The Great Unknown (Or, Caveat Emptor)

May 11, 2010

United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ imminent vacation of the bench means the Obama administration will have another chance to add a friendly jurist to the Court, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan is the President’s pick.

Typically, proposed justices are vetted against their judicial records: were their decisions often overturned by higher courts, or upheld? Did they hold fair trials? Did they often commit reversible error, as decided by reviewing judges? Have they written thoughtful, scholarly opinions which carefully set out their reasoning? The judicial history assembled by each judge reads like a resume, and those resumes are the yardsticks by which candidates for the nation’s highest court are measured.

Unfamiliar with Solicitor Kagan’s judicial record? Not sure, based on her published opinions and decisions, how she feels about pressing issues or how she behaves as a judge?

So is America, because Ms. Kagan has never been a judge. She has no record in the courtroom, no library of opinions, no history of having decisions upheld or overturned… in short, she has no judicial resume which might hint at even a whiff of qualification.

Perhaps the President based his support on her commendable record of service in the Solicitor General’s office? If so, there must be some stellar example of federal advocacy in it, because she’s barely been on the job one year. Hardly enough time to have compiled anything even close to a reviewable record of performance, good or bad.

True, she did well as the Dean of Harvard Law School. She strengthened what was already the world’s finest law school and made a demonstrable effort to reach out to conservative factions of the faculty, earning a reputation as a concensus-builder. But running a school is much different from serving as a justice on the most powerful country in the world’s most powerful court.

Ms. Kagan is likely a very deft administrator and a skilled attorney; you have to be, to run Harvard Law and to represent the United States government in court as Solicitor General. Unfortunately, neither of these things begins to hint at, let alone establish, her qualifications as a judge, let alone one sitting on the Supreme Court. And, considering the lifetime appointments which justices enjoy, there is little room for error in their selection… and even less for the dangers of the unknown, untested, and unproven.



April 3, 2010

President Obama recently decided to allow drilling for oil in the coastal waters off of Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico’s western reaches, and also to open those areas to formerly prohibited seismic testing.

The policy shift has brought about some small measure of partisan reconciliation, as Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and other members of the GOP congratulated the President on his decision.

The noteworthy thing is, off-shore oil drilling is something President Obama railed against as a candidate, vowing not to allow it. This isn’t to imply President Obama doesn’t have worthwhile reasons for changing gears, only that Candidate Obama may have erred on the side of naive idealism when courting voters (who erred similarly).

"I drink your milkshake."

The Party Line

March 29, 2010

The Grand Old Party has lately been a house divided; Lindsey Graham and Olympia Snowe (R-SC and R-ME, respectively) keep a moderate tack, while conservative armchair quarterbacks like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly harangue them for imaginary disloyalty to the party.

Messrs. Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck, and the rest would do well to look up one other famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who served this country as President and wisely observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Where once Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley sought to invite conservatism as a whole into a “big tent,” Rush & Co. seem more eager to divide the house at every turn. This is helpful to neither the party overall, nor national dialogue.  

The recent Congressional passage of landmark healthcare legislation seems poised to force the issue, and perhaps some reconciliation: the fighting and voting over President Obama’s health bill was vicious, to say the least, and neither side escaped unbloodied. Politically, the bill’s passage may have two effects: one, hardening even further the resolve of conservatives in opposing liberals, and the other: emboldening the Obama administration and encouraging it to tackle other reforms. Chief among those other reforms will likely be modifications to the banking and financial industries.

Here, some compromise may be had: though conservative Republicans have traditionally favored big business and seen government as an engine to promote economy (while Democrats believe economy is an engine itself for social good, and should be regulated to that end), the extent of public distaste for banks and business is so great now that politicians of either stripe may find themselves obligated to push financial regulations, despite their historic allegiances to either side.

The public cry for financial reform may prove able to forge cross-aisle coalitions, as Democrats and Republicans toe the same line for the sake of votes. Coalitions like that may be beneficial to Americans overall, in reigning in bankers and financiers, but will hopefully be at least equally beneficial to the GOP in terms of fostering an ability to compromise and move forward, at least with one another.

