Editorial Roundup: United States
Jun 28, 2023, 5:56 AM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
Washington Post on retired U.S. military officers working for foreign governments
A bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would close several loopholes identified by The Post in an investigative series published last fall about hundreds of retired U.S. military officers taking lucrative jobs advising foreign governments known for human rights atrocities and political repression. The Retired Officers Conflict of Interest Act would require public reporting about who is working on behalf of which foreign governments and for how much.
The U.S. government battled The Post in court for two years to prevent the disclosure of such data, arguing that it could subject retired officers to “embarrassment” and “harm their public reputation.” Ultimately, a federal judge ruled against such “unconvincing” arguments for not complying with the Freedom of Information Act. “The public has a right to know if high-ranking military leaders are taking advantage of their stations — or might be perceived as doing so — to create employment opportunities with foreign governments in retirement,” wrote U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta.
Based on records subsequently turned over, The Post’s Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones reported that 15 retired U.S. generals and admirals have worked as paid consultants since 2016 for the Saudi Defense Ministry and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the U.S. intelligence community has concluded ordered the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The group included a former national security adviser, National Security Agency director and commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Paydays reached into seven figures. Gallingly, Americans’ work for the Saudis expanded after the assassination of our colleague and amid a barbaric crackdown on dissent.
The Constitution’s emoluments clause requires retired military officers to receive congressional approval before accepting compensation from foreign governments, but Congress delegated this authority to the Pentagon and the State Department in 1977. Of 450 applications since 2012, the Pentagon says just 12 have been denied. The Pentagon also confirms that no retired officers have been asked over the past decade to cease working for foreign governments after they received initial approval.
Despite a constitutionally required obligation, scores of retirees identified on LinkedIn by Mr. Whitlock and Mr. Jones say they’ve taken military contracting jobs in the Persian Gulf. There’s no record they ever sought or received federal approval, but there’s no criminal penalty, and enforcement is almost nonexistent.
Someone who works for a foreign government without authorization risks losing retirement pay, but fewer than five people have received this punishment. One of them was retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who accepted $38,557 to speak at a 2015 gala for a Russian propaganda outlet where he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This scandal led Congress to pass legislation in 2019 and 2020 requiring the Pentagon to submit annual reports to lawmakers about retired flag officers working for foreign powers. But these reports include only a few lines of information and don’t name the generals and admirals.
The Warren-Grassley bill would require the government to create a searchable database of retired American officers serving foreign governments. The public would be able to see the name, military service, former office, nature of work, the foreign government they’re employed by and the amount of money they’ve received. The legislation would also create civil penalties of $100,000 or the amount of money received for anyone who works for a foreign government without getting approval. Other penalties for violations could include being prohibited for five years from accepting compensation from foreign governments, serving on a federal advisory committee or retaining a security clearance.
Former diplomats and retired intelligence employees aren’t subject to the emoluments clause because they cannot automatically be called back into service, whereas retired military officers retain their commissions. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act prohibited Senate-confirmed officials at the State Department from later representing or advising adversary governments, including China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Syria. It also banned former secretaries and deputy secretaries of state from advising or representing any foreign government. It seems sensible to also require former State Department employees to publicly disclose any income from foreign governments, regardless of its purpose, since part of the reason anyone would hire them is their past work for the United States.
Another problem identified in The Post’s series is members of the military negotiating with foreign governments, or private contractors who do foreign work, while still on active duty. Federal ethics rules require a cooling-off period for military personnel who manage weapons programs before they can accept jobs from contractors they did business with while in uniform. But this doesn’t apply to retiring troops who want to work for foreign governments, including places where they’re stationed.
Mr. Whitlock and Mr. Jones discovered that an Army brigadier general sought permission in 2018 to work as a paid consultant for the defense minister of Qatar while he was acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. This meant he oversaw U.S. defense policy toward the country he was negotiating with. The proposed bill would prohibit that practice.
We’re not opposed to former U.S. government officials advising other countries in retirement. It’s no surprise that foreign powers would be keenly interested in counsel from veterans of the most lethal, and professionalized, fighting force in human history. So long as their work does not jeopardize America’s national security, these men and women have the right to earn an income. If Americans don’t provide counsel, Russia or China might fill the vacuum. Moreover, American advisers can sometimes help keep difficult partners interconnected with the West.
