James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Libya

  • Obama's 'Own Goal' on Libya

    The Congress finally gets involved in the Libya decision. Why didn't Obama involve them from the start?

    Things are hard enough for the Obama Administration when it has logic, the national interest, and Democratic party principles on its side. As, in my view, has been the case with its health-care reform effort, the campaign to limit the Bush tax cuts to the bottom 95% or so of the income distribution, the opposition to the "brave" and "serious" Ryan/Republican budget plan, the ongoing struggle over the debt ceiling, and so on.

    Given those built-in obstacles, it has no need -- and can barely afford -- to invite needless trouble for itself, as it has with its inexplicably stubborn and short-sighted approach toward Congress on the Libya campaign.

    Lawyers can argue, and evidently they did, about whether as a technical matter the Administration "had to" get Congressional approval for "hostilities" of this sort. But as a matter of politics in both the short-term and the broad historical sweep, of course the Administration absolutely had to involve the Congress. Short-term, by getting Congressional "buy-in" it would have buffered itself against the kind of rebuke it has now suffered. In the long historical view, it would have helped correct the drift toward unaccountable war-making power that candidate Obama himself was so eloquent in denouncing.

    This was a problem foreseeable from the very start* -- more than three months ago, when we were told that this would be a campaign of "days, not weeks." Obama has so often proven himself to be the master of the long game that it is genuinely puzzling that he has stuck with this approach, rather than roping in Congress back in the days when most Republicans were criticizing him for taking too long to intervene.

    Usually when his administration suffers a reverse, I blame the vicious nihilism of the opposition, or assume he has chosen the least bad of the dire options available. In this case, I cannot understand why he made and persists in what looks like a foolish mistake. Not the intervention itself, though I was skeptical of it. Rather, the refusal to engage Congress, which now leads to a predictable backlash.
    * For the record, I'm not embarrassed to have what I wrote on the day this all began re-examined, in light of subsequent events. Also for the record, "own goal" is of course a soccer-world term for mistakenly knocking the ball past your own goalie and scoring a point for the other team.

    One more for the record: a critical look at the other side of the Libya debate shortly.

  • One-Man War in Libya: Is Congress Mainly to Blame?

    Who's to blame for the Congressional-Presidential dysfunction? The president. And the Congress.

    In response to my argument that President Obama is wrong not to involve Congress in the decision about war in Libya, a scholar of Congress named Charlie Stevenson says I've misidentified the real problem. He says that Congress -- if it wanted -- could have exercised far more control than it has, regardless of Obama's stand. It hasn't done so, he says, because it's convenient for legislators from both parties to posture and complain about the president rather than using tools at their disposal for serious involvement in military decisions.

    It's convenient for the Republicans because whatever is bad for Obama they consider good for them. (Including, of course, the damaging insistence on short-term federal spending cuts. So what if that stifles a recovery and eliminates jobs? The worse the unemployment rate next year, the better things look for whoever is challenging Obama. And the incredibly reckless threats about the debt ceiling...) And it is convenient for the Democrats because they would prefer not to get in the middle of such a tricky and possibly no-win policy choice.

    Stevenson, long ago a teacher of mine in college, is a former Senate staffer and a bona fide academic authority in Congress's role in national security matters. He writes (emphasis added):

    >>I think you're right to criticize Obama, but the real target should be Congress. I think the War Powers Act is Constitutional, but has no enforcement mechanism. I also think Libya is a dubious operation and am glad that it has been kept limited.

    But as I argued in my book, Congress at War, it doesn't matter what lawyers say. Congress [has] a menu of options it could choose if lawmakers had the will, and then fashioned measures that gained majority support.

    I have my own little known blog, where I put these views today: There's a lot of fussing and fuming over the White House report to Congress on the Libya operations -- and most of it is misdirected. The real issue isn't a legal question, it's a policy and political question: will Congress express its collective judgment on Libya or just play political games?

    The White House paper on Libya is actually a reasonable response to Speaker Boehner's lengthy list of questions -- the same sort of information made available in the ten hearings and 30 briefings on Libya documented by the Administration. Now it's up to Congress to take action....

    The purpose of the War Powers Act was to prevent, or at least limit, presidential warmaking. The actual language, of course, allows it for 60 days. But in practice, every major military operation not authorized by Congress [as was done for Lebanon, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq] has been limited both in scope and duration, usually to under four months. So regardless of the legalities, the law has had the intended beneficial result. In the case of Libya, it sure looks as if the lawyers -- as well as Sec. Gates and the military leaders -- weighed in to keep the US role limited.

    As President Obama said in reporting, as required by the law, the deployment of US forces against Libya, it's time for the Congress to express its will. Regrettably, Congresses of both parties have regularly evaded their responsibilities over the decades by failing to pass legislation, either to authorize or limit or halt the ongoing military operations....

