Issue 71 (2013)

Communitarian Observations

I often write about rather different matters, but in my mind they all deal with one core question: the guidance our shared values, especially the common good, provide to our public policies.

From My Diary

Why It Should Be Harder to Impeach a President

The odds are that confirmed abuses (by the IRS), debatable ones (in the capture of AP phone records), and drummed up ones (the Benghazi “cover up”) will continue to roil Washington for months to come. Even if one or more of these run out of gas, the Republicans are hard at work to find others. Salon recently listed 14 “scandals” that one or more leading Republicans see as reason for impeaching the president, including the ATF’s Fast and Furious debacle (the botched traps set for gun smugglers) and an alleged violation of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in launching a military intervention in Libya without explicit Congressional approval.

There is little doubt about the side effects of hearings, investigations, and media hoopla to follow: they will eat up much of whatever little political capital exists in Washington for bipartisan deals and constructive action. And they are sure to further delegitimize our political institutions, which the public already holds in unprecedented contempt. Moreover, if the GOP regains control of the Senate in 2014, no one can tell how far their blinded hatred of the President will carry them. Already polls show that about half (between 51 percent and 66 percent, depending on how the question in posed) of Republicans favor impeaching Obama.

Read the rest on The Atlantic.

The Liberal Narrative Is Broken, and Only Populism Can Fix It

The liberal narrative is not working.

Telling the American people that the government is not the devil that the GOP makes it out to be — that it is full of good people who bring you Social Security, Medicare, air-traffic controllers, and park rangers — is getting us no more than some flexibility in allocating an unduly tight budget. It is time to go populist.

A major reason for the limited support liberals gain (even within the Democratic Party) is a basic misunderstanding of the way democratic politics work. Liberals console themselves, when they learn that for every American voter who identities as a liberal there are two conservatives, by saying, Ah, you don’t get it; studies show that the majority only subscribe to conservative philosophies but they are ‘operational’ liberals. The majority support gun control, the social safety nets, climate protection, and many other liberal programs. As long as we remind the people of what the government really does, they will vote liberal.

Read the rest on The Atlantic.

Everything Libertarians and Liberals Get Wrong About Drones

Seven factoids about drones — the new cause célèbre of libertarians and select liberals — cannot stay aloft.

Critics argue that drones reflect a usurpation of power by the “imperial presidency.” This is to say that President Obama, who has greatly expanded the employment of drones, is acting without Congressional authorization and oversight. Actually Congress granted the president on September 14, 2001, the power “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” If the critics’ concern was merely that this resolution might not apply to those who are not card-carrying members of al-Qaeda — and that Obama was thus overstepping the resolution’s bounds — they would focus their efforts on urging the president to return to Congress and ask for a new resolution with slightly more inclusive wording. He wouldn’t need to worry; even the much-divided Congress would approve what it takes to stop terrorist, in particular after the latest attack in Boston. However, this is hardly what critics call for, revealing that their true motive is to curb the use of drones rather than find ways to dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it comes to their use.

Read the rest on The Atlantic.

Soft Syria Response Worse Than Inaction

A weak or irrelevant response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria may be even worse than inaction. As long as President Obama delays action—as he waits for all the intelligence he requires—Syrians and others can still assume that when he is finally moved to act, he will unleash a thunderbolt, striking a blow against the regime that will convince one and all not to cross red lines drawn by the United States. But if Obama again follows his proclivity to split the difference—to appease the critics, but not address the challenge—he will demonstrate weakness.

Read the rest in The National Interest.

The Risk of Blurring the Red Lines

The Obama administration is ignoring two of the most elementary rules of the use of power: First of all, the more credible threats are, the less power one needs to marshal (and hence less one needs to spend on building it up), and the less often power needs to be actually exercised. Second, every time one makes a threat, one is tested twice: will it bring about the desired outcome? And will it build up or diminish the credibility of one’s power?

In March, President Obama announced that if the Assad regime will use chemical weapons this would be a “game changer.” When reports first surfaced that such weapons were used, the Obama administration pointed out that these appeared to be riot control agents, such as pepper spray and tear gas, which is often used by police forces.

Read the rest in The National Interest.

The Gun Debate I Lost

During the opening rounds of a gun debate in London, beamed globally by Google Plus, I thought I was doing quite well. I started by telling the audience, brought together by Intelligence Squared, that I recently was showing off photos of my grandchildren in a doctor’s waiting room, when they brought tears the eyes of a grandma sitting next to me. She told me, “My grandson was cleaning his gun, and he killed his father.” Think about it for a moment. Poof, one life was lost, a child lost his father, there is a terrible guilt, and the grandmother has to live with a grandson she hates and loves. Now, multiply this thirty-two thousand times, eleven times more people than we lost in the World Trade Center attacks which traumatized the nation, six times more than we lost total in the war in Iraq, and you see we’re talking about a very, very serious problems. We’re not talking about the quality of the Duchesses’ hats, or even organic food. We’re talking about a huge amount of life lost each year.

