tried that in 1956, and Ike, to his eternal credit, realized that was a truly terrible idea. 

I also find myself supporting the Administration's waffling in Syria.  Does anyone really believe that the US has a magic wand it can wave to make things come out all right in that country?  I initially supported Obama back in 2008 because I had more faith in his judgment than in then-Senator Clinton's.  I share many of the disappointments with Obama.  I'm afraid he has reinforced my view that we ultimately should junk the presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one that would produce not only less gridlock but more capable and experienced national leaders.  But I really don't know what beyond sheer hopefulness--similar to what was expressed in a number of embassies in July 1914--supports the call that he be more "decisive" and use American power to "intervene" in the really terrible situations in both Syria and Egypt.  How much of a more general conflagration do we want to risk?  (And, yes, I support his waffling on Iran.)  Should we really "sleepwalk" into a general Middle East War as the self-proclaimed "indispensable nation"? 

Comments:

I don't really know what I think of continuing/cutting off aid to Egypt as a policy matter; The people running the joint are awful, the people they're keeping out of power are terrifying, the good guys are too few to matter in that area.

But I don't think this is one of those cases where policy preference ought to matter. There's a law already on the books MANDATING a cut off of aid in the event of a coup, and there was a coup. End of the matter, if we're to maintain, (At this point, restore...) the rule of law.

We do believe in the rule of law, don't we? Or has it come to hoping we have the right dictator?
 

The law is discussed here with a link to further details:

http://truth-out.org/news/item/17420-cut-off-us-aid-to-egypt-its-not-just-a-good-idea-its-the-law

I have also read it said that money already handed out doesn't count -- it concerns any further upcoming aid. There are also ways to give aid to Egypt that realistically might get to the military even under the provision.

Sounds a bit complicated but to the degree it is required, sure, follow it. Anyway, more information on Russia's medieval tradition of offering political asylum would be interesting.

As to use of aid as a stick, seems a realistic thing to do as a matter of foreign policy. Is a lot less malign than threatening to withhold aid to force immunity from prosecution for human rights violations.
 

Brett makes a very good point. If liberals expected the Reagan Administration to obey the Boland Amendment (which they did not) or the Obama Administration to play fair with the notion of "hostilities" (which they did not), then whether a coup occurred should be determinative. It certainly looks more like a coup today than it arguably did a month ago.
 

I'm curious. Was your greater faith in Obama's versus Clinton's judgment based solely on their different positions on the Iraq war? Admittedly a good data point, but a pretty small sample size.
 

Iraq certainly played a very large role.
 

The traditional Middle East has expanded into the Greater Middle East so as to include northern Africa and Central Asia. The current hot spots Egypt and Syria are in the traditional Middle East. But potential hot spots abound as the baloon of the Greater Middle East is squeezed. Iraq and Afghanistan have not been resolved. Israel and the Palestinians may be at the table, but perhaps not long enough for dessert to be served. The issues go back several centuries. Consider the many conflicts that have taken place over that period without resolving the issues. It is fair to say that the issues have exacerbated in the post several decades, with no resolutions in sight.

During the Cold War, "The Mouse that Roared" provided international political humor. Since then, there have been many variations on the theme of that movie and America's role' but their humor is of the gallows variety. Certainly we should have learned after Afghanistan and Iraq that guns, butter and tax cuts primarily for the wealthy dilute America's role not only at home but as the world's chief military, economic and political power.

So what is the alternative to "waffling"? Getting our bacon fried? Our volunteer military had its hands full with Afghanistan and Iraq, a military that cannot resolve sex crimes problems within its ranks. And then there's the gridlock in Washington, DC. So let's put some syrup on the waffling rather that lead down the road to more of our young volunteers (mostly from lower economic tiers) being killed and wounded. Have we not learned the lessons of even the recent past?
 

The US started this aid to bribe Egypt to abandon the Soviet Empire, become a US client state and to stop warring on Israel. The rationale for this bribery disappeared with the Soviet Empire.

We certainly should not be rewarding the Egyptian military for imposing coups and slaughtering the supporters of an elected government, even if we justifiably do not care for that government.

Chile, anyone?
 

