Entries by Lindsay Cohn (8)


Posse Comitatus ... for real.

This isn’t in response to anything particular in the news, but rather to the fact that three different people presenting at a conference I was at recently all mis-quoted or misunderstood Posse Comitatus, and I can’t handle it anymore.


Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.


The Posse Comitatus Act does not mean that the armed forces cannot be used for domestic law enforcement. The Constitution names the president as chief executive and gives him authority to execute and enforce the laws, and if the president wants to use federal troops (or the National Guard when under federal aegis) to enforce laws, he can. What the Act means is that state and local officials cannot press locally-based federal troops into service as a posse. So, for example, the governor of Louisiana could not show up at Fort Polk in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and order those Army personnel to help stop looting.


Many Americans believe this act has its origins in the Revolutionary fear of a standing army; nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the use of all available able-bodied men for a posse was part of the common law tradition the Founders inherited from the British, and no one drafting the Constitution or the Bill of Rights felt the need to prohibit the practice. In fact, Hamilton specifically refers to the practice – apparently with approval – in Federalist Papers 8 and 29.


The act is not an embodiment of some primal American hatred of a standing army or internal use of the military. Its origins lie in the politics of the Reconstruction period.


It was originally introduced by a white Southern Democrat as a rider to a badly-needed Army appropriations bill. Southern Democrats under lenient presidential Reconstruction had re-taken control of the Southern state governments, and had immediately acted to return black residents to a state virtually indistinguishable from slavery. The Republican-controlled Congress responded by creating their own, “radical” version of Reconstruction, which dissolved many of these Southern state governments, installed Republican governments in their places, and attempted to enforce black rights. This created extreme resentment among Southern Democrats, and that resentment was aimed particularly at the use of federal troops by Republican governors to protect Republican voters – particularly African-Americans – from violence and intimidation. Without this protection, the Republican state governments would not survive, and the Democrats would regain control and the ability to repress, intimidate, torture, and terrorize the black population. In short, the act was designed to stop local army commanders from cooperating with state and local marshals to enforce black voting rights and other civil rights.


Only the most ardent supporters of the bill believed that it could or would limit the president’s use of the armed forces for law enforcement purposes. It does not. It never has. If the president thinks a situation cannot be handled by the local, state, and/or federal law enforcement agencies, he can use the Army. If the state governor thinks his or her law enforcement agencies can’t handle a situation, he or she can request federal help from the president. The main reason everyone thinks this isn't allowed is because the Department of Defense really doesn't WANT to engage in these types of activity, so they resist it and perpetuate the myth that it's strictly not allowed. They are aided in this by the fact that the Foreign Assistance Act DOES put blanket restrictions on working with foreign law enforcement agencies, with exceptions for specific U.S. agencies and specific conditions. 


I repeat: there is NO BAN ON USING THE MILITARY FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT, and furthermore, the Posse Comitatus act is not the principled expression of American freedom from tyranny, but the political triumph of a bitter and vicious class of people who had just lost a war and wanted to keep oppressing other people. It does not have constitutional status; it’s a statute and Congress could change it tomorrow (if Congress ever did anything that efficiently), and - speaking purely legally - all it means is that the Mayor of Podunk cannot call on the local Army commander to help him enforce the laws of Podunk. Politically it may be another issue.


Life With Dogs

My blog is not topic-specific, which means I can write about whatever I think is important. So today, the topic is: why everyone should learn how to understand dog body language and how to behave around dogs.

Today, I took my two large, friendly dogs out for a quick afternoon spin while the rain had stopped. There is a middle school (6-9th grade?) in the block next to mine. I was walking the dogs by the front of this school, one was sniffing a tree, and the other had sat down to wait, when a man approached me from the school and said "I'm going to have to ask you to take those dogs away from the school. We're having dismissal right now, and I don't want any of my students bitten. Please move along."

My initial outrage was selfish and unjustified, since it revolved mostly around the fact that this dude was just assuming my dogs were going to bite someone. I did, of course, cross the street, since I was still rational enough to realize that, while he was rude, the request was not entirely unreasonable. It still bothered me, though, and it's not because I'm silly enough to claim that "my dogs would never bite anyone". Any dog may bite someone, if provoked. What bothers me is the attitude implied in the request, and the fear I see everywhere here: when people see my dogs and jump, or scream, or run into a driveway, or look at me like I'm some kind of assailant and angrily wave at me to move away from them, or grab their friends to put them bodily between themselves and my dogs, or tell me to get away, because ... the children.