But it’s essential the American public knows what’s happening. Because we favor transparency over restrictions, some language in the Warren-Grassley bill feels too stringent. A provision intended to prohibit military intelligence officers from working for any foreign government for 30 months, except Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, could be interpreted to cover any retiree with a security clearance. That goes too far.
If retired officers collecting generous pensions and health benefits from Uncle Sam are ashamed to publicly reveal that they’re also collecting checks from odious regimes, perhaps they shouldn’t take the money.
Wall Street Journal on the Supreme Court and elections
So much for the radical Supreme Court. A 6-3 majority on Tuesday rejected the argument advanced by some conservatives that the U.S. Constitution bars state courts from reviewing Congressional maps and voting laws. The result isn’t the runaway victory that progressives claim, but it will lead to more election-law controversies.
The dispute in Moore v. Harper centered on a North Carolina House redistricting plan in 2021 that was blocked by a Democratic majority on that state’s High Court. State Justices claimed the gerrymander violated their Constitution’s guarantee to “free elections,” “a right to assemble,” “freedom of speech,” and “equal protection of the laws.”
In other words, partisan state judges read a ban against political gerrymanders into the penumbra of state law. As a result, Democrats carried three more Congressional seats under a court redrawn map last November than they were predicted to under the Legislature’s.
GOP lawmakers argued that the North Carolina court’s ruling violated the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause, which requires “the Legislature” of each state to prescribe “(t)he Times, Places and Manner of ” federal elections. They claimed state courts may not strike down a legislature’s maps or voting laws affecting federal elections.
Chief Justice John Roberts rebuffs this reading of the Elections Clause with a middle of the road, or muddle of the road, decision. On the one hand, he says state legislatures are subject to state judicial review under the state constitution when they write election law.
But he also stresses that “state courts do not have free rein” and “this Court has an obligation to ensure that state court interpretations of state law do not evade federal law.” So state court election rulings will be subject to U.S. Supreme Court review.
Yet the majority declined to adopt a standard for reviewing such state court decisions. “The questions presented in this area are complex and context specific,” the Chief writes. “We hold only that state courts may not transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections.”
But what does “ordinary bounds” mean? Perhaps as with pornography, the Court will know it when it sees it. But in practice any review is likely to be highly deferential to state courts, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh notes in a concurrence. He favors Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s standard in Bush v. Gore (2000) that considers whether the state court “impermissibly distorted” state law “beyond what a fair reading required.”
As Justice Clarence Thomas explains in a dissent joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, “it seems likely that ‘the bounds of ordinary judicial review’ will be a forgiving standard in practice,” swelling courts with election lawsuits that will be “quickly resolved with generic statements of deference to the state courts.”
The exceptions, he adds, “will arise haphazardly, in the midst of quickly evolving, politically charged controversies, and the winners of federal elections may be decided by a federal court’s expedited judgment that a state court exceeded ‘the bounds of ordinary judicial review’ in construing the state constitution.” Or vice versa.
This sounds right. Partisans routinely challenge state ballot laws in election years, and state courts often intervene at the last minute. Democratic attorney Marc Elias has built an entire legal practice doing this. The Court’s Moore ruling will invite more such legal elections mischief.
Will the High Court intervene and risk being attacked for election interference? Don’t count on it. The Court had precisely that opportunity in 2020 after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court literally rewrote state election law to extend the deadline for receiving mail-in ballots. Justice Samuel Alito urged the Justices to hear the appeal, but the Court refused.
The Moore ruling is the third in three weeks that shows the supposedly partisan Justices tip-toeing around election law—almost certainly to the benefit of Democrats.
In Allen v. Milligan, the Court struck down a GOP Legislature’s map because it didn’t include a second majority-black district. On Monday the Court declined to review a lower judge’s order requiring that Louisiana’s Congressional map be redrawn to add another majority-black district. This encourages more lawsuits using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to strike down GOP gerrymanders.
