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Posts from the ‘Politics’ Category

Small Arms and America’s “First Freedom”

By Taylor Marvin

The recent massacre in Connecticut has once again opened America’s gun laws to public debate, to the chagrin of gun rights advocates. While the NRA and other defenders of gun rights have many arguments in favor of relatively unrestricted access to firearms, one particularly noxious reasoning is that the American citizenry must be well-armed as a defense against government tyranny.

This implicit justification for the 2nd amendment is widespread. In a recent post at Democracy in America, author J.F. recalled Charlton Heston’s famous statement that the second amendment is America’s “first freedom” that guarantees all others, through the credible threat of violence.rem-ad In a Remington print ad highlighted by Mother Jonesthe company warns politicians that the owners of it’s over 5,000,000 bolt action rifles sold constitute “the world’s largest army”. Most dramaticallygun rights advocates frequently attribute the brutal extent of the Holocaust to the Nazi disarmament of European Jews, an argument recently demolished by Michael Moynihan.

At the judicial level, the Supreme Court concluded in District of Columbia v. Heller that in the original 18th century context the right to “bear arms” was “unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia,” and the right to own firearms is not dependent on membership in the modern understanding of a militia.  Later in the opinion, this right is explicitly tied to the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government: “There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state’… When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”

Following this reasoning, civilian access to firearms prevents the state from holding a monopoly on violence, ensuring a politically free society. This is an understandable argument — after all, the Revolutionary War was fought with civilian muzzle-loading muskets broadly indistinguishable from the military small arms of the time. But as a dictate of public policy this argument fails on two levels: armed mass rebellions are an uncommon source of regime change, and individual small arms alone are not an effective weapon of modern war. This is by no means an original argument on my part, but bear with me.

The notion that a violent, extralegal change in the any government will come in the form of a mass rebellion where civilian arms play any role is unlikely. Coups are far more likely to result in a successful regime change: in the 1950-2010 period regional coup success rates ranged from 33 to 55 percent. A civil war is particularly unlikely in the United States. America is a very rich country, and civil wars are uncommon in prosperous societies. This logic is governed by the twin”greed and grievance” motivations for violent challenges to state authority — citizens of rich countries are, on average, prosperous enough that greed is not sufficient motivation to motivate violent action, and the prosperity of existing society reduces perceived grievances. As fighting a civil war requires mobilizing comparatively large social and military resources in opposition to the state, the prosperity and durable representative structure of US government makes another unlikely.

The United States is unlikely to repeat a civil war for other, non-economic reasons, as well. As James Fearson notes, “the most common form of civil war in the post-World War II period has been a stalemated guerrilla war confined to a rural periphery of a low-income, post-colonial state.” Obviously, the United States does not fit this criteria. It’s also worthwhile to remember that the United States has already fought a civil war, one where an organized state military, rather than irregular civilians, was the instrument of secessionist military force.

More importantly, arguing that a well-armed citizenry is a credible threat to state power ignores the realities of modern warfare. Irregular forces armed with small arms and lacking external backing are unlikely to be an effective counter to state power. Michael Moynihan ably notes this capability differential in the context of the Holocaust, writing that even if European Jews were heavily armed “it is optimistic to think that revolt from poorly armed, poorly trained, and undermanned citizens against the mighty German military would have substantially altered the fate of German or Eastern European Jews.” This unfortunate logic held in the case of Western European Resistance fighters as well, who were unable to force the German occupiers out despite some degree of external backing. Worldwide, irregulars restricted to only small arms are unlikely to successfully oppose a capable modern military.

No matter what gun control legislation the US adopts, military weapons like squad machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and armored military vehicles will always be illegal. This distinction between civilian and military weapons was less pronounced during the Revolutionary War — the benchmark for gun rights advocates’ “resisting tyranny” precedent — when civilian and military personal arms were largely identical. It is doubtful that any modern-day irregular insurgency could mount an effective resistance to the US military without these weapons. Imagining otherwise is a fantasy. District of Columbia v. Heller notes this implausibility:

“It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.”

