Tag: hillary clinton

Hillary Clinton Heads to Burma

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to the isolated nation of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in an attempt to spur the reform process. “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” said President Barack Obama of the troubled country. By visiting Burma Secretary Clinton can test the new government’s willingness to do more.

Of course, the Clinton initiative may fail. But the main argument for the policy change is not that it is certain to work, but that the alternative has failed. Isolating Burma has achieved nothing.

Burma long has been one of the most tragic of nations. The military regime brutally suppressed the democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even more deadly has been the half-century long battle with ethnic groups like the Karen, which have sought autonomy in the east.

The United States and Europe responded with sanctions, but to no avail. China took advantage to secure a position of political influence and economic dominance. The military regime continued to live up to its reputation for brutality and corruption.

Now there are “flickers of progress,” as the president suggested. A badly flawed election last year; a new, nominally civilian government; the release of a few political prisoners; liberty for Ms. Suu Kyi, who also has been meeting with government ministers; and a slight break between Burma and its chief patron, Beijing.

Individually these are but small changes, and the Burmese military has previously offered tantalizing reforms only to reverse course, intensifying its brutal suppression of any opposition. However, the combination of many small steps offers hope that something more real may be happening this time. Even Suu Kyi has expressed optimism, and is preparing to reenter politics—legally.

Equally important is the increasing evidence that Burma wants to balance the influence of its imperious neighbor China. For all of the worries in America about Beijing’s growing clout around the world, the People’s Republic of China is finding out—just as the United States discovered years ago—that friends can be expensive to buy and often don’t stay bought.

Engaging Burma could encourage that state to continue on a more independent course—separate from China. The regime isn’t likely to dump its patron, but any distance between the two would be progress. The PRC’s churlish reaction to the Clinton initiative suggests that Beijing is concerned.

An adjustment in U.S. policy toward Burma was sorely needed. Isolation resulted in few positive outcomes. For the most part Asian nations, even America’s friends, ignored U.S. and European sanctions. The regime did not fall; Suu Kyi was not freed; democracy did not come; the ethnic groups did not enjoy peace. The generals simply tightened their grip.

Although this policy failure long has been obvious, no one wanted to “reward” the Burmese regime by dropping economic penalties. This left U.S. policy stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Sanctions were ineffective, doing nothing to advance human rights. But they could not be changed for the sake of appearance.

Nascent reform in Burma now offers Washington an opportunity to shift course. No one should get their hopes up. The regime may intend to only adopt a few reforms as window-dressing to win Western aid. Even if the commitment to change is real, the road to a better life for the Burmese people remains long and hard.

Nevertheless, for the first time in years there truly are “flickers of progress” in Burma. The administration is right to try to turn these flickers into something more. A desperately poor and oppressed people deserve a better life.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Wednesday Links

Obama’s Power Problem, and Ours

I have an op-ed in Politico today that explores what I call President Obama’s power problem, a common theme in my work (my book is now in a Kindle edition!).

Simply stated, when a country has more military power than it needs to defend itself and its core interests, it will expand its definition of “the national interest.” This will, in turn, lead it to intervene militarily in places and disputes that have no connection to the country’s security. That certainly has been the pattern for the United States for at least the last two decades. The problem is nicely encapsulated in the famous exchange between Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, which Powell recounted in his memoir.

Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the UN, asked me in frustration “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.

This brings us to Libya, and to a new group of people who likely said something similar to Mike Mullen and Bob Gates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disagreements with Gates were on public display last Sunday, but reports of a whisper campaign within the administration, in which Clinton and her advisers were frustrated by President Obama’s unwillingness to deploy the U.S. military on yet another mission, have been flying around for weeks.

In the end, the Valkyries got their war. Clinton’s advice, along with that of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have all loudly called for U.S. military intervention in the past, convinced President Obama to override Gates and Mullen’s objections, and to launch what Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman aptly characterized yesterday as “just the most muddled definition of an operation probably in U.S. military history.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently returned to Princeton after a stint at State’s policy planning staff, was sniping from the sidelines.  Pressure from our European allies, especially France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron in the UK, also appears to have been decisive.

