In Defense of “Don’t Do Stupid S—“

On May 28, President Obama delivered an address to the graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point. His speech focused heavily on the Administration’s approach to foreign affairs for what remained of the his second term in office. The speech featured about as much of the minimally subtle sabre-rattling chest-beating bravado and lofty appraisals of the United States’ capacity and intention to lead the international community as one would reasonably expect from any modern Commander in Chief. However, these remarks also featured an unmistakably subdued tone, a palpable air of cynicism that betrayed the President’s meagre appetite for risky foreign meddling of any sort. Tempting fate is clearly not on Obama’s second term agenda.

The West Point speech marked a significant moment in the Administration’s attempts to translate an increasingly calculated approach and progressively less ambitious worldview into a cohesive foreign policy that will be remembered as the definitive Obama Doctrine. It has become a surprisingly difficult challenge for a President who ascended to the White House on promises to improve the way the United States leads on the international scene and make necessary reforms to combat the rapid decline of the nation’s image in the eyes of the world’s population. In this respect, Obama’s presidency began on a much more confident note, with the Commander in Chief appear to rise to the challenge of maintaining the country’s position of  leadership role while modifying the character of its guidance. This was perceived by many as being a return to the triumphant and conscientious American leadership of the golden past. In his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama laid the framework for America’s active role in combating evil as global defender of the righteous:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

These remarks were certainly made by a very different President, one displaying very few qualms with the mobilization of the United States’ overwhelming military might in noble leadership of the international community against threats to global order and well-being. While Obama has certainly not shied away from his firm commitment American exceptionalism, explaining in his West Point remarks that  it is something that he believes in “with every fiber of [his] being”, he has made a visible departure from the ambitious and moralizing rhetoric that was a trademark of his early Presidency.

Instead of playing the traditional role of advocate for active and benevolent intervention, he has embarked upon what amounts to a grand campaign of damage control, an effort that has helped to shape the attitude of the government in facing contemporary conflicts, most notably Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the most poignant statement to come from the President’s speech at West Point addressed the need to avoid relying on the military as the nation’s primary problem solving tool:

Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.

The difference in tone between these two quotations is dramatic. In lieu of the lofty ideals of “hope” and “change” that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Obama Doctrine referred to by future generations will have taken on a much less glamorous character.

Obama used the West Point speech as an opportunity to convince the world of the merits underpinning what will likely come to define the foreign policy outlook of his Presidency to future generations. While the White House defines his doctrine as being “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral“, the President himself has a far more forthright way of describing his outlook. According to the media, the President himself has coined (and repeatedly employed) the phrase “Don’t do stupid s—” (DDSS) to describe his current approach to the international policy. Spurred on by a particularly adversarial media climate, the cynical tone reflected by the Chief Executive’s willingness to describe his foreign policy outlook in such bleak and candid terms betrays a growing level of frustration and cynicism in the White House.

However, it would be incorrect to consider this as an abrupt about-face in policy. Instead, it should be viewed as an organic transformation in the President’s approach. The current reticence  is consistent with many of the President’s recent declarations about wielding American hard power internationally. Take, for example, Obama’s speech in September of 2013, when he explained to the UN General Assembly his desire to shift the United States “away from a perpetual war footing”. Included in the same remarks were appeals for increased levels of multilateral international involvement in Israel and Palestine as well as a remarkably conciliatory overture to the Iranian administration for increased cooperation, instead of submission, breaking with the traditional demanded from leaders in Washington.

These are marked departures from traditional foreign policy dogma and, contrary to his exceptionalist rhetoric,  signal the President’s willingness to see the United States adopt a much more modest role in the international order. The humble character of DDSS doctrine is symptomatic of the difficulties inherent in this Administration’s attempt to reconcile the traditional American position as global arbiter, defender of freedom, and promoter of democracy with the groundswell of public opinion in favor of a more restrained role in global affairs. In many ways this is easily understandable when considering Obama as a President tasked with bridging the gap between generations in an atmosphere of unprecedented political polarization.