This may be true for a judicial standpoint. But it does not make the argument at hand — that civilian firearms are a bulwark against tyranny — less silly.

The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan provide an interesting test case. In both conflicts, attacks against coalition forces by IEDs and other explosive devices gradually replaced small arms fire as insurgents’ weapon of choice over the course of the conflict. Insurgents also invested considerable energy in developing more potent IEDs, and in defeating countermeasures. This suggest that even Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, which had ready access to military firearms including squad support weapons, found asymmetrical, indirect attacks with IEDs to be a more effective strategy than small arms fire. Small arms alone are not sufficient to wage modern irregular war, and the prospect of middle-aged men armed with civilian small arms facing a modern military is not an effective political deterrence.

Of course, it is possible that gun rights advocates only mean that a well-armed citizenry can deter political tyranny by retaining a credible threat to assassinate errant leaders, rather than fight a guerilla war. It is certainly true that American presidents face a real threat of assassination — distressingly, four presidents have been murdered in office. But there is little evidence that the fear of assassination in any way influences American political leaders, and in the modern era killing a well-guarded president is a difficult task. Anyway, this is a meaningless debate — if gun rights advocates do think assassination capability is a valid reason to oppose gun control, they are rightly afraid to voice this reasoning in the public sphere.

Mitt Romney Was Not an Awful Candidate

By Taylor Marvin

With the election over, it’s time for the post-mortem. How did Republicans fail to unseat an incumbent hampered by a nearly 8 percent unemployment rate? You can get lost in explanations for the Republican’s defeat for days: blatant voter suppression encouraged turnout from the very groups it was designed to suppress, demographic changes make the Republican Party’s near-total focus on a white, elderly core increasingly untenable, conservative media’s taken the Republican Party hostage, a hawkish foreign policy alienated war-weary voters, or a zealots focus on denying basic human rights just doesn’t win votes anymore. These are all good arguments, and worth serious consideration by conservatives.

One argument that I’ve seen on both sides is more topical: that Mitt Romney was a singularly bad candidate who lost an otherwise winnable election. I don’t buy it. Mitt Romney wasn’t a great candidate, and was certainly hurt by what appears to have been a horribly mismanaged and overconfident campaign, but he wasn’t an awful one. As a reasonably successful single-term governor with private sector managerial experience Romney brought a solid resume to his campaign; certainly a stronger one than his primary competitors, or for that matter the competitors in the 2008 Democratic primary. His personal carisma and public demeanor were lacking, but that particular deficiency hasn’t doomed other campaigns.

Given the changing American electorate, it’s hard to see who could have done a better job than Mitt Romney. More successful and charismatic conservative politicians would have likely had an even greater problem attracting independent voters. An attempt to attract non-white voters by nominating a person of color would have been hugely patronizing, even if the the GOP had a suitably experienced non-white politician to run. Bobby Jindal would have been problematic for his deep South governorship, and Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley too inexperienced for a 2012 run. Romney’s history at Bain Capital opened him up to (justifiable) attacks, but it was a weakness a more competent campaign should have overcome.

The problem with the Romney campaign wasn’t Romney himself, but the party he represented. Romney constantly lied and changed his positions not because he’s pathological, but because it was required — there’s simply no way the policy positions required to clear the Republican primary are at all palatable to the general electorate. Sure, Democratic politicians move to the center after their primaries — no one believed Obama would actually renegotiate NAFTA — but the distance between Republican primary voters and the median is much greater than on the left. There was simply no way for Romney to pander to both the Republican base and the moderates he needed to capture to win in swing states.

In another world Romney could have won. In the absence of Tea Party rejectionism Romneycare would have been seen an admirable success, achieving universal healthcare along conservative, free market principles. Instead, Romney was forced to disown his only real legislative achievement, and main claim to bipartisanship. Romney’s governorship of a liberal state, untempered by his “severe conservatism” would have stood a chance at appealing to independents. In a less fundamentalist GOP Mitt Romney would not have made the hugely regrettable decision to oppose the Obama administration’s rescue of the auto industry, and his belligerence towards Iran would not have alienated voters.

