Tag: Bush administration

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

The John Yoo Theory of Gun Control

A modest proposal: Suppose that we decide to streamline our inefficient criminal justice system by treating people under suspicion of involvement with violent crime—whether or not they’ve been arrested, charged, or even informed of this suspicion—as equivalent to convicted felons.  Suppose, then, that we permit them to be stripped of certain constitutionally protected rights at the discretion of the executive branch.

Outrageous?  Some depraved brainchild of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel?  Actually, it’s the editorial position of The New York Times:

Under federal law, people who pose a heightened risk of violence cannot buy or own firearms, including convicted felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and several other categories. Suspected terrorist is not one them.

Individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list can be barred from boarding airplanes, but not from purchasing high-powered guns or explosives. Bipartisan legislation in both houses of Congress would end this ridiculous loophole, commonly known as the “terror gap.

The Times does note, before dismissing the fact with the wave of a hand, that “thousands” of people have been found to be on the list improperly.  But let’s linger a bit longer over this.  The terrorist watch list, at last count, boasted about a million entries.  When you eliminate variant spellings and duplicate entries—and rest assured that this would be another enormous source of problems—there are about 400,000 unique individuals on the list, of whom some 20,000 are Americans. Thousands more are nominated for inclusion on the list each week.

Employ, for a moment, some common sense and arithmetic. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 people. (I should add: 19 people armed with box cutters.) If even one percent of those 20,000 were truly intent on staging violent domestic attacks, doesn’t it seem likely we would have noticed? To be sure, some small subset of them really are serious threats. They are probably the very people the government is actively investigating, and would prefer not to tip off by, say, having their attempted gun purchases denied.

There’s also, of course, an almost heartwarming faith in formal process here.  I can imagine circumstances where blocking someone at a point of sale might prevent bloodshed—some guy in the heat of passion or the haze of liquor acting on impulse to settle a score. But trained and fanatically committed terrorists, backed by the resources of an international network, who typically spend months or even years plotting significant operations? Are they serious? How does that conversation go? “No, no, I’m sorry Osama.  Yes, the Wal-Mart clerk, she would not sell us a pistol! I know, and after Ayman went to all that trouble making our fake passports by hand. I was disappointed too.  But I guess we’d better scrap the plan and head back to Yemen.”

What the other categories of “risky” people the Times lists have in common is  that they’ve been determined to be dangerous by a court, which is normally the process by which we go about depriving people of their rights. It seems perverse to depart from that principle precisely for the category of suspects least likely to be hampered by these sorts of limitations.

Spending Our Way Into More Debt

Huge deficit spending, a supposed stimulus bill, and financial bailouts by the Bush administration failed to stave off a deep recession. President Obama continued his predecessor’s policies with an even bigger stimulus, which helped push the deficit over the unimaginable trillion dollar mark. Prosperity hasn’t returned, but the president is persistent in his interventionist beliefs. In his speech yesterday, he told the country that we must “spend our way out of this recession.”

While a dedicated segment of the intelligentsia continues to believe in simplistic Kindergarten Keynesianism, average Americans are increasingly leery. Businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to invest and hire because of the uncertainty surrounding the President’s agenda for higher taxes, higher energy costs, health care mandates, and greater regulation. The economy will eventually recover despite the government’s intervention, but as the debt mounts, today’s profligacy will more likely do long-term damage to the nation’s prosperity.

Some leaders in Congress want a new round of stimulus spending of $150 billion or more. The following are some of the ways that money might be spent from the president’s speech:

  • Extend unemployment insurance. When you subsidize something you get more it, so increasing unemployment benefits will push up the unemployment rate, as Alan Reynolds notes.”
  • “Cash for Caulkers.” This would be like Cash for Clunkers except people would get tax credits to make their homes more energy efficient. Any program modeled off “the dumbest government program ever” should be put back on the shelf. 

  • More Small Business Administration lending. A little noticed SBA program created by the stimulus bill offered banks an “unprecedented” 100 percent guarantee on loans to small businesses. The program has an anticipated default rate of 60 percent. Small businesses need lower taxes and fewer regulations, not a government program that perpetuates more moral hazard.

