Thursday, 6 November 2014

Myths of bipartisanship

Legislators by definition legislate. According the mainstream Washington press corps, if only Obama would build a personal relationship with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, then things would get done in Washington. Apparently there’s a lack of trust or the necessary personal warmth required for compromise. Comprise, of course, equals bipartisanship. We are to believe that a bipartisan compromise begins in the middle where the cooler headed moderates and experienced hands of the older generation meet and come to an agreement that no one will like. Universal dissatisfaction with legislation is taken to be proof of its wisdom. 

The reality is that this is not how politics works. 

Legislators do not necessarily want to legislate

The legislative process is a multiparty negotiation.  As in any negotiation the parties have to choose between any prospective agreement and their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Legislators can prefer inaction out of principled disagreement or just to keep the issue alive for the next general election – political opportunism is shocking, I know.  President Obama, for his part, can prefer executive action or a veto to the kind of compromise necessary for legislation to be enacted. 

Bipartisanship is not centrist

Party affiliation is not akin to the playground distinction between shirts and skins. The Republicans and Democrats have genuine and stark ideological differences. The congressional leadership of both parties will, in general, want to win the support of a majority of their respective party caucuses for any bill they are going to support. 

If Mitch McConnell is looking for 60 votes to overcome a potential filibuster, he’ll be sure to target 6 to 8 votes among the Democrats and try to keep his entire caucus united. If a handful of Democrats in the senate defect from their party on any given vote, a united Republican party can deliver conservative legislation for the president’s signature.  As noted above, they may be happy to see a veto. 

In any case McConnell is unlikely to personally support legislation that does not have more Republican than Democratic votes. On balance it’s hard to argue that this doesn't shift the policy agenda in a Republican direction in terms of both priorities and policy content. The president thus can help advance a more pragmatic Republican agenda at the expense of his own party's priorities. The Washington press corps will praise him for bipartisanship. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Seeking authorization to violate international and foreign law

Recently tabled legislation in Canada enables CSIS to seek warrants authorizing the service to engage in the surveillance of Canadians abroad. Craig Forcese explains the legislation
......would permit CSIS to seek and obtain a warrant from the Federal Court for overseas investigations.  And "[w]ithout regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state, a judge may, in a warrant issued under subsection (3), authorize activities outside Canada to enable the Service to investigate a threat to the security of Canada."
This reverses the other aspect of Blanchard J's decision: his refusal to authorize a warrant where to do so might violate international law (namely, the sovereignty of another country).  After all, what we are really talking about with covert surveillance, some of which may be so covert the territorial state is unaware of it. And that may violate that foreign state's law, and by extension is sovereignty. The latter would violate international law.
Forcese adds that Parliament is allowed to legislate violations of international law.  

Meanwhile in the U.S. the FBI is seeking new powers related to how search warrants on granted and executed:
 ......would allow a judge to issue warrants to gain “remote access” to computers “located within or outside that district” (emphasis added) in cases in which the “district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means”. The expanded powers to stray across district boundaries would apply to any criminal investigation, not just to terrorist cases as at present.
Apparently the FBI accepts applying the 4th amendment standard to requests for warrants even if the searches would be conducted on computers located abroad. Ahmed Ghapour tells the Guardian that:
“for the first time the courts will be asked to issue warrants allowing searches outside the country”.
He warned that the diplomatic consequences could be serious, with short-term FBI investigations undermining the long-term international relationship building of the US state department. “In the age of cyber attacks, this sort of thing can scale up pretty quickly.”

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Why we have an Arms Trade Treaty

Supposedly to prevent things like this:
An advanced surface-to-air missile thought to have been supplied to Syrian rebels by Qatar against American wishes has been filmed in the hands of ISIS jihadists.
A militant was shown firing a Chinese-made FN6 shoulder-mounted missile, with a later image suggesting it had brought down an Iraqi army helicopter. The attack was said to have happened during the battle for Baiji, a town that houses Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.
For the record, Qatar is not party to the treaty. The U.S. has signed but not ratified (not unusual given the obstacle that the Senate poses) while Canada has yet to sign.  

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Sleeper cells in Anbar province?

From David Ignatius:
Jibouri explains that the Islamic State was able to mobilize so quickly because it had planted “sleeper cells” in the Sunni regions. These hidden agents are mostly younger than 25; they grew up in the years of the insurgency and U.S. occupation, watching as their fathers were killed or taken off to prison. “These men were brought up in the culture of vendetta and revenge,” he says.
Gaood agrees that when the jihadists swept into the nearby town of Hit, 1,000 of these sleepers suddenly appeared, shattering local security.
One argument is that the Anbar tribes only took to fighting AQI when the socioeconomic elite saw their economic interests threatened:
Contrary to a somewhat na├»ve, yet often repeated, representation, the Sahwa never arose out of revived "tribal patriotism" against al-Qaeda. It began in 2005 over the al-Anbar tribes' loss of control over key resources, mainly reconstruction contracts and illicit revenues drawn from smuggling, robbery and black marketeering. Once hospitable to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the tribes had increasingly grown resentful of their violent interference and hijacking of local business. 
So are these "sleeper cells" anything more than poor young men revolting against a discredited,venal cadre of local leaders and a national government that seems intent on excluding them?  The more distressing point to be made is that many Iraqis are, for the time being, prepared to live under the rule of the Islamic State. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Don't wear your uniform

According to the CBC - live broadcast therefore no link (UPDATE CTV has a print story here) -  DND has advised its military personnel not to wear their uniforms when out and about on private business. I respect the desire to maintain the safety at time when soldiers are clearly being targeted but this is a step too far. Soldiers can make the decision for themselves; they can stay indoors or dress as they like when on private business. Any advice to remove their uniforms is bad for morale and is exactly the kind of fear that terrorists try to cause. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Cluster munitions in Ukraine

 According to Human Rights Watch:
During a week-long investigation in eastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch documented widespread use of cluster munitions in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels in more than a dozen urban and rural locations. While it was not possible to conclusively determine responsibility for many of the attacks, the evidence points to Ukrainian government forces’ responsibility for several cluster munition attacks on Donetsk. 
Is using a weapon that the majority of Nato members have agreed to prohibit going to cross anyone's red line? I think not. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The C.I.A can't win wars

That's the lesson learned according to a CIA internal study revealed today in the NYT. The CIA's researchers found that it was rare that CIA intervention alone - short of air power or the special forces participating - significantly altered the outcome of conflicts. Exceptions cited were CIA interventions in the Greek civil war and in support of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. Apparently the briefing Obama received about the study, made him hesitant to support proposals to arm the Syrian opposition. 

A couple of points not made in the article that will surely occur to many policymakers:

  • The process is the goal. While defeating the Soviet army in Afghanistan would have been an ideal outcome, increasing the cost of Soviet occupation was a reward in itself. Even if the mujaheddin had been ultimately broken the policy would still have been considered a success. In short, it focuses Soviet attention in one theater and keeps them from acting elsewhere. A net gain. 
  • Bargaining chips. Policymakers may want want to exploit the opportunity to get involved in conflicts in a low cost/risk manner, such as arming insurgents groups or governments, to gain negotiating leverage over another state actor that also has an interest in the conflict. 
  • Alliance management. Again a low cost way to show solidarity with states that are far more concerned with the outcome of a conflict than is the United States. 
All three of these points are valid in regard to CIA intervention in support of the Syrian opposition.  What impact intervention has on the people living in the place where weapons and know-how are being made available is generally not a concern. Empirical fact.