Romney was no reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, but he shouldn’t have had to have been. Parties always hope for miraculous wonder candidates who dazzle the nation with their carisma, but Reagans, Clintons, and 2008 Obamas are rare, and parties shouldn’t rely on them being available each election cycle. The personal qualities of individual candidates are important, but pale compared to the party’s fundamentals. If the GOP can’t alter these, even wonder candidates won’t help them.

What’s on the Second Term Foreign Policy Agenda?

By Taylor Marvin

Congratulations rural Pakistanis! Not to worry, the drone strike that just killed you was ordered by a Democratic president!

That’s not to say Barack Obama’s reelection isn’t worth celebrating, even from a strict foreign policy perspective. Mitt Romney’s inability to complete routine feel-good foreign tours without pissing off entire host countries and overwhelming unpopularity abroad hinted a Romney administration’s relations with allies would be rocky, and his fundamentally hawkish worldview suggested that he would be more likely to, intentionally or inadvertently, lead the US into a costly war. Barack Obama is also more open to rational defense cuts than Romney, who insisted on growing military spending for no reason beyond ill-defined ideals of “strength” — and Virginia Electoral College votes.

While it is a mistake to insist that there is no difference between an Obama and Romney administrations’ foreign policy, they, of course, share the same broad political philosophy: both favor American intervention into foreign conflicts while shying away from unpopular, electorally-damaging boots-on-the-ground wars; both judge the immediate benefits of counter-terror drone strikes to be worth their long-term perception costs; and both have expressed an inability to concede to the end of American global hegemony, especially in the Western Pacific. Of course, blaming the candidates — or parties — for this shared consensus is putting the cart before the horse; the Democrats and Republicans share the same broad national security platform because it is popular. In the aftermath of Iraq most voters may shy away from blatant neoconservative talk, but as the Obama administration’s war in Libya shows, interventions are palatable to the public, if they come at low enough direct cost. For all the protests of libertarians drone strikes are popular, because Americans fear terrorism and really don’t care about civilian casualties abroad.

So the drone strikes and broad interpretation of the American military’s role in the world are here to stay. This shouldn’t be a shock, and isn’t a reason to support a third party. American third parties on the left are deeply amateurish, and libertarians are worse: Conor Friedersdorf’s protest vote for Gary Johnson on civil liberties only illustrates that he cares more about hundreds of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes than the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths repealing Obamacare and an austerity-driven recession would cause among his own country’s poor. Foreign policy rarely changes in meaningful ways between administrations not because “both parties are the same”, but because their consensus is popular, to the extent that the electorate cares. This isn’t to say bold policymakers can’t dramatically shift US foreign policy, but the path dependency and electoral considerations that guide their actions are very limiting.

But what does this mean for Obama’s second term? The administration will be unlikely to meaningfully deviate from the course set during Obama’s first term: drone strikes will continue, and the administration may pursue a low-cost intervention — think Libya, not Syria — if the opportunity presents itself. But a second term does offer Obama the opportunity to devote more time to foreign policy issues. Second term presidents usually focus on foreign affairs more than during their first term, when their domestic agenda dominates. This will be especially true for Obama. Barring a conservative come to God moment, Republicans in Congress will likely double down on obstructionism, a tactic that conservatives will perceive to be validated by expected low turnout midterm election gains in 2014. Given this obstructionism, the Obama administration is unlikely to successfully pursue any major domestic goals, like a comprehensive climate change package that included a carbon tax.

So where could the Obama administration turn its attention? An Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is a non-starter; the division in the Palestinian government, Israel’s move to the right, and the US’ deteriorating ability to position itself as an ‘honest broker’ make progress unlikely. Obama gives every indication of ignoring Latin America in his second term as much as he did during his first; to be fair, it’s not clear what real good an increased US presence in the region would bring. US-Russian relations are chilly, but unlikely to improve. Worse, Obama is also unlikely to meaningfully alter America’s policy towards China; the administration’s largely meaningless Asia Pivot means that the mixed strategy of both engagement and containment — with all of its problems — will continue. This is a major disappointment, and positive action by Obama towards China would be a pleasant surprise.