The United States is full of dogs. About 75 million of them, just counting pets. The vast majority of dogs - even strays - are not dangerous to people, but the few that are will be triply dangerous if you are afraid of them. So this is a public service announcement: if you have children, do them a huge favor, and teach them how to behave properly around animals. Teach them not to be afraid, and how to behave if they encounter a strange dog. If you yourself are afraid of dogs, find a way to try to overcome it (try going to a local shelter and asking the staff there to help you interact with some of the quieter dogs, or ask a friend with a dog to help you get used to being around a quiet dog).

Teach your children always to ask a dog's owner if it's okay to pet the dog before approaching it. Teach them not to try to approach a dog from behind, or to try to pet a dog's head from above. Not to scream, or jump, or make sudden moves. Teach them never EVER to run from a dog, and how to recognize aggressive body language. Teach them not to turn their backs on a possibly aggressive dog.

If you own a dog, make sure you give it proper socialization with plenty of people and dogs, and children, if possible (supervised). Spay or neuter your dog. Do not leave the dog alone for long periods, and do not chain your dog outside (tied-out dogs are three times more likely to bite because they are frustrated).

See the ASPCA's excellent pages on the topics of dog aggression, dog body language, and bite prevention.

I cannot stress this enough: fear of dogs is likely to make you or your child engage in behavior that INCREASES the likelihood of an attack. You don't have to like dogs, but just as you would learn how to behave if you were heading into bear country, you should know how to behave around the most ubiquitous predator animal in human society.

P.S. Here is where I put in a heartfelt plea that law enforcement be trained - specifically trained - on how to recognize and understand canid body language and how to deal properly with animals. There have been far too many stories in the last several years of police officers killing family pets because they (the police officers) "felt threatened", often when the dog was simply coming around a corner to see who was there, or acting distressed because of its owner's distress (e.g. the particularly disturbing shooting of Max the Rottweiler). I should not have to be afraid to call the police to my house in an emergency for fear that they will come in and shoot my dogs. I understand that the officers must have a way to protect themselves from harm, but there should be some reasonable standard of determining whether there is in fact any threat of harm.



So, normally I write one blog post at irregular intervals of weeks or months at a time. This time, I'm writing two in one day. That's because so much stuff is happening.

Hopefully, by now, everyone is aware of what's going on in Turkey. I will re-cap: Prime Minister Erdogan of the AKP has been in power for about ten years. He has presided over a booming economy and an overall increase in the welfare of Turkish people. He is fairly popular and has a large majority in Parliament. However, he is also autocratic, arrogant, dismissive of any kind of opposition, and totally uninterested in any kind of concession or compromise with those who disagree with his policies. His reign has been marked by two trends, both worrisome: one, a moderate rollback of Turkey's secularism, and two, a diminution of Turkey's democratic system.


Turkey has been an almost aggressively secular state since its founding by Ataturk. Although there have always been elements of society that wanted Turkey to be more of an Islamic state, they have always been balanced by more modern elements that appreciate secularism. Foremost among the supporters of the secular state has been the Turkish army, which has never hesitated to interfere in politics. Although the army has been quiet for more than ten years, now (the last direct interference was in 1997, to remove the Islamist prime minister Erbakan), it did state clearly in 2007 that it would be ready to step in if necessary.

Erdogan, leader of the moderately Islamist AKP, has never openly attacked Turkey's secularism, but has quietly (and unilaterally) passed laws restricting the sale of alcohol, easing restrictions on the wearing of the headscarf in public office, and other issues relating to the relationship between religion and the state. Some Turks, though it is not clear how many, are concerned about this.


Turkey has been held up as a model of democracy for the Muslim world. It has free elections, a parliamentary system (that ostensibly limits the power of the executive), and an independent judiciary. It has a fairly active political culture, and strong civil society.

Erdogan has used his victory at the ballot boxes to impose an increasingly authoritarian vision on Turkey, however. He has flat out said that since about 50% of the population voted for him, no one is allowed to oppose anything he wants to do. He has worked to get the constitution amended to change the parliamentary system to a presidential one, thus simultaneously getting around the term limits to which he is subject as prime minister (by becoming president) and strengthening the power of the executive. He has engaged in multiple building projects over the strong opposition of significant segments of the public, mostly to the benefit of his friends and political allies. He has enormous influence over the press and media. In short, he is behaving a great deal like an Ottoman sultan, and clearly wishes that's what he was.

