Tag: Bush

The Great Writ

The BBC has put together an interesting documentary on the writ of habeas corpus, a legal concept most people have heard of, but too few understand and appreciate. You can stream it here.

We should not forget that President Bush and the coterie of lawyers around him tried to advance a theory of executive power that would have made the writ of habeas corpus worthless.  I hasten to add that President Obama has not really disavowed Bush’s claims and so the danger to the great writ has not passed just because Bush has left office.

Related video clip of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez here.  Related Cato work here, here,  and here.

There Is Some Budget Good News, but It Is Actually Really Bad News

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

Karl Rove’s Hypocritical Call for Fiscal Rectitude

Karl RoveEven though I’ve been in Washington for almost 25 years, I still get shocked by the deceit and double-talk that characterizes this town. A perfect example can be found in today’s Wall Street Journal, which features a column by Karl Rove attacking President Obama for fiscal incontinence. I’m a big fan of condemning Obama’s big-government schemes, but Rove is the last person in the world who should be complaining about too much wasteful spending. After all, he was the top adviser to President Bush and the federal budget exploded during Bush’s eight years, climbing from $1.8 trillion to more than $3.5 trillion. More specifically, Rove was a leading proponent of the proposals that dramatically expanded the size and scope of the federal government, including the no-bureaucrat-left-behind education bill, the two corrupt farm bills, the two pork-filled transportation bills, and the grossly irresponsible new Medicare entitlement program.

Not surprisingly, Rove even tries to blame Obama for some of Bush’s overspending, writing that “…discretionary domestic spending now stands at $536 billion, up nearly 24% from President George W. Bush’s last full year budget in fiscal 2008 of $433.6 billion. That’s a huge spending surge, even for a profligate liberal like Mr. Obama.” This passage leads the reader to assume that Obama should be blamed for what happened in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but as I’ve already explained, the 2009 fiscal year started about four months before Obama took office and 96 percent of the spending can be attributed to Bush’s fiscal profligacy. Yes, Obama is now making a bad situation worse by further increasing spending, but he should be criticized for continuing Bush’s mistakes.

Rove then has the gall to complain that Obama is “…growing the federal government’s share of GDP from its historic post-World War II average of roughly 20% to the target Mr. Obama laid out in his budget blueprint last February of 24%.” Yet a quick look at the budget data shows that the burden of federal spending jumped from 18.4 percent of GDP when Bush took office to more than 25 percent of economic output when he left office. Even if the (hopefully) temporary bailout costs are not counted, Bush and Rove are the ones who deserve most of the blame for today’s much larger burden of government. It should be noted, by the way, that none of the new spending under Bush was imposed over his objection. He did not veto any legislation because of excessive spending.

Finally, Rove concludes by writing that, “After a year of living in his fiscal fantasy world, Americans realize they have a record deficit-setting, budget-busting spender on their hands.” I’m almost at a loss for words after reading this sentence. All during the Bush years, I would complain to people in the Administration about wasteful spending. It didn’t matter whether I was talking to people at the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury Department, or the National Economic Council. They almost always expressed sympathy for what I was saying, and then complained that the decisions were being made by the “White House political people.”

There’s an old joke about chutzpah and it features a guy who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. Karl Rove has taken the joke to the next level, but there’s nothing funny about the consequences for America.

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.

It’s the End of 2009. Where Are Our Troops?

This is not the change we hoped for. President Obama rose to power on the basis of his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it. But after a year in the White House he has made both of George Bush’s wars his wars.

Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, candidate Barack Obama said, “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” The following month, under fire from Hillary Clinton, he reiterated, ”I was opposed to this war in 2002….I have been against it in 2002, 2003, 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8 and I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.”

Indeed, in his famous “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow” speech on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he also proclaimed, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when we ended a war.”

Now he has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to keep the war in Iraq going for another 19 months, after which we will have 50,000 American troops in Iraq for as far as the eye can see. If McCain had proposed this sort of minor tweaking of the Bush policy, I think we’d see antiwar rallies in 300 cities. Calling the antiwar movement!

President Obama’s promises are becoming less credible. He says that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future (“in July of 2011,” but “taking into account conditions on the ground”). Voters are going to be skeptical of both these promises to accelerate now and then put on the brakes later.

The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ – a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars – and should also remember the years of stagflation and slow growth that followed President Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state.

Comparing Vietnam and Afghanistan

Reports have leaked out over the past week that President Obama will announce that he is sending additional troops into Afghanistan. The only question seems to be whether he will send 30,000, 40,000 or some number in between. That is, frankly, not a very important issue.

And for all of his talk about “off ramps” for the United States if the Afghan government does not meet certain policy targets or “benchmarks,” the reality is that he is escalating our commitment. Since Obama has repeatedly asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not a war of choice, his talk of off ramps is largely a bluff—and the Afghans probably know it.

There are obvious hazards in equating one historical event with a development in a different setting and time period, but there are a couple of very disturbing similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. In both cases, U.S. leaders opted to try to rescue a failing war by sending in more troops. And in both cases, Washington found itself desperately searching for a “credible” leader who could serve as an effective partner in the war effort.

The United States never found such a leader in Vietnam, and was frustrated by a parade of repressive, corrupt, and ineffectual political figures. That experience sounds more than a little like the problem the Bush and Obama administrations have encountered with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. That fact alone suggests that our Afghanistan mission is not likely to turn out well.