Archives: 07/2013

Bahrain Emerging as Washington’s Next Middle East Crisis

The Obama administration, already preoccupied with the unpleasant developments in Syria and Egypt, may soon be facing a new crisis in the small Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.  If violence in that country continues to grow, it will have a more immediate and significant impact on Washington’s role in the region.  Bahrain is the home port for the U.S. fifth fleet, and is, therefore, the linchpin of the U.S. naval presence in that part of the world and a crucial component of Washington’s power-projection capabilities.  It would not be easy to replace that facility—and impossible to do so quickly.  Consequently, U.S. policy makers have been more than just interested spectators to events in Bahrain.

There is little doubt that Bahrain’s political environment is increasingly volatile.  The country is on the front lines of the Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance in the Middle East.  The Sunni monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa rules a population that is nearly 70 percent Shiite, and stark discrimination against the latter is evident in nearly every aspect of life.  Tehran openly backs Shiite factions in Bahrain, while Saudi Arabia is the king’s primary patron.  When massive anti-regime demonstrations erupted in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in early 2011, government security forces responded harshly, including with volleys of live ammunition, killing several dozen demonstrators.  Despite that crackdown, though, insurgents might well have toppled the monarchy if Saudi  Arabia and its Gulf allies had not intervened with 2,000 troops in March 2011.

The violence has continuously simmered since then, punctuated by periodic surges.  As of February 2013, more than 100 people had died in police crackdowns on anti-regime demonstrations and retaliatory attacks by insurgents.  The government also has imprisoned hundreds of other political opponents.  Those numbers might not seem all that large, but Bahrain’s population is barely 1.2 million.  Earlier this month, a bomb explosion killed a police officer in the city of Sitra, and a similar attack seriously injured three officers in the city of Janabiya.  The BBC reports that “youths armed with petrol bombs attack police on an almost nightly basis in villages and towns around the capital.”

Frederic Wehrey, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes in his important study on Bahrain that “the United States finds itself in the undesirable position of maintaining close ties with a repressive regime that has skillfully avoided meaningful reforms… .”

As I discuss here, the deteriorating situation in Bahrain creates major headaches for the Obama administration.  Muslim audiences have already noted the apparent double standard between Washington’s vehement condemnation of brutal, undemocratic behavior in such countries as Iran, Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya—all adversaries of the United States–and the solicitous U.S. treatment of Bahrain’s repressive regime.  And that was before the Obama administration’s mild reaction to the military coup in Egypt produced additional charges of hypocrisy.  The burgeoning tensions in Bahrain may soon compel U.S. officials to decide whether their professed commitment to democracy and human rights in the Middle East is a serious policy goal or merely diplomatic posturing.  If it’s the former, it may mean losing a keystone military presence in the region.

The Leader of the Zetas Is Captured… Now What?

Miguel Ángel Treviño, the leader of the Zetas, Mexico’s most fearsome and brutal cartel, was arrested last night in Mexico near the U.S. border. This is the first major blow to organized crime in the seven month presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto.

Sylvia Longmire and Alejandro Hope [in Spanish] have good analyses on what the capture of Treviño will mean in the near and medium term to the Zetas and to the configuration of organized crime in Mexico. Overall, we should expect a spike in violence as the Zetas might splinter into several violent “cartelitos” which will fight one another for control of territory. Also, we might see a renewed effort from the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán to challenge the Zeta’s control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo transit route.

But isn’t the ultimate goal of the war on cartels to stop the flow of drugs into the United States? Should we expect a decline in the smuggling of narcotics after the arrest of Treviño? No, according to reports from the U.S. government itself. The Office of Intelligence and Operations Coordination of the Custom and Border Protection agency looked at drug seizure data from January 2009 to January 2010 and matched it with the arrests or deaths of drug operatives (11 capos in total). It found that “there is no perceptible pattern that correlates either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key DTO [drug trafficking organization] personnel.”

The arrest of a nasty and blood thirsty criminal such a Treviño is good news for Mexico. But don’t expect it to tip the balance in the overall war on drugs.

Faith in Government, Unshakable

Belatedly, I’ve come across the review by Jonathan Martin of Politico of the book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t by Robert Kaiser, a 50-year reporter and editor at the Washington Post. What struck me was that both of these very knowledgeable Washington journalists seem very clear-eyed about the deficiencies of the legislative process, and yet their understanding doesn’t cause them to question the idea of having government manage every facet of our lives. Here are some excerpts from the review:

Congress is dominated by intellectual lightweights who are chiefly consumed by electioneering and largely irrelevant in a body where a handful of members and many more staff do the actual work of legislating. And the business of the institution barely gets done because of a pernicious convergence of big money and consuming partisanship.

That is Robert Kaiser’s unsparing assessment in “Act of Congress,” the latest volume in a growing body of work lamenting our broken capital….

In the passing of Dodd-Frank, the public interest—however that might be defined—often took a back seat to money, special interests and political expediency.

It did not help, notes Mr. Kaiser, that many members of Congress are politics-obsessed mediocrities who know little about the policy they’re purportedly crafting and voting on. Indeed, it is Mr. Kaiser’s frank and often scathing criticism of Congress that enlivens a book that might otherwise strain the attention of anyone not intensely interested in the regulation of derivatives….