  • More aid to state and local governments. State and local government should be using the recession to implement reforms that will prevent them from going on another unsustainable spending spree when the economy recovers. Also, we need fewer state and local government employees – not more – as they’re becoming an increasing burden on taxpayers.

The president said his administration was “forced to take those steps largely without the help of an opposition party which, unfortunately, after having presided over the decision-making that led to the crisis, decided to hand it to others to solve.” Mr. President, nobody has forced you to do anything. You’ve chosen to embrace – and expand upon – the big spending policies that were a hallmark of your predecessor’s administration.

Defending Obama…Again

I caught a lot of flack from my Republican friends for my post blaming the FY2009 deficit on Bush instead of Obama. Well, I must be a glutton for punishment because I can’t resist jumping (albeit reluctantly) to Obama’s defense again. I’m venting my spleen for two reason. First, FoxNews.com posted a story headlined “Obama Shatters Spending Record for First-Year Presidents” and noted that:

President Obama has shattered the budget record for first-year presidents – spending nearly double what his predecessor did when he came into office and far exceeding the first-year tabs for any other U.S. president in history. In fiscal 2009 the federal government spent $3.52 trillion …That fiscal year covered the last three-and-a-half months of George W. Bush’s term and the first eight-and-a-half months of Obama’s.

This story was featured on the Drudge Report, so it has received a lot of attention. Second, Bush’s former Senior Adviser wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal eviscerating Obama for big budget deficits. Given Bush’s track record, this took considerable chutzpah, but what really nauseated me was this passage:

When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.

I’m a big fan of criticizing Obama’s profligacy, but it is inaccurate and/or dishonest to blame him for Bush’s mistakes. At the risk of repeating my earlier post, the 2009 fiscal year began on October 1, 2008, and the vast majority of the spending for that year was the result of Bush Administration policies. Yes, Obama did add to the waste with the so-called stimulus, the omnibus appropriation, the CHIP bill, and the cash-for-clunkers nonsense, but as the chart illustrates, these boondoggles only amounted to just a tiny percentage of the FY2009 total – about $140 billion out of a $3.5 trillion budget.

There are some subjective aspects to this estimate, to be sure. Supplemental defense spending could boost Obama’s share by another $25 billion, but Bush surely would have asked for at least that much extra spending, so I didn’t count that money but individual readers can adjust the number if they wish. Also, Obama used some bailout money for the car companies, but I did not count that as a net increase in spending since the bailout funds were approved under Bush and I strongly suspect the previous Administration also would have funneled money to GM and Chrysler. In any event, I did not give Obama credit for the substantial amount of TARP funds that were repaid after January 20, so the net effect of all the judgment calls certainly is not to Bush’s disadvantage.

Let’s use an analogy. Obama’s FY2009 performance is like a relief pitcher who enters a game in the fourth inning trailing 19-0 and allows another run to score. The extra run is nothing to cheer about, of course, but fans should be far more angry with the starting pitcher. That having been said, Obama since that point has been serving up meatballs to the special interests in Washington, so his earned run average may actually wind up being worse than his predecessor’s. He promised change, but it appears that Obama wants to be Bush on steroids.

Bush v. Obama on Diplomacy

The Hill’s Congress blog has a regular series that provides policy experts a forum to discuss current topics of the day. This week, the editors posed this question:

President Obama has taken a very different approach to diplomacy than President Bush. Does the new approach serve or undermine long-term U.S. interests?

My response:

What “very different approach?” Sure, President Bush implicitly scorned diplomacy in favor of toughness, particularly in his first term. But he sought UN Security Council authorization for tougher measures against Iraq; a truly unilateral approach would have bombed first and asked questions later. By the same token, President Obama has staffed his administration with people, including chief diplomat Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who favored military action against Iraq and Serbia in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and were undeterred by the UNSC’s refusal to endorse either intervention.

