Tag Archives: Obama

Is Iran’s Nuclear Program a Threat to Anyone?

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is considered irrational by some in the West. But do we have any reason to fear a nuclear-armed Iran?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a striking report today that accuses Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons. A New York Times piece calls the report “the harshest judgment the agency has ever issued in its decade-long struggle to pierce the secrecy surrounding the Iranian program. The findings have already rekindled a debate among the Western allies and Israel about whether increased diplomatic pressure, sanctions, sabotage or military action could stop Iran’s program.”

This new evidence that Iran is perhaps very close to developing a nuclear weapon raises the question: so what?

Neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, who treat states as if they were rational, unitary actors, believe that a nuclear Iran would not be reckless and would neither launch its nuclear weapons at another state nor give weapons to terrorists.  Their argument, premised on rational deterrence theory, is that even Iran’s leaders–who sometimes appear irrational to Western observers–are sensitive enough to the obvious costs of nuclear retaliation that they would never jeopardize the existence of their country by launching a nuclear attack that has a chance of being traced back to them.  In fact, such thinkers have favored the selective proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries so as to stabilize regional rivalries and make war unthinkable.

David Rothkopf, in a blog post entitled “The World is Misreading Obama on Iran,” contends that a supposedly “dovish” President Obama may contemplate using military force to prevent the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear bomb: “But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it.”

But why is Obama so afraid of a nuclear Iran?  If the neorealists are right, a nuclear Iran can be deterred and contained, just like the U.S. deterred and contained the ideologically driven, fiercely competitive, and nuclear-armed Soviet Union for 40-plus years during the Cold War.

What do you think?  Do the assumptions of rational deterrence theory apply to Iran’s leaders?  Why or why not?  Are there other reasons to fear a nuclear-armed Iran, other than its actual use of nuclear weapons?

Does Obama Need Congress’ Permission to Continue the Libya War?

President Obama is facing mounting criticism for failing to secure Congressional approval for the war being waged in Libya.  These critics, including many members of Congress, argue that the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide when America goes to war, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires Congressional authorization for any military operation lasting longer than 60 days (a time limit that expired on May 20).  They note that even President Bush, who was vilified for waging unpopular wars, received Congressional authorization for his use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama administration has argued that it doesn’t need Congress’ permission to continue the operation.  So who is right?

The Constitution contains some ambiguity about war powers; it divides these powers between the president and Congress by declaring the former the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and giving the latter the power to declare war.  Many scholars interpret this to mean that Congress has the authority to decide when to launch hostilities and the president is more of a strategic and tactical commander.  To clarify these roles, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto.  This law states that the president may only use force under three scenarios: (1) Congress has declared war, (2) Congress has provided explicit statutory authorization for the use of force, or (3) an emergency situation arises in which the president must act quickly to protect U.S. interests.  America’s military intervention in Libya has so far met none of these conditions: Congress has not declared war or voted to authorize the mission and even the war’s supporters acknowledge that no imminent threat to U.S. territory, citizens, or other interests prompted intervention–rather, the main goal was to protect civilians, as stated in the UN resolution that authorized the mission.

So Obama’s war is illegal, right?  Well, it isn’t quite that simple.  Every president since Nixon has argued that the War Powers Act is an unconstitutional power grab by Congress that restricts the president’s legitimate prerogatives as Commander-in-Chief.  The Supreme Court has refused to rule on the act’s constitutionality, calling the controversy a political dispute between the executive and legislative branches that they should settle amongst themselves.  Presidents have typically finessed this by seeking Congressional authorization for wars and reporting to Congress as required by the War Powers Act while being careful not to admit that they are bound by the law. 

So what can Congress do?  Congress has the indisputable power to cut off funding for operations it doesn’t approve of, but it has rarely even threatened to do this given the political costs of appearing not to support troops in harm’s way.  While some in Congress have suggested it cut off funds for the Libya operation if it remains unauthorized, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has argued that by terminating U.S. involvement we would be turning our backs on NATO.  Boehner appears to want clarification on the mission’s scope, justification, and exit strategy–to place some constraints on the operation rather than end it by Congressional fiat.  Thus continues a long tradition of Congressional deference to the president in the arena of war powers.  (The most recent example before Libya: Democrats promised to end the Iraq War upon taking over Congress in 2006 and they failed to achieve anything substantive despite ample campaign talk about cutting off funding, etc.). 

