Archives: 03/2009

New Podcast: ‘War on Drugs, War on Guns’

Attorney General Eric Holder said recently that in order to quell the violence spilling over from the drug war in Mexico he will push to reinstate the ban on “assault weapons” in the United States.

But, says Legal Policy Analyst David Rittgers in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, a policy like that won’t do much to quell violence.

The [drug] cartels have access to lots and lots of money because of our prohibitionist policies in the US. And because of this money they can get these weapons whether we have them legal or illegal…and they’ll have access to the black market to get fully automatic machine guns if they want them.

… If you like the war on drugs, you’re going to love the war on guns.

Strategy and Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum, of Abu Muqawama war blog, takes on Justin Logan’s post below. At the risk of restating Justin’s points, I feel compelled to jump into the fray.

Exum says basically this: Our policies have tended to result in small wars, however foolish. We want an Army of our policies. There is, in other words, a difference between operations and strategy. Counterinsurgency experts are just preaching good practice in the former. They just work here. Grand strategy is someone else’s gig.

There is merit in this view. But it has two problems.

First, the COIN gurus do not confine themselves to the operational side of things. Exum works for the Center for New American Security, which has collected counterinsurgency experts who argue that 1) Americans can become proficient counterinsurgents and 2) counter-terrorism requires that transformation. I believe neither. Apparently Exum only buys 1. I hope he can convince his colleagues to stop saying 2.

Second, the stark divide between strategy and operations is an ideal. The theory that the military services are only professional technicians serving the ends of politicians is too simple.  The Army has political interests, which change with its structure and leadership. Those interests affect our defense and foreign policy. The causal arrow between national security policy and the structure and doctrine of the organizations that execute it points both ways. Pretending it is not so is a dodge, even if it gets you an A in your undergraduate civil-military relations class. Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.

Defense writers tend to depict the generals who resist permanently transforming the US ground forces into a counterinsurgency force as benighted fools and the lieutenant colonels who buck them as forces of truth and light. The reality is more complicated. The Big Army that wants to fight only Big Wars reflects a realistic sense of what military force can and can’t do and the insight that reengineering foreign countries goes in the can’t bucket. They make these wars less likely. The little army aligned against them is a result of the fact that these wars occur anyway, and being prepared is sensible. I am not sure who I’m rooting for.

More clear to me is that the realist view of small wars wars could use support. Realists say that what we’ve discovered fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are just COIN best practices, which guarantee nothing because this is ultimately someone else’s politics. They say that the best solution is don’t do it and next best is to severely curtail your objectives and stop confusing counterinsurgency with counterterrorism. If the new counterinsurgency class believes even part of that, they should say so more forcefully.

Republicans and Earmarks

This week, a handful of fiscally conservative Republican senators have been trying to cut earmarks out of the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the legislation contains 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has sought to strike specific items, like the $200,000 earmark for Tattoo Removal Violence Prevention Outreach Program in Burbank, California and the $1.9 million earmark to the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has taken a broader approach by introducing an amendment to strike all earmarks from the bill and revert to last year’s spending levels.

Not surprisingly, they have been unsuccessful. And given recent events, one must wonder if these efforts by fiscal conservatives are even welcomed by members of their own party.

The amendments introduced by Coburn and McCain were defeated by opposition from not only by the majority of Democratic senators, but also many Republican appropriators, like Senators Thad Cochrane (R-MS) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

And despite his occasional anti-earmark rhetoric and support for the Coburn and McCain amendments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the chief beneficiaries of the earmark-laden omnibus bill. Reports suggest he requested either $75 or $51 million for his home state of Kentucky. Either way, he will obtain far more than his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), whose earmark requests total $26 million.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has been fairly consistent in her criticism of the earmarking process and, for the most part, has voted accordingly. Proving that Republican affection for earmarking is a bicameral phenomenon, her stance attracted ire from Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), formerly one of the highest-ranking Republicans in House, who said he “would hope that Claire would change her mind on this,” as he praised Senator Kit Bond’s (R-MO) prowess at earmarking.

