Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

Intelligence…and Combat

Author: Gary Hart

Why is the CIA conducting “covert” military operations in Afghanistan and the Department of Defense spending the bulk of the $80 billion intelligence budget?  There is confusion in roles and missions here, and I say that as a veteran of both the Senate Armed Services committee and the Senate Intelligence Oversight committee.

There was a plausible argument for this kind of confusion during the Cold War days when we used the clandestine services to carry out operations in third world countries where the uniformed military might have triggered direct confrontation with the Soviet Union.  But that era ended twenty years ago.  Wouldn’t it now make a lot more sense for the CIA to be collecting and analyzing information, for example on such questions as to whether a popular uprising in Tunisia might spread to Egypt, and the military to be carrying out drone attacks on the Afghan-Pakistan border–presuming that’s what the commander in chief wants done?

We have really well trained special forces for this kind of thing–Delta Force, Rangers, Seals, Air Force Special Forces, and others.  They are good at what they do, including covert operations carried out, in many cases, by personnel wearing native clothes and riding mules.  I would welcome any instruction, particularly from those from the world of covert operations, as to why our principle intelligence agency is carrying out secret operations that are not secret while our military establishment is largely duplicating (maybe even triplicating) what the intelligence agency does or at least is supposed to do.

The central point is this: if the CIA let the military carry out clandestine operations and instead focused on its central mission, we might get better intelligence and better clandestine operations.  And we might be able to save some money on the overly large defense intelligence establishment.

We are not fooling anyone with this operational shell game.  Like the infamous “secret bombing of Cambodia” during the Vietnam War days, in which the secret was being kept from the American people not from the poor Cambodian who knew exactly where the bombs were coming from, our CIA-conducted operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere are not secret to the people subjected to those operations.  So, by what theory is the CIA conducting these operations and not the military’s Special Forces?

This is not a rhetorical question.  If I knew the answer I would either divulge it or not have written this essay.  Anyone, particularly those who know, care to enlighten us?

Catching Up With History

Author: Gary Hart

While some are talking loudly and long about cutting government spending, it is doubtful they will discuss cuts in a $40 billion plus annual “intelligence” budget.  This despite the fact that our intelligence services and our far-flung diplomatic network failed to foresee the historic upheaval now underway throughout the Western end of the Muslim world.

There is at least an even chance that we are now entering a rare cycle of history that may take twenty to thirty years to resolve itself, with autocracies giving way to fragile democracies that in turn will evolve into radical fundamentalist regimes (think Iran), and possible civil wars.  For the world’s greatest super power this is a quandary.  It is an even greater quandary when that super power depends for a quarter of its oil imports on supplies from that region.

From the beginning of the Cold War we adopted a policy (some called it political realism; I call it unprincipled expediency) described as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.  Thus, regardless of how repressive and anti-democratic a potentate might be, if he was anti-communist he was our friend.  We gave dozens of these types a lot of money and political support even though it was used to build up security services that locked up and tortured anyone who quoted our Declaration of Independence in the national square.

Curiously, we failed to notice that everyday people in these countries remember these things.  Then when they summon courage to take to the streets and demand freedom, we express surprise that they do not like us and reject our embrace.  This has happened in country after country and now in a vital region that encompasses a billion and a half people.

If we believe what we claim to believe and if we truly mean to stand on the principles embodied in our Constitution, we are going to have to do better than this.  That is if we truly want to stay in the vanguard of history and not try to merely catch up to it as it disappears over the horizon and leaves us behind.

This is the week when everyone in Washington, and even some of us in the rest of the country, become aspiring State of the Union speech writers.  The papers are full of speculation about what the president will say and even more advice about what he should say.

The conventional consensus, 36 hours out, is that he will talk about jobs.  Now there is a safe bet.  Of course he will talk about jobs.  We still have over nine percent unemployment, large corporate cash reserves and little expansion investment, and workers who are giving up the search.  He will talk about the need for investment in education and training, in new technologies, in less regulation for job-creating small businesses, and how we must become competitive in innovation.  Democrats will cheer.  Republicans will sit on their hands, and in interviews afterwards criticize him for not cutting more spending–in the abstract.

Beyond the predictable, however, a few of us would like to hear something else.  A reminder of the principles upon which our nation was founded.  The ideals of self-reliance, but also of community.  Beneath the strains of more government-less government, more spending-less spending, leave-me-alone versus the commonwealth lies the deeper question: what kind of society do we want?