The PBS Newshour segment yesterday:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/july-dec13/egypt2_08-15.html

identifies the complexities involved in America's interests in Egypt - and in the entire Greater Middle East. I understand that Arab countries provide Egypt much more funding than does America. The end of the Soviet Empire did not resolve the issues of Israel and the Palestinians. I would image that Commentary might find problems with cutting the aid to Egypt. Foreign policy, especially with the Greater Middle East, is more complex despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union as Russia's interests are not in sync with America's interests in this area. Balancing America's interests on the high wire over the Greater Middle East remains risky.
 

Well, we did call for Mubarak to step down. Of course, that was when people thought that the Arab Spring would be like 1989, not 1789.
 

I agree with Brett. The thing is, I've heard this argument on the right and on the left, but not from anyone in Congress. Makes it kind of hard to enforce a law if even the legislature doesn't care.
 

Brett:

Our dictator, er... president crossed the Rubicon of ignoring laws he did not like years ago.

Just smile and grin at the change all around.
 

As noted in a recent post:

“We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers.”

 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

Shag: "The end of the Soviet Empire did not resolve the issues of Israel and the Palestinians."

Seriously, what does this matter to the United States?

The only vital interest the US has in the Middle East is oil. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have any and our ally Israel can handle its own affairs in that region.

The United States should be accelerating it's exploitation of shale oil and gas to become energy independent of the Middle East and encourage our allies to do the same. Then, the Middle East does not matter much any longer.
 

Our SALADISTA's comprehension of foreign policy matches his expertise as an economist.

Now that our SALADISTA advances Pres. Obama from Caesarist to "dictator" a search for a new alias may be in order. But our SALADISTA's claim that it's the oil is a reminder that the Bush/Cheney Iraq invasion was initially described by that administration as "Operation Iraqi Liberation" and quickly dropped for obvious reason and changed to "Operation Iraqi Freedom." George W. hit a few dry holes in his TX wildcatting days (pre-TX Rangers bailout) and just who is getting the benefit of Iraqi oil today?

Our SALADISTA's mother-fracking energy policy was the subject of Stephen Colbert Nation show yesterday.

And maybe J-Streeters may react to our SALADISTA's take on the insignificance to US interests of the Israeli/Palestinian issues on the Greater Middle East volatility. [Is this a Tea Party position?] Even if America become energy independent, the Greater Middle East will still continue to matter, as the world gets smaller. Israel can defend itself with its nuclear arsenal, if push comes to shove, but the results could be disastrous for not only the region but for the world. And how could America avoid coming to the aid of its ally? More terrorists would be created.

Yes, neither Israel nor the Palestinians have oil; neither does Afghanistan and Syria. And Iraq's oil does not favor US interests despite what Bush/Cheney did to/for Iraq.
 

Shag: "Now that our SALADISTA advances Pres. Obama from Caesarist to "dictator" a search for a new alias may be in order."

No need to treat us all to yet another similarly witty nickname. I was responding to Brett's post using his term.

Caesarist is still my preferred term for our not-quite dictator. Historical references to King James II and the Glorious Revolution go over most readers' heads.
 

Shag referenced "The Mouse That Roared." I recently found out that the final entry in that amusing series (also made into a couple films, though like the books better) concerned them finding an energy source. Have not read it yet.

Waiting for Mr. W. now that "Caesar's Ghost" has been alluded to.
 

Sandy Levinson:
"Brett makes a very good point. If liberals expected the Reagan Administration to obey the Boland Amendment (which they did not) or the Obama Administration to play fair with the notion of "hostilities" (which they did not), then whether a coup occurred should be determinative. It certainly looks more like a coup today than it arguably did a month ago."

I don't see how that's the case. Perhaps you can say that the junta looks more malign today than they did a month ago, but when the military removes an elected President that's a coup. The law in question doesn't distinguish between good and bad coups, though one could perhaps argue it should.
 

Brad may well be right. Can one credit a distinction between a military intervening as the agent of a genuine popular movement, with the aim of turning over power to the leaders of that movement, and a military takeover, even if in the abstract name of "the people," that places power in the hands of the military itself? I'm truly asking.
 

Granting democratic legitimacy to movements based on the size of their political protests seems like a bad idea to me. At least unless accompanied by canceled elections or some other indications that the procedural machinery of democracy are being subverted.

