National Security

Tinkering with the Obama Doctrine

As his second term kicks off, what are the roads the president is likely to pursue abroad?

Flickr/Island-Life

During the 2008 presidential campaign, no candidate offered a clearer break with George W. Bush's foreign policy than Barack Obama. With America in the middle of two prolonged wars in the Middle East, the Illinois senator pledged to use "soft power" and engagement to pursue American interests rather than military action. Obama's argument was that the standing of the United States had been heavily damaged by Bush's policies of invasion, torture, and indefinite detention, and in order to repair this damage, the United States needed to pursue policies that directly reached out to the residents of the world.

I Can Haz Internet Freedom?

Michael Gottschalk/dapd

“Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win—a twisted and distorted perversion of justice—a game where the only winning move was not to play.”

That message greeted visitors to the United States Sentencing Commission website the evening of January 25.. The words were part of a ten-minute video manifesto embedded on the homepage of the commission, responsible for writing the sentencing policies and guidelines for Federal courts. The death of the Internet savant and information activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life due at least in part to the outsized charges he was facing at the hands of the U.S. justice system, was still an open wound for most tech-literate net dwellers. No group took the news of Swartz’s passing more personally than “Anonymous.” The hactivist collective swore vengeance, citing the "highly disproportionate sentencing" of Swartz and others like him, and commenced the darkly named “Operation Last Resort,” hijacking numerous Department of Justice websites and sending “nuclear warheads” packed with stolen DOJ records hurtling across the Internet.

Libya's Spheres of Bad Influence

Time is running short for the U.S. and NATO to help Libya restore order and security—and to keep jihadi groups in check.

The tragic events unfolding in North Africa have brought to the attention of the West a reality that has been long underestimated and neglected: the rapid collapse of law and order in the countries that went through the revolts of the so-called Arab spring. Western countries have relied on the hope that new governments across the region could maintain stability and peace largely on their own, and therefore neglected to support these governments in their struggles. This is clearly not a strategy that has succeeded, and the United States will be forced to make hard choices in the next few weeks regarding the security situation in the Maghreb and Sahelian regions of North Africa.

Breaking the Military’s Brass Ceiling

Leon Panetta's decision to end the women in combat ban was the right one, and long overdue.

AP Photo, File

At a meeting of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission in March 2010, someone asked then-Marine Corps Commandant James T. Conway whether it was possible for a woman to ever be promoted to his position. He had to think about it for a little bit. Not from the usual career path of "combat arms," he said, because those were closed to women; maybe a female pilot could be eligible. Then he added that he didn't think anything would change "because I don’t think our women want it to change."

Chicken Hawk Ted Cruz Smears Kerry and Hagel

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Apparently every Democrat automatically despises the troops, even when those Democrats once volunteered to serve in the armed forces. It's a trope Republicans have pulled out ever since the Nixon years. The Obama era--replete with drone strikes, Libyan intervention, and the death of Osama bin Laden—has robbed Republicans of a bit of their bluster. But on Saturday Ted Cruz, the newly elected U.S. Senator from Texas, breathed new life into the old smear when he tarred two highly decorated former veterans.

Republicans Puzzled as to Why They Didn't Slay Hillary Clinton Yesterday

Hillary Clinton making a point to Republicans at a hearing on Benghazi yesterday.

Today, Republicans are wondering why exactly they didn't manage to make Hillary Clinton fall whimpering into a fetal position of the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, then get up and admit that the Obama administration had engaged in a massive cover-up of their terrible crimes in Benghazi. Senator Ron Johnson, one of the most intellectually challenged members of that august body, with whom Clinton had an exchange that ran on all the news programs, triumphally told a reporter he had got "under her skin," and said, ""I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me." Diabolical indeed, that she managed to evade your skillful cross-examination. John McCain, on the other hand, blamed an "adoring media" for not helping the Republicans really stick it to Clinton.

Could be. Or it could be that when you trump up some inane faux outrage over something, and then the person at whom you're directing said outrage actually has a chance to respond directly and decides to call bullshit on you, you don't end up looking too good.

Women to Serve In Combat Units

Flick/U.S. Marine Corps

Today, acting on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he is lifting the ban, in place since 1994, on women serving in combat roles in the United States military. One has to wonder how much longer this would have taken had we not had the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the reality on the ground—that women have been fighting and dying alongside their male colleagues for the last decade—made this almost inevitable. What changes now is that women can serve in units like infantry that are designated as combat units.

I'm sure some conservatives are going to start hemming and hawing about how the lack of upper body strength among your average lady-type means this will accelerate the wussification of the U.S. military, and how it was just inevitable under Barack Obama's plan to destroy America. No doubt we'll hear that from Rush Limbaugh, who probably couldn't do a push-up if there was a capital gains tax cut waiting at the top of it.