The president alone can authoritatively answer that question, at least based on his own perspective.  He can suggest that the best way to liberate the energies of the individual is to create a nation that cares about the individual.  The best way to let people stand on their own two feet is to help create an economic platform to stand on.  The best way to preserve freedom and liberty is for all of us–together–to build a society in which everyone can share and no one is left behind.  The best way up is on a ladder that all can climb.

Having heard all the old arguments before, some of my generation have moved beyond the old quarrels and the stale rhetoric and the worn out ideological disputes.  We want to return to the principles and ideals which make our nation unique.  And by that return, we believe that we can leave the debris of the past behind and all move forward together.


Author: Gary Hart

From time to time Americans discuss our “exceptionalism”.  Aside from annoying our friends and allies, and confusing everyone else, there is nothing destructive in this discussion.  It all depends on what we mean when we think of being exceptional.

Some think it means being better than others, both as people and as a nation.  The obvious danger in this is that it leads us to believe our actions, even wrong ones, are justified by this exceptionalism.  But the definition of “exceptional” is instructive.  In addition to meaning remarkable or exceptionally good, it also means abnormal, odd, anomalous, peculiar, aberrant, and deviant.  So, care should be taken when tossing a word like “exceptional” around.

Though not an “America right or wrong” exceptionalist, it seems to me we are different.  But our difference from others should make us humble not proud or arrogant.  Because our difference rests in our founding principles, ideals, and beliefs.  They are embodied in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.  These principles spring from deep religious beliefs, from enlightenment ideals, and from centuries of progressive civilization.  They arise from the very reasons our nation was created in the first place.

These principles are universal, catholic, and undying.  They are the ultimate in human aspirations.  But, the reason for us to be humble is that we do not always live up to them.  The people of the world judge us always by the degree to which we live and embody these principles and ideals on a daily basis in dealing with each other and with them.  We are considered exceptional and admirable when we live according to our very highest principles.  We are considered hypocrites when we do not.

Our Founders knew very well what they were doing.  They created a nation whose ideals and aspirations were unique in world history.  They hoped those who followed would behave accordingly.  They knew that if we, their heirs, did not, we would be just like every other society and nation in history–without exception.

It is quite possible that the greatest human challenge in this century will be how or whether we humans can fairly share what belongs to all.  Aristotle stated the issue: “…what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.  Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest.”  Garrett Hardin summarized this issue for the present age: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”

Our economic system is built on the proposition that markets allocate resources best.  But what is true of private resources may not also be true of public resources, those we hold in common.  The conservative response to this is, of course, privatize all public resources.  Twenty years ago this was accomplished in Russia and about a dozen and a half oligarchs ended up with most of the public assets.

In the industrial age we let private interests allocate our most precious public resources, our air and water, and we see how that worked out.  In this century we are now competing with the rest of the world as to how and whether together we can prevent carbonization of our very climate from fundamentally altering life on earth. 

Every man for himself would be a (more or less) rational approach to life…if men and women were merely economic creatures.  But there is also such a thing as moral man.  And it is moral man (and woman) who confront the necessity of protecting the commons and preventing a tragedy brought on by greed. 

We will either learn to live together and protect and preserve our common resources or our children and future generations–with the exception of the very wealthy–will have to learn how to perish separately.  And the prospect of a world of all against all may not even prove to be that attractive to the children of the very wealthy.

Restoring Democracy

Author: Gary Hart

Few principles are as central to democracy and the ideals of the American Republic as majority rule. Though James Madison and his colleagues in The Federalist acknowledged the necessity of protecting the rights of minorities, the course of our nation was to be determined by the will of the majority. No other system consistent with democracy would prove workable.

There is nothing in the United States Constitution that permits a minority to frustrate the will of the majority.

Yet in the early 21st century, the will of the majority of Americans, expressed on a daily basis by our elected representatives in Congress, is consistently thwarted by a minority in the United States Senate. This minority resorts to the Senate rule requiring a three-fifths vote—60 vote–to close (invoke cloture on) debate.

Article One, Section five, of the U.S. Constitution provides that “Each house [of Congress] may determine the rules of its proceedings….” Based upon Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the Senate was to be the saucer in which controversies cooled, Senators have, from the beginning, been at liberty to express their views at such length as they wish. (Jefferson, it should be noted, was the author of the Manual of Parliamentary Procedures for the Use of the Senate of the United States in 1801.) But the Senate has always recognized that even the principle of unlimited speech has its conditions based upon comity and common sense.