At the moment, both extremes of the domestic political spectrum (save for the Tea Party, as seen above) are pushing for dramatically reduced foreign involvement while “establishment” Democrats and Republicans continue to criticize the White House for its reticence in Iraq and Syria.  The isolationist camp is primarily composed of small-government (“Independent”) conservatives, who primarily view interventionism as something that the United States can’t current currently afford, and young progressive idealists who oppose intervention on anti-imperial moral grounds. Mainstream Republicans and a significant portion of Democratic leadership, as we will discuss in a moment, still believe in the importance of America’s moral imperative and the maintenance of national security through preventative action.

It’s interesting that the Middle East, a traditional proving ground for imperial ambition, has functioned as a catalyst for the President’s new doctrine of restraint, increased multilateralism, and reliance on the developing world to establish its own security apparatuses. Pundits, however, like the National Journal’s Kaveh Waddell, were quick to point out how ill-suited the DDSS approach is to contemporary conflict.  While Waddell bases his judgement (and title of his piece: “Iraq Is a Terrible First Test for Obama’s New Foreign Policy”) on more situational tactical and military factors, such as the combat ineffectiveness of the Iraqi military, there are multiple reasons why Iraq is in fact a very appropriate “first test” for the application Obama Doctrine.

The current situation in Iraq and Syria is an almost perfect representation of the sort of ambiguous and volatile conflict zone that the United States is likely to face in the 21st century. The commitment of armed forces carries with it a huge political risk and virtually no assurance that the conflict won’t become a protracted affair. Unreliable regional actors are subject to sudden disappearance alliances and shifting alliances carry the risk of a sudden inversion of the tactical situation. Even a comprehensive tactical success would bring almost no tangible reward in terms of spoils, political capital. or any sort of goodwill, and would certainly not guarantee a cooperative future regime.

It is for precisely these reasons that Obama’s revised conception of America’s role, as defined by the DDSS doctrine, is a much more appropriate fit for the current situation than the cavalier moral crusades favored by the previous administration. It demonstrates the President’s willingness to confront the challenge of finding a happy medium between War-on-Terror inspired neo-imperial adventurism and the irresponsible and callous inaction that has allowed for events such as the Rwandan genocide of the 90s. The recent remarks made by the President during his weekly address on August 9 illustrate this policy-in-motion and prove that it is possible to reach a calculated plan of action that takes into account both America’s assumed moral imperative and its predilection for reckless military interventionism:

The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world.  But when there’s a situation like the one on this mountain—when countless innocent people are facing a massacre, and when we have the ability to help prevent it—the United States can’t just look away. That’s not who we are. We’re Americans.  We act.  We lead.  And that’s what we’re going to do on that mountain.  As one American who wrote to me yesterday said, “it is the right thing to do”.

While the Administration can be rightly criticised for not acting swiftly to prevent the escalation of the conflict in Syria or the spread of ISIL throughout the region, its hesitance is not a direct result of DDSS policy. The situation was and is extremely delicate. Backing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may very well have been a poor decision and the lack of support to moderate resistance groups in Syria almost certainly was. However, the lack of Executive action can not be attributed to a policy that is, at its core, “both interventionist and internationalist”. If anything, the failure of the United States (and the West, more broadly) to act effectively and judiciously in Iraq is a failure to apply the principles of DDSS. On the whole, this new blend of international interventionism and cautious multilateralism being pioneered by the current administration is a sure step in the right direction for the United States.

While prudence and multilateralism is often far less political appetizing to American audiences (or, at least, offers up no shortage of ammunition for one’s political opponents) in the short run, it inevitably becomes far more appealing in the longer term and even more so when viewed in retrospect. Unfortunately, the partisan dynamics of the American political scene have completely disincentivized the pursuit of the rational yet unspectacular within the executive branch.

This is especially acute during important periods of the election cycle, as we are approaching now. It comes as no surprise, then, that rather inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton. has roundly criticized the concept of DDSS doctrine as a display of weakness in leadership. Couched in a rather more valid and substantial criticism of the administration’s lack of support for moderate Syrian rebel forces (which she tenuously attributes to the rise of the Islamic State), Clinton dismissed the notion of DDSS by saying that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle“.

Now, this may simply be a superficial appraisal of the phrase in question, or an attempt to distance herself from an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it’s equally likely that  her comment was made in light of her opposition to a reduced American role in the international community. Clinton believes “that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good”, a conviction that likely reveals her membership in the Democratic party of a bygone era. Another example is Clinton’s staunch support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which runs contrary to the rapidly diminishing levels of unconditional support for Israeli among young Americans. Nearly a decade and a half older than President Obama, who based his campaign heavily around his appeal to younger Americans, Hillary Clinton likely faces a stiff challenge in convincing young voters of the necessity of America’s role as global policeman (though persuading the general population may prove less difficult).