The Roberts Court may have a center-right majority, but it includes many flavors of conservative. That won’t stop the left from trying to destroy individual Justices, though perhaps Moore will provide a 24-hour respite.
Los Angeles Times on Save Our Gas Stoves Act
Of all the urgent problems House Republicans could be tackling — gun violence, voting rights, climate change — they are using some of their power to fan the flames of a cultural war over gas stoves.
Last week the GOP-controlled House passed legislation that would prevent the Consumer Product Safety Commission from using federal money to regulate or ban gas stoves and block the U.S. Energy Department from making gas ranges and ovens less wasteful by setting stricter energy efficiency standards.
The Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act and the Save Our Gas Stoves Act amount to little more than political posturing. Yet the measures show how much Republicans are trying to cling to the polluting fossil fuel technology of the past in a world that is slowly but surely going all-electric.
The legislation purports to respond to a nonexistent problem: The unfounded fear that the feds are trying to seize people’s gas stoves ( which they’re not ) or ban them ( they’re not doing that, either ). These bills would needlessly hamper regulators by preventing them from setting standards to keep Americans safe from gas leaks and indoor pollution and saving them money by increasing energy efficiency in the kitchen — as they have done with little controversy for decades for every type of home appliance you can imagine.
These bills aren’t expected to go anywhere, because they’re unlikely to clear the Senate or be signed into law by President Biden. The White House issued a statement opposing the bills, saying they would undermine the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “ability to make science-based decisions to protect the public” and “block common sense efforts to help Americans cut their energy bills.”
Proponents such as Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) have cast the legislation in “don’t tread on me” terms, to protect “consumer choice” from the Biden administration’s supposed “ war against gas stoves.” And it’s disappointing that Californians from both sides of the aisle were among those voting in favor.
California, like other blue states, is heavily reliant on gas for home cooking and heating, but state and local officials are adopting a growing number of policies aimed at electrifying buildings, including measures to ban gas hookups in new construction and phase out sales of gas furnaces and water heaters. Still, targeting stoves remains touchy for regulators, in part because of the success of a decades-long industry disinformation campaign that mythologized methane gas as a “clean” and “natural” fuel.
Republicans seized on gas stoves earlier this year after Richard Trumka Jr., a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, suggested the agency could regulate or even ban gas stoves as a health hazard. The commission was quick to clarify that it was not seeking to ban gas stoves, only asking for public input on their health hazards. And the White House has been clear that President Biden does not support banning gas stoves.
This move is not an entirely hollow gesture because it’s part of a broader GOP-led push to restrict government’s power to protect people from pollution while propping up the fossil fuel industry. It aligns squarely with the interests of oil and gas companies that have successfully blocked efforts by states to ban new gas hookups, improve energy standards and otherwise prevent states and cities from switching to more efficient electric appliances fueled by clean, renewable energy.
It’s a transition that is going to happen whether fossil-fuel-supporting politicians like it or not. There’s been mounting evidence of the health risks of gas stoves, including a recently published study by Stanford University researchers who tested them in homes in California and Colorado and found they emit unhealthful levels of benzene, a cancer-causing pollutant, that can linger indoors for hours and reach higher concentrations than in secondhand cigarette smoke. It’s only the latest research to find dangerous levels of health-damaging air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, inside homes with gas stoves, even when they are turned off.
Republicans are trying to turn what should be a sober, science-based discussion about kitchen appliances into another wedge issue — or as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio put it earlier this year, “God. Guns. Gas stoves.” But such efforts show they care more about defending the fossil fuel industry than protecting people’s health and lowering utility bills. Those priorities are wildly misplaced and should be laughed out of the chamber.
The Guardian on the Paris climate conference
The International Energy Agency in 2021 had an unambiguous message: developing new fossil fuel resources is incompatible with restricting global heating to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold beyond which the most disastrous climate impacts lie. Yet the oil and gas industry isn’t listening. Last year it committed half a trillion dollars for new capital expenditure on future drilling and extraction, while making outrageous profits of $4 trillion. Business as usual will destroy life as we know it.
