Archives: 03/2014

Obama Sends More U.S. Troops to …Uganda?

The Obama administration seems determined to demonstrate that there is no place in the world so geographically remote or strategically and economically irrelevant that U.S. military intervention won’t take place.  Any doubt on that score was eliminated earlier this week when the administration deployed another 150 Special Operations Forces personnel (along with CV-22 Osprey aircraft) to help the government of Uganda track down rebel warlord Joseph Kony.  The new deployment augments the 100 troops Washington previously dispatched to the region in October 2011.  At that time, the administration assured skeptics that the mission was strictly limited in nature.  Clearly, it has now become somewhat less so, and one must wonder whether there will be future deployments to enlarge Washington’s military intervention.

Make no mistake about it, Kony is a repulsive character.  Among other offenses, his followers have drafted children as young as 12 into the movement’s armed ranks, and there are numerous allegations of other human rights abuses.  But no rational person could argue that Kony’s forces pose a security threat to the United States.  And under the Constitution, the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the security of the American people, not engage to quixotic ventures to rectify bad behavior around the world.

The willingness of the U.S. officials to send Special Operations personnel, who have been trained and equipped at great expense to American taxpayers, on such a mission underscores a growing problem: the unwillingness or inability of U.S. leaders to set priorities in the area of foreign policy.  America’s security interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital, secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different response.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category.  The reality is that for any nation, truly vital interests are few in number.  National survival is obviously the most important one, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty, and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well.  When vital interests are threatened, maximum exertions and sacrifices are justified.

But that ought to be the great exception, not the rule, when it comes to the conduct of America’s foreign policy.  Even an effort to protect the next highest category, secondary or conditional interests, requires a rigorous cost-benefit calculation.   Secondary interests are assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to the preservation of America’s physical integrity, independence, domestic liberty, and economic health.  An example would be the goal of keeping a key strategic and economic region such as Western Europe or Northeast Asia from being dominated by a hostile major power.  The defense of secondary interests justifies significant, but nevertheless limited, exertions–especially if they involve military measures.

The cost-benefit calculation shifts even more in the direction of restraint when the matter involved is one of peripheral interests.  That category consists of assets that marginally enhance America’s security, liberty, and economic well being, but the loss of which would be more of an annoyance than a significant blow.  The existence of an unpleasant regime in a mid-size country in Latin America (Venezuela comes to mind) is an example of a threat to a peripheral interest.  Russia’s crude coercion of Ukraine is another example.  It may be asking too much for Washington to be indifferent to such matters, but there is nothing at stake that normally requires more than a diplomatic response.

Many situations in the world do not rise even to the level of peripheral interests.  They instead fall into the category of barely relevant (or often entirely irrelevant) matters.  Whether Bosnia remains intact or divides into a Muslim-dominated ministate and a Serb republic, or whether East Timor is well governed, can and should be a matter of indifference to the United States.  It is highly improbable that such developments would have a measurable impact on America’s security, liberty, or economic health.  Washington ought to confine its role to one of routine diplomatic involvement on the margins—and sometimes not even that.

Joseph Kony’s activities in Central Africa are a textbook example of a largely irrelevant development.  That conflict certainly does not warrant the expenditure of defense budget dollars, much less putting the lives of American military personnel at risk.

Could Vice President Biden Help Save the Administration’s Trade Agenda?

Francisco Sanchez, former undersecretary of Commerce for international trade in President Obama’s first term, commented on the administration’s trade efforts in a March 21 article in Politico.  His view is that the president will need to get directly involved in making the case for liberalization if he wants his trade agenda to succeed.  Presidential leadership no doubt will be essential.  Certainly few congressional Democrats would be eager to stick their necks out on behalf of freer trade, if they think the president might leave them high and dry by backing away from his commitment to Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track”), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But as I noted in a recent paper, it seems unlikely that the president is sufficiently committed to his trade agenda.  It also is unclear whether developments elsewhere in the world would permit him to devote the time and energy to trade issues that Mr. Sanchez correctly argues is needed.  That raises the question of whether other senior officials in the administration might be able to augment the president’s efforts. 

Would it be feasible for Vice President Joe Biden to play a useful role in achieving the administration’s trade objectives?  Biden knows Congress well and cast many trade votes during his career in the Senate.  He consistently voted in favor of trade liberalization in his early years, starting with the Trade Act of 1974.  Perhaps the Senate was a happier place then, with both parties placing relatively greater emphasis on keeping the United States actively engaged in strengthening the global economy.  Biden’s pro-trade voting record continued throughout the 1990s on behalf of trade policy initiatives – including NAFTA and the Uruguay Round – supported by President Clinton.  However, his approach appears to have changed rather abruptly when George W. Bush became president.  Since then Biden’s only pro-trade votes on major issues were to support the FTAs with Australia and Morocco in 2004.  He wrapped up his Senate career by voting against DR-CAFTA, Oman and Peru.