The response of the Obama administration and its allies to Clinton’s criticism was quite sharp, though it seems that no lasting damage was dealt. Still, it seems as though Clinton’s foreign policy, as seen by Millennial voters, leaves a lot to be desired and it’s no secret that the gulf between the opinions of American voters and establishment politicians is only widening. As the generation of young people who were raised during the expensive and unproductive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become young voters, the number of  ardent moral crusaders like Clinton will only diminish. While Democratic Party heavyweight centrist  Hillary Clinton can certainly continue to promote staggeringly hawkish foreign policy, it is in her best interest to adopt a position that builds upon the trail blazed by President Obama towards a smarter and more nuanced future of American policy-making.

Giving Context to the Anti-Government Protests in Venezuela

While the majority of the world’s attention has been focused on the revolutionary tremors currently underway in Ukraine (or, if you watch cable news, breaking developments in the culinary world), violent protests in Venezuela have been raging. Demonstrations are taking place across the country, with protesters coming out in force on both sides of the leadership divide. Events kicked off on the 12th of February, Venezuela’s Día de la Juventud (National Youth Day), when an anti-administration group comprised primarily of students took to the streets in Caracas to protest against the current government of President Nicolas Maduro. Led in part by the now-jailed Leopoldo López, the group rallied around a wide-ranging platform of political reform that includes an end to government efforts to suppress public protests, the release of political prisoners, and the radical restructuring of the national economic system. Inspired by the government’s authoritarian response in prior weeks to protests in the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Merida, the demonstrators marched through Caracas while pro-government supporters rallied around the incumbent President (who later dismissed the dissenting protesters as part of a nation-wide “nazifascista outbreak” bent on government subversion). After the dust cleared, three deaths, numerous injuries, and dozens of arrests marked the conclusion of the first day of discord.

In order to properly contextualize the current conflict in Venezuela, it is necessary to look at a few different factors. The immediate motivations behind the protests can be best understood by examining  the adverse conditions affecting the Venezuelan citizenry as well as the tone and context set by the country’s modern political past. This method of analysis generates insight into the actions of protesters and government officials alike, and offers an alternative historically-driven perspective, as opposed to one of raw politics. This is not to say that politics are irrelevant, as they are most definitely not. However, historical considerations are essential in properly scrutinizing revolutionary action, regardless of culture or end result.

President Nicolas Maduro
President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a press conference with a portrait of President Hugo Chavez in the background (Source: Juan Barreto/AFP)

While many are doubtlessly familiar with the divisive and provocative anti-Western rhetoric of the late revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, it’s important to consider the country’s broader political legacies and the ways in which they have affected, and continue to affect, Venezuelan citizens and their political system. Chavez, and his successor Maduro, represent the most significant manifestation of Bolivarianism, a political philosophy named for the iconic South American anti-imperial military and political leader Simón Bolívar. Branded “chavismo” or “chavezism” by its opposition, the particular brand of Bolivarianism ushered in with Hugo Chavez’s succession to the Venezuelan presidency in 1999. An admirer of Bolívar and his struggle against Spanish domination, Chavez designed his Bolivarian Revolution around policies of nationalism, socialism, and the termination of Venezuelan reliance on the international neo-liberal economic system. For context, it is worthwhile to note that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ranked among the largest influences on Chavez’s leadership. After being released from captivity in the mid-1990s, Chavez visited Castro and the two quickly became close friends. Revolutionary Cuban trappings are evident throughout the Chavista platform, with the Venezuelan leader formulating the original slogan of his Bolivarian Revolution (“Motherland, socialism, or death”) from an amalgam of Castro’s motto of  “Motherland or death” Che Guevara’s “Socialism or Death”.