That phone call, writes Mr. Kaiser, underlined a fact of modern congressional life: “Most members both know and care more about politics than about substance.”…

“Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, those who have a sophisticated understanding of the financial markets and their regulation could probably fit on the twenty-five man roster of a Major League Baseball team,” Mr. Kaiser writes. “Members’ ignorance empowers lobbyists and staff.”

What makes “Act of Congress” especially valuable is its detailed portrait of Washington’s influence peddlers and, in particular, the powerful aides who script their boss’s statements, write the bills and often become lobbyists themselves after leaving the government payroll. 

Martin concludes:

Big money, small politicians, and the lobbyists and staff running the place: It’s hardly a new story about Washington. But Mr. Kaiser names names and spares no one.

So the question is, If you understand just how poorly most legislation is crafted, if you understand the corruption and ignorance that go into making rules for 300 million Americans, why are you still wedded to the idea that inevitably ignorant and corrupt people should make rules for everything from health care to banking to retirement to drug policy? 

Both Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin have written for the Cato Institute, and in Somin’s forthcoming book, about the problem of public ignorance and value of a much smaller and less centralized government that could depoliticize decision-making and limit the scope of errors.

Faith in government, like a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience.

Will Congress Block Military Aid to the Syrian Rebels?

Other news has pushed Syria out of the headlines in the past two weeks, but some members of Congress have spent the time preparing for a showdown with the Obama administration over its decision to arm rebels in Syria. 

Late last month, a bipartisan group led by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) put forward legislation (H.R. 2494) that would block military aid to Syria pending authorization by a joint congressional resolution. The legislation would allow non-lethal assistance to continue to flow, but would require the administration to report every 90 days on what groups are receiving the aid, and the character of the aid being provided. Similar legislation (S. 1201) was introduced in the Senate by two Democrats (Tom Udall, NM; and Chris Murphy, CT) and two Republicans (Rand Paul, KY; and Mike Lee, UT).

Last week, Gibson and bill co-sponsor Peter Welch (D-VT) appeared on C-Span to discuss the legislative initiative. More information can be found here.

The effort seems like a long shot given the steady erosion of the U.S. Congress’s control over the war powers. This regression was reflected most recently by the Obama administration’s decision to wage “kinetic military action” against Libya under a UN Security Council Resolution, and in the face of strong congressional opposition. On the other hand, the American people remain overwhelmingly opposed to deeper U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, and a mere 11 percent support arming the rebels, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In this case, at least, the people’s elected representatives are at least doing their jobs in representing their constituents’ views.  

As to the substance of the legislation, one can sympathize with the premise behind it without agreeing with co-sponsor Michele Bachmann (R-MN) that the Syrian rebels are “enemies” of the United States who could “defeat us and our way of life” (though a few might aspire to such grandiose aims). On policy grounds, limited military intervention in Syria is unlikely to turn the tide in favor of our prefered group (one that is presumably secular, pro-U.S., and capable of governing Syria), which means that arming the rebels is likely to extend the conflict and drag the United States more deeply into another civil war in the region. As Rep. Mike Nolan (D-MN) noted, “This matter, however tragic and sad, will not be resolved by the US’s involvement or intervention and will only invite resentment from both sides, as has been proven time and time again. We must get over the false notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”

Another reason why the legislation is attracting bipartisan support has to do with the separation of powers, and a nascent movement within the Congress to reclaim at least some of its constitutional authority. We saw a glimmer of this opposition in the spring of 2011. The floor debate ultimately failed to halt U.S. military intervention in Libya, but at least we had such a debate. We need one with respect to arming the Syrian rebels.

Gibson, the author of legislation that would revise the War Powers Act, appears to be motivated primarily by those aims. A retired U.S. Army Colonel who served four tours in Iraq, Gibson earned a PhD in government from Cornell and later published a book on civil-military relations. He spoke on the subject in late 2011 at a Cato Capitol Hill Briefing.

In introducing the Syrian legislation, Gibson explained:

As I have long-maintained, the decision to engage overseas must be made with the utmost caution and with a full understanding of the dynamics. Most importantly, the American people, through their Congressional Representatives, must be part of this decision process….This bipartisan legislation will ensure we can maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to support the Syrian people without getting drawn into another engagement. Moving forward, it is vital that Congress be a part of this debate and provide authorization prior to any hostile action or escalation of our involvement. 

As I said, this is a long-shot effort given the extent to which power has shifted to the executive branch, and given that many of Gibson’s colleagues (both Republicans and Democrats) seem so willing to ignore their sacred oath to uphold the Constitution. But it is gratifying to see at least some members of Congress taking their responsibilities seriously. 

Subtle as a Sledgehammer

I’m sure you’ve heard quite enough of me on the farm bill over the last week or so, but I did just want to draw readers’ attention to a quote from Mary Kay Thatcher of the American Farm Bureau Federation, speaking on the AgriTalk radio program regarding the need for the 1949 Agriculture Act (the so-called permanent law) to “motivate” Congress to pass farm bills every five years:

It’s really the sledgehammer that’s there to make sure we don’t just let the farm bill expire and do nothing about it.  And so to remove that, even to replace it with the 2013 law for Title I is just that sledgehammer isn’t going to be there. [emphasis added]

At least she’s honest.

