Archives: 07/2009

A Terrorist We Should Have Prosecuted

Andy McCarthy makes a good point over at The Corner about Laith al-Khazali, a member of a Shiite militant group responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq. Al-Khazali has been released, allegedly as part of negotiations with terrorists holding British hostages. Senators Sessions and Kyl have questioned this action in a letter to President Obama.

McCarthy lays out the facts on al-Khazali here. Al-Khazali participated in a sophisticated attack on American troops in Karbala. The militants wore American uniforms and took American soldiers hostage. After leaving the site of the attack, the militants executed their prisoners.

Though I have disagreed with McCarthy on other issues, he makes a valid point here.

Al-Khazali is guilty of honest-to-goodness war crimes.

Wearing an enemy’s uniform for infiltration is permissible. Wearing an enemy’s uniform while shooting at them is perfidy, a prosecutable war crime.

Otto Skorzeny, head Nazi commando, was acquitted of perfidy after World War II. Skorzeny’s men had infiltrated American lines during the Battle of the Bulge while wearing American uniforms. They avoided firing at American troops while in our uniforms, though in two instances fired at American troops in self-defense. British commando Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas testified for the defense, saying that he had infiltrated German lines in a German uniform. W. Hays Parks provides an excellent discussion of special operations soldiers’ use of non-standard uniform and the legal boundaries of this issue here. Al-Khazali crossed the line by wearing an American uniform while firing at our soldiers.

Killing enemy soldiers after they are in your custody is also a prosecutable war crime. We prosecuted German soldiers for doing this in the Malmedy Massacre, and have prosecuted our own soldiers for killing prisoners. We have even prosecuted contractors for killing prisoners on the battlefield and during interrogation.

Al-Khazali deserves to be brought to justice. It is a shame we did not provide it.

SEC Favors Special Interests in New Corporate Elections Rule

Yesterday, the SEC repealed a long-standing rule which allowed brokers to vote shares on behalf of their investors, unless they obtained written directions from each individual investors.  While investors have long been able to direct the voting of their shares, many do not take the time to.  In these cases, the brokers vote those shares, after all they are the agents of the investors and are hired to act on their behalf.

The direct effect of the rule will be to reduce the voting weight of retail investors, as represented by their brokers.  In voting against the rule, SEC Commissioner Kathy Casey raised the point that the rule would skew voting toward large institutional investors and away from little retail investors.

What did the large institutions investors have to say?  As reported in today’s Financial Times, Ann Yerger, who represents large pension funds claimed that “counting uninstructed broker votes is akin to stuffing the ballot box for management.”  One has to wonder whether the pension funds, which Ms. Yerger represents should have to get written instructions from all the pensioners whose pensions are managed by these funds?  Of course not, treating all agents of investors equally would make too much sense for the SEC.

Then one should not be too surprised to see pension funds be allowed to cast their “uninstructed” votes while brokers cannot.  The largest pension funds manage the retirement of unionized state and local employees, often with the fund management itself representing the interests of the unions.  We witnessed this same favoring of union interests over the common good in the auto bailouts.

The rule once again illustrates that the new bosses in Washington are busy rewarding their allies at the expense of everyone else.

Duncan Balls

It seems U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and British schools secretary Ed Balls disagree on the merits of national standards. While Duncan has said that homogenizing educational standards nationwide is his single most important goal while in office, Balls has just pulled the plug on the U.K.’s 10 year experiment with national reading and math strategies. He told the media:

I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre but by schools themselves.

The problem with saying that every 5th grader in the nation should learn the same things at the same time is that all 5th graders are not created equal. Some are better at math than reading. Some the reverse. Some are quick learners across the board. Some are slower. To deny this is ridiculous, but to acknowledge it is to admit that homogenized standards in a system that groups students rigidly by age is educational malpractice.

Even if kids were all identical automatons, national standards wouldn’t drive excellence. It is the incentive structure of the free enterprise system that has driven progress in all the fields that have actually progressed – not externally-imposed standards.

What America needs for an educational renaissance is to release schools and families from the shackles of monopoly, and re-inject the freedom and incentives that kindle innovation and efficiency. Sitting 50 million Jills and Johnnies down on a conveyor belt that drags them all through their studies at the same pace makes no sense.

Why Fear Leviathan U.?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda – ordinarily a pretty rational blog – takes issue with my recent post expressing unease about a proposal to have Uncle Sam create and furnish free college courses. Accurately noting that American institutions of higher education, including private and for-profit schools, are addicted to government subsidies, the blogger asks what the problem is “if a free curriculum (defined by designated text books and tests), coupled with a competitive market in examination services, reduces the burden on taxpayers”?

Here’s the problem: From the perspectives of both freedom and effectiveness, why would we ever want the federal government creating free college curricula and, potentially, a giant federal university that, thanks to the internet, would not even be bound by the need to have a physical campus? Do we really want both state-run and private institutions, which despite huge subsidies still have to charge tuition and compete with one another, to have to go up against a free, Leviathan University? And why would it matter if the examinations accompanying Leviathan U’s curriculum were created by private companies? If you have to master The Little Red Book – to use an extreme example – does it matter if the testing contract is competitively bid?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda is absolutely right that, engorged with government subsidies, American higher education is grossly wasteful. But replacing it with utterly unconstitutional federal courses that could someday yield a mammoth, federal university? For reasons even more basic than saving taxpayer money, that would be a terrible move.

Washington Push on Executive Pay Has Unintended Consequences

Regulators at the SEC and politicians on Capitol Hill seem to have short memories when it comes to executive compensation.  When the SEC years ago decided to make the compensation of top executives public information, it had the all too predictable result of actually increasing average compensation levels.  Once a top CEO knew what other CEOs were making, he could argue for a pay hike based upon being “underpaid”.  Of course regulators were “shocked” by the resulting “race to the top.” 