When the success of domestic anti-poverty, resource redistribution, and education programs is juxtaposed against large-scale economic mismanagement, dictatorial absolutism, and a reputation for counterproductive international contrarianism, the lukewarm character of Chavista policies fostered by Chavez and perpetuated by Maduro are shown to have, at best, a lukewarm record. The late President’s curious brand of populism appeals most heavily to urban and rural poor in lieu of the traditional revolutionary mobilization of the working class. Though it may be unconventional, Chavez and his authoritarian brand of revolutionary socialism is nothing if not effective at remaining at the helm of Venezuelan politics. The regime has managed to survive a US-backed coup in April of 2002, a general labor strike later that year, and a recall election in August of 2004.

The Bolivarian commitment to opposition against what is perceived as the Western global hegemony has shown to have won him many regional supporters. Unlike the majority of the world’s developed countries that consider Chavez to have been a chiefly antagonist force, the Union of South American Nations (Union of South American Nations – UNASUL or UNASUR) acted quickly to endorse the results of the April 2013 election that followed the President’s death.  The former vice president, Nicolas Maduro, campaigned heavily on a platform of continuity that played up his image as Chavez’s hand-picked successor. The support of neighboring governments was essential in buttressing the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory after the election results were called into question by several members of the international community.

Bolivar Decline Graph
(Source: CATO Institute)

Since the death of President Chavez, the Venezuelan Bolivare has experienced wild inflation and multiple devaluations as a reflection of the faltering economy. The country currently suffers from rampant “currency distortions” due to conditions that economists have characterized as “macroeconomic imbalances”. This includes a popular black market for currency exchanges that reflects a discouraging reality in comparison to the optimistic exchange rates set by the government. While the official exchange rate is somewhere around 6.3 Bolivars per American dollar (USD), the latest government auction of foreign currency revealed that the USD was selling for 11.36 Bolivars. Underground markets, which are fairly ubiquitous in Venezuala, are significantly tougher on the Bolivar, with dedicated exchange rate monitoring sites showing rates as discouraging as 87 Bolivars per dollar. The tangible ramifications of this situation have penetrated well beyond the nation’s financial institutions and into the lives of its citizens. While the government has been successful in significantly reducing the percentage of Venezuelans suffering from hunger and malnutrition in the post-Chavez years, the continued scarcity of common commodities and manufactured goods (most famously, toilet paper) continues to disrupt the lives of citizens.

Further compounding the country’s alimentary difficulties is the country’s continuing struggle with violence. While the government declines to release its internally gathered numbers, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, has compiled a report on the increasing rates of violence. The Observatory estimates that 24,000 murders took place in 2013, which represents a  “14% rise” on 2012 [totals]”.  Additionally, the report contends that approximately 90% of all homicides go unsolved. The issue of endemic violence plays a very significant role in the popularization of the most recent iteration of anti-government demonstrations. Most recently, anti-government protesters have rallied around the death of a  22 year-old university student which took place on February 18th. Genesis Carmona, a Miss Tourism winner in her native Carabobo, was shot in the head and killed during a clash between rival participating in one of the demonstrations. To date, at least 13 Venezuelans have lost their lives in the continuing upheaval that has done nothing to diminish the authoritarian character of Maduro’s rule. 

The blame for Venezuela’s current social and political woes would, at first glance, seem to fall squarely on the political mismanagement of President Chavez (and, by extension President Maduro). However, the trends and attitudes that dominate the country’s turbulent political history reveal a more nuanced reality. While the questionable decision-making of Chavista politicans certainly has played a role in the perpetuation of a volatile status quo, the traditional “politics of exclusion” that exist in Venezuela provide valid historical grounds from which to explain the current conflict. In explaining this trend’s effect on the turbulent early years of the Chavez presidency, Professor Julia Buxton explains in the Bulletin of Latin American Research that, in many ways, the Bolivarian regime actually resembles the previous government of the Punto Fijo Pact (a coalitional consolidation of Venezuela’s three major mid-century political parties) that was displaced by Chavez and his revolutionary cadre in the late 1990s. She explains:

Rather than undermining an established democracy, Chavismo was characterised by continuity with the illiberal Punto Fijo state rather than change… Both relied on the politicisation of the state to maintain authority and both were hegemonic projects, which denied the voice of opponents on the basis that this was contrary to the national interest. Crucial to the development of this tendency in both regimes was the initial fear of revanchist actions by supporters of the preceding regime.