In this case, I really don't see what couldn't wait until the next election cycle. If at that point they tried to subvert the election or refused to be replaced, then the army could have stepped in.
 

Does it matter how long the "election cycle" is. One of my objections to the US Constitution is that even if we come to the (correct) conclusion after a year that a given president is fundamentally untrustworthy in terms of judgment, we're stuck with him/her for three more years, and a lot of bad things can happen in that time. If, on the other hand, we come to that realization only a year before the next election, then maybe it makes sense to tough it out. I have no idea when the next election was planned in Egypt. Again, the question is, does it matter?
 

I was not aware of "The Mouse That Roared" series that Joe referenced, so I did a little Googling, locating Leonard Wibberley's "The Mouse That Saved the World" published in 1981, involving overcoming OPEC. The good news is that BPL has this (as well as many other books written by Wibberley). The bad news is that it is available for use only in the library, which will make it difficult for me primarily because of my continuing eye problem. I am not aware that it has been made into a movie. Of course energy has changed significantly since 1981 with discoveries outside of the traditional Middle East, especially in the Western Hemisphere. While these discoveries may limit the power of OPEC, they may exacerbate global warming. Some years back, I wondered what might be the impact of OPEC losing power as its oil reserves diminished, especially on those countries whose economies were based upon oil. The wealth of OPEC countries, for the most part, has not trickled down very much to benefit most of their populaces, so the loss of OPEC power would oppress those populaces even more. Alas, the effects of the zero sum game may lead to more terrorism.

Now let's talk about water and fracking as America becomes more energy independent. Will Poland Springs supply our needs to quench our thirst?
 

"I have no idea when the next election was planned in Egypt. Again, the question is, does it matter?"

Likely not, as the plan would almost certainly have either been changed, or it would not have been a free election. The Brotherhood are, to put it mildly, not nice people. To think they'd let a free election displace them is the height of naivety.

Nor should it matter, as the law doesn't give Obama the discretion he is exercising.

The key difference, (Besides frequency, of course.) between Reagan and Obama's failures to "see the law faithfully executed", is that Reagan knew he was wrong in what he was doing. He concealed the aid to the Contras, because he knew it was illegal.

Obama? He has no problem at all violating the law right out in the open. He'll call a press conference to announce he's not going to follow the law! He brags about not following it. His is the vice that feels no urge to pay tribute to virtue.

Reagan broke the law, but he was no great threat to the RULE of law. Obama has rejected the rule of law. His operating principle seems to be that, so long as he has enough votes in the Senate that he can't be convicted in an impeachment trial, he can do any damn thing he pleases.

Sandy, were the tables turned, and a Republican President behaving this way, you'd be calling for a revolution, if you didn't stroke out first. You'd never tolerate this degree of lawlessness in a Republican President.

You shouldn't in Obama, either.
 

The president is under no obligation to call something a coup if he thinks it's not in the interest of the United States to call it a coup. If he (or his administration) doesn't call it a coup, then the law isn't triggered (by the administration), and he isn't breaking the law. The hyperventilation about the rule of law on this question is unserious. if you want to hyperventilate about the president's mendacity; fine, have it. Congress could pass a resolution finding the events to constitute a coup and trigger the law that way if they're so interested in seeing that happen.

As to this:

"Are we prepared to send in American troops on the ground--I'm afraid drones will prove completely irrelevant--to capture the Canal? "

Are you kidding? Of course we are. There wouldn't have been five world events more directly threatening to U.S. vital interests in the last 49 years if that (the closing of the canal due to political unrest/civil war in Egypt) were to happen.
 

"The president is under no obligation to call something a coup if he thinks it's not in the interest of the United States to call it a coup."

So, you're the party of Humpty Dumpty? Won't be bossed around by words, they just mean whatever you intend them to mean?

This is the death of the rule of law, because laws are written in words, and if the executive isn't bound by the existing meaning of words, he can just make up meanings that don't get in his way, then the law no longer binds him.

You're throwing away the utility of language to convey meaning, just because sometimes you find the meaning uncongenial.
 