Read the rest on The Huffington Post.

Drones: Say It With Figures

Attacking drones, the most effective counter-terrorism tool the United States has found thus far, is a new cause celebre among progressive public intellectuals and major segments of the media.

Their arguments would deserve more of a hearing if, instead of declaring their contentions as fact, they instead coughed up some evidence to support their claims.

Read the rest in United Press International.

An excerpt from an article in the Christian Science Monitor discussing whether those living near the site in West, Texas, where afertilizer plant exploded, killing 15 people, should have been alerted to the presence of hazardous material: “The way to sort this out is to look at whether each individual should be making their own decision [based on widely available] information or whether, if government limits access to the information, does it then have the commensurate obligation to be even surer that the plants are safe?” says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University and author of “How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?” which explores the balance between rights and security in the post-9/11 era.

“Personally, when there’s increased risk, I’d much rather rely on public authorities to protect me than give me [sensitive] information,” says Mr. Etzioni. “I’m not claiming the government is competent; I’m claiming that government is less incompetent than I am.” Read the entire article on the Christian Science Monitor.


Your Comments

  • As a lawyer, I’m curious whether or not the communitarian point of view would approve of the massive city shutdown and warrantless searches which occurred after the tragic Boston bombing. I do not believe that such searches would formerly have been considered exigent (there was no hot pursuit) or pursuant to probable cause. I would like your opinion. However, I fear that perhaps the motto of your organization would be—unlike Patrick Henry—”Give me a little liberty and at least let me live.” – Steven R. Phipps

AE: I believe we need to consider extent of danger vs. intrusion.You only seem to consider one of the two.


Wrong About Drones

  • I greatly appreciated your very realistic and very accurate assessment of where the critical decision point resides, before we go to war.  Efforts by so many in the human rights community have sought to use law to constrict the way western militaries use force in wartime by constantly redefining “proportionality” and “necessity”.  Your point, that once the threshold is crossed and we are involved in an armed conflict, bad things will happen, because bad things inevitably happen in war, is one that needs to be repeated and understood by policy makers and humanitarians alike. — Mike Lewis, Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law
  • Here is my comment (before reading, which I will do): Senator Feinstein has disgraced herself by uncritically accepting the administration’s argument that there is hardly any collateral damage from drones. Very careful studies by several NGOs have shown that this results from the absurd definition of a combatant by the administration, which is anyone that happens to be of combat age in an area of suspected activity. The number of non-combatants civilians is at least in the hundreds, including a 16 year old US citizen killed or murdered by a US drone while he was looking for his father (who had been killed by a drone two weeks before. – Henry Carey, Georgia State University
  • This is an effective “counter terror” weapon only from a customary American two-dimensional point of view. Despite unreliable official figures, the darn things kill and maim more innocents then the guilty. Often the intelligence by which we determine who is guilty and where that person is, is unreliable. As a consequence, what the drones do best is promote rabid anti-Americanism among populations who will likely seek retribution for generations to come.It is not a new anti-terror weapon we need, it is a rational foreign policy that minimizes the promotion of anti-American terrorism. I could itemize what practices such a policy might contain, but you can probably guess my position quite readily. – Lawrence Davidson, West Chester University
  • This article complete misses the issue of so called “signature strikes” where we attack groups of men when we are unsure whether they are terrorists or not, but they are engaging in behaviors terrorists sometimes engage in: gathering together with light arms. We are attacking and killing people with drones because they MIGHT be terrorists. So the question this liberal/libertarian is asking, Amitai, is should we be attacking people when we merely suspect them of being the enemy? Drones are just the tool that allow us to do that. —Christopher Malloy
  • The drones are not a high tech lynch mob. They’re an imperfect solution to a very real problem. Terrorists of the al Qaeda variety are a health hazard for US citizens as well as Europeans and especially Muslims. Al Qaeda has killed far more Muslims than anyone else, usually Shiites. This is the reason Yemen and Pakistan have not only cooperated and allowed drones in their country, they supply targets for the US to kill. Leaving al Qaeda alone means more terrorist attacks. – Asurbanopal (alias)


