Lee Hamilton is the Co-chair of PSA’s Advisory Board and Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. You can find the original article here.
Civil Discourse and the Clash of Ideas
The election of 2012 has called attention to how difficult it is for Americans to talk reasonably with one another about public policy challenges. Our civic dialogue — how we sort through issues and reason with one another — is too often lamentable.
We live in a politically divided country. Congress, which ought to serve as the forum where politicians of diverse views find common ground, is instead riven by ideological disagreements. There’s no real discourse, just the two parties hammering at each other in a mean-spirited, strident tone. Small wonder the public holds Congress in such low esteem.
With this week’s announcement by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, prospects of a more united Congress grew a shade darker. Snowe’s plan to retire at the end of this year brings the casualty count this Congress for Senators widely seen as moderates to three – Snowe, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. And the situation looks just as, if not more, worrisome in the House.
An article in last Sunday’s Washington Post profiled the recently formed National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, which was founded in the wake of the January 8th attack in Tucson. The institute’s mission is to serve as a “national, nonpartisan center for debate, research, education and policy generation regarding civic engagement and civility in public discourse consistent with First Amendment principles.” Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton have agreed to serve as honorary chairs, and the institute’s board features a distinguished bipartisan group of leaders, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a PSA Advisory Board member. Among the institute’s main goals is “to connect people with diverse viewpoints and to offer a venue for vigorous and respectful debate.” For more information, click here to visit the institute’s website.
Partnership for a Secure America’s Congressional Fellowship Program is now accepting applications for the Spring 2011 session. This highly selective program is for Congressional staff interested in generating dialogue and developing the skills and relationships required to advance bipartisanship on national security and foreign policy issues. Through training, networking, and exclusive activities, this unique program aims to build a “next generation” of foreign policy and security experts equipped to respect differences, build common ground and achieve US national interests. The deadline to apply is March 11, 2011. For further information about the program, and to apply, click here.
There has been much attention in the lame duck session of Congress on whether Democrats and Republicans will find any common ground. Will they compromise on tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits? During a time of war, will gays and lesbians continue to be denied the opportunity to serve their country in the military? Will the children of illegal immigrants continue to be denied the chance to pay taxes and seek the American dream? There is much work to be done in the final weeks of this year. Democrats and Republicans have different approaches to some of these issues. That’s to be expected. However, there’s one issue on which pretty much all Democrats and Republicans outside of Congress agree – the New START Treaty. Yet, it’s being held hostage in the Senate for purely partisan reasons.
Particularly on domestic issues, there are fundamental differences between the parties that generate intense disagreement. Such discord can be healthy in a democracy as it provides clear choices to voters. What is damaging is when political leaders lose sight of their core values and emphasize winning at all costs. When a policy disagreement becomes a zero sum game in which a win by one’s opponent is considered a loss by the other, gridlock ensues. Before long, the policy matters less than a mark in the win column. This is what has happened with the New START treaty.
Sometimes both sides are at fault. They both dig in their heels. In other situations, one side demonstrates willingness to negotiate and the other sees more political benefit from standing firm. The latter is the situation we face today. The Republican leadership (thought not all Republicans) in the Senate is playing political games with America’s national security.
The New START treaty is a follow-on treaty to the original START treaty negotiated in 1991 under George H. W. Bush that set limits on the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the New START treaty in April 2010. Many viewed this as a sign of renewal of US-Russian relations and a small step towards President Obama’s stated goal of a nuclear free future. It would reduce the number of strategic warheads to 1550 from the current limit of 2200 and establish new inspection procedures to ensure compliance. It must be ratified by two thirds of the Senate. (more…)
Kay King, Vice President of Washington Initiatives at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently released a report entitled Congress and National Security arguing Congress’s increasing inability to effectively address major domestic and international challenges has severe ramifications for U.S. national security.
King points to contributing factors which have led to a decline in Congressional effectiveness, including amplified partisanship, abuse of rules and procedures, outdated committee structures, decreased expertise, and competition with domestic programs. She specifically addresses how the toxic partisan atmosphere has contributed significantly to Congress’s mixed performance on its national security responsibilities:
…the nation’s political landscape has been realigning since the 1970’s, ushering in deep partisanship, severe polarization, a combative 24/7 media, and diminished civility. Over time, this environment has given lawmakers greater incentive to advance personal and partisan agendas by any means, including the manipulation of congressional rules and procedures. It has politicized the national security arena that, while never immune to partisanship, more often than not used to bring out the “country first” instincts in lawmakers. It has also driven foreign policy and defense matters, short of crises, off the national agenda, marginalizing important issues like trade. Combining this increasingly toxic political climate with an institutional stalemate in the face of mounting global challenges and it is not surprising that Congress has struggled for years to play a consistent and constructive role as a partner to as well as check and balance on the executive branch on international issues.