Buxton astutely points out that until zero-sum attitudes no longer characterize the political understandings and agendas of both the incumbent and opposition parties, “the institutional crisis cannot be approached and consensual institutions cannot be crafted”. By employing a perspective that emphasizes a bit of a “longer” durée, the current protests and upheaval can be traced back to perpetuated political oppositionalism and protracted party vs. party antagonism.

There are indeed other historical factors to keep in mind when considering the current situation. Among the most notable and immediately relevant is the relationship between Venezuela and the West, most importantly the United States. The uncharacteristically understated call-to-action of  US Secretary of State John Kerry, released on the 15th of February, betrays the frosty nature of the relationship shared by the two nations. When viewed with the US-backed 2002 coup attempt in mind, the statement seems, if anything, dubiously constructive. While American citizens remain largely unconcerned with the developments in Venezuela, the White House has shown a desire to fan the flames by supporting forces of government opposition. It is from this historical context that we must view the Bolivarian regime’s pugnacious stance towards CNN and the American media.  The predictably heavy-handed response by the incumbent government has included a national prohibition on “spontaneous protests”the ejection of American diplomats on conspiracy suspicions, and widespread censorship of dissenting (foreign) media. After admonishing American news outlets for the dissemination of ‘war propaganda’ and threatening to revoke CNN’s press credentials, President Maduro reneged on his threat and allowed the network to stay in-country on the condition that they report on Venezuela in “a balanced way… A balance based on respect for Venezuelan laws”. Most recently, Venezuelan paratroopers were deployed to the border state of Tachira in order to restore order and prevent the “fascist” attack perpetrated by the Mayor of San Cristobal “con paramilitares y bandas criminales de Colombia“. While the rhetoric of the Maduro government, consistent with his predecessor, is certainly hyperbolic, it is not based solely on paranoia.

In relation to the protests, the relative inaction of Washington is anything but a problem. It does not demonstrate weakness, nor does it imply tacit approval for the Chavista project. The government’s dubious record on domestic reform, proclivity for bombastic rhetoric, and willingness to embark on campaigns of reckless domestic repression does more harm to the current government’s credibility than any American effort could ever hope to. There are plenty of genuine reasons for the American government to speak out against the Venezuelan administration and plenty of opportunities for it to do so through appropriate channels. Should the United States insist, however,  on an inappropriately enthusiastic campaign of overt or covert support for the Bolivarian government’s opposition, the following outcomes are likely: the current conflict will be exacerbated and the death toll will continue to rise, the Chavista regime’s anti-Western rhetoric will be strengthened and substantiated, and the American government will face embarrassment on the international scene. As history has demonstrated so many times in the past, ham-fisted over-extension by the White House will result in abject folly when a preferable outcome could have been brought about by the smallest amount of restraint.

As we’ve seen,  it is important to properly consider the current situation in Venezuela in a historical context in addition to a purely political one. When analyzing the broader significance of recent events, it is essential to consider the plethora of of historical and political influences, of which only a few are discussed here, that have combined to generate such a volatile atmosphere. The present turmoil in Venezuela has significant grounding in a longer process of political exclusion that began with the Punto Fijo coalition and co-opted by the Chavista government. Furthermore, the government’s eccentric response to domestic dissent and foreign media coverage is explained by the prevailing political wisdom of Chavez and his administration. It is likely that the current crisis can only be successfully and permanently diffused by efforts of reconciliation and compromise that de-emphasize the zero-sum conceptions that dominate approaches to the Venezuelan political status quo. Finally, it is the responsibility of the international community to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to peaceful and prudent rapprochement while resisting the urge to embark on outdated and belligerent interventionism.

Locked and Loaded: A New Face of American Exceptionalism

Over the past few days, our nation has chalked up two more attacks to the ever-increasing tally of gun violence. Puzzling and shocking as they are, we really should be accustomed to it by now.

From the head-scratching public suicide of the “Mall Shooter” in New Jersey to the back-room poker game shooting in Detroit that the police chief labeled “urban terrorism”, these recent episodes have reinforced the fact that there has been no reprieve since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. American mass-shootings have persisted at the rate of nearly two per month over the last few years. Despite overwhelming public support (to the tune of ~90%) for several gun control measures such as federally mandated background checks, the government’s failure to adopt even the most bare bones legislation has come to represent one of the Obama administration’s largest second-term failings. The President’s futile expenditure of political capital in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy has cost him, and by extension the rest of the nation, dearly in term of deterring future gun violence. Even beyond the failure of newly-introduced legislation, law-makers have again failed to renew the Clinton-era Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a message which reflects a tacit endorsement of private assault-weapon ownership.