Only Populism Can Fix It

  • Have you ever contemplated the possibility that liberalism as it stands today is just plain wrong? You do a wonderful job of capturing all that is wrong with government and how it has been bought up by special interests. Give the government more power and influence to sell, and more people will line up to buy it. The naïveté of liberalism is that they honestly believe that if they had the reins, if they expanded the government how they saw fit, then all would end well. Look around you. This is the dysfunctional product of ever increasing government. In the reality we reside in, all of your best intentions in the world for government will never purchase you what you think you can get. – s0mecommonsense (alias)
  • Populism is mostly about convincing some demographic group that all their problems can be blamed on some nefarious other. That’s what you’re trying to accomplish by invoking “special interests.” Occupy Wall Street wants to blame the banks. The Tea Party wants to blame government. Mitt Romney tried to blame 47 percent of the population. And Obama tries to blame cynics. Here is a crazy idea. Maybe we should start taking responsibility for our own actions. Would the banks have so much power if people actually lived within their means and didn’t rely so much on credit? Would the financial industry have so much sway in Washington, if the government didn’t need to borrow so much money? Would the government have so much power if we stopped looking to politicians to solve all of our problems. Big government and special interests are basically one in the same. You can’t get rid of one without getting rid of both. – j r (alias)


Time for New Paradigms

  • “We need a new definition for nations and regimes that survive thanks to blood we shed and monies we expend. A tempered or conditional understanding of sovereignty is necessary for working with those who refuse to act as reliable junior partners” (excerpt). “Well, this is an interesting call. Israel would have us shed blood in a war against Iran (and maybe Iraq too), the monies we spend on them is astronomical and are they a “reliable junior partner.” Not from my perspective. Time to cut them loose.” – Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University

Video Content

White House Chronicle: Drones

Claude Salhani and Amitai Etzioni discuss the future of drones. Watch the entire episode.

View more ICPS videos on YouTube.

Recent Publications

The Bankruptcy of Liberalism and Conservatism,” Political Science Quarterly, May, 2013.

This article argues that the frequently employed distinction between the public and the private realms is becoming increasingly obsolete because the two realms are intertwined, move in tandem, and seem to be codetermined. It follows that many of the statements most commonly made in public discourse about the government and the market, or the state and individual rights, must be reexamined. Such a reexamination is warranted because if it is true that the two realms are driven by the same historical forces—blurring the boundaries and making them prone to moving in unison—it becomes increasingly difficult to assume that one realm is either the main benefactor or the main cause of harm inflicted on the other realm. This observation challenges those who blame the government for interfering in the marketplace and damaging the economy, or for running a surveillance state that undermines privacy and other individual rights, as well as those who see the government as protecting the people from exploitation by private corporations and banks, or as the main protector of the rights of consumers, workers, minorities, and the poor. Read more.

I Read

In 1992, before existed, the Supreme Court ruling in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota exempted Internet retailers from paying sales tax. Now Congress is working on a bill to give states the power to tax online merchants that have more than $1 million in out-of-state revenue. Amazon has dropped its opposition to the bill, but eBay has picked up the baton, warning eBay sellers that the proposed tax “may harm your ability to grow and costs jobs, including yours.” Read the entire article in The New York Times.

A story in The New Yorker recounts the continuing efforts to bring to justice those who committed war crimes during the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. While many Serbs, including the notorious leader Slobodan Milosevic, were arrested and charged after the war, Kosovars have embraced a “silence taboo” when it comes to the torture, mass killing—and alleged organ harvesting—perpetrated by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Read about Nicholas Schmidle’s journey to “one of the most exhumed places on earth” in his article “Bring Up The Bodies”.

In “Elevated By the Common Good,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson praises On God’s Side, a new book Rev. Jim Wallis, “perhaps the defining figure of the evangelical left.” Wallis calls for a “renewed commitment to the common good” in American political life and says that the Christian faith is “inherently communitarian.”

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” a new report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is a useful resource for anyone who would like to learn about the diversity of beliefs and values of Muslims around the world.


SASE 25th Annual Conference – States in Crisis

June 27-29, 2013 – University of Milan

SASE is organized into “networks,” one of which is dedicated to communitarianism and is run by José A. Ruiz San Román. Colleagues interested in presenting a paper or author, or organizing a session should promptly contact Professor Román at [email protected]


Read the Responsive Communitarian Platform. We invite all those who agree to endorse it by sending an email to [email protected] with the subject “Endorse RCP.” View the list of those who have already endorsed it.

Read the Diversity Within Unity Platform. We invite all those who agree to endorse it to send an email to [email protected] with the subject “Endorse DWU.” View the list of those who have already endorsed the Platform.


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For more about the communitarian project, please visit The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. For more notes, please visit Amitai Etzioni Notes (blog).

Edited by Ashley McKinless