One rational goal for Obama’s second term would be pursuing an accord with Iran. Obama is better positioned than any recent president to successfully improve the US-Iranian relationship.  George W. Bush sacrificed the prospect of any worthwhile diplomacy with his pointless “Axis of Evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq, and Clinton’s dual containment policy, while justified by Iran’s support for terrorism, only maintained the status quo. Domestically, Obama’s record of brutal sanctions buys him political cover to offer a real carrot to the Iranian regime, which is a required part of any successful deal. Though I believe that these sanctions are ultimately damaging to the prospect of favorable long-term change within Iranian society, they are also another potential carrot.

The prospect of progress on the Iranian side is less certain. Openness to dialog on the Iranian side is not enough: after all, in the late 1990s Khatami was open to reforming the US-Iranian relationship, but was unable to overcome conservative opposition within the Iranian regime and ended his tenure with little influence. Today it’s unclear if there is anyone within the regime willing to pursue a Grand Bargain, or if they can outmaneuver conservatives. However, the tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, as well as Ahmadinejad’s impending departure, suggest that the situation within the Iranian government is more fluid than any time since the 2009 election. Whether this is a positive sign remains to be seen.

Also important is Obama’s perceived opposition to military strikes. Barack Obama is less likely to initiate strikes than a Romney presidency would have been, and less likely to cooperate with an Israeli attempt to coerce the US by launching a military strike unilaterally, and then calling for US assistance. It is likely that hardliners within the Iranian regime prefer strikes to very damaging sanctions, as military strikes would mobilize Iranian opposition to the US and Israel and strengthen their position within the regime. If strikes are perceived as less likely in an Obama second term, the potential domestic political payoff from refusing a negotiated settlement are lower. Since the Iranians know the US will not attempt to overthrow the regime a war is survivable, and the prospect of strikes less of a stick than US hawks suggest.

While these signs aren’t favorable per se, there’s no reason the Obama administration shouldn’t devote a major part of their foreign policy agenda during their second term towards Iran. Sanctions impose an enormous, ongoing human cost, and should be ended as soon as possible. The nuclear issue is in desperate need of a resolution  and the the US-Iranian conflict is a resource-sink that should be resolved, if possible. Obama’s second term is as good an opportunity as any.

For the Uniform

By Taylor Marvin

Is there any clothing choice that announced ‘I’m a West Coast liberal!’ more than a fleece vest and a button-down collar? Congressman Sam Farr understands the signaling power of clothing, and — he’s easily won reelection in my hometown’s congressional district since 1993 — understands his audience.

Why Aren’t We Talking About China?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by James Currie, via Wikimedia.

Unless I’m missing something, Monday’s address by Mitt Romney was branded as a foreign policy speech. Of course, given the Virginia Military Institute venue this was really a national security address, though it isn’t surprising that a man who titles his autobiography in reference to a mythical “apology tour” appears to entirely conflate ‘foreign policy’ with an aggressive national security agenda. I don’t have much to say about the contents of the speech that smarter people haven’t already, but one thing jumped out at me: the word “China” appears exactly once, in a throwaway line:

“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East—and it is not unique to that region. It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well— in Europe, where Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies, and where our oldest allies have been told we are ‘pivoting’ away from them … in Asia and across the Pacific, where China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region … “

With only a few exceptions, Romney’s entire speech is focused on the Middle East. Of course, this is partially due to the Romney campaign’s recent focus on the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi as evidence of the Obama administration’s negligent handling of the Arab Spring and failed overall Middle East policy. But a focus on the Middle East this extensive is myopic.