There are other similarities. George Bush advocated multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, despite his stated antipathy for Kim Jong Il. President Obama supports continued negotiations with the same odious regime that starves its own people. Bush administration officials met with the Iranians to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. In the second term, President Bush even agreed in principle to high-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama likewise believes that the United States and Iran have a number of common interests, and he favors diplomacy over confrontation.

This continuity shouldn’t surprise us. Both men operate within a political environment that equates diplomacy with appeasement, without most people really understanding what either word means. Defined properly, diplomacy is synonymous with relations between states. As successive generations have learned the high costs and dubious benefits of that other form of international relations – war – most responsible leaders are rightly eager to engage in diplomacy. Perhaps the greater concern is that they feel the need to call it something else.

State Secrets, State Secrets Are No Fun

Despite Barack Obama’s frequent paeans to the value of transparency during the presidential campaign, his Justice Department has incensed civil liberties advocates by parroting the Bush administration’s broad invocations of the “state secrets privilege” in an effort to torpedo lawsuits challenging controversial interrogation and surveillance policies. Though in many cases the underlying facts have already been widely reported, DOJ lawyers implausibly claimed, not merely that particular classified information should not be aired in open court, but that any discussion of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” of detainees to torture-friendly regimes, or of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, would imperil national security.

That may—emphasis on may—finally begin to change as of October 1st, when new guidelines for the invocation of the privilege issued by Attorney General Eric Holder kick in. Part of the change is procedural: state secrets claims will need to go through a review board and secure the personal approval of the Attorney General. Substantively, the new rules raise the bar for assertions of privilege by requiring attorneys to provide courts with specific evidence showing reason to expect disclosure would result in “significant harm” to national security. Moreover, those assertions would have to be narrowly tailored so as to allow cases to proceed on the basis of as much information as can safely be disclosed.

That’s the theory, at any rate. The ACLU is skeptical, and argues that relying on AG guidelines to curb state secrets overreach is like relying on the fox to guard the hen house. And indeed, hours after the announcement of the new guidelines—admittedly not yet in effect—government attorneys were singing the state secrets song in a continuing effort to get a suit over allegations of illegal wiretapping tossed. The cynical read here is that the new guidelines are meant to mollify legislators contemplating statutory limits on state secrets claims while preserving executive discretion to continue making precisely the same arguments, so long as they add the word “significant” and jump through a few extra hoops. Presumably we’ll start to see how serious they are come October. And as for those proposed statutory limits, if the new administration’s commitment to greater  accountability is genuine, they should now have no objection to formal rules that simply reinforce the procedures and principles they’ve voluntarily embraced.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Americans Should Not Expect Much from Obama’s Visit to the UN

Barack Obama speaks at the UN general assembly. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/GettyPresident Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this morning, and his chairing of the UN Security Council on Thursday, is a grand attempt to tell the world–after eight years of George W. Bush–that the United States will no longer go it alone.

The president has a very difficult task, however, if he expects to invest the United Nations with renewed credibility. The UN is a weak and fractured institution, whose limited power and authority has been steadily undermined by a progression of U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. We should not forget that President Bill Clinton explicitly circumvented the UN Security Council when he chose to intervene militarily in Kosovo in 1999. Clinton’s evasion of the UNSC established a precedent for future military intervention that the Bush administration happily capitalized upon to send troops into Iraq in 2003.

Susan Rice, our current UN ambassador, endorsed this approach in 2006 when she called for U.S. military action against Sudan. Prior UN approval of such a mission was unlikely, but ultimately unnecessary, Rice argued at the time, because of the precedent set by President Clinton in Kosovo.

For American policymakers who have demonstrated such disdain for the UN in the past to now profess great respect for the institution should not surprise us. The UN is only as relevant as the member states wish it to be. In areas of common concern, the desire to cooperate and compromise may temporarily trump concerns over protecting state sovereignty and preserving freedom of action to deal with urgent security threats. In most cases, however, we can expect the member states, with the United States in the lead, to pursue policies that they believe (not always correctly, as we learned in Iraq) will advance their security. And if the UN weakly sanctions such actions after the fact, or refuses to do so, that will only reveal its irrelevance.