Mountain Sun

Mountain Sun

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lawrence O'Donnell, Rand Paul, and Constitutional Pretzel Logic on Libya

Last night Lawrence O'Donnell practiced an amazing bit of constitutional pretzel logic.  He fiercely (and rightfully) assailed one Republican lawmaker (Eric Cantor) for completely failing Constitution 101.  Cantor had made this completely buffoonish statement that a house bill would become law even without passage of the required senate companion bill, or the president's signature.  Only God knows what the hell Cantor thought he was talking about.  It was the lowest of low-hanging fruit for O'Donnell, but was an amusing segment and made for fun television.

But O'Donnell then jumped into constitutional fantasy-land himself in an attack on Republican Senator Rand Paul.  Paul is arguing that Obama's Libya military aggression lacks congressional authorization and is thus unconstitutional.  Congress has weighed in on this issue before, with the War Powers Resolution:

(c) Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.

Paul's position, when viewed through the plain wording of the constitution and the War Powers Resolution is certainly reasonble.  O'Donnell responded to it last night by attacking Paul via Senate Resolution 85, which passed on March 1st by unanimous consent.  O'Donnell seems to think S. Res. 85 provides some form of congressional authorization for Obama's action in Libya.  It just doesn't.  It does nothing of the kind.

First, here's O'Donnell's segment:

Now, here is the Senate's own summary of what its bill actually does (bullets added):

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Triumph of Sanctimonious Democratic Purists in Wisconsin

Andrew Kroll has an interesting piece out just now in Mother Jones about the huge spike in fundraising by Wisconsin Democrats in the past two months ("The War in Wisconsin=Big $ Cash for Democrats").  Kroll reports that Democrats have raised more (1.4 million) in the seven weeks between Feb. 1 and March 21 than they did in all of 2010.  So let's see.  At their current rate, Democratic fundraising is on pace to outstrip last year's performance by roughly 1000%, an order of magnitude.

As Kroll explains, the Democrats have raised funds on different aspects of the remarkable Wisconsin story as it has evolved--when the 14 state Democratic senators left the state to prevent Walker's 'budget reform bill', they fundraised on that.  After the senators returned, the Democratic party has continued to successfully fundraise off the active recall program that seeks to unseat a number of their GOP colleagues.

It's obvious that the Democratic base both inside and outside Wisconsin is fired up and contributing heavily.  But it should also be stressed that this tsunami of money and highly motivated volunteers has materialized because these Democratic officeholders have found their base and bound themselves tightly to it.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened had the Wisconsin 14 and their Democratic colleagues in the state assembly acted differently than they did.    What if, instead of joining tightly with their desparately protesting base in the capitol, they had responded to the growing protests with something like the following:
 Now, we know that people are upset with the Governor's budget.  We don't like it either, and we've fought it as hard as we can.  We simply don't have the numbers.  We know our Wisconsin constituents may get angry with us for giving up, but we're just facing reality.  And if our constituents don't like that, and get angry with us for giving in,"if that's the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let's face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are. ... That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can't be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat."
Obama scolds his base after his extension of the Bush tax cuts.
The Wisconsin Democrats could have said something like that.  And in fact the italicized text above was taken verbatim from an Obama press conference in which he lashed out at his own base when they criticized his surrender on the Bush tax cuts, as he had previously surrendered on healthcare.  Ironically, the Wisconsin Democrats were, in part, fighting a similar tax-cuts-for-the-rich move by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Obama and Walker have that much in common.  So the Wisconsinites could have done that--could have criticized their base for being unrealistic and unreasonable, called it a day, and gone home.  But had they done that, they would right now be consumed with worry about future electoral losses, beset with fundraising difficulties, and pondering how to motivate an angry, dispirited and resentful base.

President-Elect Barack Obama on Bradley Manning

For those involved in the Bradley Manning fight, I hope you know that you once had a friend in Barack Obama.  Back in those heady days when Candidate Obama was morphing into President Obama, this is what he promised:

"Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process."

Yes, thank you very much.  Ancient history, I know.  The transition has indeed ended, and the administration has taken over.  Never look back.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Juan Cole, US Intervention in Libya, and the Left's Constitutional Myopia

I'm amazed (and admittedly frustrated) that people like Juan Cole and Digby can so blithely ignore constitutional process in this country. I have already discussed Digby's startling disregard for constitutional process here. Today, Juan Cole has offered an "Open Letter to the Left" in which he lays out his support for the Libyan invasion, and includes a summary of how the Left has been split by the military action there. Nowhere in his synthesis does Cole observe the simple fact that the Libyan military action by US forces is an Article I violation and is in violation of the War Powers Act. Nowhere in his letter does he admit that this might be a basis--to any extent--for some on the Left to be critical of our role in the current conflict.