Managing China’s rise is the most challenging security dilemma likely to face the United States this century, and the US’ current mixed strategy of engagement and limited containment is unlikely to remain a viable option in the future. Assuming that Beijing’s commitment to recover Taiwan is serious — there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the 2005 Taiwan Anti-Secession Law is a hands-tying device designed to force the next generation leadership, who simultaneously have no memory of losing Taiwan and whose superpower status lessens the prestige concerns over the continued de facto independence of the lost province, to prevent a declaration independence — the US’ commitment to the region is destabilizing. China’s growing relative military strength relative to the US, in particular its development of effective anti-access/area-denial strategies, increases the chance Beijing will one day call America’s bluff. If it does, the insufficient force to back up its security commitments in the region will encourage US leaders to escalate a previously limited conflict. The next president of the United States should have a concrete plan to address this strategic problem, either by massively increasing the US military’s ability to fight in an A2/AD environment or ceding portions of the Western Pacific as within a Chinese sphere of influence; by mocking the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ Romney appears to be dismissing the entire question of strategic choices.

Romney’s single mention of China is especially puzzling given that one of the speech’s few concrete policy positions is the commitment to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines” as part of Romney’s goal of growing the US Navy to 350 ships; the Obama administration favors building nine ships per year, for a current goal of a 300 ship fleet. If this increase in shipbuilding is motivated by a practical strategic purpose rather than ill-defined notions of national greatness — unfortunately, Romney’s frequent remark that “the size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916” suggests that it is not — he should justify why a larger navy is important. The most credible argument for growing the US Navy is, of course, China. A larger fleet is of no use in the Middle East, and America’s ability to quickly challenge an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz is not related to the total size of the fleet (though building more minesweepers would be wise). Instead, a 350 ship strong fleet is arguable an important part of maintaining a credible military presence in the vast Western Pacific theater.

But this isn’t enough. If Mitt Romney wants to build a more numerous fleet as part of his plan to counter China’s military growth he needs to explain how this fits into his larger strategy, and why attempting to contain China — the clear implication — is worth the cost, or even possible. So far, he hasn’t.

Perhaps Romney feels that he doesn’t have to justify growing the US Navy to voters on any rational other than American greatness, or it’s simply a way of contrasting himself with Obama’s lack of “resolve”. But it is still troubling that Romney sees no need to justify a major change in US defense policy in what is supposed to be a major speech.

Macho Posturing in Politics

By Taylor Marvin

Writing for Radio Free Europe, Claire Bigg highlights the unfortunate side effects of Vladimir Putin’s propensity for macho posturing (via Brendan I. Koerner):

“Vladimir Putin’s stunt with Siberian cranes this week was intended to display both his tough-guy image and his commitment toward saving endangered species.

But what it perhaps best highlighted was his curious knack for causing harm to rare animals.”

Welfare of endangered animals aside, by all accounts Putin is an expert at managing his perception as a vigorous adventurer among Russian domestic audiences; a narrative that is unquestionably electorally valuable. Numerous authoritarian and democratic leaders have played up their masculinity, especially in “macho” dominated cultures that respect this sort of posturing (there’s an argument to be made that Pussy Riot secured such a following in the Western public consciousness because its feminist archetype so obviously contrasts the masculinity of the Russian state, which is apparent both in Putin’s security apparatus and the Church). What’s particularly interesting is that Dmitry Medvedev appears to have deliberately strayed from this aggressive masculinity during his tenure as President and Prime Minister, instead projecting the well-dressed air of a sophisticated technocrat. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to separate him from Putin’s persona — the more conspiratorially-minded would suggest the verb diminish rather than separate — or a reflection of his personality I don’t know.

Of course, macho posturing for political gain isn’t limited to Russia — George W. Bush’s carrier landing is probably the apex of the genre.

Conflict Clusters and Superpower Intervention

By Taylor Marvin

Afghan Mujahideen armed with a US-made anti-air missile; author unknown. Via Wikimedia.

Over at Political Violence @ a GlanceDavid E. Cunningham notes that while the number of armed conflicts around the world has vastly decreased, the conflicts that do occur are increasingly clustered in specific geographic areas (full disclosure: I do editing for PV @ a Glance)Why do conflicts cluster? There’s no comprehensive answer available, but Cunningham highlights the tendency of countries’ internal conflicts to destabilize and eventually spread to their neighbors. Conversely, stabilizing domestic factors like economic growth and democratization also spread and positively influence neighboring states; nations can be bad or good neighbors. As Cunningham says:

“We are still trying to understand why this clustering occurs, but it suggests that phenomena that were historically viewed as ‘domestic’ such as civil war, democratization, and economic performance, have significant international causes and effects.”

