Tag Archives: domestic politics

The Fallout from Paris

The international response to last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris continues to intensify. Investigations by French authorities have led to multiple arrests in Belgium and France, and an international warrant has been issued for the Belgian citizen believed to be the mastermind for the attack. French President François Hollande descried the attacks as “an act of war” and has intensified French airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.

Within the United States, the response to the attack in France has been shaded by the ongoing Presidential primary process. Republican presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Bobby Jindall have called for a range of military actions, from increased airstrikes to deploying American ground forces. Democratic candidates have generally supported President Obama’s existing strategy of airstrikes to support anti-ISIS forces—most notably rebels in Syria and Kurds in Iraq—rather than deploying US soldiers directly on the ground.

But perhaps the sharpest difference has been on the response to Syrian refugees. Noting that one of the terrorists killed in the Paris attack carried a Syrian passport, Republican presidential candidates have called for responses to address immigration. Some have called for an outright ban on refugees from Syria, while others have called for a religious test, limiting immigration to “true Christians” only. Governors of more than fifteen states have said that they would not accept Syrian refugees—proclamations that may be more symbolic than effective. But according to German sources, the Syrian passport was likely a fake intended to paint the attackers as Syrian refugees and provoke precisely this response.

What do you think? Should the United States and other Western countries take steps to limit the ability of Syrian refugees to seek asylum abroad? Why? Does such a move strengthen ISIS’s narrative, as President Obama suggests? Why? And how do you think the United States should respond to the Paris terror attacks?

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The Iranian Nuclear Deal

President Obama this week appeared to have gathered sufficient support from Congressional Democrats to block a Republican effort to defeat the Iranian nuclear deal. Under the terms of legislation passed earlier this year, Congress has the authority to review and vote down the proposed agreement. But the deal will take effect if Congress is unable to vote it down. Now that President Obama has garnered the support of at least 34 Democratic Senators, the Republican bill defeating the proposed agreement will not be able to be sustained in the face of a certain Presidential veto.

From the perspective of its defenders, the agreement represents the best possible outcome of negotiations with Iran, and will make it impossible for Iran to secure a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade. From the perspective of its critics, the deal is ineffectual at best, and at worst undermines international efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Regardless, the Obama White House clearly invested significant political capital in the deal’s success, and it appears that that investment will now pay off with the implementation of the new agreement.

What do you think? Will the Iranian nuclear deal be effective in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Would you support or oppose the deal if you were a member of Congress? Why?

Will Congress Reject the Iranian Nuclear Deal?

Lawmakers in Congress are taking sides for an upcoming vote on the Iranian nuclear deal. The political process was set up last April, when an alliance of Republican and Democratic Senators passed bipartisan legislation requiring any executive agreement reached between the United States and Iran to come to Congress for review. Usually, executive agreements are not subject to Congressional review or approval. But in this case, Congress need not approve the agreement, but may decide to reject it.

The approach has created some interesting political dynamics. While the United Nations and most American allies–with the notable exception of Israel–have welcomed the agreement as a powerful step forward that places real limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Congressional Republicans have argued that the agreement does too little to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while simultaneously granting too much relief to the Iranian government.

Because of the way the review legislation was structured, President Obama need only secure one-third of Congress voting to approve the new agreement. Remember that Congress must pass legislation to reject the agreement. If the vote falls strictly along party lines, Congress will pass such legislation, which President Obama could veto. Without strong support from Congressional Democrats, the Republican Congress would be unable to override President Obama’s veto. President Obama’s strategy thus appears to focus on maintaining the support of moderate Democrats, many of whom have already said they will back the President. Already, most key leaders have expressed support for the President, with the notable exception of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has said he will vote to reject the agreement. This announcement sparked a response from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a noted foreign policy export.

What do you think? Should Congress reject the proposed agreement on Iran’s nuclear program? If so, what alternative strategy would you suggest for addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

The Domestic Politics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

President Obama’s free trade agenda suffered a setback yesterday after the Senate was unable to reach the 60 votes needed to close debate on legislation granting President Obama fast track negotiating authority. The bill, supported by the White House and Congressional Republicans, would have made approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a free trade deal encompassing 14 countries and widely seen as a counterweight to Chinese influence—a foregone conclusion. But sharp divisions between President Obama and Congressional Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), scudded the motion.

At issue are concerns over the scope of the agreement and protections afforded for workers and the environment. Congressional Democrats, leery of the deal in light of what they see as a mixed record for NAFTA and other free trade agreements, are demanding increased protections. They are also Congressional Republicans oppose such measures, while the White House claims they are unnecessary.

What do you think? Would the Trans-Pacific Partnership be beneficial or detrimental to the US economy? Would you support measures proposed by Congressional Democrats to include increased protections for workers and the environment as a precondition for approving the new deal? Why?

Climate Change, National Security, and Domestic Politics

Of all agencies of the US government, perhaps the US military has exhibited the highest level of concern over the potential impact of climate change on its operations. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), issued by the Pentagon in March, described climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will alter global defense priorities and policies into the future. Climate change, the report warned, will force the Pentagon to rethink both its mission and its operations, as problems like delivering humanitarian aid will be exacerbated by climate change.

But yesterday House Republicans approved an amendment to a National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the Pentagon from using resources to assess the impact of climate change.

Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) decried the amendment, describing the vote as “science denial at its worst [that] fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.”

