Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why the healthcare debate suggests that an effective third party would result in an impotent government

As is my wont, I’ve been following the current Senate maneuverings on healthcare, but for different reasons than partisans on either side of this particular policy debate. The difficulties that the Democrats have experienced in expanding a majority vote into a filibuster-proof supermajority present an object lesson for why a two-party system, imperfect as it may be, is likely the best method to ensure that the machinery of government will work at all. It follows that, in the absence of changes in the nature of our political discourse or government institutions (and possibly both), a robust third party would be a civic disaster.

At present, a handful of disaffected Democrats and independents have been able to force extensive changes in a bill that a majority of the legislature supported. For opponents of health care, this state of affairs is a godsend. For proponents of an effective law-making process, it is profoundly disheartening. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of healthcare itself, a minority’s ability to block the will of the majority is fundamentally at odds with how we expect a legislative body to function. Forget the fact that one might oppose healthcare reform as a matter of principle. If one swaps “healthcare reform” with “Bill X,” and Bill X is what one personally believes to be a good policy, then it is difficult to reconcile the majority-rule norms of a democratic republic with what has been going on in the Senate as of late.[1]

The striking thing is that the holdouts on healthcare reform are not members of the formal opposition. They are senators who caucus with the Democratic party. All else being equal, if one swapped Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson with a 20-strong minority third party, securing their votes would likely be impossible (as has been the case with Republicans). And in the current environment, it is unlikely that a third party would be full of pure-hearted, principled, enlightened, commonsensical servants of the people. Instead, it would likely be the same mix of serious policymakers, self-interest crooks, and fame-seeking clowns that are pretty much the norm in any large organization, let alone a national political party. While this might act as a check on the influence of special interests in the legislative process (which is a dubious proposition at best), having more than two political parties would likely prevent many good policies from being enacted in an effort to block a few bad ones.

Some might say that is a good thing, i.e., “That government is best which governs least,” and all that pedantic nonsense. However, people who will embrace that pithy platitude as an actual principle are few and far between.[2] Instead, fine ideas about limited government are conveniently forgotten or glossed over depending on whose ox is being gored. There are big government advocates on either side of the political spectrum, with the most common examples being the left’s advocacy for strong social safety nets and the right’s preference for a robust military. So, regardless of one’s particular belief about what specifically falls within the legitimate exercise of government power, – be it universal health care, the projection of military power, gay rights, gun control, the interdiction of illegal drugs, counterterrorism – once one concedes that the government has some necessary function, then a permanently paralyzed national legislature quickly loses its academic charm.

I recognize there are those who advocate radical reforms, such as commentators who view the Senate as an anti-democratic institution and propose its abolition. Such reforms may very well be necessary. However, a third party alone is no cure to what ails us. A third party wouldn’t make our existing law-making process any more effective, and the development of a third party in the absence of any broader structural reform is likely to make the problem worse.

[1] For those who will reflexively argue that the United States is not a direct democracy, bear in mind that I am discussing how our legislature works, not the country as a whole. And from a constitutional perspective, the dominance of the majority is the rule rather than the exception.

[2] Granted, some libertarians (little L) claim that this is exactly what they are striving for. To the extent that such true-believers exist, wishing to see a viable third party slow down the workings of government, such an act would undermine democratic values. A third-party that exists merely to paralyze the government may be the “best” from an ideological standpoint, but for a minority third party to do so is fundamentally anti-majoritarian and at odds with our underlying democratic principles.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reaction to President Obama's Afghanistan speech

I took some time out from studying last night to watch President Obama’s address on how his administration will pursue the war in Afghanistan. Below are my reactions to his speech. Overall, I was pleased, although there were some areas I wish he had addressed in more depth, such as the details of what a “civilian surge might look like.” Overall, though, my strongest responses were to the following issues.[1]

1) Why We’re Fighting.

I appreciated that he devoted some time at the front end to review the reasons why we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place. When I read a number of pundits and commentators who advocate drawing down our involvement in Afghanistan, the underlying assumption appears to be that the war never should have been fought in the first place. While it would be unfair to lump every critic into that category, the ones who strive for a quick and simple answer to justify their positions tend to take issues that are important to consider – such as the fact that the terrain in Afghanistan makes it difficult to accomplish military operations or the fact that even justified military action may alienate or radicalize locals who oppose having foreign troops in their country toward – and convert those issues into the only ones worth considering. No decision about Afghanistan should fail to consider the difficulties and secondary consequences of military action. However to focus solely on those aspects as if they were the only ones that matters is disingenuous, as it ignores the fact that our war in Afghanistan was a direct response a group that used the territory of that country to plan and launch an attack that killed thousands of civilians. While there are any number of domestic security and diplomatic responses to prevent other attacks, the proper response to punish the group that executed that attack was to launch a war in Afghanistan in order to disrupt Al Qaeda.[2]