This background may position Biden to provide helpful outreach to members of Congress who have doubts about the administration’s trade agenda.  Since he has found himself voting both for and against market-opening initiatives, perhaps he would have credibility in explaining why liberalization is the right choice now.

Michelle Malkin Browses Colorado Marijuana Store

Michelle Malkin on her recent experience at a Colorado marijuana store:

For the past three months, my mother-in-law, Carole, whom I love with all my heart, has battled metastatic melanoma. After a harrowing week of hospitalization and radiation, she’s at home now. A miraculous new combination of oral cancer drugs seems to have helped enormously with pain and possibly contained the disease’s spread. But Carole’s loss of appetite and nausea persist.

A month ago, with encouragement from all of her doctors here in Colorado, she applied for a state-issued medical marijuana card. It still hasn’t come through. As a clerk at Marisol Therapeutics told us, there’s a huge backlog. But thanks to Amendment 64, the marijuana drug legalization act approved by voters in 2012, we were able to legally and safely circumvent the bureaucratic holdup. “A lot of people are in your same situation,” the pot shop staffer told us. “We see it all the time, and we’re glad we can help.”

Our stash included 10 pre-rolled joints, a “vape pen” and two containers of cheddar cheese-flavored marijuana crackers (they were out of brownies). So far, just one cracker a day is yielding health benefits. Carole is eating better than she has in three months. For us, there’s no greater joy than sharing the simple pleasure of gathering in the kitchen for a meal, with Grandma Carole at the head of the table.

Do I worry about the negative costs, abuses and cultural consequences of unbridled recreational pot use? Of course I do. But when you get past all the “Rocky Mountain High” jokes and look past all the cable-news caricatures, the legalized marijuana entrepreneurs here in my adopted home state are just like any other entrepreneurs: securing capital, paying taxes, complying with a thicket of regulations, taking risks and providing goods and services that ordinary people want and need. Including our grateful family.

Read the whole thing.

Flashback: Ms. Malkin reviewed my book After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.  Here’s a snippet: “The war on drugs is an expensive quagmire that needlessly punishes people who’ve already punished themselves beyond repair.”

For additional background, go here and here.

U.S. Policy Blunder Made Ukraine Vulnerable to Russian Coercion

There is a lot of hand wringing in Washington and other Western capitals about Russia’s sudden invasion and annexation of Crimea. But as I point out in a recent article in The National Interest Online, a policy that the United States adopted more than two decades ago made such an outcome nearly inevitable. The administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton bribed and pressured Kiev to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited upon the demise of the Soviet Union, thus making Russia the only nuclear-armed successor state.

As University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer pointed out at the time in Foreign Affairs, that policy was extremely myopic. He argued that a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent was “imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it.” In a prophetic passage, he added: “Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.”

The Crimea incident demonstrates how ill-advised it was for Ukraine to relinquish its inherited nuclear deterrent. Under intense U.S. pressure, Kiev discarded the one strategic asset that would have made the Kremlin exercise caution. Now, Ukrainians have no alternative but to accept a humiliating territorial amputation. Despite the abundance of rhetorical posturing, there is little that the United States and its European allies will or can do to prevent Russia from pursuing its goals regarding Ukraine—unless they are willing to risk a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed power in its own neighborhood. And no sane person advocates that. Even ultrahawks such as Senator John McCain concede that a U.S.-led military intervention is not an option.

True, if Ukraine had retained its nukes and Putin had nevertheless gone ahead with his military conquest of Crimea, that crisis would have been more dangerous than the current version. But it is highly improbable that the Kremlin would have adopted such a risky course against a nuclear-armed country. Moscow received a great geopolitical gift when Washington succumbed to its obsession to oppose nuclear proliferation in all cases, regardless of the strategic circumstances. That move effectively disarmed Ukraine and made it vulnerable to coercion by its much stronger neighbor. Both Ukraine and the United States are now paying the price for that policy blunder.

Visiting Nigeria: Tragic Failure, Greater Potential

ABUJA, NIGERIA—Arriving in Abuja, Nigeria results in an almost simultaneous impression of poverty and potential.  After decades of economic disappointment, even collapse, much of Africa is growing. Yet even its leading states, such as Nigeria, remain locked in an impoverished past and fail to live up to their extraordinary potential.