I perceive a double-standard at play here. We on the Left love constitutions. Everyone should have one. But we can't be bothered with our own. This view is illustrated to some extent by Cole, but it goes much wider than him. Cole's most recent posts covering North Africa and the Middle East have been loaded with references to a recurring, universal demand by populations throughout the region, namely new constitutions or substantially reformed constitutions and constitutional processes-- specifically:

"The Arab crowds are investing their hopes in a new era of parliamentarism, in elections and constitutions, in term limits and referendums, in the rule of law and the principle that governmental authority must derive from the people."
"Some 6000 protesters marched in Jordan on Friday. They said they wanted to transform the Jordanian monarchy into a European-style, constitutional monarchy and to return to an unamended 1952 constitution."
"Thousands came into the streets of Casablanca on Sunday to put pressure on the king to follow through on his pledges. But the crowds added another demand, of a new constitution to be approved by the people."
"Michael Hudson surveys the wreckage in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority had demanded constitutional reforms in aid of popular sovereignty from the Sunni monarchy, but got imported Saudi Wahhabi troops instead."

"The government has appointed respected jurist Tareq al-Bishri to head a committee charged with amending the 1973 constitution, which had been subject to large numbers of changes that benefited the ruling National Democratic Party. "

Friday, March 25, 2011

US Government Develops "Panic Button" Software to Protect Activists from "Repressive Governments"

This is a good one, from Reuters:

Hillary Clinton, protector of cellphone privacy.
US develops 'panic button' for democracy activists
by Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, March 25 (Reuters) - Some day soon, when pro-democracy campaigners have their cellphones confiscated by police, they'll be able to hit the "panic button" -- a special app that will both wipe out the phone's address book and emit emergency alerts to other activists.
The panic button is one of the new technologies the U.S. State Department is promoting to equip pro-democracy activists in countries ranging from the Middle East to China with the tools to fight back against repressive governments...
The United States had budgeted some $50 million since 2008 to promote new technologies for social activists, focusing both on "circumvention" technology to help them work around government-imposed firewalls and on new strategies to protect their own communications and data from government intrusion.

So glad that the US government is doing this.  I wonder if this critical information has gotten out to the democracy activists habitually being delayed, harrassed and having their communications gear searched and/or confiscated illegally.  There have been some serious difficulties in this regard with repressive government behavior (from boingboing):

Wikileaks volunteer detained
by Rob Beschizza  
A volunteer for Wikileaks was detained by officials Thursday while entering the country at Newark International Airport.
Jacob Appelbaum, noted for his work with the Tor online security project, was searched and "interrogated" for three hours before being released, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous
According to the source, Appelbaum was stopped by customs officials and spoken to for at least three hours by a team that included a U.S. Army investigator. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning was named last week as a possible Wikileaks source in relation to the classified logs.
Appelbaum's interviewers demanded that he decrypt his laptop and other computer equipment, the source said. After his refusal to do so, they confiscated it, including three cellphones. The laptop was returned, apparently because it contained no storage drive that investigators could examine. He was also asked about his role in Wikileaks and informed that he was under surveillance.

Here's another case (from cnet) that the State Department might want to investigate. They really need to help this guy out:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Constitutional Process Matters, Except When Digby Knows Better

People keep asking me if I support Dennis Kucinich's call to impeach Obama for failing to get congressional authorization for the operation in Libya. Actually no, and not because Obama swears [sic] my team jersey. It's because I know that if he had gone to the congress to get authorization he would have gotten it, so the whole question seems a little bit irrelevant. They always do. Sometimes it's by acclamation as it was with Afghanistan or it's a little bit tougher as it was in Gulf War I. But the congress is not going to deny the president his prerogative to make war. Certainly, the Senate isn't going to do it --- they all look in the mirror every morning and see a future president and they want to be able to make their own wars when the time comes.

All this talk about process obscures the real question of whether or not we should have intervened in Libya and I have little doubt that if the great debate everyone thinks should have happened had happened, it wouldn't have changed the outcome one bit except to give the imprimatur of congress to the administration's decision. So, that's a big whatever. Process matters, but in this case, it's only barely relevant to the real question before us.