A Way To Win

January 22, 2010

Since assuming control of the nation’s armed forces, President Obama has authorized the use of more Predator attack drones than any military chief before him, and for good reason: the drones are efficient and deadly, and they keep American soldiers out of harm’s way. 

Each Predator is controlled by two “pilots” who use joysticks and video screens to steer it from a remote base. A trigger attached to the joysticks fires its missiles. The images pilots use to guide the robot planes are gathered by the Predators, beamed to a satellite, and then re-directed through 12 time zones to the control bases in states like California. This takes about a second. 

The U.S. Predator drone.

Each Predator carries one 500-pound bomb, or an attachment of equally deadly Hellfire missiles. 

Though not without obvious merit, President Obama’s liberal deployment of the machines presents two dangers, and one tertiary benefit. 

The first danger remote-controlled war robots present is what game theorists call “signaling.” By refusing to commit our own blood to a conflict, we signal to an enemy that we lack resolve. This is heartening to them; the under-dog martyr mentality often inspires soldiers and spurs armies to fight on. Imagine the Jews in the mountain caves of Masada, so enraged by Rome that they took their own lives rather than be captured; or, the few Spartans who stood against thousands of Persians at Thermopyle, fortified in the throes of patriotic resolve. When soldiers sense they are more dedicated to a cause than their enemies, their fervor can prolong and worsen conflicts, even in the face of overwhelming odds. 

The second, and more pressing, danger is that lasting peace isn’t won by soldiers, but by the statesmen who come after. If that’s not done properly, peace deteriorates quickly. This is old news, but consider: for every Al Qaeda operative killed by Predator drones, two more appear. This is because the people they recruit believe in Al Qaeda and hate America. The equation makes it ironically impossible to win a war of attrition with these terrorists: they’re an Arabic Hydra, growing two heads for every one chopped off. By killing them, we make them stronger. The only way to beat something like that is to prevent new heads from growing. 

In Afghanistan, the answer is to reverse potential recruits’ mindset. They need to be taught to believe in America and hate Al Qaeda. This is a hard lesson to teach people who see robot planes flying overhead, firing missiles which often either miss their mark completely, and destroy an innocent building next-door, or kill civilians who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone’s target. Predator drones are wonderful for eliminating high-level enemies, but not for winning the hearts and minds of locals, and real victory requires both. This means boots on the ground… but construction boots, not combat boots: friendly faces who, after the fighting has cooled down, help build dams, schools, hospitals, roads, water treatment plants, and governments. Without this shift, any peace bought in any country becomes worthless quickly. 

Afghanistan is a place we should be in. We need a friend in an unstable (and often violently anti-Western) region to be our eyes and ears (and military staging area, if necessary). We need to have friends near all that oil, which is a national interest. We need to help it form a stable, just government, which is a humanitarian interest. 

We can’t do that with robots. We can only do it with people. Each is a necessary component, and the overwhelming success of one shouldn’t detract from the necessity, at the appropriate time, of the other. Lasting military victory without a sustainable humanitarian interest is impossible, just as sustainable humanitarian interests are impossible without a lasting military victory.  

The third danger, and possibly too the drones’ most notable merit, is that they allow American forces to become engaged in conflicts which would have otherwise quickly become unacceptable quicksand death-traps. Some countries historically counted on drawing foreign soldiers inland and then making them pay so heavily for the intrusion that their chiefs cut their losses; think of English redcoats during the American Revolution, United States troops in Vietnam, the British, Russians, and (it’s starting to seem) Americans in Afghanistan, the Nazis in Stalinist Russia, and the Persians at Thermopyle. Each was a superior force attacking a smaller enemy. And each force was drawn so far into that enemy’s home field, and suffered such great losses as a result, they withdrew. 

To countries like these, Predator drones announce the end of the tactic: Americans, if drawn into such a fight, will not be forced to cut and run from a mountain of casualties. Rather, they will stay and fight, and fight, and fight for as long as there are missiles available to load onto drones… and none of them will die doing it.