    It doesn't matter what the lawyers say about this. What matters is what the lawmakers do. And if that means finding majorities for something less than the most extreme positions,  tough; that's the legislative process.<<

    I agree that the real issue here is political in the broadest sense, not the narrowly legalistic arguments. It would be better for the health of the republic (quaint concept!) if presidents made war-and-peace arguments to the Congress, and the Congress considered them on the merits. But presidents, including now Barack Obama, have found it convenient to short-cut that step, and Congress has willingly enabled them.

    The dynamic is all the stronger now since Obama knows that the stated Republican objective is to thwart, weaken, and ultimately defeat him next year, whatever else gets broken in the process. That collateral-damage category includes the chances of economic recovery; federal credit ratings through the debt-ceiling showdown; staffing of the federal government because of the confirmation logjam; and a constitutional approach to decisions about use of deadly force.

  • The Case for Stiff-Arming Congress on Libya

    It's right to consult Congress. Except when it isn't.

    This note, from long-time Atlantic reader mikey, is in response to my argument that Obama was hurting himself and the country with legalistic (as opposed to broadly convincing and historically legitimate) arguments against involving Congress in the Libya decision. He says:

    >>You're right, you know.  Absolutely, incontrovertibly, unarguably right.  The US is not a monarchy or a dictatorship, and it is spelled out explicitly in the Constitution that under the Separation of Powers, only Congress has the power to declare war.  Yep, the logic is clear, the history unquestionable, the legality unequivocal.


    Except for this time.  Except for now.

    The Republicans in this congress have shown themselves to be despicable, disingenuous and infantile.  They try to hide their true agenda behind manipulative lies and platitudes, while they wage a scorched earth campaign against women, minorities and the blue collar middle class.  They have made it clear that the good of the republic is not a compelling reason for them to act, that they stand only against Barack  Obama, and there is literally nothing they are not willing to sacrifice on the altar of their partisan acrimony and ideological agenda.  Worst of all, they have made it clear, in matters from climate change to expansionary monetary policy to raising the debt ceiling that they are actually willing to work actively to keep the economy depressed in order to improve their political chances in the 2012 general election, regardless of the suffering it causes among their constituents.

    If anything, President Obama has been far too accommodating of this venal, self-interested body.  To give them a further opportunity to stay America's hand in time of crisis, to allow them yet another opportunity to gleefully throw sand in the gears of basic American governance, to expect at this late date that they might put their nation ahead of their party would be futile, a fools errand of the first order.

    No.  It is clear that these spoiled children legislators will only work to prevent American action, and will block anything that might resemble growth or success for their own selfish purposes.  This time, at this historic junction, this President needs to keep them as far from the levers of power as he possibly can.  And hopefully, history will look back at this foul moment of the ascendancy of ideology over patriotism, and forgive him.<<

    Also, from someone with recent experience as an Army officer:

    >>There is on Tom Ricks' Foreign Policy weblog a posting from a couple days back by a (sadly somewhat foolish) midshipman at USNA that I think is germane to discussion of Congress' role -- their taking a vote of some kind or another would be very helpful in providing a clear statement of authority to those of us in uniform. They're putting a big burden on the decisions of kids like that and they owe him better. [Sample from the midshipmen's note begins, "President Obama's decision to avoid seeking Congress's permission to continue America's role in the Libyan conflict marks one more step in the long march toward a balance of power within the federal government that is more Napoleonic than democratic." The note ends, "While President Obama is certainly no oppressor, the trend that he is reinforcing opens up the possibility that the time will come where we will have to contend with a leader who is."  - jf ]

    FWIW I hate this war so badly I want the President gone from office, but I also think the War Powers Act, Constitutional or not, is ridiculous. I mean, geez, is it so frickin' hard for Congress to vote on something, to use any of its many existing powers to stop a war?  Because if it is, then probably they shouldn't be involved...)<<

    And from a foreigner working in China, about Obama:

    >>He, and his lawyerly crew, are trying to reform the term "war" into meaninglessness. They want the word to have no meaning. An essentially nihilist position. For a definition of war, one might go back closer to the founder's time... say to Johnson's or Webster's definitions for war. Johnson's, which is quite serviceable, "The exercise of violence under sovereign command against withstanders."

    Lyndon Johnson came in on a mandate and left sunk by a war. Obama's presidency is beginning to stink of war.<<

    Offered for the record. More on other topics shortly.

  • Obama Is Wrong About Congress and Libya

    All war is hell, but undeclared wars are worse

    I am not a Constitutional law expert. But I've lived through enough cycles of America entering, waging, and recovering from wars to be absolutely sure in saying: the Obama Administration is making a big mistake in so stubbornly refusing to involve Congress in the commitment to war in Libya.

    Let's move past the technicalities: that this is not "really" a war, since we have not sent troops into battle and are supporting the air campaign via NATO; that the War Powers act might not exactly fit these circumstances;  that many of the Republicans now saying the War Powers act must be observed were against it in other times; and so on.