One area that I wish the President had emphasized more was why military action against Al Qaeda justifies military action against the Taliban. He casually shifted his focus from one group to the other and back, without clearly articulating the reasons why both are threats. One compelling reason is that the most ideologically-driven Taliban want to institute a government that keeps their country mired in the Middle Ages, restricts religious freedom, and turns women into domestic slaves. Personally, I have some trouble grasping how some of the same parties can criticize President Obama for not taking China to task over its human rights violations (or, for that matter, stridently advocate equal rights here in America), yet refuse to acknowledge that on some level, if we withdrew from Afghanistan on the basis that “the Taliban aren’t Al Qaeda,” we would effectively consign a number of Afghanis to a civil hell if the Taliban seize power again. Considering that at least some of the Aghan population have been the ones who helped us decimate Al Qaeda in that country, there is a moral commitment to those people that cannot be discarded or glossed over just to simplify the anti-war position.

The unfortunate reality is that in a world of limited resources, the fact that a group is despotic and despicable isn’t always sufficient reason to commit our own resources to rooting them out. However, on a more self-interested (and perhaps more cynical) level, the Taliban leadership could have avoided going to war with us by turning over the Al Qaeda leadership 8 years ago. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, if the Taliban turned over Bin Laden tomorrow and sincerely agreed to pursue their program through the democratic process rather than the battlefield, that actually would be a good justification for distinguishing between a war with Al Qaeda and a war with the Taliban. It is a moot point, however, because the Taliban leadership, to my knowledge, have refused to do either. In diplomacy, we pressure countries that work against us. In law enforcement, we arrest people who harbor fugitives or act as an accessory to a crime. And in Afghanistan, the mere fact that the Taliban continues to aid and abet the Al Qaeda leadership that remains in Pakistan is a good reason to continue military action. There might be other, better reasons not to continue the war, but any decision to do so should not be based on some spurious notion that since the Taliban never directly attacked America, any action against them is inherently unjustified.

I’ll take a moment to note that the president’s speech did avoid going too far in the other direction, i.e., acknowledging that to the extent there are members of the Taliban who would “abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens,” we are willing to deal with them. The Taliban is in fact more heterogeneous than commonly depicted in the media. There are elements that belong in the “aiding and abetting camp,” and there are elements that have no real interest in protecting Al Qaeda and are aligned with the Taliban as a matter of pooling resources against common enemies. On a more fundamental level, there are probably a number of lower level leaders and fighters who are aligned with the Taliban because they want to be on the winning side in the conflict, not because they particularly care about imposing a strict Sharia law. I’m assuming that it’s these Taliban-in-name-only elements that the President wants to co-opt.

2) The costs and benefits of the 18-month deadline.

I’m sure many folks on the right will be concerned with one aspect of the President’s plan , the fact that he announced an 18-month timetable for the surge of troops in Afghanistan. The conventional wisdom on the right is that any announcement of a timetable sends the message to our enemies on the battlefield that we are in the fight for a limited amount of time, and that they need only avoid losing for 18 months. There are certainly merits to this position, but like many arguments on the left, it’s an argument that tends to oversimplify the situation in order to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts. If the world just consisted of the Americans and the Taliban/Al Qaeda on a battlefield, I would be squarely on the side of those who argue that putting any deadline on our operations is a horrendous mistake.

However, that is not the case. The situation in Afghanistan includes the Americans and NATO, the Taliban and Al Qaeda we are fighting, and the Afghanistan government and security forces. We are not just fighting for America – we are fighting on behalf of and protecting an Afghani government that some watchdog groups have ranked as the second most corrupt in the world. Because of the points I made above about the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, I believe that, in the short run, the corruption in the Afghan government is a necessary evil in an imperfect world – while it is important to influence Hamid Karzai to operate a legitimate, modern country, that concern is secondary to our military objectives. On the other hand, to the extent that the corruption in the Karzai government makes it easier for the Taliban to maintain their presence in Afghanistan, that corruption actually subverts our military objectives. On a basic level, if the Taliban can offer security and social services in the areas they control, and the officials in Kabul are more concerned with lining their pockets than governing, then we as Americans run the risk of losing a crucial intelligence asset that actually allows us to target our enemies.

The broader implication is that we need to give the Kabul government a strong incentive to behave like a legitimate government that serves the needs of its people. While I am not well-versed enough in diplomacy to know what all the options are, it makes a certain amount of sense to say, “Shape up, or take your chances with the Taliban.” So, while there are legitimate risks to imposing an 18-month deadline, it may be the best way to balance the competing goals of showing strength to the Taliban while showing Karzai that we are also not chumps who will allow his government to continue to undermine us. It is probably not a perfect strategy, because it is not a perfect world. The fact that the Afghanistan strategy was hashed out over several months, and ultimately appears to have the support of the experts on the security side of the equation (i.e., Secretary Gates, General Petraeus, General McChrystal) at least assures me that the costs and risks of such a strategy were fully vetted rather than simplistically adopted or rejected out of hand.