Brett is obviously a revolutionary when it comes to Democrat presidents. I don't recall that democrats were revolutionary about Richard Nixon's role in Watergate and post-Watergate. I don't recall that democrats were revolutionary about the Reagan administrations violations that necessitated the need of pardons to key cabinet members. I don't recall that democrats were revolutionary about the Bush/Cheney 8 years of ineptitude that gave us two wars, two tax cuts for the wealthy, all unpaid, capped by the Great Recession of 2008. Much of the turmoil in the Greater Middle East was fostered by the ineptness of Bush/Cheney, both men of oil. No, Brett is selective with Obama who has shown more transparency that either Reagan or Bush/Cheney. Perhaps it is the transparency of Obama in so many ways that irks Brett to show his true colors.

I wonder if Sandy continues to think that Brett makes a good point. I don't know how Sandy would react if a Republican president did these things, but I doubt that it would be revolutionary.
 

"Obama? He has no problem at all violating the law right out in the open. He'll call a press conference to announce he's not going to follow the law! He brags about not following it. His is the vice that feels no urge to pay tribute to virtue.

Reagan broke the law, but he was no great threat to the RULE of law."

I'd say the exact opposite is true. Concealing the violation makes it impossible to enforce the law. An open violation allows someone (Congress, perhaps) to recognize the violation and actually exercise its power to end the violation.

The complaint is with Congress as much as it is with Obama.
 

Sandy: "Does it matter how long the "election cycle" is. One of my objections to the US Constitution is that even if we come to the (correct) conclusion after a year that a given president is fundamentally untrustworthy in terms of judgment, we're stuck with him/her for three more years, and a lot of bad things can happen in that time.

Articles 126 and 127 of Egypt's constitution allows the legislature to remove the Prime Minister appointed by the President and for the President to dissolve the legislature through referendum in between elections. http://niviensaleh.info/constitution-egypt-2012-translation/#sec-three-2-1

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled both the the executive and the legislature and was unlikely to dissolve its own government.

The fundamental problem with democracy is that a majority of the people can knowingly elect a government which abridges individual liberty.

The question is what is the proper remedy?

The most obvious answer is to throw the bums out in a subsequent election. But what if a majority continues to support the government abridging individual liberty?

The next alternative is judicial review. What if the judiciary also supports the abridgment of individual liberty or the government simply ignores the judiciary?

Now we have reached the final option of revolution - peaceful if possible, armed if necessary. However, if you are to have a democratic government, this has to be the final option and one not taken lightly.

President Obama's decision to ignore the law, continue to fund the Egyptian military and thus ratify their coup establishes a rather disturbing precedent if applied to his own administration

Obama increasingly governs by fiat like an autocrat to increasing restrict individual liberty and is arguably the most divisive president of our lifetimes. Pot, meet kettle.

Neither elections nor judicial review have remedied this problem.

Would it then be proper for the Tea Party minority to riot in Washington and demand the military (who are also not big fans of this president) impose a coup dissolving the current government, place Democrat politicos under arrest, essentially outlaw the Democratic Party, appoint Speaker Boehner as interim President, and then start shooting down Democrat demonstrators in the streets?

What is good for Egyptians should be good for Americans, after all.
 

This post by Sandy and Frank Pasquale's post should perhaps be read in tandem. Foreign policy and the National Surveillance State issues/problems we have today have been developed over many decades under both Democrats and Republicans. Changes cannot - or will not - be readily made, regardless of which political party is in power. Over the years there have been a number of posts at this Blog on the Imperial Executive, most recently by Mary Dudziak.

Frank's post here is cross-posted at Concurring Opinions, where comments can be made. One such comment came from a legal scholar of many decades, a man strong on ethics, one of the few consistent voices on ethics during my legal career (which began in 1954). Prof. Freedman referenced a recent short post of his at SSRN titled "Our Inalienable Rights Can Never Be Recovered":

http://ssrn.com/abstract=2311251

It is indeed short - 2 1/2 pages - so no comment is necessary other than we should hear from Prof. Freedman more often. (To avoid copy and paste, a link is available at Frank's Concurring Opinions post.)