The Global Politics of Sequestration

United Nations Headquarters, New York

United Nations Headquarters, New York

Blogging at the UN Dispatch, Mark Leon Goldberg last week raised some important questions about how the sequestration will affect the United Nations.

For those who have not been following domestic U.S. politics over the past few months, the sequestration is a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government spending. Republicans and Democrats agreed to the system last year in an attempt to force themselves to reach a compromise on debt reduction. The idea was to make the cuts so painful that both sides would prefer to negotiate more targeted cuts than allow the sequestration to take effect. But in a signal of the degree of dysfunction and political polarization in Washington, D.C., the sequestration went in to effect on Friday when the two parties could not reach agreement.

While there has been much discussion of the domestic impact of sequestration, less attention has been paid to the foreign policy effects. We know, for example, that the U.S. military will face more than $500 billion in cuts under sequestration, $46 billion of which would take effect this year. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the sequestration cuts would “seriously damage a fragile American economy and…would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe.” The self-made crisis, he added, “undermines the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country.”

Beyond the U.S. military, however, sequestration will affect our international efforts more broadly. The United States contributes about 27 percent of the cost of UN peacekeeping operations and about a quarter of the organizations regular budget. Sequestration will mean a cut to these contributions in the short term, with the U.S. withholding approximately $100 million in funding towards peacekeeping and a similar amount from the regular budget. However, as Goldberg notes, any savings would be illusory.

Those cuts won’t actually end up saving the USA any money in the long term because the USA is treaty-bound to pay its membership dues to the UN. So, rather than cutting UN spending, the real effects of the sequester will be the accrual of American arrears. Eventually, the USA will have to pay off those arrears so there will be no real saving.”

But the impact on UN operations would be very real indeed. As Goldberg describes it, “A $100 million cut to UN peacekeeping could mean that countries that have expressed willingness to contribute troops to an international mission in Mali may not be able to deploy. The preconditions necessary for a peacekeeping mission — food, fuel, equipment —  requires reliable funding.” Not a pretty picture.

What do you think? How will sequestration affect the ability of the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The F-35 Conundrum

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter during a test flight over Texas.

The entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets was grounded last week  following the discovery of a cracked engine blade during a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The F-35 is the world’s most advanced fighter jet, and versions of the aircraft are flown by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

When it was proposed, the F-35 was intended to be w joint weapons system that could meet the needs of all three branches. It was built as a stealth fighter with extensive ground strike capabilities. However, it has suffered from extensive cost overruns, quickly becoming the most expensive weapons program in the history of the United States, with a total cost of nearly $400 billion. And despite the cost, repeated revisions and setbacks have led to higher costs and a slower delivery schedule. While the United States plans to purchase more than 2,400 F-35s at $89 million each, to date, only 32 aircraft have been delivered at a cost of $207.6 million each (excluding the cost of research and development). The aircraft that have been delivered have not seen combat operations and have been grounded twice in the past year.

Further, the F-35 was developed in the 1990s as the next-generation stealth fighter designed to replace a wide range of aircraft currently in operation. For the Air Force, the F-35 is a strike fighter to replace the F-16 Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt. For the navy, a short takeoff version of the F-35 will replace the F-18 Hornet attack fighter and the AV-8B Harrier jump fighter. The Marine Corp plans on using its vertical takeoff version of the F-35 to replace its Harrier jets.

This has led to several problems, though. In attempting to meet the often competing demands of the various branches, the F-35’s designer, Lockheed Martin, has had to sacrifice design elements that were desirable to other branches. The Air Force, for example, is dissatisfied with the short range of the jet, necessitated by structural reinforcements to make the aircraft capable of carrier operations, as required by the Navy.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the global environment for which the F-35 was designed has shifted as the program has developed. The use of drone aircraft was virtually unheard of when the program was developed in the 1990s. Today, drone operations are increasingly becoming the first option for U.S. air operations abroad. The F-35 was designed to sneak past and eliminate enemy radar, clearing the way for non-stealth aircraft to attack without opposition. The use of the F-117 Nighthawk in U.S. operations during the first Gulf War illustrates precisely this role.

But today, drones are viewed as a more cost-effective option to achieve this and other goals. With a cost of just $4 million per unit, the RQ-1 Predator Drone (and, with a $36.8 million per unit price tag, its admittedly more expensive MQ-9 Reaper sister) are able to accomplish many of the primary tasks of the F-35 at a fraction of the cost.

Given its high cost, slow delivery, challenging track record, and increasingly questionable purpose, why has the F-35 program not been shelved or more dramatically cut back?

That’s the real genus. The production line for the F-35 program is spread across 25 different states, employing workers in each. This makes the program difficult to cut, as Senators from each of those states (which comprise half of the U.S. Senate) are usually reluctant to just programs that employ people in their home districts. The exemplar of this was a request last year by the U.S. military to eliminate funding for a second engine for every F-35. The President wanted the cuts, the Pentagon said the engines were unnecessary.

Production Locations for the F-35.

Production Locations for the F-35.

But Congress refused to cut the second engine program. Indeed, several high ranking members of Congress sharply criticized the Pentagon after it ordered the shuttering of the program. The program was eventually shuttered despite opposition, but not before more than $3.5 billion in federal funding had been spent. Not a single engine was delivered.

What do you think? Does the F-35 joint strike fighter have an important role in maintaining American military readiness? Are its primary functions now performed by drone aircraft? Why has the program continued? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.