Two internationally recognizable facets of Americana, lax gun legislation and the deification of the Second Amendment, remain puzzling propositions to those not raised in or around communities in the United States, where gun ownership is a point of civic pride. Best represented by Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” declaration, it is undeniable that gun ownership has become, to many, an inextricable element of American identity. The commitment to private ownership, and often public display, of firearms represents an essential component of contemporary notions of American exceptionalism.

In addition to our unwavering commitment to a global military presence and a “free market” approach to commodified healthcare, the belief in widespread and unregulated firearm ownership is another domain in which America continues to tread against the global status quo. While gun control opponents readily refute comparisons of European statistics as “apples to oranges” when considering the entrenchment and historic political significance of American gun ownership, legislative measures have produced overwhelmingly positive results in countries with a similarly inflated reverence for firearms. Australia, for example, began an ambitious gun buyback program in 1997 that led to a significant reduction in firearm related deaths. A follow-up study conducted by Andrew Leigh of Australian National University and Christine Neill of Wilfrid Laurier University concluded that in the decade that followed the National Firearms Agreement’s implementation, statistics “show drops of 65% and 59%” (in firearm-related suicides and homicides, respectively) without a significant change in non-firearm related incidents.

The success of the Australian legislation led former Australian Prime Minister (and notable George W. Bush ally) John Howard to pen an op-ed entitled Brothers in Arms, Yes, but the US Needs to Get Rid of Its Guns. Citing the “huge cultural divide” between the two nations on the issue of gun control, Howard believes that the choice of the US to shun pragmatism and the safety of its citizens in favor of radical exceptionalism and revolution-era legislation has been disastrous.

Matt Bors
Matt Bors – http://medium.com/matt-bors

The fact that, in the words of Howard, “[The Second Amendment] bears no relationship at all to the circumstances of everyday life in America today” is largely unimportant to many prominent American proponents of gun ownership. It is deeply ironic that many of the anti-gun control activists point to the constitutional amendment as a “historical” argument for unregulated firearm ownership while simultaneously ignoring all of the cultural progress that has occurred over the past 220-odd years. Also frequently neglected is the first half of the Amendment (emphasis is author’s own):

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Reading the full text calls into question the blatant disregard of gun advocates in organizing any semblance a “well regulated” civilian fighting force within which citizens would use their firearms, as mandated by the text. The question of why the Amendment’s second clause is allowed to exercise absolute supremacy over the preceding phrase in contemporary discourse remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the American aversion to gun control has much less to do with historical fidelity or a commitment to individual rights and has much more to do with the paranoia-fuelled “culture of violence” that exists in America. It remains plainly obvious that gun ownership concerns are not truly connected to fears of a tyrannical federal government, as proponents often like to suggest. If this were the case, special interest groups like the National Rifle Association would probably be more concerned with reigning in military spending and the fact that the USA fields the most powerful military that the world has ever seen.

As a nation of immigrants, public distrust for the federal government is practically an endemic feature of history in the United States. Owing much to the emphasis placed on local and community-level civic engagement, Americans, especially those in the more sparsely populated central and southern states, remain actively hostile towards “top-down” legislative reform on the federal level. When combined with the pervasiveness of America’s exceptionalist tendencies, anti-reform sentiment is widespread. While other countries have embraced “common sense” revisions to national-level legislation on firearms, the United States remains intransigent. While 17 of the world’s most prominent nations included provisions for the right to personal firearm ownership in 1875, today the number has fallen to three. The failure to adopt reasonable firearm legislation is, unfortunately, just another manifestation of the United States’ widespread refusal to adapt itself to the contemporary era.

total gun ownership
Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

While today’s America remains exceptional, it is all too often in areas like evolution denial, incarceration rates, and energy consumption. Similarly, rates of gun ownership in the United States are the highest in the world. In fact, Americans own approximately nine guns for every ten citizens, approximately twice as many firearms as the Swiss. The mythology of the responsible Swiss gun-owner is terribly popular rhetoric for the anti-gun control advocate, though the evidence of recent studies has diminished its relevance.

