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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Futility of a League: Arab Action against Assad

With observers on the ground in Syrian cities, the Arab League conceded at the beginning of 2012 that the monitors had, according to the Wall Street Journal, “failed to halt the lethal violence” in Syria. Nabil Al Arabi, the organization’s chair, acknowledged that snipers persisted in major cities, but that the allegiance of the shooters had not been ascertained. Such cautiousness was itself likely a contributor to what the Journal refers to as “pitfalls of the organization’s self-reinvention as a regional diplomatic playmaker.” Criticism had been mounting that the “monitoring mission has done little to resolve a conflict that the United Nations [estimated at the time had] taken more than 5,000 mostly civilian lives. Perhaps this might be an indication of the snipers’ allegiance.

As of the Journal’s report on January 3, 2012, 390 people had been killed in Syria since the observers arrived on December 29th—which is less than a week before the report. The observers were tasked with monitoring Assad’s compliance with his promise to pull security forces from the city streets, release political prisoners, and allow foreign journalists and human rights workers to enter Syria. Unless the protesters were shooting on themselves, the gun-shots and 390 deaths suggest that Assad was furtively continuing the government’s involvement in the violence.

On January 11, 2012, Anwar Abdel Malik, one of the observers, abruptly resigned because “he felt that the mission was serving the interests of the government rather than trying to end the crackdown on protesters. “The mission was a farce, and the observers have been fooled,” he said. “The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw, to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime.” He added, “The regime isn’t committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people.” A week earlier, the human rights group Avaaz had reported, according to the New York Times, that the group’s “researchers had gathered the names of at least 617 people who had died under torture in government installations since the beginning of the uprising against [Assad].”

On the day that Malik resigned, Assad was at an outdoors rally in Damascus, telling the cheering crowd that he had come to draw energy from it. “I belong to this street,” he said before promising to end the “conspiracy” then underway—as if blatant protests in the cities of Syria were somehow secret and hidden from view. In reaction to how Assad depicted the protests and the extent to which he claimed that the evidence against his government’s atrocities simply did not exist even though it did, we might want to worry a bit more about how much validity we give to the microphone in defining social reality. An official says X, and society takes X as valid, more often than not wholly uncritically as if little fish with mouths wide open, mindlessly swimming in a school without a hint of education.

Given Assad’s rock-hard intransigence, going the route of monitors being led around by his government officials can be reckoned as tantamount to admitting impotence. The response by the League was a marked departure from when the League asked the U.N. Security Council to impose a No Fly Zone over Libya. To be sure, even if the Arab League were to make the request in the case of Syria, the existence of the veto in the Council would likely merely confirm the impotence of the “regional diplomatic playmaker.” So what can be done?

Although not sufficient as a remedy, strengthening the Arab League from being a confederal alliance of largely empty threats to a federal system with teeth on par with the E.U. and U.S. might be good a start. The Journal reports that the failure of the monitors was opening new rifts within the league. The president of the Arab Parliament, a mere advisory body of Arab League diplomats whose decisions are non-binding, recommended that Arabi withdraw the observers. Even though they may have been providing Assad with cover and a tool of delay, Arabi was free to disregard the “parliament’s” advice. Conversely, if the E.U. Parliament, which is composed of elected representatives of the E.U. citizens, passes the law (i.e., not just advisory), the president of the E.U. Commission cannot simply ignore it. As the Arab league stood at the beginning of 2012, relying on the alliance to stop Assad was more than a bit naïve. The Arab League “diplomats” might examine the E.U. in particular for ideas on how the league could become something more than a league, adding the checks and balances that dual sovereignty enables. Were Syria a state in such a union, its basic law could allow a supermajority of elected representatives and state officials in Arab Union bodies to impose a No Fly Zone or do even more militarily.