I’ve arrived with a journalist group organized by SLOK Holding Co., chaired by former Gov. Orji Uzor Kalu, a potential presidential contender. Although cities such as Abuja (Nigeria’s capital), Lagos (Nigeria’s most populous urban area), and Port Harcourt (dominated by the nation’s oil industry) enjoy significant development, poverty is never far away. 

In Lagos, wealth has created a genuine skyline on Victoria Island. Yet crowded streets filled with poor street vendors sit in the shadows of these fine structures. Electrical outages are constant, requiring any serious enterprise to maintain a generator. 

Rural Nigeria is much poorer. Even the main highways are in desperate need of minimal maintenance, while burned and rusted wrecks, stripped of anything useful, litter the sides and medians.

Trash is tossed alongside or piled in medians. Roads off the main drag are dirt, always rutted, often muddy, and barely adequate. Most shops are shacks built on dirt just feet from traffic. 

Still, hope remains. Every where in Nigeria I saw enterprise. Open-air markets, which seem to occur every couple miles, are bustling, with people dashing hither-and-yon selling most everything you can find in a department store or supermarket. At major intersections and along busy streets, people sit in the median and walk into traffic hawking most anything, including triangular hazard signs (quite appropriate given Nigeria’s roads!). 

Intellectual capital also is growing. Citizens of this former British colony typically speak English, the global commercial language. I visited a university filled with bright and engaging students hoping to make better lives for themselves and their country. 

Dan Snyder’s Indian Initiative

The owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder, has launched the Original Americans Foundation to “provide resources that offer genuine opportunities for tribal communities.” Snyder and his staff have recently visited a couple dozen Indian reservations, and they are determined to “work as partners to tackle the troubling realities facing so many tribes across our country.”

This sounds like a very worthwhile initiative. However, Snyder’s efforts so far seem to be focused on providing hand-outs, such as coats, shoes, and a backhoe. Such aid may provide short-term relief, but it will not change the long-term prospects of the many reservations that have deep-seated problems of poverty and economic stagnation.

If Snyder wants to drive fundamental change, I’d suggest that his new foundation focus on the need for institutional reforms in tribal governments and in the relationship between tribes and the federal government. Indian reservations are often lacking individual property rights to land, dependable security of contract, efficient administration, and impartial legal proceedings. As a result, they can be starved of commercial business lending, real estate development, entrepreneurship, and capital investment.

In this essay, I note that American Indians and the federal government have a long, complex, and often sordid relationship. The government has taken many actions depriving Indians of their lands, resources, and freedom. The aims of federal policies have gyrated wildly over two centuries, and most policies have failed, as is evident from the continued high poverty rates on many reservations.

These days, Congress often ignores the serious problems on Indian reservations that it played a large part in creating. Congress hands out subsidies, and it gives special preferences to those tribes that are good at lobbying, but it puts little effort into pursuing fundamental reforms that would benefit all reservations. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has long been one of the most dysfunctional agencies in government.

In sum, good for Dan Snyder in engaging on these issues. But I hope he uses his funding and influence to draw attention to the need for fundamental policy reforms.  

For more, see Indian Lands, Indian Subsidies, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Family Members Use Most Employment-Based Green Cards

Many critics of American immigration policy claim there is too much emphasis on family reunification and not enough on employment. It’s not a problem that families can reunify in the United States, but those critics are right that the American immigration system highly favors families – even in the employment-based green card category set-aside for workers.

The underlying issue is that the families of immigrant workers must use employment-based green cards. Instead of a separate green card category for spouses and children, they get a green card that would otherwise go to a worker. In 2012, 56 percent of all supposed employment-based green cards went to the family members of workers. The other 44 percent went to the actual workers. Some of those family members are workers, but they should have a separate green card category or be exempted from the employment green card quota of approximately 140,000 a year. If family members were exempted from the quota, or there was a separate green card for them, an additional 81,245 highly skilled immigrant workers could have entered in 2012 without increasing the quota.

In addition, 87.5 percent of those who gained an employment-based green card in 2012 were already legally living in the United States. They were able to adjust their immigration status from another type of visa, like an H-1B or F visa, to an employment-based green card. Exempting some or all of the adjustments of status from the green card cap would almost double the number of highly skilled workers who could enter.

Here are some other exemption options:

  • A certain number of workers who adjust their status could be exempted in the way the H-1B visa exempts 20,000 graduates of American universities from the cap.
  • Workers could be exempted from the cap if they have a higher level of education, like a graduate degree or a PhD.
  • Workers could be exempted if they show five or more years of legal employment in the United States.
  • Workers could be exempted based on the occupation they intend to enter. This is a problem because in involves the government choosing which occupations are deserving, but so long as it leads to a general increase in the potential numbers of skilled immigrant workers without decreasing them elsewhere, the benefits will outweigh the harms.