Archives: 03/2009

Translation: “No”

On Fox News Sunday this week, Chris Wallace asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the capability of Al Qaeda to mount attacks on the United States:

The President said that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks against the U.S. homeland. Does Al Qaeda still have that kind of operational capability to plan and pull off those kinds of attacks?

Gates: They certainly have the capability to plan … .

Gates went on to discuss how Al Qaeda has arguably “metastasized,” with elements appearing elsewhere in the world, uncontrolled by Al Qaeda in Western Pakistan, but trained and inspired from there. He told Wallace that he thought Al Qaeda is “a very serious threat.”

But, the “capability to plan”? Who in the world doesn’t have the “capability to plan”? The better answer to Wallace’s question would have been “No.”

What Gates described is an Al Qaeda very different from the one that attacked the United States on 9/11. It’s more an idea than an organization, an idea that America-haters the world over are drawn to when American leaders tout Al Qaeda as a top threat. Anyone around the world can declare themselves a part of “Al Qaeda” and most of our media and political leaders will believe it, becoming needlessly fearful just because of the label.

With the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, President Obama and Secretary Gates had to discuss Al Qaeda. But they could have done more to show world audiences that Al Qaeda is weakened, and that terrorism is a weaker tool against the United States and the West than it was.

While maintaining the vigilance necessary to prevent any attack, issuing these more moderate kinds of communications would reduce the attractiveness of terrorism to potential terrorists. Smarter, more subdued communications is as important a part of strategic counterterrorism as directly fighting today’s terrorists.

Later in the interview, Gates smartly deflected Wallace’s questions about how the new administration eschews “war on terror” rhetoric. Nicely done.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.

Friday Podcast: ‘Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy’

President Obama has unveiled his plan for the war in Afghanistan, taking a more regional approach than the U.S. has in the past.

In Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent says it’s a critical step in the right direction, but stabilizing Afghanistan and fighting an insurgency can’t be accomplished while killing the livelihoods of so many Afghan farmers by destroying opium poppy.

In the future we should take Afghanistan as it is, rather than what we want it to be. So not only does that mean having a decreased reliance on a central state government from Kabul, but also understanding that many of the farms from these rural areas rely on the opium poppy crop for their own livelihood. So we should focus our efforts to targeting those who are in cahoots with   insurgent groups and not simply those who are depending on it for their livelihood.

Her forthcoming paper, “Pakistan and the Future of U.S. Policy” will be released next month.

Federal Debt Per Household

This afternoon, a congressional office asked me what the estimated national debt in President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget submission would be on a per-U.S.-household basis.  I think the answer is worth sharing with C@L readers:

According to the president’s budget, the estimated national debt (debt held by the public) in fiscal year 2010 would equal approximately $81,000 per U.S. household. 

But no worries, “we owe it to ourselves”!

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

National ID Promoted by Anti-Immigrant Group — Sorta

If it was ever in doubt that REAL ID and the push for national ID systems are a project of anti-immigrant groups, this should dispel it.

The Center for Immigration Studies has a page up on its website in which REAL ID lobbyist Janice Kephart trots out videos of Bush administration Department of Homeland Security officials sort of making the case for REAL ID. Or at least for all the different ID programs they had. Or something.

Frankly, it’s not clear what this piece is getting at. The material is rather meandering, and neither the videos nor the text provide a coherent argument for a national ID, much less defeat the arguments against one. (The featured former officials are former, and not involved with the current administration, because voters rejected the fear-mongering of the former DHS and administration in the most recent election.)

What the text does say is that the Obama administration is cool on a national ID because it “gained many votes from those who support mass, illegal and unchecked immigration into the US.” This is inaccurate in many respects. Nobody supports illegal immigration, but many people do recognize that balanced and generous immigration rules would reduce it. This country has a long history of being immigrant friendly and of favoring liberty over things like national ID systems. If those kinds of policies win votes, so be it! It’s nice to see a group like CIS admit that their agenda is politically unpopular.

Whatever the case, if you had any doubt about what motivates national ID advocacy in the country, it’s anti-immigrant groups. Their amateurish interest in terrorism and national security is motivated by their fixation on preventing free movement of people. The great irony is that the Center for Immigration Studies would put native-born American citizens into a national ID system to try to get at their anti-immigrant goals.

Week in Review: No End to Spending and Regulation in Sight

Geithner to Propose Unprecedented Restrictions on Financial System

geithnerThe Washington Post reports, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system… The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.”

Calling Geithner’s plan another “jihad against the market,” Cato senior fellow Jerry Taylor blasts the administration’s proposal:

What President Obama is selling is the idea that government must be the final arbiter regarding how much risk-taking is appropriate in this allegedly free market economy. It is unclear, however, whether anybody short of God is in the position to intelligently make that call for every single actor in the market.

Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll reveals the real reason behind the proposal:

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers. It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.   If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.  This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.

A new paper from Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale explains the roots of the current global financial crisis and critically examines the reasoning behind the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s actions to prop up the financial sector. Gokhale argues that recovery is likely to be slow with or without the government’s bailout actions.

In the new issue of the Cato Policy Report, Cato chairman emeritus William A. Niskanen explains how President Obama is taking classic steps toward turning this recession into a depression:

Four federal economic policies transformed the Hoover recession into the Great Depression: higher tariffs, stronger unions, higher marginal tax rates, and a lower money supply. President Obama, unfortunately, has endorsed some variant of the first three of these policies, and he will face a critical choice on monetary policy in a year or so.

Obama Defends His Massive Spending Plan

President Obama visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby Democratic lawmakers on his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the plan next week.

obama-budget1In a new bulletin, Cato scholar Chris Edwards argues, “Sadly, Obama’s first budget sets a course for more government bloat, more economic distortions, and ultimately lower standards of living for everyone who is not living off of federal hand-outs.”

On Cato’s blog, Edwards discusses Obama’s misguided theory on government spending:

Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Obama’s budget calls for a massive influx of government jobs. Writing in National Review, Cato senior fellow Jim Powell explains why government jobs don’t cure depression:

If government jobs were the secret of success, then the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, because it had nothing but government jobs. Communist China, glutted with government jobs, would have generated more income per capita than Hong Kong where, at least before the Communist takeover, there were hardly any government jobs, but Hong Kong’s per capita income was about 20 times higher than that on the mainland.

Multiplying the number of government jobs did nothing then and does nothing now to revive the private sector that pays all the bills, in large part because of the depressing effect of taxes required to pay for government jobs.

Cato on YouTube

Cato Institute is reaching out to new audiences with our message of individual liberty, free markets and peace. Last year, we launched our first YouTube channel, which has garnered thousands of views and subscriptions. Here are a few highlights: