Shadow Government

Getting a second opinion or getting a permission slip: Obama and military action abroad

Secretary of Defense Panetta is taking flack from Andrew McCarthy for his response to Senator Graham about the conditions under which the Obama administration would use military force. Graham was trying to pin Panetta down as to whether the Obama administration considers international authorization from the U.N. or other multilateral institution to be necessary -- and, in particular, whether similar authorization from Congress is not necessary.

Concerns about a hypothetical use of military force in Syria motivated the question, but it was the anything-but-hypothetical experience of Libya that framed it. In the Libyan operation, the Obama administration clearly demonstrated that they would not intervene militarily until they received the international cover of authorization from some combination of the U.N., NATO, and the Arab League. However, the Obama administration just as clearly demonstrated that they were willing to act without similar authorization from Congress. To many in Congress, this seemed to privilege international institutions above the U.S. Constitution and the constitutional role for Congress.

McCarthy does a good job of clearing the uncontroversial underbrush away from the controversial heart of the matter. Panetta tried to deflect the tough questions by answering easy ones, repeatedly reemphasizing two uncontroversial claims: (a) in an emergency the president has the authority to act without any further authorization and (2) whenever the U.S. acts militarily, it is better to have multilateral support for the effort. Panetta did not say, but could have, that getting such support from our allies usually requires the authorization of at least NATO and, usually, a U.N. Security Council Resolution; even if the United States did not require it, our allies would require it, so if we want the allies we have to work through those multilateral institutions.

But in his response, Panetta gave the impression that the Obama administration views such international legitimation as legally necessary (when not responding to a direct threat against the United States) yet does not view congressional authorization as legally necessary. As McCarthy points out, that legal position is a tough one to sell in today's environment.

I am a political scientist, not a lawyer, so I find the politics of the issue especially interesting.  And this happens to be a topic I have done scholarly work on with some Duke colleagues. We found that getting international legitimation through a multilateral institution before resorting to military force really does boost public support for military action. The survey evidence seems to support a common-sense intuition: In the hypothetical, the public is not sure whether the president is right to want to use force and would like a second opinion from someone else who presumably has relevant expertise but a different set of incentives. In other words, the public seems to act much the way it might act when a doctor recommends an expensive and risky medical treatment: Maybe, but let's get a second opinion. Other factors might be in play -- the public might want some burden-sharing or might adopt the legalistic view that force is not legitimate without international authorization -- but the "second opinion" factor seems the most important. Respondents who had reason to distrust the president (either because of partisan differences or because they indicated low overall confidence in the president), were more affected by the second opinion of an international endorsement than were those who indicated a reason to trust the president.

Politically, the acid test is what the public wants the president to do when he tries but fails to get U.N. approval.  Something like this happened in Iraq in 2002-2003, although the Bush administration claimed that they did secure sufficient U.N. authorization with the first UNSCR, even though they were unable to get the second. This indubitably happened in Kosovo in 1999 when Russia blocked U.N. authorization. And it may well be happening right now in Syria, given Russia and China's intransigence. This is a tricky thing to measure and my colleagues and I felt that previous studies had not measured it precisely because other analysts had failed to separate three logically distinct but interrelated attitudes: views on the wisdom of using military force regardless of authorization; views on the wisdom of going to the U.N. for authorization; and the attitude of greatest interest to us, views on what to do when a desired authorization is not forthcoming.  

My colleagues and I asked about just such a scenario (albeit back in 2004) and found that 10 percent of respondents said they opposed military action, period, regardless of whether the president got international approval. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 5 percent of the respondents said they opposed the president seeking international authorization.  The remaining group was split evenly between those who wanted to hold off military action until U.N. authorization was secured and those that said the president should proceed and act without U.N. authorization.  There was a pronounced partisan split, with Republicans recommending action despite a failure to get U.N. authorization and Democrats recommending delay; Independents were fairly evenly divided but tilted slightly in the delay direction.  

We did not test the Congress vs. U.N. question underlying Senator Graham's grilling of Secretary Panetta. And perhaps the partisan splits would be different now that a Democratic president is in charge. But this work leads me to expect that segments of the public who distrust this president will want to see his policies get independent endorsements. And the segments of the public who distrust this president are likely not to privilege the U.N. above the U.S. Congress.

So what is the bottom line? The public is likely divided. Faced with a divided public, presidents can revert to the status quo and do nothing or they can lead, seeking to persuade the public to see it their way. Bush tried very hard to persuade a divided public, with mixed results. From the start, I have not been very impressed with Obama's efforts to mobilize the public on war matters, but he sometimes has done better than other times. It seems to me, the present array of challenges requires his best effort. 

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama’s drug war is in disarray

Vice President Joe Biden was in Central America this week attempting to staunch the hemorrhaging of regional support for the U.S.-led War on Drugs.

His trip follows one last week by Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who similarly decamped to the region to buoy a faltering U.S. flag as drug cartel-fueled violence continues wreaking havoc on Central American societies.

What's caused this flurry of high-level administration attention to the region is a number of recent public statements by sitting Latin American presidents openly questioning the effectiveness of current counter-narcotics policies and calling for multilateral discussions on legalizing or decriminalizing the use of illicit drugs.

Those speaking include the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, but they also have received the sympathetic ears of President Santos of Colombia and President Calderón in Mexico. Their unprecedented statements can be seen as a measure of their collective frustrations at the ravaging of their countries by drug gangs just to feed the drug habits of recreational users in the United States.

But they also are indicative of the failure of the Obama administration to provide strong leadership and support as the drug cartels have reacted to strong government policies against them in Colombia and Mexico by relocating their operations to much more vulnerable countries in Central America.

Doubts about the administration's commitment to the drug fight were also fueled by the president's 2013 budget request, which includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America -- including a 60 percent drop in aid to Guatemala. That is hardly the way to win friends and influence people who are risking their lives against brutal and uncompromising enemies wealthier and better armed than they are.

It may be that these leaders don't really have any intention of decriminalizing or legalizing the use of drugs at home (profoundly risky, to say the least) and instead are desperately trying to get Washington's attention to the crises, but that is hardly comforting. Four decades of cooperation between Latin American governments and the United States on enforcement and eradication of illicit narcotics shouldn't come to this; instead of pushing forward to confront new challenges, we're are left trying to recoup lost ground.

To be sure, combating drug cartels is not a pretty business. One does not have to be a member of a peace brigade to be concerned about the impact of drug violence on Latin American communities, but excessive sentimentalism is rarely a sound basis for public policy. Especially when trying to confront drug gangs that have killed tens of thousands, fueled corruption by buying off public officials and undermining democratic institutions, and terrorized local populations.

Nor is lethal assistance the sole answer. These countries need across the board assistance to build up their judicial and penal systems and more economic opportunities for their people to depress the lure of the drug trade. But nothing is possible without re-establishing peace and security and that means employing superior force against those who prefer it the other way.

Unless the administration's approach to the increasing drug violence in Central America becomes more of a priority, they will continue to be confronted by counterproductive distractions like the current statements out of the region. For example, next month President Obama will travel to Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. There are many issues to discuss with responsible governments looking to better the lives of their peoples. Drug legalization should not be one of them.

Even though Vice President Biden said all the right things during his trip this week -- "...there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization" -- the problem is he had to say it at all.

ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images