Community Associations Have Property Rights Too

The U.S. housing market has seen a major shift in the past 30 years: the rise of the community association. In 1970, only 1 percent of U.S. homes were community association members; today, more than half of new housing is subject to association membership, including condominium buildings. These organizations provide substantial benefits, including community facilities, maintenance, and rules designed to preserve property values, in exchange for assessment fees.

Accordingly, Mariner’s Cove Townhomes Association v. United States affects the rights of the more than 60 million Americans currently living in these associations. This case arises from the federal government’s taking 14 of 58 townhouses from one development in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mariner’s Cove owned a right to collect dues that was appended to those 14 townhomes, and sued the government for extinguishing that valuable right without just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

In contrast to most lower courts, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that “the right to collect assessments, or real covenants generally” are not subject to Takings Clause analysis. In other words, the government can take those rights without paying anything to the owners. Cato and a group of esteemed professors, including Richard Epstein, James W. Ely Jr., and Ilya Somin, has submitted an amicus brief supporting Mariner’s Cove and arguing that the Supreme Court should take the case to clarify whether community association fees are compensable property under the Fifth Amendment.

Without such clarification, these beneficial private communities will be undercut. Such associations often shoulder the burden of providing and maintaining infrastructure, services, and utilities, which allows for more diverse and customizable amenities for homeowners than if those decisions were left with remote municipal governments. Because of these benefits, and because they increase the tax base, local governments are increasingly requiring developers to structure developments as community associations.

The perverse implications of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling are clear: it would allow for local governments to require he creation of a community association, benefit from the resulting private delivery of services while collecting taxes from its members, and later take the property without even paying back the very fees that enabled the government’s benefit. And the Fifth Circuit’s holding affects more than simply community associations. The court’s reference to “real covenants generally” implicates conservation easements, for example, which restrict the development and use of land for preserving the land’s natural, historic, or ecological features. This precedent would make association land an attractive option for uncompensated government takings.

The ruling also clashes with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Koontz v. St. John’s River Water Management District: that an income stream from real property is a compensable interest under the Fifth Amendment. For these reasons, we urge the Supreme Court to take the case and to recognize the compensable property rights of the Mariner’s Cove Townhomes Association and the millions of other Americans choosing—and paying—to live in a community association.

Escaping the North Korean Impasse

Pyongyang urged Washington to “positively respond” to the former’s call for negotiations “without preconditions.”  The Obama administration insisted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea first commit to denuclearization.  Diplomacy is going no where fast.

The Korean peninsula remains dangerous for everyone.  Although America and South Korea would triumph in any conflict, the price would be extravagant.

The allies continue to focus on the North’s nuclear program.  No doubt denuclearization is the best outcome.  However, it remains the least likely.

North Korea has grown ever more determined to be accepted as a nuclear power.  There’s nothing mysterious about the North’s program.  It offers several advantages, including military deterrence.

Instead of growing more entangled in the peninsula, Washington should disengage.

The U.S. should end its Cold War alliance with the Republic of Korea.  After six decades, the “mutual” defense treaty has lost its raison d’être.  Most important, the South is capable of defending itself.  Washington should terminate the security pact and withdraw its military forces.

Moreover, as I write in my latest column on Forbes online:

American officials should set aside the nuclear issue in order to engage Pyongyang.  North Korea’s nuclear ambitions most directly affect its neighbors.  The North lacks any means to attack the U.S.—other than targeting troops which should be brought home from South Korea.  Even if the DPRK could act, confronting America would be suicidal, a quality not evident in Pyongyang.  Washington should make the one genuine threat, nuclear transfers to non-state actors, a red line.  Otherwise the U.S. should turn over the issue to the countries with the most at stake:  China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

Then the U.S. should indicate its willingness to sign a peace treaty and open diplomatic relations.  These long have been North Korean priorities:  the North’s ambassador in Geneva, Sin Son-ho, recently held an unprecedented press conference denouncing the U.S. for “the hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States, which can lead to another war at any moment.”

Set aside his reflexive blame of America.  Six decades surely is long enough to officially end the Korean War.  Moreover, the U.S. government would benefit from a small window into DPRK society, direct process to handle mundane diplomatic matters, and official channel for more serious communication.

Finally, Washington should make clear that it is up to the two Koreas to work out the peninsula’s future.  Abundant commercial and extensive family relationships would continue to tie America to the ROK.  However, the U.S. would not presume to dictate the ultimate inter-Korean relationship, which needs to evolve along with events on the peninsula. 

A more relaxed American approach offers numerous advantages.  But most important, current policy is broken.

Is there a genuine desire to reduce tensions hidden within the North’s endless bombast? Washington should challenge Pyongyang by accepting its latest proposal for talks.

It won’t be easy for the U.S. and DPRK to put aside fundamental differences, such as on human rights.  But both sides would benefit from reducing the possibility of conflict.  At least that’s worth holding a serious discussion.