Regardless of Digby's prophetic powers,  I would have preferred that my congressman have his say on the floor.  I think he might well have spoken against it.  And I'd like to have given any senator a chance to do a "Bernie Sanders" for a few hours on CSPAN.   Who knows?   Some grandstanding Senator might have pushed the hour late enough that France Sarkozy would have jumped into Libya without us.  In spite of Digby's impressive claim to be able to foretell the future, I'd rather have played that particular game out.   You just never know.  A little time in debate might make a big difference.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fareed Zakaria's Call for US Intervention in Libya

"If there is one lesson for U.S. foreign policy from the past 10 years" Fareed Zakaria recently wrote, "it is surely that military intervention can seem simple but is in fact a complex affair with the potential for unintended consequences."

Zakaria's article, "The Libyan Conundrum" appears to take precious little time to consider those possible consequences.   Instead, he uses the essay to urge Obama to take aggressive action. Left on its own, Zakaria argued, the Libyan opposition might well turn into an al Qaeda "area of strength."  His reasoning behind why Libya would be more or less vulnerable to al Qaeda influence than a host of other relevant countries including Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen or Bahrain is not provided.

Zakaria should be familiar with unintended consequences. Here he is in 2003, just prior to the Iraq War, in an article sometimes cited as evidence of his journalistic "willingness to call out our government's missteps in Iraq:"

"In one respect, I believe that the Bush administration is right: this war will look better when it is over. The military campaign will probably be less difficult than many of Washington's opponents think. Most important, it will reveal the nature of Saddam's barbarous regime. Prisoners and political dissidents will tell stories of atrocities. Horrific documents will come to light. Weapons of mass destruction will be found. If done right, years from now people will remember above all that America helped rid Iraq of a totalitarian dictator."

All the above indeed did come to light, except for the WMDs of course.  But Zakaria expected those revelations to stem from Sadam's abuses.  Instead, they were our own, and are now too numerous, persistent and diverse to quantify.  Indeed, Nir Rosen recently guessed that the mountains of dead from our Iraq "missteps" will likely never be adequately documented.

But how about Zakaria's  missteps?  If the US government can be fairly accused of  screwing up Iraq beyond all recognition (which few would dispute), how can we possibly decouple that same damning assessment from journalists like Fareed Zakaria, who justified and approved that war?  And above all else, how can the American public and American policymakers continue to listen to pundits like Zakaria without remembering how badly wrong they were last time, just a few short years ago?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Requiem for Japan

Requiem, by Eliza Gilkyson 
(written following the deadly Pacific/Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004)

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken
we wander our homelands forsaken

in the dark night of the soul 
bring some comfort to us all
oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced

mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in funeral fires burning
each flame to your mystery returning

in the dark night of the soul
your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
oh mother mary find us where we've fallen out of grace
lead us to a higher place

in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole
oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
let us see your gentle face, mary

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Unemployment: Don't Uncork the Champagne Just Yet

Unemployment, we're told, just dropped below the 9 percent rate for the first time since...forever.  I think the drop nationwide was one tenth of one percent.  Good news, for sure:

From BusinessWeek:
Factories added 33,000 jobs. Education and health care added 40,000 positions. Professional and businesses services added 47,000. Leisure and hospitality added 21,000 jobs. Construction companies, 33,000 jobs -- although a good chunk of those reflected people coming back on payrolls after January's harsh winter weather; Transportation and warehousing added 22,000 jobs.

But don't put your party hats on quite yet.  The actual unemployment rate, including those out of work for over six months or more, those who have given up hope, those who may have taken part-time work while trying to get back in the workforce--when one includes these workers--the true unemployment rate has been in the vicinity of 17%.

It's unclear to me what the trend will be going forward.  The private sector appears to be showing some willingness to hire, but we're also facing a wave of public-sector job losses in coming months--with states like Wisconsin and Ohio simply being the poster children.  The losses are going to be nationwide, and they will be painful.  As state and local governments finalize budgets and shed workers, the fallout may well swamp this very weak private-sector growth we're beginning to see.

To get a better view of what US unemployment actually looks like, the graph below (click on graph for full interactive view) tracks both the commonly used short-term unemployment figure (the 'rose-tinted glasses' view) vs. true, total unemployment/underemployment, from 1995 through 2010, including two officially-recognized recessions.  To repeat--I don't see anything worth celebrating here, expecially given what we're already seeing on the public employment front.