Washington Merry-Go-Round

Author Archives: Us News Syndicate

Drone wars

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Drone wars

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – In a world full of danger and national security threats, the latest hot spot is Mali, a Northwest African nation not quite twice the size of Texas. Sparsely populated, it has become fertile ground for a group of jihadists known as AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Alarmed by the gains made by AQIM in Mali, a former French colony, French President Francois Hollande dispatched 2,500 troops to help the Mali government resist the incursion, and he requested assistance from the U.S.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would provide logistical support and intelligence to the French, but would not help with training the Mali military because the government is not a democracy; it’s a military junta that seized power a year ago. Panetta said the U.S. would provide unarmed drones for intelligence gathering to the French.

The operative word is drones, and it’s not too big a leap to imagine that if the situation deteriorates, the opening is there for the U.S. to arm those drones. And the situation has deteriorated.

News broke Wednesday that terrorists had occupied a BP natural gas complex northeast of Mali in Algeria and taken hostage a number of foreign nationals, Americans among them. The perpetrator, a well-known jihadist known as “Mr.Marlboro” for his smuggling of cigarettes and other sundries, took credit for the attack which was intended to punish Algeria for allowing French airplanes use its airspace to reach Mali.

An Algerian Army assault on the gas plant freed the hostages the next day, with varying accounts of the number of casualties, ending the crisis while underscoring the volatility in the region. The reason the U.S. is supporting French involvement in Mali is because of Al-Qaeda, and the fear that jihadists will take root there and turn Mali into a staging area for attacks around the world like Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistan.

Panetta has ruled out ground troops to assist in the fight in Mali, and that’s not what the French want anyway. Several African nations are sending troops to assist the French, and that’s how it should be. But the U.S. has a commodity that no one else yet has, and that’s a fleet of drones, which are the weapons of choice in the modern world.

Drones are controversial, and because President Obama’s choice to head the CIA, former White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, is the architect of the administration’s drone policy, they are about to get a whole lot of publicity during Brennan’s confirmation hearings. One thing is certain and beyond question, drones are at the core of Obama’s national security and counter-terrorism strategy.

The advantages are obvious. Thanks to armed drones, the top leadership of Al-Qaeda has been decimated and no Americans have lost their lives. Drones fly in, and they fly out, making it easier to engage militarily without leaving a heavy footprint and risking the lives of young men and women. Sending in troops is easy; withdrawing them is hard. A reliance on drones avoids that dilemma.

The disadvantages are less obvious but just as real. Drone attacks no matter how carefully targeted inevitably kill civilians, usually because terrorists are hiding among them. U.S. relations with Pakistan have significantly deteriorated because of drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Then there’s the question of what happens when America’s enemies develop drones, and figure out how to beat us at our own game. That challenge is for another day; for now, drones are popular as a tool of modern warfare because they’re so much better than the alternatives of either doing nothing or sending young men and women to war.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Chuck the Knife

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Chuck the Knife

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It’s become almost commonplace for Democratic presidents to nominate a Republican to lead the Defense Department, and in the past it worked like a charm, as when Bill Clinton named Maine Senator William Cohen or President Obama held over Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Republicans cheered those appointments, and confirmation was assured.

This time is different, and not so much because of the early criticism of Republican Chuck Hagel’s comments about Israel, or about gay rights. The resistance goes deeper, and like so much in Washington, the answer is to follow the money.

Hagel’s nomination has the potential to break the link between business and defense, the dangerous alliance that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower coined the term in his farewell address to the nation in January 1961, warning of its grip in words that proved prescient.

Hagel is the first enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon, and he brings a welcome skepticism of the big weapons systems that burn up billions in cost overruns alone. In an interview he gave in the summer of 2011, he talked about “the abuse and the waste and the fraud” he saw even as a private serving in Vietnam, and then as a sergeant. He is on record for some time saying the Pentagon must be “pared down.”

He is not irresponsible about what should be cut. In that same interview, he said, “No American wants to in any way hurt our capabilities to national defense, but that doesn’t mean an unlimited amount of money and a blank check for anything they want at any time, for any purpose.” It is reminiscent of President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, appropriately known as “Cap the Knife.” “Chuck the Knife” is prepared to outdo him.

Given the budget challenges facing the country, and the Pentagon, Hagel is the man for the moment. He is the Defense Secretary Eisenhower envisioned but did not live to see. Hagel’s skepticism about big defense budgets is longstanding. As a senator from Nebraska, he did not have the burden of representing a state known for its defense industry. He was freer than most to break the choke hold the Pentagon has over so many members whose constituents are dependent on jobs that are spun off from defense contracts.