Yet today the Senate conducts its business, or not, under the constant threat of a filibuster. Important legislative measures having to do with the vital interests of our nation and the rights of our citizens will not even be introduced if a minority of Senate members refuse to permit them to be considered. Thus, a rule to protect debate is systematically used to prevent debate. Even worse, secret “holds” by individual Senators prevent confirmation of federal judges and administration officials.

Though the Senate filibuster rose to prominence during civil rights debates in the 1950s and 60s, it ran its course and the majority prevailed. Today, it is commonplace and a matter of course for such a lock-step minority systematically to prevent consideration of the clear majority will.

The Constitution prevails over congressional rules. Can it be seriously argued that the Senate could adopt a rule that individual Senators could only vote on every other bill or that they could only vote on trade issues, for example, in the fourth year of their term?

Rules of the Senate cannot trump the obvious intention of the Founding Fathers that legislation passed by majorities of both houses, except for the explicit exceptions for ratification of treaties, becomes the law of the land. This is not a partisan question; though today the filibuster, real or threatened, dominates virtually every significant issue confronting the Senate and our nation. The law of political payback will ensure that today’s Senate majority, once it becomes the minority, will exact its revenge on today’s opposition minority party.

Examples of recent abuse of the cloture rule include a 53 to 36 Senate vote to end tax cuts for the wealthy and a 57 to 40 vote to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding the service of gays in the military. Regardless, both measures failed under the threat of a filibuster. These and other examples are clear violations of the fundamental principle of majority rule.

This is no way to govern a great democracy, not to say also a democracy seeking to democratize other nations.

The abuse of the cloture rule ending debate is a violation of fundamental Constitutional principles. Should a judicial test of this notion occur, it will at the least prove which of the current Supreme Court Justices are, or are not, true “originalists”. Resolutions have been introduced in the Senate to alter the cloture rule and permit majority rule, while continuing to protect the rights of individual Senators.

In the interest of the nation and the U.S. Constitution, the Senate must once again become a democratic institution.

Deciding when to compromise should be easier than it is for a leader.  Should you give something you are against to get something you want?  Or should you stand on principle and refuse to compromise?  These classic questions for democratic leaders used to be rare, but they are becoming more common.

That is because the current Democratic president is confronted by a minority opposition party (soon to be majority in the House) that has adopted as its policy unified opposition to virtually all Democratic initiatives.  Against the standard press assumption regarding “polarization” in Washington, that has not been the policy of an opposition Democratic party many of whose leaders voted for the Iraq war and Bush tax cuts most of their party constituents were against.  Neither Presidents Carter, Clinton, nor Obama are or were far left or liberal (contrary to the ridiculous Fox rhetoric about socialists).

In the current compromise over taxes, Republicans did concede on unemployment compensation extensions in order to get tax cuts for the wealthy.  Faced with automatic tax increases (in truth, restoration of the rates before the “temporary” Bush tax cuts) and a willingness of Senate Republicans to blow up the economic ship of state, President Obama says he had no choice.  He sacrificed, however, the convictions of many in his party who believe with considerable evidence that the middle class is stagnate and wealth is flooding upward and that the political deck is stacked in favor of the golden rule (“them that has the gold make the rules”).

Because of this truth, I don’t like the compromise at all.  It isn’t fair and it isn’t just.  But neither is it fair or just to let unemployed people be Scrooged at Christmas.  If this makes you as angry as it does me, just remember who we should be angry at.

Everything is Related

Author: Gary Hart

In a simpler time, not too long ago, we governed the U.S. in what might be called issue “boxes”.  There was a box called “the economy,” one for education, one for energy, one for health, a big one for defense and security, and of course one called foreign policy.  Virtually overnight these boxes became irrelevant and all these issues became interlinked.

Today, still early in a new century, the economy is globalized and related to energy dependence, and thus to foreign policy, especially in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and thus to national security and defense.  But the economy is also related, at home, to education, job training, environment, and even health care.  Workers, including those trying to enter the job market (such as it is), have to have a host of new skills, particularly information and technical ones.  The computer has replaced the assembly line in importance.  And if you are obese or undernourished, or both, you can’t contribute as much as you should.