These are all very good explanations. But why do we see conflict clustering in certain regions of the world now, and why are these becoming clusters more pronounced? The obvious reason is that Cunningham’s “stabilizing influences” are more common today, making the regions with comparatively low stocks of these influences — notably the Middle East, southern Asia, and northern Africa — exceptional in a way they weren’t in the past.

But I think another important causal factor is the contemporary absence of competing global superpowers. During the Cold War, both the US and USSR used their global reach to selectively escalate regional conflicts. Numerous conflicts during the Cold War period that began as relatively small confrontations between regional actors were lethally prolonged by the escalating interference of the superpowers. Of course, we do observe some degree of clustering in Cold War-era conflicts; after all, the “neighborhood” effect Cunningham identifies was just as important then as it is now, though because “bad neighborhoods” were comparatively more common in the 20th century these clusters were geographically broader and less obvious. However, because the US and USSR essentially selected their degree of escalation in regional conflicts at random — for example, the US heavily escalated its involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam compared to its lighter touch in 1980s Nicaragua — the clustering effect was less pronounced. Unlike other, more proximate, regional effects, the destabilizing influence of the superpowers was global and selective.

Intervention by a superpower can arguably lessen the destructive effects of regional conflicts by ending them quicker than they would have in the absence of intervention. This logic only appears to apply when an external power intervenes on the side of one combatant, and commits enough resources to the conflict to decisively win it. This is not always the case — it seems likely that the 2011 Libyan revolution would have ended sooner in the absence of NATO, though of course in a Qaddafi victory. But during the Cold War intervention by a superpower was overwhelmingly likely to prolong regional conflicts by attracting competing intervention by its rival, suggesting that superpower intervention was more destructive during the Cold War than it is today.

Today, Russia is not able to exert a disruptive influence outside of its backyard and while the US continues to enter and escalate regional conflicts, American intervention is rarer than at the height of the Cold War. This partially removes the “global bad neighbor” effect, and reemphasizes the influence of local causes of conflict.

Drones and Commitment Thresholds

By Taylor Marvin

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

Glenn Greenwald takes issue with the Pentagon’s move towards awarding drone pilots combat medals:

“Whatever one thinks of the justifiability of drone attacks, it’s one of the least ‘brave’ or courageous modes of warfare ever invented. It’s one thing to call it just, but to pretend it’s ‘brave’ is Orwellian in the extreme. Indeed, the whole point of it is to allow large numbers of human beings to be killed without the slightest physical risk to those doing the killing. Killing while sheltering yourself from all risk is the definitional opposite of bravery.”

The Obama Administration’s drone strike programs are enormously problematic: it’s unclear if the immediate benefits gained from killing al-Qaeda leaders are worth the long-term costs of very publicly eroding Pakistani and Yemeni sovereignty, and whether frequent drone strikes create more militants than kill. “The unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences,” former CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier recently said, arguing that Obama administration’s enthusiasm for discriminant strikes is counterproductive. But complaining that the use of drones over manned aircraft isn’t “brave” is just silly — the point of war isn’t to demonstrate macho bravado by risking soldiers’ lives, it’s to force the enemy into submission. Complaints about “bravery” are a juvenile criticism of drone warfare.

Greenwald’ second point — that the low-cost nature of drone warfare encourages aggression — is more on point. “The rapid proliferation of drones, beyond their own ethical and legal quandaries, makes violence and aggression so much easier (and cheaper) to perpetrate and therefore so much more likely,” Greenwald notes. UCAVs’ lack of physical risk for those doing the killing is a feature, not a bug, at least to those on those on the trigger end. But while the operational capabilities of UCAVs differ from their manned counterparts by degrees, their risk avoidance is an absolute — no drone pilot will ever be killed by a SAM. Greenwald’s right to worry that increased use of unmanned aircraft will lower policymakers’ threshold for initiating armed conflict.

