James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

The World Next Week: Do We Have an Obama Doctrine?

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, March 31, 2011
President Barack Obama steps off Marine One to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on March 29, 2011.

President Barack Obama steps off Marine One to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington on March 29, 2011. (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters)

The World Next Week Podcast is up.  Bob McMahon and I talked about the Obama administration’s varied responses to revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa; Nigeria’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections; the potential for a government shutdown; and our predictions for the upcoming Major League Baseball season.

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The highlights:

  • President Obama has gone out of his way to insist that he hasn’t set forth an Obama Doctrine, at least in part to spare himself political pressure to intervene militarily to stave off other potential humanitarian disasters. Obama’s message that the United States should act when our interests and values are at stake certainly isn’t new; it fits with a long line of presidential statements dating back to at least Teddy Roosevelt.
  • Nigeria’s upcoming elections have the potential to split the country, and the Obama administration’s potential options to respond to electoral violence in Nigeria are limited.
  • All signs point to Democrats and Republicans cutting a deal on the FY12 budget and staving off a government shutdown, but dissenters in both parties still have time to derail an agreement.
  • Bob picks the Phillies to win it all in October by beating the Red Sox. He has the outcome of the World Series exactly wrong.

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Is Operation Odyssey Dawn Constitutional? Part III

by James M. Lindsay Thursday, March 31, 2011
U.S. President Bill Clinton beside Gen. Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explaining the U.S. and NATO mission in Kosovo on April 1, 1999. (Win McNamee/courtesy Reuters)

Then President Bill Clinton beside Gen. Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explaining the U.S. and NATO mission in Kosovo on April 1, 1999. (Win McNamee/courtesy Reuters)

Yesterday I noted that many legal scholars believe that while the text of the Constitution may not have given presidents an independent war-making authority, they have acquired that through two hundred years of practice.

The notion that presidential powers have evolved over time strikes proponents of original intent—the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of its text and what the Framers had in mind when they wrote it—as heresy. So don’t expect Ron Paul to sign up to the “he’s-earned-it” argument any time soon. But if you see the Constitution as a living or evolving document, then the thought that the Constitution’s meaning might change over time isn’t shocking.

(On a side note, many Democrats favor original intent on foreign policy and embrace the idea of a living Constitution on domestic policy. Republicans go the other way. It’s not surprising that the orientations of both parties align with their substantive policy preferences. Democrats like activist presidents on domestic policy; and Republicans like them on foreign policy. It could be that our constitutional preferences drive our substantive ones. The opposite is more likely to be true, however. Most of us at heart belong to the results-oriented school of constitutional interpretation, that is, we like rules that give us what we want.)

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Is Operation Odyssey Dawn Constitutional? Part II

by James M. Lindsay Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Qaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah on March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic/courtesy Reuters)

Vehicles belonging to Qaddafi forces explode after an air strike by coalition planes along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya on March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic/courtesy Reuters)

Last week I wrote a post arguing that President Obama’s decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn conflicted with the Framers’ conception of the exercise of the war power. The men who wrote the Constitution rejected the idea that a president could initiate hostilities on his own. Indeed, they thought they were creating a system that would prevent him from doing so.

I have since been reminded that Senator Obama staked out a position on the war power that was more in keeping with the views of the Framers than President Obama has. Back in 2007 he told the Boston Globe:

The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

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Guest Post: Messages to Americans from the Muslim Brotherhood

by James M. Lindsay Tuesday, March 29, 2011
A banner hung in Cairo by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "yes" vote on the referendum.