This is not so unique a set of circumstance, however, as I discussed with Cato Audio’s Caleb Brown a few days ago. Near the end of the interview, I focused on the particular challenges that confront the leader of a country whose military capabilities seem almost limitless:

I agree that it is difficult, it is very difficult, for the President of the United States to resist the impulse to intervene when he has people, many people, calling on him to do something. But it’s precisely because we have so much power, and because the temptation to use it is almost overwhelming, that a president has to have extraordinary discipline and say: “No. I was elected by the people of the United States to protect them, to keep this country safe and security, and if a mission does not advance those ends I will not do it.”

That is not the counsel of despair, and the counsel of inaction. On the contrary, there are many other countries, especially those in Libya’s immediate neighborhood, that have both a compelling  national security rationale and a moral rationale [to intervene]. And it’s precisely the combination of those factors that we, the United States, should have encouraged in the past, and we could have encouraged in this particular case. Instead, other countries waited for the United States to act,…

Caleb Brown, Cato Audio: And just the possibility the U.S. will act probably puts a lot of countries on the sideline…

Me: That’s correct…. Because of the expectation that the United States will act, it causes other people to wait it out. And sometimes, tragically, they wait it out too long. Because, again, the United States does not always intervene. There are a number of cases where we have not. And I fear that we have set up a system where, if the United States doesn’t act, nothing gets done, and I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think there are alternatives that will use other countries’ legitimate security interests to advance humanitarian ends.

You can listen to the whole clip here.

U.S. Should Stand With the Egyptian People

Oppressed people rarely get opportunities to express their anguish and disillusionment. Today in Egypt for the seventh straight day, thousands of ordinary citizens are pouring out onto the streets, demanding the expulsion of President Hosni Mubarak, calling for an end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention, and claiming the legitimate right to run their own country. It is well past time for U.S. policymakers to stand with the Egyptian people and rethink Mubarak’s purported role as an “anchor of stability” in the Middle East.

Many in Washington fear that the path Egypt takes after Mubarak might not lead to a freer and more prosperous future and that an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, will assume power. This concern, however legitimate, is largely beside the point.

First, the Ikhwan is popular for very legitimate reasons. Like Hezbollah, Ikhwan’s social-welfare programs provide Egyptians cheap education and health care. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has even formed a loose union with the movement, which over the years has become relatively more moderate.

Second, even if Egypt’s revolution does not bring about the political or economic freedom that Washington deems fit, it is not for the United States to decide whether Egyptians choose wisely the interests and concerns that lie within their limited grasp. Events have certainly moved quickly, and fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, but Americans should not be reluctant to embrace a political emancipation movement for fear that it might be worse than whatever it replaces. After all, history shows that forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel, often in spite of the United States. Even if the Brethren does take control, it’s emergence would be a natural consequence of the lifting of Mubarak’s repressive police state. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted repeatedly that Egypt’s future will be decided by the Egyptian people, not by Washington, even though the notion that U.S. officials can be neutral simply by not taking sides is demonstrably false, as protesters are being arrested by a U.S.-backed security apparatus and sprayed with tear gas manufactured in the United States.

Third, it is not clear at all that Mubarak is a reliable American client. Yes, he has kept peace with Israel, but the veneer of control under this Caesarist despot has faltered in the past several days. His curfew, rather than discourage Egyptians from rising up, has given them the opportunity to stand on the threshold of a political renaissance. In fact, reports on the ground suggest that lives may have changed completely. For instance, what was depicted over the weekend as a massive prison break was apparently Mubarak releasing criminals from jails in order to unleash terror in the streets and punish Egyptians for recent riots. Is Mubarak really the political figure that America should be supporting? Does this question really need to be asked?

The Obama administration can extend diplomatic support to a political emancipation movement in Egypt, thereby visibly abandoning its long-time dictatorial client and pushing other U.S.-backed autocrats to end censorship, political repression, and address their people’s demands for economic and political reforms. This change, however belated, can help salvage a decent relationship with a successor government and with the population of the country– similar to moves President Ronal Reagan made during the 1980s toward both South Korea and the Philippines. Although such a stance would likely do little to limit recruitment levels of militant outfits in North Africa, it does have the potential to substantially enhance America’s image in the Muslim world.

Although Mubarak has promised reforms, economic growth cannot act as a substitute for political liberty. Mubarak oversees a corrupt and exploitative political system that relies on patronage and cronyism. Economic opportunity and political expression have stagnated over the last fifty years (not just the last 30). Mubarak is now grasping at straws, pledging to institute economic reforms and policies that will just keep him in office longer. Despotic leaders like Mubarak love to adopt pseudo-economic reforms to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot endure. Sooner, rather than later, Washington and Cairo must acknowledge and embrace the Egyptian people’s instinctive desire for freedom.