Energy is fundamental for development and meeting basic needs. But producing it from coal, oil and gas is simultaneously the cause of the climate emergency. Clearly the issues of climate, energy and development must be addressed in an interconnected way. This is very difficult against a post-COVID backdrop when poor nations have record levels of debt. In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, rising interest rates have caused the dollar to surge – raising the cost of meeting loan repayments which are often denominated in the U.S. currency. African nations spend up to five times their health budgets on debt obligations.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, should be congratulated for hosting a summit to reimagine financial solutions to the interlinked global goals of tackling poverty, curbing planet-destroying emissions and protecting nature. But there is still a long way to go. The announcement by the International Monetary Fund that rich countries had met a target, set in 2019, of a $100 billion climate fund for poor countries is probably less than meets the eye. The contrast with the trillions of dollars mobilized in an instant, to bail out finance houses in 2008, is stark. It is inexcusable that funds to address global heating cannot be found.
“For us it is about saving lives, for others, it is about saving profits,” said Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, chiding the rich world for inaction during a “polycrisis moment”. Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, called for a global financial transaction tax. Kenya’s president, William Ruto, came to Paris after endorsing a report, “ Just Transition ”, which pointed to Africa’s potential for harnessing renewable energy far outstripping any projected needs. Yet the continent has been barely able to industrialize at all, let alone tap its vast green power potential.
Leaders in North America and Europe are intent on reshaping their energy systems, but the key materials required are found in the developing world. Even China, which dominates critical rare earth elements and their processing, lacks vital metals. This should allow for a grand bargain, where poorer countries are given policy space to address the three structural deficiencies that hinder their development – a lack of food sovereignty, a lack of energy sovereignty, and low value-added manufacturing – in return for sharing their minerals. Otherwise, parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia risk becoming targets of a new scramble for resources – with clean energy firms behaving as destructively as fossil fuel companies: buying off politicians, wrecking ecosystems and lobbying against environmental regulations. The cash, debt relief and access to western markets needed by developing nations should not feed the engines of extractive capitalism.
Mr. Ruto said the three weeks taken to create the current “Bretton Woods” financial institutions should be enough to design their replacement. This might sound ambitious but it was Martin Luther King who warned against the “ tranquilizing drug of gradualism ”. This sense of urgency is needed now to stop an environmental disaster.
China Daily on U.S.-China relations
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen plans to visit Beijing in early July, according to a Bloomberg report on Tuesday.
If the trip that Yellen has been planning since April materializes, it can be regarded as a positive outcome of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to Beijing that wrapped up on June 19, during which an agreement was reached between the two sides on re-opening bilateral communication channels. However, it would be premature to say that Blinken’s trip has helped check the overall worsening trend of Sino-U.S. relations.
Not only has the U.S. side never stopped its military provocations in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, even during Blinken’s visit to Beijing, but also some unpleasant incidents have happened over the past days, some of them unprecedented.
One day after Blinken said that relations must be handled responsibly, U.S. President Joe Biden smeared his Chinese counterpart at a campaign fundraiser in California on Tuesday last week, an act that the Chinese Foreign Ministry called “an open political provocation.”
Shortly after that, Biden hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington with the focus on strengthening their coordination to contain China militarily and economically.
On the same day, two Chinese anti-corruption law enforcers taking part in fighting cross-border crime with the U.S. by locating corrupt fugitives and recovering illegal proceeds from the country were accused of “forcibly repatriating Chinese citizens to China.”
Despite all these provocations by the Biden administration, Beijing has not stopped communicating with the U.S. side, although with an unprecedentedly low level of trust, in an effort to try and get Washington to recognize that it is its misjudgment on China’s rise that is the root cause of the souring relations.
During his meeting with Jacob Lew, chair of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, in Beijing on Monday, China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi pointed out that the roots of the difficulties facing China-U.S. relations lie in the severe deviation of the US in its position toward China, which has resulted in the implementation of a series of misguided measures. He urged Washington to respect China’s legitimate right to development, and fulfill the commitments it has made to Beijing multiple times.
All this indicates the opportunities for improving ties that were created by Blinken’s visit risk being wasted. If its sincerity in trying to improve bilateral relations is met with only cheating and insults, Beijing will be left with no choice but to respond to Washington in the same way.