After leaving the Senate in 2009, Hagel could have done what so many others do, cash in on his connections and sign up with one of the many defense contractors ringing Washington. He didn’t need the money; he earned his fortune by getting into the mobile telephone business in the early 80’s, so early that he had a hard time explaining what he did. He once held up his shoe to his ear to convey how attached consumers would become to their mobile phones.

Hagel endorsed Obama in 2008, but still considers himself a Republican, albeit an ecumenical one. He is a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and has been co-chairing the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Obama no doubt hoped that Hagel’s Republican pedigree would help ease some of the tension with the opposition over the looming cutbacks in defense. Perhaps some of that goodwill will return, but at the moment, the GOP is gearing up to do battle.

Republicans historically have favored building big weapons systems, sometimes giving short shrift to the troops, nickel-and-diming them on housing and medical care while doing the bidding of the defense contractors. It’s no accident that the veteran’s groups are strongly in favor of Hagel while the defense establishment worries that he is too eager to carry through on proposed cutbacks.

In the end, policy will be made in the White House by Obama. Hagel appears to be a perfect fit with the president, which only makes the administration’s critics more nervous.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Debt ceiling: a question of clauses

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Debt ceiling: a question of clauses

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – As Congress lurches toward the next cliff, a repeat of whether or not to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, it comes down to a question of clauses. Much is once again being made of Section 4 of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

But the Obama administration has decided it will not threaten its use if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling because most legal experts agree that the clause only refers to debt already authorized.

However, another constitutional path is more inviting, and it revolves around three other constitutional clauses:

Article I, Section 8, Clause 2: “[The Congress shall have the Power] to borrow Money . . .”

Article I, Section 8, Clause 5: “[The Congress shall have the Power] to coin Money . . .”

Article I, Section 9, Clause 7: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . .”

If under Clause 7 Congress has appropriated money and the president has signed the appropriations bill into law, thereby authorizing the various federal departments such as Defense to draw specific sums from the Treasury, the Treasury must comply. But what happens if the Treasury is empty, having spent everything it received from revenues, sales, and borrowings? Congress cannot say to the secretary of the Treasury, “We may have ordered you to fund the nation’s departments and agencies, but you cannot do so until we authorize the Treasury to borrow money under Clause 2 or print money under Clause 5.”

Not all constitutional clauses are equal. In this instance, Clauses 2 and 5 are pointless without Clause 7 because there is no reason to borrow or print money other than to spend it. That is where Clause 7 comes in, and when employed alone, it clearly incorporates the obviously subordinate Clauses 2 and 5.

If an appropriations bill is subject to further borrowing or printing authorization, it must include such language in the bill. In the absence of such language, the Treasury has no choice but to comply with the law. It must fund as directed. As a result, an appropriations bill includes the tacit authorization for the Treasury to borrow and/or print money because it would have no other means of complying with the law if the Treasury is empty.

If, on the other hand, Congress passed a bill under Clauses 2 and 5 forbidding the Treasury from borrowing and printing additional money at the same time it approved an appropriations bill that could not be funded any other way, a true constitutional crisis would ensue. In reality, of course, this is impossible because no president would sign such conflicting bills into law.

Returning to the appropriations scenario alone, how would the Supreme Court likely rule if a case were brought against the secretary of the Treasury for borrowing and printing money without congressional authorization if done to fulfill its legal obligation to disburse funds as directed by Congress in its appropriations bill? Surely the justices would side with the secretary of the Treasury who would have had no choice but to comply with the intent and letter of the law. And absent any language or law to the contrary, the intent of Congress would be clear: If the Treasury is ordered to spend money it does not have, the congressional order includes the tacit authorization to borrow or print the necessary money. This is all the more true if at the time Congress passed the appropriations bill it knew that the Treasury could only comply with it by borrowing or printing money. The intent is clear.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Biden in 2016?

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Biden in 2016?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It was after eleven in the evening on New Year’s Day when President Obama stepped into the White House briefing room with Vice President Joe Biden at his side to thank all the parties involved, and to praise his vice president for brokering the tax package that saved the country from the fiscal cliff. It was a good deal from Obama’s perspective, and a lot of the credit goes to Biden.

First elected to the Senate at age 29, Biden took office at age 30, the minimum age required for the job in the Constitution, and he had served as Delaware’s senator for 35 years when Obama chose him for vice president. The wisdom of that choice became abundantly clear during the faltering fiscal cliff negotiations when Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Biden asking, “Does anybody down there know how to make a deal?”