In the same vein, military spending is another arena in which the America reigns supreme. With an annual defense budget that eclipses those of its closest competitors (the US commits about six times more capital than the next largest spender – China), the country displays little hesitancy in deploying military forces to project power across the globe. It may come as a surprise, however, that more Americans have died in gun-related incidents since 1968 than in all major military conflicts in national history.

Gun control opponents most often point to the fact that violent crime in the United States is falling as evidence that gun-control concerns are unfounded. While it is true that the 24-hour international news cycle, among other things, have sensationalized events and distorted public perceptions of the pervasiveness of violence, rates of gun violence in the USA remain astronomical when placed alongside those of comparable countries. A recently completed study that was rushed to publication in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings has worked to debunk the common American mythology that the proliferation of gun ownership works to deter gun crime. Published in the American Journal of Medicine, the study turned up two especially interesting (though hardly surprising) conclusions.

guns per capita

First off, the report showed a strong correlation between the number of guns per capita and the number of firearm-related deaths in a given country. The United States, unsurprisingly, finished at the top end of the spectrum (representing high firearm ownership and mortality rates) with Japan on the other. Second, the most significant outlier in the data is represented by South Africa. Despite having significantly fewer guns per capita than the United States, the Republic of South Africa experiences a similar number of firearm-related deaths. This is noteworthy as South Africa is among the countries that boast a significant “culture of violence” that rivals that which exists in America. While the historical circumstances are certainly not the same in the two aforementioned countries, the findings certainly reinforce the notion that, in addition to the raw availability of firearms, there are more complex and nuanced cultural factors that drive gun-violence rates.

A common argument points to deficient mental health provisions as a primary factor in American gun violence. A recent Gallup study found that more Americans fault the mental health system than the rampant availability of firearms for causing mass shootings. It is important to note that, had the proposed Spring 2013 gun legislation passed through Congress successfully, the Navy Yard Shooter would not have been able to legally purchase the firearm that he used in his now-infamous spree. While the feeble mental health infrastructure and poor availability of public programs in America almost certainly exacerbate already abhorrent levels of gun violence, placing blame on them does little to negate the glaring need to address faulty and obsolete laws regarding firearms. Improvements absolutely need to be made, but they alone will not sufficiently prevent future incidents of gun-violence.

The American culture of violence remains extremely difficult to quantify in any categorical terms. Unsatisfactory (and deeply unsatisfying) explanations range from those that blindly scapegoat violent video games to more arcane explanations like the one offered by New Hampshire Senate hopeful Jim Rubens. The former State Senator blames the simultaneous triumph of feminism and downfall of the modern working man for contemporary gun violence, explaining that the “increasingly female-centric economy” has led to inflated levels of violence. Crackpot theories aside, gun violence, especially in the form of public mass-shootings, continues to make America exception in all of the wrong ways. This fact does not seem to bother Americans either, as the reduction of gun violence ranked among the least important of the major contemporary political issues that deserve Washington’s attention.

Reflecting on the five major firearm massacres since he took office, President Obama lamented the “creeping resignation” among Americans that “this is somehow the new normal”. He best summed up this trend that has come to define a large part of this new version of American exceptionalism:

No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence.

None.

Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is 10 times what it is with other developed nations. And there’s nothing inevitable about it.

It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make, and it falls upon us to make it different.

A video of his address is located here.

Presidential Declarations of War and American Unilateralism

After reading the shameless attention-grab that was Tim Stanley’s latest Telegraph blog post (Obama and Syria: Britain has helped Obama rediscover the Constitution. No need to thank us, America), I realised that it was not, in fact, the ‘Anarcho-Catholic’ and ‘temperamentally conservative’ author’s attempts at being clever (‘Obama referred to America as a constitutional democracy. It’s a republic, sir, a republic. What grades did he get at college I wonder?‘) that made the largest impression on me. Instead, it was the fact that he considered Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military intervention to have been a ‘remarkable performance.’ The notion that the President’s decision to seek out the proverbial ‘green light’ from Congress is at all controversial is deeply worrying. While the school of thought that considers unconstitutional every post-Second World War American armed conflict (John Nichols writes that ‘no president since Roosevelt has respected the Constitution sufficiently to seek a formal declaration of war.’) fails to account for the insufficiency of archaic international institutions, political assumptions, and legal norms, it certainly seems more lucid than the alternative. As House Republican Peter King sees it, Obama is ‘undermining the authority of future presidents’ by not acting unilaterally in lobbing cruise missiles into the Syrian conflict. ‘The president doesn’t need 535 Members of Congress to enforce his own redline‘, he argues. But at what point was the Commander-in-Chief given the power to draw these red lines in the first place?