A banner hung in Cairo by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "yes" vote on the referendum, seen on March 18, 2011. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/courtesy Reuters)

My colleague Ed Husain just got back from a research visit to Egypt. Ed has been one of the most prominent and eloquent voices in the West seeking to understand the rise of Islamic extremist violence and what can be done to prevent it. You might have seen the piece he wrote for the Financial Times at the height of the political turmoil in Egypt about the Muslim Brotherhood. Given all that is happening in Egypt, and all the speculation it has spawned back here in the United States, I asked Ed if he could tell us what he saw on the ground. Here’s what he had to say:

I’ve just returned to Washington after taking the temperature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, the oldest, most organized, and potentially most powerful political party in Egypt. One thing’s for sure: the Brotherhood is in a buoyant mood. I will publish a longer article elsewhere about the dynamics inside today’s Brotherhood, and the implications for Egyptian society. [TWE: I will post the link to Ed’s article once it’s published.] Before I left for Cairo, I asked Jim Lindsay what he would ask Brotherhood members. As it turned out, Jim’s question was thoughtful and an excellent point of entry: “I would be interested in knowing what they most want Americans to know.”

From the many meetings and interviews I conducted, here are three instructive responses:

“Just as most Americans cannot differentiate between the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations, most Egyptians see the West as a monolith,” said a forty-something website manager.

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Is Obama Pursuing Stealth Regime Change in Libya?

by James M. Lindsay Tuesday, March 29, 2011
U.S. Admiral Locklear speaks with an aircrew from the French Navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle operating in Mediterranean Sea on March 21, 2011.

U.S. Admiral Locklear speaks with an aircrew from the French Navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle operating in Mediterranean Sea on March 21, 2011. (Ho New/courtesy Reuters)

President Obama sent mixed signals in his address to the nation last night. On the one hand, he went out of his way to portray Operation Odyssey Dawn as a humanitarian mission. He insisted that “our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives” and that while we seek Qaddafi’s ouster we are pursuing that goal “though non-military means.”

Yet Obama seemed to be saying the opposite when he described the specifics of Operation Odyssey Dawn in his speech. He noted that “we hit Gadhafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out” and that “our coalition will keep the pressure on Gadhafi’s remaining forces.” These steps sound more like an effort to use U.S. and allied air power to help Libyan rebels drive Qaddafi from power. They certainly go well beyond what is needed to protect Libyan civilians from imminent attack.

So which is it?

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Is Operation Odyssey Dawn Constitutional? Obama versus the Framers

by James M. Lindsay Friday, March 25, 2011
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

I noted in a post earlier today that President Obama can make a credible legal case—if he were ever forced to make one—that he had all the authority he needed to order Operation Odyssey Dawn. But his case can’t rest on the claim that the Framers wanted him to have that authority. Although our idea of an independent executive war making authority would have been well known to the Framers, they would have associated the notion with the British monarch they had overthrown and not with the new political system they were creating.

So what did the Framers have to say about the war power? George Mason, who now has a university with a pretty good basketball team named after him, said at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 that he was “against giving the power of war to the executive” because the president “is not safely to be trusted with it.” James Madison, who also has a Virginia university named after him, wrote that the Constitution has, “with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl[ature].” Alexander Hamilton, who is typically credited as having the most robust conception among the Framers of presidential power, wrote that the president’s powers as commander in chief  “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces…while that of the British kings extends to the declaring of war and to raising and regulating of fleets and armies: all of which by the Constitution under consideration would appertain to the Legislature.” In all, the Framers thought they had crafted a political system that, as another delegate, James Wilson, put it, “will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a body of men, to involve us in such distress.”

Early practice hewed to this conception of who could wield the war power. In 1798, at the start of the so-called Quasi-War with France, John Adams called Congress into a special session “to consult and determine on such measures as in their wisdom shall be deemed meet for the safety and welfare of the United States.” When Andrew Jackson, not known as a shrinking violet when it came to presidential power, wanted to force France to pay damage claims that dated back to the Napoleonic era, he did not order the U.S. military into action. He instead asked Congress to pass a law “authorizing reprisals upon French property.” Congress said no, and Jackson let the issue drop. When the Chilean government refused to apologize in 1891 after a mob killed two American sailors, Benjamin Harrison asked Congress “to take such action as may be deemed appropriate.” If you don’t remember the U.S.-Chilean war of 1891, it’s because Congress never authorized hostilities and the crisis passed.

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