Similarly Congress was shocked when after deciding to heavily tax salaries over $1 million, that companies shifted away from direct cash pay and toward options and increased bonuses in the form of shares. 

And soon Washington will also pretend to be shocked and outraged that the current anger over Wall Street bonuses is leading firms to reduce bonuses, but increase base pay.  As illustrated in today’s Wall Street Journal, companies like Morgan Stanley have increased their base pay from $300,000 to $400,000.  Even Citibank, essentially a ward of the US government, is increasing its base pay to $300,000 for employees that were previously eligible for bonuses.

The real harm in this is not that Wall Street employees are getting paid more in cash, but that less of their compensation will be tied to their performance, and the performance of their firm.  A flat salary, regardless of how hard you work, will encourage shirking. Perhaps even worse, is that more upfront cash, and less long-term stock options, will shift Wall Street’s focus even more toward today, rather than tomorrow.  So much for Washington fixing the short term focus of Wall Street, but then one shouldn’t be too surprised given the even more short term focus of Washington.

Too Big to Fail

One of the most pernicious public policies aggravating the financial crisis is that of “too big to fail.” The doctrine states that some banks (now financial institutions generally) are so large that their failure would incur “systemic risk” for the financial system. That sounds terrible and it is intended to. Financial services regulators and Treasury secretaries use it to frighten small children and congressmen. How can an elected official vote to incur systemic risk? He must vote to approve the bank bailout of the day. In fact, people who use the term cannot even agree among themselves as to what it means, much less what causes it and, therefore, what the appropriate response would be. I suggest the reader substitute the phrase “too politically connected to fail” whenever he sees “too big to fail.” What follows will then be rendered intelligible.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment in Afghanistan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, veteran newsman Bob Woodward recounts a recent meeting between National Security Advisor James Jones and a few dozen Marine officers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson. 

The subject on everyone’s mind: force levels. Saying that he was “a little light,” Nicholson hinted that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.

Of course he doesn’t. One senior military commander confided, in Woodward’s telling, ”that there would need to be more than 100,000 troops to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.”

So, Nicholson and other commanders were asking: Can we expect to receive additional troops in Afghanistan any time soon?

Jones’s answer: don’t bet on it.

The retired Marine Corps general reminded his audience in Helmand that Obama has approved two increases already. Going beyond merely an endorsement of the outgoing Bush admiministration’s decision to more than double the force in Afghanistan, Obama accepted the recommendation of his advisers to send an additional 17,000, and then shortly thereafter another 4,000.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops,…if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF – which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”

Nicholson and his colonels – all or nearly all veterans of Iraq – seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Nicholson and his Marines should be concerned. But so should all Americans. The men and women in our military have been given a mission that is highly dependent upon a very large number of troops, and they don’t have a very large number of troops. The clear, hold and build strategy is dangerous and difficult – even when you have the troop levels that the military’s doctrine recommends: 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous population. In a country the size of Afghanistan (with an estimated population of 33 million), that wouldn’t be 100,000 troops, that would be 660,000 troops.

Pacifying all of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible with one half that number of troops. It is foolhardy to even attempt such a mission with less than a sixth that many.

So, what gives? (Or, as the military folks might say, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?”)

It is doubtful that anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill honestly believes that 70,000 U.S. troops can turn Afghanistan into a central Asian version of Alabama – or even Algeria, for that matter. They might reasonably object that they aren’t trying to pacify the whole country, but rather the most restive provinces in the south and east. Perhaps barely 10 million people live there (which my calculator says would require a force of 200,000). Besides, they might go on, the 20 per 1,000 figure is just a guideline, just a rule-of-thumb. Some missions have succeeded with fewer than that ratio of troops, just as other missions have failed with troop ratios in excess of 20 : 1,000.

These seem to be nothing more than thin rationalizations. They reflect the fact that the American public would not support an open-ended mission in Afghanistan that would occupy essentially all of our Marine and Army personnel for many years. The “70,000 troops for who knows how long” is a political statement. They are pursuing a strategy shaped by focus groups and polls, rather than by doctrine and common sense.

No, that is not an argument for more troops. It is not an argument for ignoring public sentiment. It is an argument for a different mission.

The public’s growing ambivalence about the war in Afghanistan reflects a well-placed broader skepticism about population-centric counterinsurgency that are heavily dependent upon very large concentrations of troops staying in country for a very long period of time. Americans don’t support such missions, because the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. And they likely never will. They are equally skeptical of COIN’s intellectual cousin, ambitious nation-building projects.

And if I’m right, and if no one actually believes that killing suspected Taliban, destroying fields of poppies, building roads and bridges,  establishing judicial standards and training Afghan police is actually going to work, then, well,….

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

The mission in Afghanistan, especially the troop increases, appear more and more as face-saving gestures. A show of wanting to do something, even if policymakers doubt that it will actually succeed. It is a delaying action, a postponing of the inevitable, a kicking the can down the road.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that a miracle happens. I hope that the Taliban disappears. That Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and every other bad guy I can name winds up dead on an Afghan battlefield. Tomorrow, preferably. I hope that all Afghans (girls and boys) get an education and earn a decent living. I hope that Hamid Karzai learns how to govern, Afghan judges learn how to judge, and that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police quickly learn how to defend their own country.

In short, I hope that the people who are crafting our Afghan strategy know something that I don’t.

I fear, however, that the deaths and grievous injuries endured by our military personnel during this interim period, which may run for years or even decades, as we seek “peace with honor” or “a decent interval” (or pick your own favorite Vietnam cliche), will weigh heavily on the consciences of policy makers if, in the end, they have merely burdened these men and women with an impossible task.

Ask Robert McNamara how that feels.