After checking first with Obama, Biden threw himself into the fray, making offers and counter-offers to McConnell, cobbling together a workable compromise and then selling it to nervous Democrats wary that the White House was giving away too much in search of a bipartisan consensus. Like Ted Kennedy before him, Biden is a Democrat that other Democrats trust to make compromises they can live with.

When Biden cast his vote for the Obama-Biden ticket in his home state of Delaware on November 6, reporters wanted to know if he felt nostalgic, and if this was the last time he would vote for himself. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied with a smile. Sure, sure, the pundits said, indulging good ole Joe in what looked to most like fantasy, that he would be Obama’s natural heir and contend for the presidency in 2016.

Biden turned 70 in November, and for a Democratic coalition built around the 51-year-old Obama, the vice president isn’t the first person that comes to mind to pick up the Obama mantle. The drumbeat has been for Hillary Clinton, the most admired woman in the world for each of the last 11 years, and the presumed frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic nomination should she choose to run. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said that he can’t think of anyone in either party who could challenge Hillary.

Granted it’s way too early to be handicapping the 2016 presidential race, but at this moment in time with Clinton looking physically vulnerable and Biden looking like the master legislator, the scales have evened out somewhat. After four grueling years as secretary of state, Clinton may decide she likes private life where, like her husband, the former president, she can make a huge impact on issues she cares about without getting the day-to-day scrutiny from the media and political opponents.

Biden, who has had health issues in the past, is fully recovered from the brain aneurysm he suffered in 1988. He’s energetic and gregarious and seems to enjoy politics in the same way that Bill Clinton does, drawing energy from the campaign trail. He loves to talk, almost too much, and he’s known for his gaffes, but when it comes down to doing business on Capitol Hill, he knows what to do and how to do it.

Presidents are expected to do all sorts of things and working with Congress is high on the list. The friendships Biden made during his more than three decades in the Senate are paying off now, and it’s fair to ask how much more a president could accomplish legislatively if he or she had Biden’s experience and relationships. Biden’s presidential aspirations suddenly don’t seem as farfetched as they once did. And as Obama fades into lame-duck status, Biden could be the man to watch.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Uncle Joe

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Uncle Joe

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama may be exceptionally bright, highly educated, and an astute campaigner, but, clearly, negotiating is not his strong suit. During the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, he worked with the Republican leaders, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., and failed to reach agreement. He was criticized for lecturing in meetings and gloating before the cameras when he thought a point had been won.

Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell also played to the cameras, and discussions ground to a halt. Boehner could not convince a majority of his House Republicans to compromise, and he punted the effort to the Senate, where Sen. McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attempted to work a deal. But this also failed, and McConnell, claiming he needed a “dance partner” reached out to Vice President Joe Biden, a man who had served for years with him in the Senate and is affectionately known as “Uncle Joe.”

In a blink, the situation changed. Biden avoided the cameras. Upbeat and non-accusatory in manner, he dealt with McConnell the old-fashioned way, the way senators have dealt with one another for more than two centuries: cordially, respectfully, and behind closed doors – or, in this case, on telephones behind closed doors.

The result was a deal. But Biden did not stop there. He went to the Capitol and made the pitch to Democratic senators. And the bill averting the Fiscal Cliff passed the Senate. Then he repeated this performance with Democratic members of the House, and that chamber passed the bill. And the president signed it.

People on the far right and far left objected, while some of the more moderate legislators simply held their noses and voted for the bill. In the end, the primary objection was that it was not comprehensive. It postponed the spending cut sequestration by two months. It did not address the debt limit. However, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted, the public should look at what the bill did do. Most importantly, it prevented a tax increase from kicking in that would have impacted 98 percent of taxpayers, and it extended unemployment benefits for a year. By any standard, that is significant stand-alone legislation.

It was legislation that came very close to failing, very close to inflicting incredible pain on most Americans and the economy. However, the flaw that nearly resulted in this failure was not the 112th Congress and not the Democrats or Republicans, or even the inept negotiating. The flaw is in the system. The Constitution allows the Senate and House to make their own rules, and those rules give the leadership significant power, including the power to prevent bills from coming to the floor for a vote. And until this flaw is fixed, the nation is going to have to rely upon skilled political negotiators of the old school. In this instance, the nation and the president were fortunate to have just such a politician in the person of Vice President Joe Biden, the true hero of the day.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND