Tod Lindberg

Tod Lindberg

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review. His areas of research interest are political theory, international relations, national security policy, and American politics. He is author of The Political Teachings of Jesus (HarperCollins, 2007), a philosophical analysis of Jesus's Gospel statements about worldly affairs. He is editor of Beyond Paradise and Power: Europe, America, and the Future of a Troubled Partnership (Routledge, 2004). He is coauthor of Means to an End: U.S. Interest in the International Criminal Court (Brookings Press, 2009) and coeditor of Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide (Routledge, 2007). Lindberg is a member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society and coeditor of the book series Hoover Studies in Politics, Economics, and Society. He is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.

The Mail of Others


How big a deal is the revelation of widespread National Security Agency data mining operations directed at our European allies, or the NSA listening in on the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel? On one hand, there has certainly been a public uproar about an overweaning and disrespectful America whose intelligence services are either out of control or, worse, doing exactly what American leaders would like them to do. American ambassadors have been called on the carpet and foreign leaders have spoken out in indignation. Offense has been taken and apologies sought. On the other hand, there has been little talk about a critical rift in transatlantic relations, such as accompanied the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. On the contrary, the Obama administration’s NSA scandal now seems likely to pass from the scene without major consequence.

Our German allies seemed especially troubled over the NSA story, not least for the reason that the German press corps sensationalized to the point of gross inaccuracy its reporting on the leaked documents renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden disseminated. If Germans thought the NSA was reading their email and routinely listening in on their cell phone calls, they could be forgiven, since that was the tenor of the reporting.

Of course the actual NSA program was focused on metadata collection — not the content of calls and emails, but which numbers and IP addresses connect with each other and when. But these details emerged only after the initially sensationalized coverage hardened an impression of indiscriminate snooping.

As for listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the United States was guilty as charged. Doing so was almost certainly an error of judgment on the part of US officials. But what kind of error — one of prudence or of principle?

Reflecting on the events, many commentators have concluded that the US should have eschewed such surveillance because officials should have reasoned that any potential benefit from the snooping would be outweighed by the damage that would be done in case of disclosure. This consequentialist reasoning is certainly more relevant than ever now that the United States is finding it so much harder to keep its secrets. The likelihood of disclosure may indeed constitute sufficient reason to refrain from such surveillance.

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At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, member states formally embraced the “responsibility to protect,” a principle of humanitarian intervention aimed at stopping atrocities. Briefly, the principle holds that states have a responsibility to protect populations residing on their territory from genocide and lesser atrocities; if they cannot or will not act in fulfillment of this responsibility, the international community may intervene to provide protection. The intention of the principle, known colloquially as R2P, is to defeat claims that states might make about their sovereign right to non-interference in their internal affairs in order to shield their own acts of mass atrocity or their failure to stop atrocities.

R2P, though it is often described as an emerging norm in international politics and international law, has always been controversial. Needless to say, authoritarian states that are themselves complicit in atrocities will never do more than pay lip service to any such responsibility toward the people they rule. Other states have expressed concerns that R2P is indistinguishable from neo-colonialism and the “right of intervention” strong states have sometimes asserted in pursuit of their national interests against weaker states. Critics have also noted the potential unevenness of the application of R2P: powerful states with the ability to deter military intervention under the banner of R2P will potentially be able to disregard the asserted responsibility.

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The Bain of His Campaign

Question: Why would GOP candidates vying to establish themselves as the “conservative alternative” to Mitt Romney attack the one-time financier for his robust practice of free-market economics, layoffs included, during his years at Bain Capital? Answer: Well, because he is vulnerable on that point.

Let us put aside high principle and deep conviction long enough to observe that running for president usually entails an ambitious disposition. Although people occasionally run for some other reason​—​increased notoriety, book sales, the way-station to the vice presidential nomination​—​the most common motivation is raw desire for the nation’s highest office. And on the GOP side, Mitt Romney is the biggest obstacle in every other candidate’s way in a year in which GOP chances look very good.

If you can take Romney down, you take him down; you can make it up to the capitalists later.

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Gingrich Lost and Found

[This originally appeared in the Policy Review in April 1999.]

It wasn’t merely the political career of House Speaker Newt Gingrich that came to an abrupt end after the Republican Party’s surprising losses in the November 1998 congressional elections. It was also a theory of history that died.