What do you think?  Should President Obama abide by the War Powers Resolution even though presidents have disputed its constitutionality?  Should Congress consider cutting off funds for the operation if Obama refuses to provide a clear timetable, mission, and exit strategy?  Or should Congress stay out and let the president conduct American foreign policy as only the president can?  After all, as Senators Lindsey Graham (R) and Jim Webb (D) have both acknowledged, “you can’t have 535 commanders-in-chief.”

Military Intervention in Libya: Moral Imperative or Foolish Misadventure?

The UN-approved and NATO-led military intervention in Libya offers a great case study on the differences between the realist an idealist worldviews, and how these fundamental ideological differences play out in the realm of foreign policy choices. Realists claim to deal with the world as it is rather than how one might wish it to be (the problem with the “idealists,” in their view). Given limited resources and the constraints of an anarchic world, realists contend, states must focus on the national interest and avoid the entanglements associated with moral crusades in foreign lands. Idealists (sometimes called liberals) on the other hand believe that a state’s foreign policy should be guided both by its interests and its values, and that certain moral outrages (e.g., severe human rights abuses) obligate the international community to intervene, with force if necessary. While realists are thus sometimes stereotyped as warmongers given their willingness to use coercive instruments unimpeded by moral reservations when the national interest demands it, idealists are in some cases the ones itching to “pull the trigger” on military intervention while realists caution them to stay out.

Such is the case with Libya, where the U.N. has authorized member states to use force to protect civilians and President Obama justified the intervention as “preventing a massacre.” Idealists have been quick to praise Obama’s decision, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch articulates this case well:

“…had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.”

On the other side are the realists, such as Stephen Walt, who contend that intervention does not serve a vital (American) national interest, and decry the instability and uncertainty that will result from casting aside the status quo in the hope of achieving something better: “…The US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya…So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq.”

Realists are not a monolithic group, and if a realist believed that intervention in Libya served the national interest (perhaps through the security benefits of democracy promotion in the Middle East or the fall of Qaddafi’s regime) he or she would support it. However, most realists who have weighed in on Libya have viewed the intervention largely in humanitarian terms and have therefore opposed it as outside the scope of the national interest and potentially damaging to that interest given the lack of a clear end game, the seemingly ineffectual nature of much of the bombing, and the potential damage to U.S. and allied credibility.

Does the U.S. and the international community more broadly have an obligation to protect Libya’s civilians? Why have we taken action in Libya while seemingly turning a blind eye to human rights violations elsewhere? Is there an “end game” in sight or are we destined for a long and costly conflict, reminiscent of Iraq?

Does Bin Laden’s Death Vindicate Bush-Era Harsh Interrogation Techniques?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has revived a debate over the usefulness and morality of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture according to critics) employed by the George W. Bush administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.  Several Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have claimed that the enhanced techniques, such as waterboarding, produced the vital intelligence that led the U.S.to bin Laden’s hideout.  Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Waterboarding Trail to Bin Laden,” makes this case.  Mukasey argues that coercive interrogations, though used very infrequently, led to the capture of top Al-Qaeda operatives including Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who were themselves subjected to these techniques and gave crucial information about bin Laden’s couriers—information that helped the U.S. track and kill the elusive bin Laden.  Upon taking office, President Obama discontinued the CIA program of harsh interrogations, a decision Mukasey suggests will harm U.S. security: “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”   

Opponents of Bush-era interrogation practices immediately fired back, contending there is little evidence that torture led to bin Laden, and pointing to the lengthy gap between the use of these techniques and the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.  Adam Serwer of the Plum Line argues along these lines: “The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.”  Former interrogator Matthew Alexander joins many critics (including Senator John McCain) in arguing that torture is not only immoral but practically it does more harm than good: it prompts detainees to fabricate information to stop the pain, it puts U.S. soldiers at risk, it harms America’s image overseas, and it serves as a potent recruiting tool for America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda. 

As is often the case, the answer to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques were pivotal in this case lies somewhere in between the stark narratives provided by either of these camps.  It appears that some of the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden did come from detainees who were subjected to these techniques (CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded as much in an interview with NBC news) but a great deal of additional intelligence gathering and analysis was required before the mission could be launched.  As National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor put it in a NY Times interview, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Should these facts prompt President Obama to reconsider his rejection of his predecessor’s interrogation policies?  Is Obama putting America at risk by leaving a potentially important tool in the War on Terror in the toolbox?  Or does the use of this tool actually harm America’s interests, undermine its values, and make us more like our enemies?