 

Our SALADISTA's:

"Would it then be proper for the Tea Party minority to riot in Washington and demand the military (who are also not big fans of this president) impose a coup dissolving the current government, place Democrat politicos under arrest, essentially outlaw the Democratic Party, appoint Speaker Boehner as interim President, and then start shooting down Democrat demonstrators in the streets?"

might be a story line for his next work of FRICTION, perhaps in the mode of "The Mouse That Roared." Brett and our SALADISTA can lead this 2nd Amendment Tea Party brigade armed to the teeth - or most likely dentures. Too bad that the Daily Show and Colbert Nation are on hiatus else our SALADISTA's proposal would at least provide America with a laugh.
 

Shag:

As a matter of fact, my current book project is fiction - an alternative WWII history.

;^)
 

Our SALADISTA has exposed his alternative history of the Bush/Cheney 8 years at this Blog in fictive form for years, available in the archives. Back then, the invasion of Iraq was not for oil but for non-existant WMDs and to establish democracy. Apparently the truth is elusive for him.
 

I often find reading shag's comments like interpreting a foreign language I'm not really very familiar with. I can usually deduce the meaning eventually, but it's more like decoding than reading.

Could you try straightforward declarative sentences using people's actual names some time, Shag? I know you think you're being witty and ironic, or some such, but you just come off as a bit batty.
 

Apparently English is a second language to Brett's "Cracker-ese." As for being "batty," what's battier than Brett's photo as an aging Elmer Fudd? And as to "code," it is obvious how colorful he is.
 

Shag, if I may enter the fray as one who comments on this blog infrequently and who has no axe to grind, Brett did not say that you were batty; he said that your style of writing makes you appear batty. If he thought that you were batty, then I presume that he wouldn't think it worthwhile to suggest that you change your style of writing. In fact, you should appreciate that he finds your comments worth reading despite the effort it takes him. So, mocking his appearance, or at least his photo, seems to reflect an excess of defensiveness.
 

As the usual target of his attempted wit, I always considered Shag to be a more educated and less coarse version of my cyber-stalker, BB.

In the end, however, both men's posts always degenerate into name-calling, straw men and red herrings.

I have been served the same fare by the left from the brainiacs in my freshman dorm who confused libertarians with Nazis to their kids at Huff Post today.

It is so predictable and sad.
 

Henry, if I said to you:

"but you just come off as a bit batty."

how would you take that? Note that it was you, not Brett, that used "appears." And I did not say that Brett said I was batty. Do you believe in your heart of hearts that Brett in his heart of hearts thinks it worthwhile to suggest that I change ny style of writing because he finds my comments worth reading despite the effort it takes him?

Now, Henry, you may share Brett's qualities as an English major, so perhaps you could be more specific while not axe grinding if you are also suggesting that I change my style of writing. Of course I'm not suggesting that Brett change his style of writing even though I am critical of his lack of style, but more so his lack substance.

And perhaps you should comment on this Blog more frequently and do some real axe grinding. You can convert into a trio our dyslexic duo of Bert and Brat if you wish to join in their name calling of Pres. Obama, America's first African-American president. Let's hear from you, Hank, if I may get personal.
 

Blankshot,your commentary here has been embarrassingly ignorant. Wake me when we find that WMD in Iraq, you imbecile.
 

Our SALADISTAs:

" ... I have been served the same fare by the left from the brainiacs in my freshman dorm who confused libertarians with Nazis to their kids at Huff Post today."

poses the question: What confusion? Each claims purity.
 

I try not to comment on looks since I'm no Adonis myself, but Shag's overall schtick is part of his thing now. It gets a bit much at times, but really, is Brett one to complain? I think he can take it.
 

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Andrew Bacevich has a sobering Op-Ed in today's LATimes: "Egypt in the rearview mirror - Whatever the problems roiling Cairo, more weapons sales won't solve them." Prof. Bacevich demonstrates with history.
 

Andrew Bacevich has a very interesting NYTimes Op-Ed (8/23/13) "The Ugly American Telegram" of 1963 concerning certain events in Vietnam, the lessons of which have yet to be learned as evidenced by certain recent events in the Middle East, particularly Egypt.

[Warriors should note the title of Prof. Bacevich's new book referenced at the end of his Op-Ed.]
 

Snowden is not the reason Obama cancelled his meeting with Putin. With both sides aware that Obama couldn't get a Mothers' Day resolution through Congress, nothing good could have come from it.
 

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