    For purposes of argument, let's grant every one of those points. Let's assume that you could make a courtroom case that Obama has violated neither the Constitution nor the War Powers act in what is now a three-month-old military campaign in a foreign country. (For a strong and detailed contrary argument, see this.)

    None of those remove the problem, which is not about technicalities. The central concern, and the major threat to our politics, is that once again we are going to war essentially on one person's say-so. Yes, that person is the Commander in Chief; yes, he is committing force for what he considers to be good and prudent reasons; and yes, there are modern circumstances in which a President must be free to act first and consult later.

    But after three months of combat, and after several decades of drift toward unilateral Executive Branch action on matters of war and peace, Obama is doing a disservice to the nation, history, and himself by insisting that the decision should be left strictly to him. If the Libyan campaign ultimately "goes well," he will not in any way lessen his own political and historic credit by having involved the Congress. If it goes poorly, he will be politically safer if this is not just his own judgment-call war. More important, in either case he will have helped the country if his conduct restores rather than further weakens the concept that a multi-branch Constitutional republic must share the responsibility to commit force. We can only imagine the eloquence with which a Candidate Obama would be making this exact case were he not in the White House now.

    There are already some eloquent statements of the principle. Six years ago in our magazine, Anne Marie Slaughter (who later became head of Policy Planning under Hillary Clinton at the State Department) and Les Gelb argued that all future wars should be declared wars (emphasis added -- and this was before Libya).
    >>Time and again in recent decades the United States has made military commitments after little real debate, with hazy goals and no appetite for the inevitable setbacks.... Too often our leaders have entered wars with unclear and unfixed aims, tossing away American lives, power, and credibility before figuring out what they were doing and what could be done....
    Declarations of war may seem to be relics of a bygone era--a time more deeply steeped in ritual, when ambassadors in frock coats delivered sealed communiqués to foreign courts. Yet a declaration of war has a great deal to recommend it today: it forces a deliberate, public conversation about the reasons for going to war, the costs, the risks, the likely gains, the strategies for achieving them--all followed by a formal vote.<<
    Three months ago, as the fighting began, Garrett Epps made a parallel case:
    >>Obama, Congress, and the nation would gain from an authorization debate.  The administration has yet to articulate its military aims and its criteria for success. If a congressional debate pushed them to sharpen their rationale for war, that might make it easier to conclude Barbary War III than if--like George W. Bush in Iraq--Obama rushes into battle unclear on whether we are after a ceasefire,  a civil war between Libyan forces, or regime change.
    After a congressional vote, Libya would no longer be "Obama's War," but a national endeavor. Beyond that, it could actually help heal our hideously broken Congress. Treating the new Congress like a serious legislative body might--just might--impel its members to act like statesmen.  And if not--if the body went into filibuster-and-impeachment gridlock--it would permit Obama to argue, correctly, that someone must act in America's interests in an international emergency.<<
    Obama and his lawyers can persist with their sophistic conceit that they don't "need" to involve the Congress. That may be smart, but it is not wise. Obama the historian and leader must understand that in the broadest political and moral sense he and the country need fuller involvement in decisions on war and peace. Barack Obama has shown flexibility on so many other points, from the structure of his health-care plan to the need for tax cuts. Let's hope he comes to see that this is the wrong place to draw the line.
  • A Political Case for the Libya Effort

    Did Obama need to take on another war to show his toughness? And to teach NATO that it was time for them to pull their weight?

    I have been apprehensive, a month ago, and now, about what the Administration, still with no Congressional approval, is getting the nation into in Libya. A reader makes a political case in favor of this sort of murky limited involvement. The argument is that this is a way for the Democrats to show street cred in foreign policy, while also teaching NATO a lesson about how the world works now:

    >>I very much agree with the concerns you have expressed about what we're doing in Libya, but I have a somewhat devil's advocate view of Obama's strategy....

    I believe Obama understands the concerns from the left, but has no choice but to factor the broader political context into the mix. We're at an unusual historical moment, in that the Republican Party has degenerated to a point somewhat analogous to if the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin had been the dominant voices in the Democratic Party 40 years ago. There's a unique opportunity at hand to educate independent voters and disenchanted working class populists that Republicans have no credible track record as the party of fiscal conservatism, and that their bedrock policies, in fact, are unapologetically designed to protect the interests of the already well off at the expense of everyone else.

    I expect that much of the 2012 election will be fought on this turf. It logically follows that it behooves Obama strategically to not simultaneously make too many radical shifts to his conduct of business-as-usual. Bill Clinton's having essentially carried out a Republican- style foreign policy plays into that.

    I interpret Obama's actions as essentially signaling the French and the British that the days of their relying on the American military to be the world's fighting force are winding down.

    More »


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