C/P on The Huffington Post.

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

Obama Flip-Flops on the Individual Mandate (Again)

The individual mandate has been a tricky issue for Barack Obama, leading him to make some impressive self-reversals.

When campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama came out hard against an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, alleging that Clinton would garnish workers’ wages and that Massachusetts’ individual mandate has left many residents “worse off”:

He even dismissed an individual mandate by saying, “If a mandate was the solution, we could try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody buy a house”:

Once president, of course, Obama endorsed and signed into law both an individual mandate and an employer mandate.

During the debate over ObamaCare, Obama likewise mocked George Stephanopoulos – no really, he mocked the poor guy– for suggesting the individual mandate is a tax. Obama didn’t mince words: “I absolutely reject that notion.” The relevant exchange begins three minutes into this video:

Now, the Obama administration says the individual mandate is a tax. According to The New York Times:

When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”…

Administration officials say the tax argument is a linchpin of their legal case in defense of the health care overhaul and its individual mandate, now being challenged in court by more than 20 states and several private organizations.

(My colleagues Randy Barnett and Ilya Shapiro explain how this flip-flop shows the constitutional challenges to ObamaCare aren’t quite as frivolous as supporters claim.)

The next time Obama is in the mood to reverse himself on the individual mandate, he might consider this statement from June 2009:

When you hear people saying, “socialized medicine,” understand that I do not know anybody in Washington who is proposing that–certainly not me.

When the government makes health insurance compulsory, that is socialized medicine.  (Why else would ObamaCare win plaudits from Fidel Castro?) It would be nice to hear the president admit it.

Is Hillary Clinton Ignorant about Geography, Fiscal Policy, or Both?

Hillary Clinton recently opined that Brazil was a great role model for the idea of soaking the rich with higher tax rates. She didn’t really offer evidence for that specific assertion, but Politico reports that she did say that “Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere and guess what — they’re growing like crazy.”

I’m not sure if “growing like crazy” is an accurate description, particularly since poor nations normally have decent growth rates because they start from such a low baseline.

But let’s excuse that bit of rhetorical excess and focus on the really flawed portion of her remarks.

Contrary to her direct quote, Brazil does not have the “highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere.” It may have the highest tax burden in South America. And it may even have the highest tax burden in all of Latin America, but its overall tax burden of about 24 percent of GDP is slightly below the aggregate tax burden in the United States.

I suppose I should issue a caveat and say there’s a very slight chance that the recession has temporarily pushed U.S. tax receipts as a share of GDP below the Brazilian level, but that isn’t apparent from the IMF data. Moreover, there’s no doubt that the tax burden in Canada is significantly higher than the Brazilian burden.

So Secretary Clinton either was unaware that the United States and Canada are in the Western Hemisphere, or has no clue how to read fiscal statistics.

But let’s suspend reality and assume that Brazil has a higher tax-to-GDP ratio. Would that somehow be proof that Brazil is a role model for class-warfare taxation? There is no precise definition of that term, to be sure, but high tax rates on the rich presumably are a necessary component of any class-warfare system. Yet Brazil’s top tax rate is 27.5 percent. That’s not exactly a low-rate system such as Hong Kong, and it’s 27.5 percentage points higher than the zero-percent rate in the Cayman Islands, but it also happens to be significantly lower than the 35 percent (soon to be 39.6 percent) rate in the United States. If that’s class warfare, sign me up for the Brazilian approach.

I suppose it’s possible that Brazil’s top tax rate recently has been boosted, but that didn’t show up in a Google search. And even if the rate was just increased, that would hardly be proof of Secretary Clinton’s strange hypothesis that high tax rates and/or high tax-to-GDP rates are a magical formula for growth. That would require looking at future economic performance with the higher top tax rate, not the recent growth rates with the 27.5 percent top tax rate.

But pointing out Secretary Clinton’s mistakes seems a bit rude and I do like to be a gentleman, so let’s at least give her points for consistency. Earlier this year, she urged higher tax rates on the so-called rich in Pakistan, so at least she doesn’t discriminate in her desire to punish success.