The 13-Year War

Press Association via AP Images

In October 2001, George W. Bush told the country he was sending the American military to Afghanistan in order to "bring justice to our enemies." It's safe to say support for the war would not have been as nearly unanimous as it was had he said, "Oh, and by the way, our troops are going to be fighting there for the next 13 years." But if all goes according to plan and Barack Obama follows up on his pledge to bring them home by the end of 2014, that's how long the Afghanistan war will have lasted.

Hagel Faces Down the Neo-Cons

Rex Features via AP Images

It’s terrific news that the neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and Elliott Abrams, who have been peddling the slander that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite, got no traction with leading pro-Israel senators. The announcement by New York senator Chuck Schumer and California senator Barbara Boxer that they will support Hagel signals that the mainstream Jewish community wasn’t buying it, and even that the Israel lobby is split.

Obama's Genius Defense Pick

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

The Republican Party is given these days to hysteria, and what appears at the moment to be a white-guy cabinet in the second Obama term is more likely the result of botched orchestration than anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s contention that the president is deliberately getting in the opposition’s face with his recent nominations. As those of us who have been supportive of the president wrestle with the moral question of whether he deserves as much grief as we would have given a newly elected Mitt Romney for filling the three biggest jobs in his administration with old white males, or whether Obama’s first term—including a female secretary of State and two female Supreme Court appointments—earns him some slack, the Machiavellian genius of the choices is lost. The Republicans are in disarray not because they drew some particularly wacky names from a hat when it came to fielding congressional candidates but because their constituency is wacky, something so obvious that the only option for pols and pundits alike is to ignore it: A third of the country is fucking out of its mind. Of course some portion of the country always has been out of its mind, which is what Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are about, and the country’s task always has been transcending this. But now that Republican psychosis has become so pronounced even the party itself is beset by flashes of self-awareness, a cleave has developed into which Field Marshal Barack drives his pincer division of Kerry, Hagel, and Lew.

The Only Solution Is Fewer Guns

AP Photo/Robert Ray

On an April Sunday in 1996, a young man named Martin Bryant went to the popular tourist site of Port Arthur in Australia, and using a pair of semi-automatic rifles, undertook a massacre that spread over several locations and killed 35 people. The crime was so horrific that previously pro-gun politicians changed their positions, and less than two weeks later the government announced sweeping changes to the country's gun laws, outlawing automatic and semi-automatic weapons, instituting lengthy waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases, and creating a gun buyback program that eventually resulted in a fifth of the country's firearms being destroyed. In the years since, the country's rates of gun homicide and suicide have fallen dramatically, and Australia has not had another mass shooting.

What happened in Australia—a terrible tragedy galvanizing public sentiment and leading to a significant change in policy—is something many Americans fervently wish would happen here in the wake of last month's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Details are now emerging on the legal solutions that the White House and its congressional allies will be pushing in the coming days. But anyone hoping for a transformation in America's relationship with guns would do well to be skeptical.

Ending the Mindset that Got Us into Iraq

AP Photo/Bill Wolf

Rex Features via AP Images

The nomination announcement for Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in the East Room of the White House.

Once Again, Obama Does Something No GOP President Bothers to Do

Ten points if you know who this is.

I'm sure there are many reasons why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, but the fact that Hagel is a Republican surely played at least some part. After all, if he nominated a Democrat to head the Pentagon, congressional Republicans would surely oppose the nomination and charge that the nominee was too dovish. Which of course is exactly what has happened with Hagel (along with some truly despicable phony accusations of anti-Semitism*). I'm not the first liberal to be disappointed with the fact that Democratic presidents seem to feel the need to placate their opponents by picking Republicans for this particular position. As Michael Beschloss observed, Republican presidents have never picked a Democrat for this job, but about half the Secretaries of Defense in Democratic administrations have been Republicans.

What's most important to note about this is that there is no equivalent on the other side. Republican presidents don't feel the need to appoint Democrats to lead agencies whose missions are traditionally associated with Democrats. In fact, they have no problem appointing people whose goal is to fight against the missions of the agencies they lead.

The Question Torture Apologists Can't Answer

There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era's torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I've never heard any of them answer: How do the defender's of "enhanced interrogation" (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since "ethnic cleansing") actually define torture? I'll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration's torture program on many occasions. Since I haven't seen the film I can't say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: "I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s 'enhanced interrogation' program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture." And why aren't the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of "stress positions," which are used to cause excruciating pain without actually leaving a mark—torture? Here's the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:

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