These, therefore, were the dual grievances that erupted into protests and demonstrations over three quarters of the country when police used excessive force against a small group of people protesting the demolition of the last green spot in the middle of Istanbul.

You can follow in the news how the protests are going - two people confirmed dead, about 3,000 wounded, police using tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and - by some reports - plastic bullets, against largely peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. The irony of the situation is not lost on anyone - Erdogan abandoned his long-time ally Bashar al Assad, accusing Assad of inexcusible violence against peaceful protesters. The protesters have issued a list of demands, ranging from saving the small park in Taksim square to larger political reform. The deputy prime minister and the president have sounded conciliatory tones, but the man that matters is Erdogan, and from all we know about him, he is not the man to give in to anyone's demands.

So what will happen? I see a lot of parallels here to Egypt, and I think things will play out fairly similarly. Let's think through the options.

1. The protesters may lose enthusiasm and go home. Then I suspect that nothing will change, but it would probably take very little to bring them back to the streets. I also think it's fairly unlikely that the protesters will just go home.

2. If the protesters do not just go home, and the protests continue and spread, then the government has a serious problem. On the one hand, Erdogan will almost certainly refuse to deal with them, and then the protesters will become more angry and determined. On the other hand, Erdogan cannot really afford - either in terms of his domestic or international allies - to continue the brutality. There may be a power struggle within the AKP, as other members come to see Erdogan as a liability. However, he is powerful, and his party may not be able to compel him to step down. 

My guess is that if this goes on too long, the army will step in. They have an interest in opposing Erdogan's Islamicism, they have an interest in keeping Turkey quiet in the face of Syria's civil war, and they have no interest whatsoever in helping the police quell the riots through violence. The army is of course also the major beneficiary of the NATO alliance, and will not want anything to happen in Turkey that weakens Turkey's place in that organization. The public might even welcome army involvement, as long as it restored order and led to a less arrogant replacement for Erdogan. Both President Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Arinc would be reasonable choices and acceptable to both Parliament and probably the people, especially if they seemed willing to listen to the protesters' demands.

No matter what happens, this will not be pretty. Unless the demonstrators simply break up and go home, Turkey is in for some messiness.


Arming Rebels, Part II

This is an update to my last post about arming rebels, in which I made it clear that I thought that, at the time, it was a pretty bad idea. The fall of Qusayr may have changed my mind.

Nothing that I said before has changed. What has changed is the urgency of US interests in not allowing the rebels to lose the fight. Therefore, it may now make sense to arm them.

Basically, if you want two sides to sit down to peace talks, they both need to believe that peace talks will get them a better deal than fighting will. In military terms, this means there needs to be a "hurting stalemate" - a situation that doesn't seem to promise either side victory, and that is costly to both. We had that until the fall of Qusayr. Now, what we have is a regime with momentum on its side and a rebel force with momentum against it. The problem with that is that it means the regime has little or no incentive to engage in sincere peace talks.

What the US needs now is to make sure that the rebels fight their way back to a stalemate before July. Given the aid the regime is receiving from Hezbollah and the shipments of missiles and MiGs it is set to receive from Russia, it now seems that the only way to do that is to improve the rebels' armaments.

As I said today on Iowa Public Radio, however, we must make such a move with our eyes wide open. It will mean arming people we don't like, possibly even people we have already labeled as terrorists, and certainly people who will do some very nasty things. It will certainly mean the fighting will last longer than it might otherwise, and that means more civilian casualties and worse humanitarian conditions. It will NOT mean that the rebels will like us and listen to us when the fighting is over. If we do it, we must do it because we want to make sure the rebels can hang in militarily long enough to get everyone to peace talks.

Assuming we can get some kind of peace deal, there will need to be a robust peacekeeping force in Syria for a significant period of time, in order to allow the new government to get on its feet and to keep the crazies from taking over. Luckily, there aren't any obvious political obstacles to a UN peacekeeping force as long as there is a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement in place. Neither Russia nor China will have any reason to oppose that. All the surrounding states will have an interest in Syrian stability. Iran is the only player that might object, and it can't object without looking bad.