One might call it the world according to Gingrich, for he was surely its chief proponent and its public face. But to describe it as such runs the risk of making it seem somehow idiosyncratic, something uniquely or chiefly Gingrich’s. It was anything but. What made Gingrich a leader was first and foremost his abundance of followers — lots of them, and not just in Congress or in the organized Republican Party, but including just about all those who had taken personal pleasure in the election results four years before, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years. This was his doctrine and theirs, a view of progressive Republicanism, a new, ideological Republicanism on the march. True, by 1998, many of Gingrich’s followers (inside and outside Congress) had turned on him. And not for quite a while has it been possible for Republicans and conservatives to hear the words “Republican Revolution” without cringing in embarrassment. But the truth is that not so many years ago, the phrase quite accurately captured their frame of mind, their own sense of who they were and what they were up to. The 1994 GOP electoral triumph, which they felt as their own, they recognized also as his. Those who knew Gingrich personally knew all about his personal eccentricities, his vanities, his intellectual conceits. But those things didn’t matter so much next to the bigger things Gingrich represented and the political achievement he had just brought off. Gingrich was no less than the chief theorist, lead strategist and tactician, and principal spokesman of the activist Republican Party, manifesting itself in 1994 as Republican Revolution.

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Weighing Alternatives

Downes makes an important point in spelling out just how frequently the United States has intervened abroad, whether by military or clandestine means. One could increase the numbers by including all the “non-kinetic” efforts the United States has undertaken in the direction of democracy promotion. All in all, a long list.

Robert Kagan has made a similar point, but Kagan, of course, has been a proponent of U.S. power and the potential value of using it (as have I). Insofar as Downes presents himself as a critic of the use of U.S. power, or at least of “foreign-imposed regime change,” his conclusion that the United States view interventionist policies with caution will be more persuasive to those who share his normative views than Kagan may have been.

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An intriguing sideshow to the Libyan revolt is the fate of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber released to Libya from a Scottish prison two years ago, supposedly on the “compassionate” grounds that his terminal prostate cancer left him with less than three months to live.

The Libyan government lobbied the U.K. government of Gordon Brown hard and heavy for his release. He received a hero’s welcome at the airport upon his return to Libya in August 2009. And Moammar Gadhafi himself purportedly bought him the two-story Tripoli villa in which he has been living since then.

When Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London’s Heathrow airport on Dec. 21, 1988, there was a bomb on board. It detonated over Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew as well as 11 people on the ground in the village of Lockerbie. Of the dead, 189 were Americans. Physical evidence pointed to al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines.

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The New California

Whether he wins the nomination or not, Rick Perry’s August charge into the top echelon of GOP presidential hopefuls marks at least this turning point: In national Republican politics, Texas is the new California.

Back in the day—say, the 1960s through the 1990s—California was the jumping-off point par excellence in making a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

The reasons were both obvious and subtle: With a population topping 37 million, the state is the nation’s largest. Since the 1970s, California’s huge economy has ranked no lower than eighth and as high as fourth against the nations of the world.

The state was an acknowledged trendsetter not only in culture, through the vast reach of Hollywood, but also in social trends and, especially, in politics. You could make a pretty good case that “the 1960s” began with the “Free Speech” movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964-65. Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13, a successful 1978 California ballot initiative to limit property tax increases, was the beginning of the modern “tax revolt,” which Ronald Reagan would ride to the presidency in 1980.

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Taxes and the Senate

In the debt-limit debate, we’ve been hearing a lot about how a “grand bargain”-style solution with tax increases can’t pass the GOP-controlled House. That’s true. But here’s the issue that’s being neglected: Can a tax increase pass the Democratic majority Senate? Without a realistic possibility of Senate support for tax hikes, the whole revenue side of the discussion ceaselessly promoted by the White House dissolves into meaninglessness.

The problem is electoral politics. Democrats have 23 Senate seats up in 2012, counting the two independents who caucus with them. The GOP has 10. Of the 23, as of now six are retiring. That leaves 17 who will be facing the voters in bids for re-election.

How many of them are really willing to vote for a tax increase? Of the 23 total seats, the Cook Political Report rates only eight incumbent seats plus the open seat in Hawaii as “solid” Democrat. That leaves 14 Democratic seats (with nine incumbents) that are “Likely” Democrat, “Lean” Democrat or worse. Those are going to be tough reelection campaigns probably in all cases. Most of these incumbents would see nothing but major political risk in supporting, say, a trillion-dollar tax increase as part of a deficit reduction/debt limit package.

Are Bill Nelson of Florida and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, in two “Lean” Democrat races, keen to explain to voters their support for a massive tax increase? “Toss-Up” state incumbents Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia will be even less enthusiastic.

But doesn’t the bipartisan “Gang of Six” proposal, which includes a revenue increase of $2.3 trillion over 10 years compared to current policy, prove some Senate Republicans would vote for a tax increase? And wouldn’t that provide bipartisan cover for hesitant Democrats?

Not so much. In the first place, the “Gang of Six” proposal is distinctly unforthright about its policy implications on the revenue side: It misleadingly sells itself as $1.5 trillion in tax relief, but that’s against a baseline scheduled to swell when the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. Also, it’s interesting that the only “Gang of Six” Senate seat up in 2012 is that of Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and he’s retiring. The other two Democrats don’t face the voters until 2014. Of the Republican gang members, one has already announced he isn’t running again in 2016, one is up in 2014, and one in 2016. Given the potency of the tax issue among Republicans, any rational GOP senator thinking of voting for a large tax increase ought also to be thinking about the prospect of fending off a primary challenger, whether from the Tea Party or the conservative party mainstream. And any Democrat from a red state has ample reason to worry about handing a major issue to an opponent.

