Ryan J. Suto's Blog

11 February 2013

Obama Administration Claims Modest Success As War of Ideas Draws Down in Afghanistan

KABUL—Private First Class Alex “Sarte” McDonough has been in Afghanistan for over two years now, and says he is ready to go home to his online blog and a library of books in South Bend, Indiana.

“When you’re at home, as a philosopher you’re used to having the longest beard around and debating angsty young Nietzschians or Solipsists” PFC McDonough stated. “But out here, beard supremacy is never a guarantee, and the logical fallacies are thrown so quickly, it’s tough to handle them all as thoroughly as we’d like.”

PFC McDonough is part of the 102nd Philosopher’s Division, one of the many units sent to Afghanistan by the Obama Administration to fight the War of Ideas.

“This Administration is confident we have the best ideas in the world,” stated White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “The drawdown is not a retreat or concession, but part of a greater realization that it’s time to have some ideas here at home.” Despite the reduction of philosopher deployment in Afghanistan, many critics have pointed to build-ups in places such as the Persian Gulf and North Africa. When asked about the geographic scope of the War of Ideas, Carney stated, “Make no mistake, we will send our brave thinkers anywhere American ideas are threatened. The president is not afraid to out-think any foe.”

Despite leaving the theatre of combat, for many like PFC McDonough, the war will not be easily forgotten. “I’ve heard stories from guys going back home—they’re not the same philosophers they once were,” McDonough stated. “We all come in thinking about the war experiences of Wittgenstein. But when we return, instead of solving all the problems of philosophy, we can’t even create proper syllogisms.”

McDonough thinks the war may have changed America as much as it has changed Afghanistan. “I know some philosophers out here who’ve already begun discussing the differences between a major and minor Jihad. If we bring these ideas home, why’d we fight in the first place?”

08 February 2013

Are Obama’s Drones Coming For Americans?

This post was written for PolicyMic and can be found here.

Earlier this week, NBC News released a leaked Justice Department white paper which makes a legal case for drone strikes on Americans. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have since denounced the document.
The white paper itself is 16 pages of unsurprising legal argumentation, echoing the reasoning that Obama administration lawyers, such as Eric Holder and Harold Koh, have been putting forth for years. Basically, it is a legal memo which says that the U.S. government can kill a U.S. citizen in a foreign country if:
1) the person is a senior leader of Al-Qaeda or an associated force,
2) an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the person poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S.,
3) capturing the person is continuously infeasible, and
4) the operation to kill the person is conducted consistent with applicable laws of war.
These words bring forth obvious and important questions: who qualifies as a “high-level official,” what constitutes an imminent threat, and at any stage is another branch of government involved?
While these questions remain unanswered, the memo mentions the usual suspects of national security law: the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Hamdi v. RumsfeldMathews v. EldridgeEx Parte Quirin, etc. Thus, the arguments are not legally thin and are not wholly unfounded — which is perhaps most worrisome part of the memo.
The expanse of executive power in the field of national security can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln. And yet neither Bush nor Obama have shut down domestic newspapers (as Lincoln did) nor placed thousands of Americans in concentration camps based on no evidence whatsoever (as FDR did). However, one could reasonably argue that America has witnessed a new period of executive power in national security law since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The past two administrations — with due credit given to the generally complicit Congress and Supreme Court — have written executive orders, pushed through legislation, and successfully argued legal cases which has created an extensive body of national security law. At times, this is partially due to practicality (as you cannot have 100 senators conducting a war) and partially due to constitutional law (the president is the commander in chief). But the result is a new legal regime which is frighteningly deferential to the judgment and sole power of the executive branch.
While I don’t think Obama will send drones into U.S. airspace or to attack vacationing Americans abroad, I feel the legal determination presented in this white paper has gone far enough to threaten the constitutional protections of due process of U.S. citizens. Remember that no court convicted U.S. citizenAnwar al-Aulaqi of any crime; he had no opportunity to appeal the predator drones which eventually took his life while he was in Yemen.
As a country of laws, we must find a way to protect our liberties without giving them away in the process. 

04 February 2013

GOP Vote Rigging 2013: Why the Republican Plan to Gerrymander the Electoral College Could Destroy Democracy

This is a post I wrote about electoral reform in the U.S. for PolicyMic which can be found here.

Electoral reform has crept into the fore of American politics again, as President Obama told the nation in his recent second inaugural address; "our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote." This statement was in reference to various changes in voting laws made and proposed throughout the country, primarily by Republicans, in preparation for Election Day back in November 2012.
Now that 2012 is over, about a week ago Republicans got started working on changes for 2016.
While both parties engage in shameless gerrymandering, Republicans have generally pursued two extra forms of electoral changes. First, they have sought to disenfranchise populations which reliably vote Democratic (minorities, college students, etc) by making voting requirements increasing and often unreasonably burdensome. Second, they have recently begun seeking to change the way states which often lean Democratic in president elections award their Electoral College votes.
Both types of changes present serious concerns to democracy. The first should be obvious — systematically creating disproportionate burdens on portions of the citizenry is inherently anti-democratic. On this point, former Secretary of State Colin Powell (R) recently stated, "the Republican Party should be a party that says, 'we want everybody to vote,' and make it easier for people to vote and give them a reason to vote for the party, and not to find ways to keep them from voting at all."
The second tactic — the change in the way individual states award Electoral College votes — is a bit subtler. At present, each state decides how to award their Electoral College votes. All states, save for the small Nebraska and Maine, presently engage in a "winner-take-all" system. Those two states award their vote by congressional district — and this is 'reform' being sought currently by Republicans across the country. While this may sound benign enough, the consequences could be deeply troubling. If Republicans in states like Virginia, California, or New York succeed — states that have gone blue in the national elections but have a lot of red in their legislatures — those states would also distribute their electoral votes by congressional district. What's the desired result? When a Republican wins a "red" state, the candidate would get all the votes. But when a Democrat wins one of these "blue" states, the candidate would only get a portion of the state's vote, leaving the Democrat to a sizeable disadvantage nationally.
While I have written elsewhere about the problems with the current system, Columbia University statistics and political science professor Andrew Gelman writes of the 2012 election, "Romney needed about 50.5% of the national two-party vote to have had a 50/50 chance of winning in the Electoral College." He notes that this is certainly a bias that should be fixed. However, Professor Gelman continues, "in contrast, the bias that would ensue if the electoral vote were conducted via congressional districts — that would be huge."
Electoral reform is often a dry, complicated subject. But make no mistake about its importance. Elections are the very processes by which We The People express our views, and as such require more attention from our generation. While our national (and many state) election laws are antiquated and in need of real reform, we must be vigilant of the consequences of those reforms. Concerns of fairness, accuracy and access should characterize electoral reform, not partisan maneuvering. That might smack of naiveté and idealism, but maybe it has to — our democracy depends on it.