So here is me changing my policy stance: I think we should probably arm the rebels, in the interests of bringing the fight on the ground back to a stalemate so that we can have effective peace talks. If and when we get a peace agreement, we should push for a robust UN peacekeeping force to be there for years.


Arming Rebels

I can't avoid this any longer. American people, you and I need to have a little chat about arming rebels.

What do we know about arming rebels?

1. It is likely to help them perform better in armed struggle, but not guaranteed, and winning might still take a long time (see: Afghanistan, Libya).

2. It does NOT make them like you better (see: Afghanistan, Libya, all of Central and South America).

3. It does NOT give you more influence in the post-conflict order - at least not significantly - unless you are also prepared to give a lot of money and support for reconstruction.

4. It may very well give other actors a reason - not just a pretext, but a reason - to get more involved, and that may result in things escalating or spilling over, and then you will have to deal with that.

What do we know about democratization?

1. It is difficult, messy, often violent, and takes a really long time.

2. It works much better if people do it themselves.

3. Outside help can be good - sometimes even crucial - but it is difficult and expensive to provide the kind of help that actually ... helps.

What do we know about Syria?

1. A minority (Alawite Shi'ite) government against a largely Sunni population, with some Kurds and a tiny Christian minority thrown in.

2. A client government of Iran and Russia; ally of Hezbollah. In short: it has friends in the region. Furthermore, the Shi'ite government of Iraq has a direct interest in not having Sunni radicals take over Syria, since that would be both a diplomatic problem and a very real threat to stability in Iraq's Sunni regions.

3. Turkey certainly does not want a Kurdish breakaway region, so favors some kind of stability. Also suffering significantly from refugee issues, exemplified by the recent shooting incident at the border as Turkish border guards fired on Syrian refugees trying to get into Turkey.

4. Al Assad and his associates believe that their only hope of survival is winning this fight. They will not give up unless they get some kind of guarantee of immunity. That might be difficult to do if the rebels make his trial a non-negotiable, but it is the only way that he will give up the fight.

5. The rebels are not and never have been a coherent group. Some of them are simple Syrians fighting against a brutal dictator to get their country back. Some of them are Sunni extremists fighting to take down a Shi'ite regime. So long as they both have the same goal, they will work together, regardless of whether they agree on other things. There have already been reports of atrocities on both sides, and there are likely to be more. There are most certainly some good guys in this fight, but identifying them is not easy, and they are working hand in glove with bad guys.

So, should we arm the rebels? Well, under certain circumstances, yes, but only if we understand what it would and would not accomplish for us. It may help them win the war, but then we will almost certainly have a massacre of Alawites on our hands. It may help them win the war, but it will not make them do what we tell them to do once the war is over. They will have immediate concerns far more pressing than what the US wants. There will be a power struggle between the extremists and the non-extremists. There will be political and possibly military interference from surrounding states. There will be the usual difficulties of setting up a government that is both capable and legitimate. Arming them now will not suffice to give the US a significant voice in that turmoil. It may help them win the war, but it will probably provoke escalation. The Assad regime has allies, many of whom are willing to fight with it against the rebels. Others are already involved, you say? Yes, but by proxy. The main reason the US has avoided direct involvement in this fight is precisely because direct involvement by any outside state is likely to draw other states in. There is still a distinction between a civil war in Syria - as awful as that is - and a wider regional war including Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and Iran probably involved.

If we arm the rebels, we must do it with the expectation that those weapons will certainly get into the hands of people we would not want to arm. We must do it with the expectation that atrocities will be committed, at least some of them by the people we are helping. We must do it with the expectation that it will not lead to a significant American voice in the reconstruction phase. We must do it, if we do it, with the understanding that its only purpose is to try to help the rebels win against the Assad regime, and that what happens after is a whole new problem.

My two cents: I don't think we should arm the rebels. I think we should try to get Russia to offer Assad asylum. The offer should be public, so that Assad's associates are infected with doubt about whether he will abandon them or not. If he could be made to leave - or even if enough of his adherents believe he might leave, the rebels might be willing to negotiate, and so might the remnant of his government. Once a peace agreement is in place, there will need to be some third-party enforcement, ideally through the United Nations. Russia and China would be far more likely to agree to a traditional peacekeeping mission than they are to intervention. Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, at a minimum, must play significant roles in the reconstruction planning.