Arguing that more lethal military technologies increase the incidence of aggressive wars by lowering their expected costs aren’t new, and make sense. In operational terms, UCAVs are not distinct from manned aircraft, and require the same extensive local support networks. However, while other military advances — guided missiles, body armor — lower risks to individual soldiers on a continuum, in a strict sense unmanned drone warfare negates it entirely, at least from the perspective of policymakers looking to placate domestic audience. This is an important point.

American policymakers’ choice to utilize drones in Pakistan and Yemen is driven by the desire to minimize risk. It’s difficult to make firm arguments about how US military policy would differ if drones were not available. Presumably airstrikes, restricted to manned aircraft, would be a higher risk strategy than it is today, making politicians less likely to utilize them. It is unlikely that the United States would wage an strike campaign in Pakistan anywhere near as comprehensive as it does if unmanned aircraft were not available. However, drones aren’t a perfect substitue for manned aircraft, and the decision to use drones is costlier than Greenwald recognizes.

Greenwald underestimates the difficulties and local infrastructure requirements of drone warfare, and overestimates the military capabilities of UCAVs. Drones like the widely-used MQ-9 Reaper are smaller and slower than fighter jets, giving military planners reason to utilize manned aircraft over UCAV in low-risk theaters. The US Air Force flies manned F-15Es in Yemen, despite the low-profile of American military action there. Drone warfare is cheaper and less risky than manned airstrikes, but the difference is marginal — American policymakers do not make the decision to deploy UCAVs lightly, and there is no firm line between drone and other forms of warfare. These costs mean that when policymakers make the decision to engage in drone warfare they have already passed a relatively high commitment threshold, challenging the notion that “the temptation to use it regularly is virtually irresistible.” While the absence of drones would marginally raise the commitment level required to prompt agressive US military action, the change would be nowhere near as dramatic as critics of drone warfare imagine.

A Simple Explanation of Why the Healthcare Mandate is Unconstitutional

Guest Post by Saad Asad

Photo by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Via Wikimedia.

Photo by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Via Wikimedia.

I wrote this piece a year ago for a class presentation. Before we accuse the Supreme Court of judicial activism if the mandate is struck down, it would be pertinent to at least understand a potential explanation why it is unconstitutional. The following is purposefully simplistic and short, so don’t expect a treatise:

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 is an unprecedented legislation that forces American citizens to buy a specific product from private companies solely on the condition of being alive. From Gibbons v Ogden in 1844 to Gonzalez v Raich in 2005, it is clear that for Congress to regulate something under the commerce clause, then it must be an activity.  At immediate glance, not buying something cannot be an activity. If that was so, Congress would have the virtual authority to force Americans to buy broccoli too.

One could argue that the healthcare market is unique because everyone will eventually participate thus making it an activity. However, this is false since we know some people will never get terribly sick, others will rely on charity, and some will be cured through simple over-the-counter drugs. Further, the logical conclusion of this argument would be that Congress could force Americans to buy gym memberships because they might be unhealthy in the future. Moreover, any other market could be characterized in the same way. All of us will eventually participate in the transportation market whether we buy a car or buy shoes for walking. Certainly, that doesn’t mean Congress could force us to only buy Jordans.

Also, it is absurd to consider the economic decision of not buying something an activity. Every economic decision will affect price because of the nature of supply and demand. For example, if enough people choose not purchase cars, then the price of cars will change. Every single decision becomes an economic decision. One hour spent sleeping is an hour that could be spent not buying things or not working, hence an economic decision. If Congress’ power was interpreted so that it could regulate every economic decision, then they could mandate workers to get up earlier to spend more time at their job.

Thus, because the healthcare market is “special” argument is weak and economic decisions are not necessarily activities, it is clear that the Congress does not have the power to authorize the PPCA under the commerce clause since not buying health insurance is simply not an activity.

Political Violence @ a Glance

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a new project, Political Violence @ a Glance, started by Wesleyan University’s Erica Chenoweth and UCSD’s Barbara F. Walter. The blog will cover the determinants and effects of political violence, and has a talented pool of academic contributors. Check it out.