Of course, the U.S. and the state of Israel would doubtless object to an Arab federal union, but such an entity could in principle be drawn up without the permission of the outside parties. My basic point over all here is that the Arab Spring in 2011 could serve as a springboard for Arab leaders to think about systemic changes that go beyond incremental fixes that don’t really fix anything. According to Salman Shaikh at the Brookings Institution, Arab leaders are “feeling the wishes of their street much more. Whereas perhaps they could have ignored them before, they are hearing now that 85% to 90% of the people are with the protesters.” So, he added, the leaders are “being compelled to act.” The question is perhaps whether their institutions can afford them the ability to do so, or whether the “actions” will continue to be “monitors” and diplomats’ statements.

Click to read comments or post one on the Arab League’s handling of Syria.


Matt Bradley and Nour Malas, “Arab World Diplomacy Fails to Stop Syria Clash,” The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203462304577136611309560858.html

Nada Bakri, “Syria’s President Is Defiant in Rare Public Appearance,” The New York Times, January 12, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/world/middleeast/president-assad-makes-rare-public-speech-in-syria.html

Kareem Fahim, “Hundreds Tortured in Syria, Human Rights Group Says,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/06/world/middleeast/hundreds-tortured-in-syria-human-rights-group-says.html

On the Plight of the Euro

Relative to the U.S. dollar, the euro of the E.U. was not in as dire shape in 2011 as was typically presumed. As the euro celebrated its ten-year anniversary on January 1, 2012 at $1.29, a ten-year perspective could assuage the irrational exaggeration of fear over the currency’s impending demise. Besides the human propensity to develop tunnel vision—looking only right straight ahead—we tend to over-dramatize some things (while ignoring other things).

The full essay is at "Essays on the E.U. Political Economy," available at Amazon.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Revolving Door Even Before Leaving Office

In Illinois, at least as late as 2011, Illinois and local legislators can use their position to benefit paying clients. According to the New York Times, fourteen elected officials in Cook County, where Chicago is located, were registered as lobbyists in the 2009-2011 period and had clients who did received government contracts in Illinois. Rep. Fred Crespo observes, “When I see them [the law makers] at a hearing in the Capitol, I often can’t tell of they’re here for their constituents or for their paying clients.” According to the Times, legislators in Illinois “can legally vote and otherwise act on matters that directly benefit their lobbying clients.” As this involves a conflict of interest, which is inherently unethical, this case demonstrates for us the contention of ethicists that ethics as a field is distinct from law.

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

E.U. Vetoing Unanimity?

In the U.S., states can get waivers from having to comply with regulations, depending on the particular law; federal legislation is not passed as if only between some of the several states. It is pretty much a one-size-fits-all notion of federal law, with opt-outs possible typically only on particular regulatory requirements. One such publicized waiver enables states to be exempted from the health-insurance mandate if they can show they have achieved the aim (universal healthcare) by another means. Massachusetts, for example, had a pre-existing program of universal health-care.

In Europe, David Cameron vetoed the European Council proposing an amendment to the E.U.’s basic law that would have strengthened the enforcement mechanism constraining state governments that exceed deficit and debt limits established by the E.U. His message was on behalf of state rights. So it was very smart indeed that the Europeans came up with a way to avoid the downside of unanimity while recognizing that some of the states jealously guard the sovereignty they have retained.  Hitherto, the veto mechanism that any state can use to block laws in important areas like taxation has crippled or at least hampered the E.U. institutions in meeting even the responsibilities entailed in the E.U.’s current competencies. Besides gradually increasing the percentage of the E.U.’s competencies (domains of authority) subject to qualified majority voting rather than unanimity, it turns out that groups of at least nine states can go ahead with legislation if a proposal is stalled or vetoed by a state. Crucially, the vetoing state need not be subject to the legislation. Valuing this is a distinctive European trait in the annals of modern federalism. Adding competencies to the E.U. government need not require every state, including most notably “euroskeptic,” veto-prone states like Britain, to give up more sovereignty.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On the U.S. Presidency: The Campaign “Season”

The overextension, or hypertrophy, of one part of a governmental system—whether a level, branch or even a particular office—can be seen in the overemphasis alone of the process by which it is filled. Whether obsessed over or merely elongated, the selection process can come to take on a life of its own. Indeed, it could even eclipse governing. If, in referring to a particular office that has a four year term, one expects a window of only a year or perhaps two for governing before the selection process revs up again, then there is reason to suspect that the office has too much power in the system of government. Of course, it could also be that the selection process is simply flawed, but why then would so many people either tacitly approve it or even maintain that it is necessary.