So no, I don’t think a deal that includes a large tax increase could pass the Senate under any realistic circumstances. I think Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid knows it. Perhaps President Obama thought he could charm some alternate reality into being, or perhaps he just wanted to be seen fighting for his principles before the inevitable: that he signs what the House and Senate can actually pass, which is legislation that will lift the debt limit, cut some spending – and not increase taxes.

Lessons from Libya

I was at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington office the other day to offer my take on the lessons of our Libya involvement. The roundtable was conducted according to the Chatham House Rule, named after the great UK talking shop, which specifies that while participants are free to make use of and pass on what they hear, they cannot identify speakers. So I can’t tell you who else was there. And I can only tell you what I said.

I offered four lessons from Libya – all of them predicated on the assumption that Muamar Qaddafi goes, whether by lucky drone strike, internal coup or assassination, or flight into exile. If a year from now he is still in control of a substantial part of Libya, we’d have an entirely different set of lessons to be learning.

Lesson 1. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the intervention against Qaddafi’s forces cites as its main justification the principle of the “responsibility to protect” civilians. This is a relatively new “emerging norm” for intervention, first adopted in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome Document (paragraphs 138-139). According to R2P (as it is known colloquially), a state has the responsibility to protect those living on its territory from atrocity crimes. If it cannot or will not take action to protect its populations – or, as in Qaddafi’s case, if the state itself is complicit in targeting civilians – then the “international community” has the right to step in to take protective action. The idea is that states cannot hide behind their sovereign right to noninterference in their internal affairs in order to perpetrate massacres, engage in ethnic cleansing, or (out of weakness or indifference) allow substate actors to do so.

With Libya, R2P has shown that it is indeed a principle around which the Security Council can rally. It’s actionable. Skepticism about the real-world utility of R2P has abounded from its earliest days. Many countries remain suspicious of the principle, seeing it as little more than a gussied-up version of Great Power “right of intervention” against weaker states. In this case, it worked reasonably effectively as the organizing principle for Security Council action against Qaddafi (although as I noted here, there was a price to pay in terms of clarity of purpose about what we’re up to in Libya). The successful application of R2P was good not only for the Libyan opposition, but also for future potential victims of atrocity crimes.

Lesson 2: Security Council Resolution 1970 referred the situation in Libya to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation. It’s the second time the Security Council has referred a case to the ICC. The first was Darfur, resulting in a warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the sitting Sudanese leader, on charges of genocide. The Bush administration, which had a complicated history with the ICC, allowed the Darfur referral to go through by abstaining at the Security Council. This time, the Obama administration actively supported referral to the ICC, which has now issued warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif, and the head of his secret police.

When the Bush team allowed the Darfur referral through, officials hastened to point out that there was no intention to set a precedent. Of course Darfur set a precedent – one that has been followed in the case of Qaddafi’s crimes against his people. The International Criminal Court is here to stay. The Security Council won’t be creating any new “special tribunals”; it will go to the ICC to provide a legal framework for holding perpetrators accountable. The United States has come a long way toward accepting the legitimacy and utility of the Court, even though the U.S. is unlikely to become a member anytime soon.

Lesson 3. The main countries involved in the Libya operations are the UK, France, and the United States – and more broadly, NATO. As a practical matter, then, when you really want to get something done, like preventing the Libyan opposition from getting wiped out and pressuring Qaddafi to be gone, it tends to be the good old transatlantic partnership that does it. Just as the latest round of NATO obituaries were being written over the frustration in Afghanistan, like a zombie the alliance dug itself back up again to take on the Libya task.

This administration took office with many of its senior officials promising a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy in the direction of the rising powers of Asia. I really don’t know what they meant by that or what it would look like. But when you want to do something internationally, you usually want to do it with others. And as a practical matter, you cooperate best internationally with those countries that share your values. The Obama administration may have had other foreign policy priorities, but as I noted a while back, it was eventually going to figure out who the United States’ friends are.

Lesson 4. This administration got to the right answer on Libya via the United Nations. I think the Bush 43 administration would have reached the same conclusion, namely, that we need to support the Libyan opposition and get Qaddafi out of power, but would have found its way to that conclusion differently. The point is that you try to operate in your comfort zone. With the Obama administration, that would be the UN framework and international law. With Bush, the priority was decisive American leadership. But it’s interesting that the resulting conclusions are quite similar.

That’s an indication, I think, that Republicans and Democrats alike are dealing with the same world out there, and come from the same place – its most powerful country, and one that places a high value on human rights and on opposition to abusers thereof.