Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Syllogizing the Obama Doctrine

In his address on Monday night (1), President Obama put forth what has been called the “Obama Doctrine” for the use of military force (2).  It is a narrow doctrine--perhaps only applicable in instances where intervention may save civilian lives--but was explicated with clarity.  Here, then, is the formalized doctrine as laid out in his speech:
P1 There is the potential for violence on a horrific scale in X,
P2 The US has a unique ability to prevent or stop such violence,
P3 There is an international mandate for action to prevent such violence, and
P4 There is local support for the military action in the area to be struck,
C  It is permissable to intervene militarily in X for the purpose of preventing or stopping such violence. (3)
Under this rubric, questions as to why the US should not presently intervene in the Ivory Coast (4), for example, under such a doctrine are besides the point.  This “Obama Doctrine” enumerates the conditions under which the US may use military force in a particular type of conflict.  It is not a measurement for determining whether these conditions obtain in a particular instance nor is it stating the necessity of the use of force were such conditions to be present.  In the case of Ivory Coast, that conflict lacks the international mandate for action that the Libyan intervention has, in the form of a UN resolution and an international coalition.

NB: Regarding the title of this post, I intend ‘syllogism’ to mean merely the formalization of a particular policy doctrine.  As a commenter stated, this formalization provides something close to the necessary and sufficient conditions under which President Obama deems the application of military force appropriate (or at least the sufficient conditions).  Of course, the premises laid down above are not fashioned in the proper syllogistic form of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion, but that is again besides the point.  A by-the-book syllogism can easily be constructed by condensing P1-P4 into a major premise, stating that those conditions do obtain in the minor premise, and keeping the conclusion right where it is.

(1) Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya” at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C. March 28, 2011
(2) “The birth of an Obama doctrine” in Lexington’s Notebook, the Economist online. March 28, 2011.
(3) The speech states these points quite succinctly:
“In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.... Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
(4) McFarland, K. T. “What We Learned From Obama's Libya Speech,”, March 29, 2011.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Counterfactual Justification for Libyan Military Strikes

Making the rounds today on the Sunday talk shows, Secretary Clinton deployed a counterfactual justification for the military action in Libya.  Said Clinton:

“Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled.... And we were sitting here, the cries would be, why did the United States not do anything?” (1)

The importance of this counterfactual in justifying the strikes against Libya is furthered by Secretary Gates’ assertion that the situation in Libya “was not a vital national interest to the United States.” (2)

Therefore, on the available evidence, the threat of a massacre in Benghazi--and perhaps elsewhere--by Qaddhafi was of overriding importance to the Administration in planning their military action in Libya.

(1) This Week with Christiane Amanpour.  ABC. March 27, 2010
(2) Ibid.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some Bad Reasons to Expand the House

Yesterday, Dalton Conley and Jacqueline Stevens used an op-ed in the NY Times (1) to support increasing the number of seats in the US House of Representatives.  Because the House has not expanded in proportion to population growth, they write, “Americans today are numerically the worst-represented group of citizens in the country’s history.”  This has supposedly led to Members who have been overtaken by special interests and who have lost touch with the public.

While there may be good reason to expand the number of seats in the House, you will not find many of those reasons in this article.  Here, then, are a few criticisms of the analysis provided by Conley and Stevens.

1. The House first convened in 1789, not 1787 (the Constitutional Convention was in 1787, with ratification in 1788).  Obviously this does not color their argument beyond being a peculiar oversight.

2. Diluting represenational power in the House by increasing the number of Representatives would seem to make the two Senators from each state all the more powerful.  Not only would this increase the relative power of the Senators from within the same state delegation as their House colleagues, it would also increase the relative power of Senators over Representatives generally, as the total size of the Senate would remain constant even as the House expanded.  Keeping the size of the Senate constant in such a scenario would only seem to exacerbate the “extraordinary inequality in the worth of the suffrage” that Robert Dahl sees in the Senate already (2).

3. Increasing the number of seats does not necessarily decrease the power of “special interest” money in election.  Viewed cynically, it may just mean that more seats are available to influence.  The increased number of seats may even make such influence cheaper to court.  While a citizen’s political power--the power of her vote--may be greater when she’s 1 in 30,000 than when she’s 1 in 700,000, presumably much the same would be true about the relative political power of a dollar given similar ratios.

4. The authors claim, implausibly, that expanding representation would lead to “fewer lifers,” i.e., politicians who continue to run for and win re-election.  However it remains unexplained why this would be beneficial for a democracy.  Indeed, persuasive arguments can certainly be made for the value of retaining those with legislative and political experience.

5. The authors don’t explain why “unaccountable” staffers are a democratic pox, nor why there would be significantly fewer were the size of the House to change.  It is just as plausible to assume that an increase in the size of the House would tend to increase the total number of staffers--a development that would undermine their argument.

6.  If a phone call from a Member of the House is more effective than a request from committee staff, as the authors unilaterally assert, then that power may be commensurately diminished by the rise in the number of Members now able to make such calls.  Note, also, how this situation may again tend to increase the power of Senators.

Now, comprehensive treatises ought not be expected in the op-ed pages of the New York Times--or Analytic Politics, for that matter--so perhaps all of these issues may be adequately addressed in a less condensed format.  Indeed, increasing representation does retain some intuitive appeal, however this appeal is not likely to stem from the arguments put forth by Conley and Stevens.

(1) Conley, Dalton and Jacqueline Stevens. “Build a Bigger House.” The New York Times. January 23, 2011.
(2) Dahl, Robert. “How Democratic is the US Constitution?” New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. 50.
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