In the context of the Iowa caucuses, which formally kick off the nomination process for the U.S. presidency—after at least six months of media-complicit campaigning and debates during which candidates rise and fall without a single vote being cast—the vested interests in Iowa defend the value, even necessity, of what is essentially, “Me first! Listen to me, watch me!” What is mentioned in the media as an aside, if at all, is the small fact that Iowa’s delegates to the parties’ nominating conventions are selected months later at a state convention. The selection of delegates is not a reflection of the popular vote. One would not suspect this from all the attention given to the “results” on caucus night. In actuality, the value of the results is basically in giving the first snapshot of what some voters in one small, unrepresentative state feel about the various candidates. While preferable to having pundits misinterpret polls in order to grab headlines by elevating some candidates while effectively marginalizing or even pushing others out well before any votes are cast, the Iowa caucuses are a straw poll of sorts, whose value is largely perceptual. Considering that the Iowa straw poll, which occurs about six months before the caucuses, can be far off the mark as a predictor of their results—much less of who is actually nominated by the two major parties (e.g., 2011-2012)—we might want to reassess the value of the caucuses even as little polls.

I contend that the overemphasis of the “first in the nation” caucuses, far beyond their significance even to the parties’ eventual nominating conventions in Iowa, stems from the overemphasis of the office of the U.S. presidency itself. Whether the power of that office had grown too much through roughly the last three-quarters of the twentieth century or the media and the people have built up too much “personality hype” surrounding the office, to obsess over its selection process from even midway through the four year term is at the very least excessive. Most significantly, the sheer length of the campaign “season” can compromise or even thwart the governing. In other words, we are treating a means with at least one end. We do not select a president so he (or she) can turn around and start campaigning for re-election. Perhaps we should not even allow presidential second-terms, though we would still have the multi-year campaign “season.”

In short, I contend that the way in which the two major American political parties nominate their respective candidates for the office of the U.S. president is deeply flawed, if not broken. Moreover, the entire campaign “season” is entirely too long, and growing longer—at least as of 2012. Coincidentally (or not!), the commercial Christmas, or “Holiday” (since we prefer to refer to that particular national holiday generically) season was also being pushed further back into November and even October with our tacit approval (or at least not confronting offending retailers). Another national holiday, Thanksgiving, which is on the third Thursday in November, has come to be eclipsed or slighted in a way that is similar to how governance comes to be relegated or even ignored as the cameras turn to the “upcoming” campaign. After months of daily coverage even before the Iowa caucuses, the media proclaim that the campaign season is about to begin. How, one might wonder, can a journalist make such a statement with a straight face? You have been covering the race every day for at least six months, maybe longer! About to begin?  Haven’t you been paying attention to even what you have been doing? Nobody can be that stupid. One can reasonably wonder, therefore, whether it is in the interest of some power behind the scenes that the presidential campaign be turned into a business in its own right, or for some other purpose to be served that would be put at risk were the fiction uncovered and the system fixed.

Of course, as I allude to above, all of the attention paid to the presidential campaigning could be due to the increased power of the office itself. In his book on the presidency, Arthur Schlesinger refers the inordinate power of the office as “the imperial presidency.” The presidency, which includes the role of commander in chief, gained power from World War II to the Vietnam War in part due to what can be termed the “cycle of influence” involving the increasingly powerful military-industrial complex. In general terms, the increasing amount of money being “donated” to successive presidential campaigns suggests that at least some wealthy donors view the office as being sufficiently powerful to warrant the higher investment in influence.

One should not expect a candidate for president to campaign on reducing the powers of the presidency. At the very least, such a platform would suffer from a rather obvious conflict of interest. According to the International Herald Tribune’s 2012 New Year’s edition, even the “limited government” Republican candidates for president held “expansive views about the scope of the executive powers they would wield if elected—including the ability to authorize the targeted killing of U.S. citizens they deem threats and to launch military attacks without congressional permission.” Most of the candidates saw “the commander in chief as having the authority to lawfully take extraordinary actions if he decides doing so is necessary to protect national security.” This view would turn out to be convenient should any of those candidates become president.