Now, earmarks make up a relatively small slice of the overall budget, but as Coburn has noted, the problem with earmarks is ‘‘the hidden cost of perpetuating a culture of fiscal irresponsibility. When politicians fund pork projects they sacrifice the authority to seek cuts in any other program.”

For more on earmarks, check out the “Corporate Welfare and Earmarks” chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Good Coverage of AG Holder’s War on Guns

As I said earlier this week, Eric Holder’s push for an “assault weapons” ban is a misguided policy that will not have any serious impact on Mexican drug cartels.  It really ought to be called a “ban on semi-automatic firearms with politically incorrect cosmetic features,” but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.  I am pleased to see that CNN is providing coverage of this that notes (1) the difference between semi-automatic sporting arms and machine guns and (2) that Mexican authorities are not releasing the serial numbers of firearms seized from the gangsters.  This is probably because many of these guns are coming from the Mexican government, not American gun stores.  The drug cartels are putting up billboards to recruit soldiers and policemen as hired muscle.  Don’t be surprised when they walk off the job with the guns you issued them, and don’t shift the blame to the Second Amendment.

The Continuing Puzzle: What is the Iranian Government Doing?

The Iranian government has detained another American journalist, Roxana Saberi of NPR.  I was waiting to post on this in the event that a concerted effort to free her got spun up, but I’m not seeing anything as yet, so I thought I’d just relate the news.

I met Ms. Saberi once.  We were both panelists at a discussion of Iran policy about two years ago, in front of a group of several hundred high school students who were on some sort of DC visit.  I found her to be reserved in manner, judicious in thought, and entirely unthreatening.  It is unfortunate that the Iranian government does not acknowledge this.

In any case, she should be freed immediately.  The Iranian government gets nothing from this sort of thing other than bad press, as it surely recognized when it pointlessly detained and ultimately released Haleh Esfandiari less than two years ago.  The Iranians may be using Saberi to wind up (or vent) nationalism in the advent of the June elections, but overall you’d think the Iranian government had more important matters to attend to.

Let her go.

UPDATE: I’m reminded that it isn’t just Saberi that the Iranians have detained. Two Iranian doctors working to prevent HIV have apparently been sent to prison on the grounds that they were “involved in provoking street demonstrations and ethnic unrest in different parts of the country.”You’d think if the Iranians were really concerned about ethnic unrest in different parts of their country, they’d refrain from doing things like having state-run newspapers publish cartoons representing Azeris as cockroaches.

Ed Secretary Crosses Congressional Democrats on DC Vouchers

Libby Quaid, the Associated Press’s intrepid DC education correspondent, has just broken the biggest education story of the year to date: Education Secretary Arne Duncan opposes congressional Democrats’ efforts to kick kids out of the DC voucher program and back into the public schools.

While Duncan said he opposes vouchers, he added that, “D.C. is a special case,” saying that ”kids already going to private schools on the public dime should be allowed to continue.”

I confess, I’m surprised by even the qualified support for DC vouchers expressed by Duncan – surprised, and delighted. From the sound of it, though, Duncan is suggesting only that existing participants be grandfathered into the program, not that any additional children should be allowed to join them.

And Duncan makes a misstep when he implies that school choice can only “help a handful of children.”

Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and a host of other nations have large school choice programs already. The Dutch program is nearly a century old and private schools enroll nearly three quarters of the student population. As for Duncan’s desire to create new schools that will serve whole neighborhoods, he need only visit Milwaukee to see the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been invested in creating new private schools in some of the most depressed parts of the city, thanks to that city’s private school choice program.

School choice is not only good for kids and communities, it’s good for taxpayers. The government of Florida’s own accountability office reported last year that its statewide k-12 education tax credit program is saving $1.50 for every dollar it costs to operate.

Will Duncan’s comment rescue the voucher program from Senate Democrats who are set to vote on the bill in question this week? Stay tuned.