Obama and the Red Line in Syria
David Fitzsimmons/The Arizona Daily Star

Jack Goldsmith, Professor at Harvard Law School, expert on international law, and former Assistant Attorney General published a blog post entitled ‘Why Doesn’t President Obama Seek Congressional Approval for Syria?‘ a few days ago, when a Presidentially-sanctioned unilateral  strike seemed all but imminent. After running through a litany of potential justifications for such a broad conception of presidential power (e.g. ‘military action is being rushed’, ‘formal congressional approval is not a priority’, etc), he concludes that exactly none ‘are good reasons from a constitutional perspective, and in light of the costs of unilateralism’. While the first half of that statement is rather self-evident, the latter half deserves more than a passing acknowledgement. Thus, we will return to the notion of unilateralism in concluding this text. It would seem that Constitutional law scholar Garrett Epps concurs with his Harvard colleague, going as far as to title his first article in The Atlantic on the topic ‘The Authority to ‘Declare War’: A Power Barack Obama Does Not Have‘. In a twist that only becomes ironic after reading the commentary of Tim Stanley, Epps points out that while the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom reserves the right (backed by ‘Royal Prerogative’) to send Britain into war without Parliamentary consent, the American President surely does not. He continues on to explain why historic precedents of Presidentially-sanctioned intervention (most notably: Korea) do not readily apply to the current situation.  As any action would, inherently, lack the pretence of defensive or emergency action, Epps judges that: ‘This is precisely the kind of situation for which the Framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between President and Congress.’ He conjures up a very appropriate quote from South Carolina Governor and author of the United States Constitution, John Rutledge as he argued against a President with exceedingly broad powers during the  from the minutes of the Federal Convention of 1787:

‘ [Rutledge] said he was for vesting the Executive power in a single person, tho’ he was not for giving him the power of war and peace.’

If that is not applicable to the debate over the Framers’ intentions, I do not know what is. Epps went on to publish a second article, Yes, Congress Can Authorize War Without Formally ‘Declaring’ It, which refutes the notion that a Congressional decision is an ‘all or nothing’ affair that was meant for national mobilisation for Total War. In agreeing with Alexander Hamilton’s judgement that the ‘powers of war and peace’ should be viewed as ‘a concurrent authority’ that is shared between the President and Congress. He further levels his sights against those who share the views of John Nichols in pointing out that:

‘If every “undeclared” conflict is a violation of the Constitution, we need retroactive impeachment of Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, and both Bushes.’

Finally, and most importantly, Epps emphasises the fact that  international law is ‘very much a part of the constitution’ (see, for example, the Supreme Court’s recognition of international treaties in relation to the Supremacy Clause [This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land…]), and, as such, war can not be used as mechanism of foreign policy. In any case, I do not find persuasive arguments that place a higher importance on defining the words ‘declaration’ and ‘war’ than on the notion that the Constitution has provided the United States Congress with the responsibility (emergency situations notwithstanding) of deciding when military action is appropriate, and when it is not. Even a cursory glance at the eighth section of the very first article  will give the impression that Congress was to be given the responsibility of authorising the use of what has become the world’s most powerful army. I believe that unilateralism, in its various manifestations, is the quintessential problem with contemporary American foreign policy. That is to say, I think it is the most fundamental flaw. A lack of regard for the opinions of the rest of the planet is the culprit behind such a staggering proportion of the world’s (freely substitute: “Intellectuals”, “Europe’s”, “the United Nations'”, etc.) problems with the last remaining superpower. It is so rare to encounter individuals who harbour a genuine aversion to the concept of humanitarian intervention, though it is equally rare to find someone who believes that the United States has done a stellar job of spearheading such efforts. Similarly, the question should not, as Kerry and company have indicated, be centred around whether or not President Obama reserves the right or privilege of commanding the military into action. Instead, I propose,  it should be about whether doing so would be such a good idea after all.