In defense of the hawks, I will be disappointed if President Obama ultimately gives the timeline itself more importance than the situation on the ground. If, in 18 months, the situation has improved, but needs additional time due to unforeseen events, and there is a sufficient stake in our security to continue our involvement, then I would rather him abandon or adjust the deadline rather than embrace a foolish consistency. On this issue, both Obama’s speech and his recent history suggest that he would not adhere to the deadline to the exclusion of reality and good sense. First, the overwhelming majority of his speech was dedicated to detailing the historical background of the Afghanistan war, the threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and our security interests involved. When it came to the issues that weigh against continuing the war (e.g., the corruption in the Karzai government), he devoted less time and addressed those subjects more obliquely.[3] That suggests that the security interest trumps the good governance-in-Afghanistan interest. Imposing a timeline isn’t nearly as big a risk as imposing a deadline that ignores reality on the ground; by signaling where his priorities lie, I’m hoping that President Obama knows the difference. Furthermore, President Obama’s track record in domestic politics suggests that his approach to deadlines is, to put it charitably, flexible. While on can argue the merits of that method, it should at least give some comfort to those who fear that the president would remain inflexible on this issue.

3) Putting it in context.

One of the reasons I voted for President Obama is that he seems to have a greater appreciation for the fact that competing priorities need to be balanced. While I don’t believe that the costs of the war alone should dictate how we fight it, I appreciate the fact that President Obama stressed that we live in a nation of limited resources, and that governing is about balancing resources in a number of areas. Too many people on the left or right are unwilling to step back and recognize that simple fact about how government should work. As an aside, I’m well aware that in a democracy, the way we make policy on a national level is for different groups to advocate their position fiercely and vigorously. I also believe that is an effective way for a democracy to function – vigorous advocacy plays an important role as a tool for getting us to the best possible outcome. Where I part company with a number of people is that I believe that, while vigorous advocates play an important role in helping us reaching the best policy, the best policy is not necessarily identical to what the vigorous advocate wants. And the best policy is the one that does the most toward accomplishing important goals while doing the least to harm other important goals.

Unfortunately, instead of accepting that reality, partisans on the left and right tend to get so caught up in their single issue that it ends up skewing their world view. Their important goal becomes the only goal worth pursuing. By that logic, anyone who advocates for a competing goal is necessarily dealing in bad faith. And that tendency is not limited to either side of the political aisle. Some of those who zealously advocate healthcare reform, when confronted with the cost, need to believe that Afghanistan is a wasteful, futile endeavor rather than accept something less than perfection. Some of those who favor the war in Afghanistan, likening it to the Herculean struggles of World War II, need to believe that spending on social programs is un-American, socialistic, and wasteful, unlike the hallowed spending on defense programs. Neither side should abandon their advocacy, but they should be willing to recognize that the job of our government is to decide what the best allocation of resources between those issues is. If thousands of Americans run the risk of dying, whether from preventable diseases or from an airplane crashing into a building, then whatever reduces that risk is, by definition, an important goal.

The bottom line principle for our government needs to be what will benefit the most Americans – not what satisfies some unquantifiable need to either indulge our altruism for the sake of altruism, or “win” a war as a matter of pride rather than security. And by signaling that he understands how these competing priorities coexist, I am reassured that the President will make a good faith effort to balance them appropriately. I can only hope that I’m correct.

[1] I’l add, as a caveat, that I am not a subject matter expert on Afghanistan, national security, or the current state of the Afghanistan war. I strive to make myself as educated as possible, given the limited amount of time I can devote to the subject, but ultimately there will be gaps in my knowledge that bear on the conclusions I make. I welcome any additional information that I’ve overlooked in the comments. That being said, I am more inclined to listen to facts and well-reasoned conclusions rather than platitudes and half-baked analogies.

[2] I make the distinction because uber-hawks tend to believe that only military action the appropriate response to combat terrorism, and uber-doves tend to believe that law enforcement and diplomatic initiatives are the only correct tools for this problem. I tend to believe that the less costly preventive measures are preferable (so long as they work), but that there is an important retributive and deterrent value in using military action where appropriate.

[3] Granted, he did acknowledge the constraints of our resources (e.g., his focus on the financial cost of the war and the implicit acknowledgment that our military efforts rely on a strong domestic economy to underwrite them), but those issues were addressed toward the end, rather than being explicitly used to bolster the case for a timeline.