King then goes on to recommend reform in five critical areas: prompt and inclusive action on budgets and legislation, timely and knowledgeable advice and consent on treaties and nominees, realistic and effective oversight, closing the expertise gap, and bolstering the congressional-executive branch partnership on national security policy.
The entire report can be found here.
Partnership for a Secure America is pleased to announce the participants of its Congressional Fellowship Program Spring 2010 Session. These 25 Fellows are drawn from the personal offices or Committees of 12 Senators and 13 Representatives from across the political spectrum.
The Fellows come to the Congressional Fellowship Program from diverse educational and professional backgrounds including military, political campaigns, think tanks, journalism, the legal practice and international service organizations. To view the full list of Fellows, click here.
It is a good thing that that Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, never tried to enlist in the U.S. military. Judging by her recent actions it appears she would never be able to say the oath of enlistment with a straight face. I mean the part where one swears to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, which includes little things like subsequent amendments, such as those in the Bill of Rights.
What I refer to is when she and Bill Kristol, via their “Keep America Safe“ campaign, accused nine lawyers in the Justice Department, who had represented Guantanamo detainees of being the “al-Qaida Seven,” of working in the “Department of Jihad,” Perhaps Cheney and Kristol are simply exercising their First Amendment right to say anything that gets them on a talk show. After all, the right to cynically accuse someone of being a terrorist is protected under the Constitution. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, in so doing they trample underfoot other Constitutional rights that benefit all of us.
I confess that I have been fantasizing. I realize that most people have moved on from Iraq to Afghanistan. But given the enormous toll paid both by Iraqis and Americans in terms of lives and money and overall social and cultural destruction I have been trying to imagine what it would look like if the United States actually undertook a fact based investigation into the decisions by the Bush Administration to invade Iraq in 2003.
By that I don’t mean the past investigations by special commissions or congressional committees into what the intelligence community knew or didn’t know, or what pressure they were under to cherry pick information. Rather I mean an investigation into what former President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and other cabinet officials knew and did, day by day, leading up to the invasion.
Fortunately, I don’t really have to imagine. Instead I can just look across the Atlantic to Great Britain. There they have been conducting an inquiry, officially launched 30 June 2009. The terms of reference of the Iraq Inquiry, also known as the Chilcot Inquiry, after its chairman Sir John Chilcot, state:
It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.
Consider some of what has been revealed just during the past few weeks. (more…)
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In keeping with the PSA’s charter, we’re seeing bipartisan consensus emerging around U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The bad news? There are actually two bipartisan consensuses.
Technically, that is impossible. Consensus means “general agreement” or “a view reached by a group as a whole” so there can’t really be more than one.
And that is the problem. So long as the right is fighting the right, and others on the left are fighting the left, policymakers will be inclined to focus on other policy issues, content to let Afghan policy drift, and hope for a miraculous turnaround (e.g. Karzai becomes less corrupt and more competent; the Afghan economy begins to produce something other than opium; the Pashtuns decide to make common cause with the Tajiks, Turkmen and Hazara; Afghan men decide that Afghan women should have rights, etc). Our men and women in uniform, engaged increasingly in armed social work are caught in the middle while the pointy-heads pull on their respective chins.
Certain leading voices on the right agree with others on the left that we must redefine our ends in Afghanistan, and begin exploring ways to draw down the military presence there. My colleagues Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter have just completed a comprehensive study making this case (you can get a preview here), and will present it for the first time at Cato on Monday, September 14th.
A familiar group of hawks and neocons dismiss such sentiments as defeatist bordering on treasonous. Others suggest that talk of withdrawal is simply premature.
The debate got a jolt this week when George Will’s Tuesday column in the Washington Post declared that it was “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.”
News of the Will column broke late Monday night. Bill Kristol — tipped off, no doubt, by the Post‘s editors who agree with him — had his response ready by 9 am.
The salient question: Would the GOP follow Will or Bill? By 4 pm, we had our answer when Michael Steele and the RNC weighed in…on Kristol’s side.
There is a debate on the left as well. George Will’s position echoes a stance adopted by Sen. Russ Feingold last month, and repeated this morning on NPR (with Rep. Jim McGovern). But scholars at the left-leaning Center for New American Security and the Brookings Institution have joined forces with those from AEI and CSIS in recent weeks to make the case for increasing the commitment to Afghanistan, and explicitly discouraging any talk of withdrawal any time soon. (See, for example, this account by The Nation‘s Bob Dreyfuss.)
The public favors withdrawal. A CBS News poll found that 41 percent of Americans want “troops to start coming home, up from 33 percent in April and just 24 percent in February. Support for increasing the number of troops dropped from 39 percent in April to just 25 percent now.” A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken last month found that for the first time since they began asking the question, a majority of Americans no longer think the war in Afghanistan has been worth the costs.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.