Barbarians At The Gate

December 5, 2009

With celebrity gossip and reality television often taking media precedence over coverage of military engagements and economic recession, it’s little wonder that the two would eventually travel perpendicular paths. It may be a testament to the tragic prominence of pop culture “news” in our national consciousness that those paths would cross at so venerable an event as a White House state dinner.

The hopeful Salahis.

The hopeful Salahis.

Aspiring nouveau socialites Tareq and Micheaele Salahi, known for dodging creditors and for courtroom brawls with relatives, secured their coveted fifteen minutes of fame by bluffing their way in to President Obama’s first-ever state dinner. The two engineered the stunt as part of a bid to appear on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” reality television series. Previously, Michaele had also claimed to have been a Redskins cheerleader and appeared at a cheerleaders’ alumni event for that team; she was unable to perform any of the cheers and was quickly outed.

The couple (he, a polo-playing vintner and she, a blonde) are in the habit of forcefully rubbing shoulders with those who would rather not. The two maintain a Facebook account which documents, in pictures, their aggresively upward social mobility. His family owns a Virginia winery, the subject of protracted legal battles with his parents: he wants it, they say they need to sell it to pay off his debts. The couple have already lost their Virginia home to foreclosure. A photo of Tareq posing with Prince Charles hangs prominently inside that house and its closets contain, by Michaele Salahi’s own estimate, about 300 pairs of her shoes.

“Nobody wants to deal with them,” say the couple’s Virginia neighbors. “The sheriffs have come by twice already looking for them” in connection with their Maserati and Aston Martin, both of which have been repossessed.

The pair were spotted almost immediately at the White House dinner by a D.C. society columnist who was there to cover the event. The columnist, apparently more in tune with that town’s social radar than the two aspiring insiders, alerted an event staffer that the Salahis appeared out of place. A quick check revealed that neither actually had an invitation. Appropriately fitting that two such ladder climbers, hopeful for reality television riches, would be turned in by one of that ladder’s own guard dogs.

Presidential Priorities

November 19, 2009

During his recent visit to China, President Obama spent 30 minutes after his official business was concluded touring China’s most well-known attraction, the Great Wall. 30 minutes isn’t that much time to spend on the Great Wall: it was built almost five hundred years before Christ and stretches on for roughly 6,000 miles. It is visible from the moon and from a low Earth orbit, reputedly the only man-made object to claim such distinction.

China welcomes President Obama.

President Obama’s Great Wall tour is understandable, and since it isn’t something anybody can see without travelling to China, it’s perfectly reasonable that most visits to China, Presidential or otherwise, include a stop along it. The opportunity is just too much to pass up.

Media-hounds may recall that, weeks ago, President Obama also toured an historic American destination: Arlington National Cemetary. In remembrance of Veterans’ Day, President Obama silently toured the graves of America’s fallen service-men and -women, thinking and paying his respects. For 15 minutes.

President Obama spent half as much time touring the graves of fallen American soldiers, on a day set aside in their honor while we are again engaged in violent military conflict, than he did touring the Great Wall of China. Most likely, extenuating circumstances dictated the time alotted to each tour: scheduling constraints, travel arrangements, etc. Surely, there were reasons for the disparity in times.

And yet, the fact remains.

The Honorable Lobbyist

November 2, 2009

Legal Bisnow reports recently that Ed Mathias, co-founder of the nebulous private equity shop Carlyle Group, described business interests without lobbyists on retainer as “extraordinarily vulnerable.” Mr. Mathias was speaking at a Washington, D.C. event at which Patton Boggs attorney Nick Allard also described lobbying as an “honorable, and increasingly essential, profession.”

Mr. Allard further pointed to a growing demand for lobbying services spurred by ever-more complex government regulation of industry and increased Federal spending; businesses have a lot of government hoops to jump through and a shot at a lot of government money, so large rewards exist for the skilled lobbyist who can help to navigate those hoops in search of that money. Mr. Allard is hoping to do just that, helping clients comply with government stimulus spending disclosure requirements.

Mr. Allard and other lobbyists also criticized President Obama’s anti-lobbyist stance at the event; they note “it’s just not good government to refuse to listen to people who disagree with you.”