The military rise of the U.S. around the world since World War II—even fighting two wars at once in the first decade of the twenty-first century!—has made the American presidency more powerful in absolute terms as well as relative to the other offices, branches and even levels of government in the United States. This trend is particularly dangerous because it is difficult to hold a president accountable. Making reference to the preceding “decade of disputes over the scope and limits of presidential authority,” which itself could have been a reaction to its increase, the Tribune points out that “executive branch actions are often secret and courts rarely have jurisdiction to review them.” We are lucky there have not been more “slicky Dick” Nixons occupying the White House. So the conventional wisdom is that the candidates must be thoroughly vetted, even if by the pundits and press instead of being willowed down by the voters closer to the election (i.e., within the same year!). Fear can be a powerful motivator in “staying the course” in the status quo.

The sheer duration of the presidential election cycle, plus the seemingly consequential Iowa caucuses being its first snapshot by some of the electorate, is said to be valuable, even necessary. This claim is a galaxy away from my perspective that the selection process is fundamentally flawed as well as broken. How is it that European campaign season—admittedly on the state level but the states play a larger role at the E.U. level than their American counterparts do at the U.S. level—is only a few months? Do the Americans make better decisions on account of the longer duration and related additional attention? Typically, any possible “constitutional moment” wherein the general public focuses on a major matter of governance or policy during the campaign is quickly eclipsed by the report that someone called someone else a bad name. As if by instinct, we feel we need to hear what the other guy said in reply, so we are hooked, like addicts, totally unaware of the opportunity costs both in terms of substantive public debate and in our own lives, which I submit should not be lived vicariously through a soap opera of bad actors willing to go on and on if it will get them the power they crave. So, finally, it can be asked whether they are worth all of the time we give them. Maybe if the office were not so powerful, or if structural changes were made to how a person is selected as president, we might get a break from the seemingly unending series of reports on the campaigns.

We do not even know that the U.S. Constitution mandates the Electoral College as a way to check excess democracy ironically by making use of elected representatives. The state legislatures were to appoint the electors who would then vote by state to elect the president. Even though the U.S. House was to be the repository of popular election in the U.S. Government and the Electoral College was meant to check excess democracy (e.g., the impact of momentary passions) for our own good, American citizens living long before the twenty-first century made the electors in each state subject to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in the state. In other words, the system is not only out of control; it was never designed to function as a multi-year electoral “season.” Even so, it goes on as if nothing were wrong—even as if the status quo were being worshipped, in effect. At the very least, to be comfortable with a broken status quo indicates that something is wrong societally—with us.  To admit that it is broken but be resigned to it is almost to deserve it. It is as though the United States is so big, as an empire of fifty republics comparable to European states, that only the sheer mass of its inertia can fuel its momentum. No other force, even from within, dares challenge the powerful vested interests who insist not only that the system is working, but that it must! We in turn do not question, really. We are so accustomed to going along with the status quo, as if its mere operation meant it is viable, that we hardly even notice.

On a clear, sunny day in early 2012, a century after the Titanic sank, few if any Americans were viewing the presidential contest then going on as fundamentally broken; the attention was on the personalities running. It is as if American society itself were unconsciously flirting with an iceberg ahead, sipping tea oblivious to the danger—or stranger still, looking straight at the mass of ice ahead while pausing to rearrange the deck chairs as if to get the best view. No need to report the sight or figure out a change of course. As the Iowa caucuses demonstrate, it is important to be first—sitting in front. This is ironic in lands so filled with Churches (even in the campaigns). Being able to secure one’s place means the system is working—serving the good of the whole, the public good.

Click to view comments or post one on the presidential election campaign season.
See related essay: “Picking a President by Polls

Charlie Savage, “Limited Government But Far-Ranging Presidency,” International Herald Tribune, December 31, 2011-January 1, 2012.  http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx