This piece is part of a series remembering the life, career, and legacy of Helmut (Hal) Sonnenfeldt — a member of the National Security Council, counselor at the Department of State, scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and Brookings expert.
How do you cross paths with exceptional people in your life? Usually when you least expect it, at a meeting, an introduction, at a conference.
Since I was chairman of the House Armed Service Personnel and Oversight Committee in 1987 when we were dealing with the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact and the changes in the Soviet Union, I was aware of Hal Sonnenfeldt — but I only really knew him by reputation, not personally. In 1994, I was asked by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Boorda, to become a member of the CNO’s Executive Panel. Being aware of the work the CNO’s Executive Panel did, I was pleased and interested in being a part. I realized after attending my first panel meeting that the outstanding membership included Hal Sonnenfeldt, former director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment Andrew Marshall, and former U.S. Representative from Delaware Thomas Evans. Names that rang nationally with respect and brilliance.
After that first meeting, I called Mike Boorda and said: “What am I doing on the panel? Do you know the outstanding people who are members?” He said: “Yes, and I appointed you to keep them grounded. They are all forward thinkers, future leaders, and representative of different views. The panel works to come up with a consensus.”
As I joined more meetings, different studies we worked with gave us many challenges. Hal Sonnenfeldt took me under his wing and gave me great guidance. I continued to ask my questions, I continued to bring us back to reality. Hal was always there to challenge the direction of the study, to guide us in taking the Navy and the country in the best direction. With the loss of Hal, Brookings has a large void, and so does the nation.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.