Wouldn’t you know, however, that Congress, and to too large a degree the Executive branch, still govern using those “boxes”.  Obviously, there cannot be one big Congressional committee for everything, or one big administrative department for everything.  But surely by now major efforts should have been underway in both branches of government to reorganize themselves, perhaps using inter-agency task forces, to construct policy along more coherent and productive lines.  Security cannot be provided absent reference to our total energy picture, to climate, to foreign policy, and so on. 

Perhaps the problem is the lack of a single threat or demon, such as we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, that provided the central organizing principle around which to coordinate policy.  That’s the way we got a Department of Defense, but also an interstate highway system and a national education program.

Despite all the policy centers and think tanks in Washington, New York, and elsewhere, to my knowledge none has produced a proposal to reorganize our government and its strategies (if it had any) into a coherent whole that matched the realities of the 21st centuries.  Perhaps this is because they are all pursuing their own ideological agendas.

Memories of a Better Time

Author: Gary Hart

For anyone under fifty, recollection of the brief era of John Kennedy is dismissed as nostalgia at best and sentimentalism at worst. But for those of my generation it was much more. It was a time of optimism, possibility, and promise.

Thus, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s election and the 47th anniversary of his death bring memories of a better time for those of us who were inspired to public service, the idea of a national community, and a nation on the move toward leadership and progress.

As to public service, the “ask not” generation was not challenged to a career in elective office. We were challenged to find some way to repay the nation and the society that had given us unique opportunities. How different that was from the every-man-for himself-and-devil-take-the hindmost attitude of those who get the most media attention now. But of course, in the early 60s we had no Murdoch, no Fox, no “reality” television, no self-promoting political figures eager to put in their time in office so that they can reap the lobbying rewards awash on K Street in Washington.

One does not expect Republican politicians to advocate public service, for their mantra is “the government is the problem.” Leave aside the fact they all seem eager to control it. But it is a cause for wonder that Presidents Clinton and Obama have not echoed the Kennedy challenge. The Clinton era did bring us AmericaCorps, a volunteer national service program based on City Year and initiatives introduced years earlier. But there has not been the kind of ringing call that so motivated my generation of young Americans.

With Ted Sorensen’s recent death, my generation lost its last link to that era. Whether it was intentional or accidental, the challenge to “ask what you can give to your country” derived from ancient Athens and the dawn of the republican ideal. For those who bequeathed the idea of self-government 2500 years ago had one central idea: to protect the rights provided by a democracy, citizens had a duty to participate in the public affairs of the republic.

This idea was central to the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders. They knew if the duty of participation faded and everyone looked out only for himself and herself the American Republic would not long survive. So, the memory of the Kennedy era is much more than mere nostalgia. It is at the core of who we are, who we proclaim ourselves to be, and what we believe our principles to be.

Blackmail Versus Self-Interest

Author: Gary Hart

Occasions for the United States to make a diplomatic breakthrough that is in its self-interest, that makes the world safer, and that benefits future generations are rare.  When they do occur they almost always have to do with reducing nuclear arsenals.  Such is the pending New Start treaty.

That being the case, why should the president have to pay blackmail to get Republican votes for ratification?  For it is blackmail, pure and simple, that is being demanded in exchange for votes for ratification.  And even when the president agrees to pay it, the Republicans turn him down. 

Consider this: your daughter has been kidnapped and you need your neighbor’s help to rescue her.  He agrees to help if you pay him a  million dollars.  You pay him the million.  Then he changes his mind.  Not quite the same, but close.

As the price for voting for a treaty virtually every serious person in both political parties favors, the Republicans demanded $85 billion (at a time of huge deficits and demands for “smaller government”) to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal over coming years.  Bin Laden seems not to care if we have nuclear weapons and no one is able to say against whom they might be used.

President Obama took the bait and promised the money.  The Republicans quickly backed out of an agreement and announced opposition to a treaty manifestly in our self-interest.  In better times this would cost the Republican party dearly.  But these are not better times.  They are times when few pay attention, even to an issue as vital to their children’s security as fewer Russian nuclear weapons and renewed inspection of nuclear sites.  The Republican leaders fears no citizen reprisal for its mendacity.  They know that too few people take the trouble to study their own self-interest and to hold accountable those who violate it.

If Washington is broken, as the current political rhetoric suggests, it will stay broken until voters connect their votes with the ridiculous behavior of those they vote for.