Tag: intervention

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

Afghan_SigmaMatt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

It’s Not About the Speech to Schoolchildren

The reaction to President Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren and the lesson plans sent out by the Dept. of Ed have sparked a firestorm of criticism and accusations about indoctrination, etc.

Many, many people just can’t understand what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a pep-talk about doing well in school and working hard. Sure, there was some language promoting Obama and political leaders. But who cares? It’s just a brief speech by the President after all. Just like Bush the Elder gave in gentler times (which got him a Congressional investigation).

Many are asking the same questions about a number of issues these days. Why the outrage over the deficit? Where were the complaints when Bush the Younger ran it up? Why so exercised about the government health option? Don’t we have Medicare and Medicaid?

Of course Cato scholars, libertarians and many conservatives have criticized these things all along. For some, the new sensitivity, the emotion, is the result of the proverbial straw on a camel’s back, the accumulation of dissatisfaction with various aspects of the government over decades. And what has changed for others is the pace and scope of government expansion at the close of the Bush presidency and the dawn of Obama’s.

The furious reaction to the politicized lesson plan and Obama’s speech to schoolchildren cannot be understood without the context of the bailouts, the stimulus, the debt, GM, the attempt to take over health care.

And now, our kids. And not just the speech and lesson plan, but federal expansion into preschool and early childhood initiatives and home visitations (however voluntary and innocuous-seeming in different times).

They … the government, the meddlers, the nannies … they are coming for our money, our doctors, our guns and our kids. They won’t stop until they control everything.

That’s how it looks to millions of Americans. Fair or not, people are now very sensitive to any actions by the Obama administration.

Just as a lifetime of exposure to an allergen and modest immune reactions can reach some ill-defined tipping point and bloom into full-blown anaphylaxis, many Americans have developed an acute allergy to government intervention and Obama’s grand plans.

In isolation, the reaction to this speech seems wild. Given the context, it’s completely understandable.

Afghanistan Now Is Truly Barack Obama’s War

Afghanistan is voting for president. Unfortunately, the outcome, even if a fair result, is unlikely to matter much. The war will continue.

In 2008 President Barack Obama was seen as the anti-war candidate.  In fact, his reputation reflected his prescient opposition to the Iraq war, but he said little to suggest that he was out of sync with Washington’s interventionist consensus.

We see his status quo foreign policies with his support for continued NATO expansion as well as maintaining American garrisons around the globe, including in South Korea and Japan.  But his escalation in Afghanistan most obviously demonstrates that he is a man of the interventionist left.

He is now making it clear that Afghanistan is his war.  Reports Reuters:

President Barack Obama will seek to shore up U.S. public support for the war in Afghanistan on Monday just days before an Afghan presidential election widely seen as a major test of his revamped strategy.

Obama will address a military veterans group in Phoenix at a time when U.S. combat deaths are rising amid a troop buildup against a resurgent Taliban, and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year-old war.

Hoping to reassure Americans, Obama is expected to sketch out why he believes the Afghanistan policy he unveiled earlier this year is working and why the United States must remain committed to stabilizing the war-ravaged country.

The political risks for him are enormous.  Anything bad that happens in Iraq can be blamed on George W. Bush.  But any failure in America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan – and failure is the most likely outcome in any nation-building in Afghanistan – will be seen as his responsibility.

And American and other coalition military personnel, as well as the Afghan people, will pay the price.

What Fed Independence?

More than 250 economists have signed an “Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch” calling upon them to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”

Allan Meltzer is not a signatory to the petition and he has explained why not.  The Fed has frequently not shown independence in the past, and there is no reason to expect it to do so reliably in the future.  Professor Meltzer has just completed a multi-volume history of the Fed and knows all-too-well of the Fed’s willingness to accommodate the policies of administrations from FDRs to Lyndon Johnson’s. 

I would add that the Fed’s behavior under Chairman Bernanke breaks new ground in aligning the central bank’s policy with Treasury’s.  Much of what the Fed has done, first under Bush/Paulson, and now under Obama/Geithner, involves credit allocation.  Since that ultimately involves the provision of public money for private purpose, it is pre-eminently fiscal policy.  Central bank independence is a fuzzy concept.  If it means anything, however, it is that monetary policy is conducted independently of Treasury’s fiscal policy.

In short, it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control.  The Fed is a creature of Congress and ultimately answerable to that body. 

The petition raises legitimate concerns about whether the Fed will be able to tighten monetary policy when the time comes, and exit from its interventions in credit markets.  But it is precisely the Fed’s own recent actions that raise those problems.  Critics of recent Fed policy actions have for some time complained that the Fed has no exit strategy.  Apparently the critics are now going to be blamed for the Fed’s inability to extricate itself from its interventions.

Cross-posted at ThinkMarkets

Intervention Begets Intervention, Which Begets…

The logic in Washington is ineluctable.  If government provides money, then it needs to impose regulations.  If the government takes ownership, then it must provide management.

Bail out the banks.  Set bankers’ salaries.  Bail out the insurers.  Decide on corporate bonuses.

And if the government takes over the automakers, then it should run the automakers.  That, of course, means deciding who can be dealers. 

Reports the Washington Post:

Now that the Obama administration has spent billions of dollars on the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, Congress is considering making its first major management decision at the automakers.

Under legislation that has rapidly gained support, GM and Chrysler would have to reinstate more than 2,000 dealerships that the companies had slated for closure.

The automakers say the ranks of their dealers must be thinned in order to match the fallen demand for cars. But some of the rejected dealers and their Capitol Hill supporters argue that the process of selecting dealerships for closure was arbitrary and went too far.

Since federal money has been used to sustain the automakers, they say Congress has an obligation to intervene.

At a gathering of dozens of dealers who came to Capitol Hill yesterday to lobby their representatives, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and several other congressmen spoke in support of the dealers. More than 240 House members have signed onto the bill, supporters said.

“We are going to stand with them for as long as it takes,” Hoyer told an approving crowd.

What is next?  Congress deciding the prices that should be charged for autos?  The accessories to be offered?  The colors cars should be painted?

I have no idea who should or should not be an auto dealer.  But I do know that it is a decision which should not be made in Washington, D.C.

Why Promiscuous Bail-Outs Never Was a Good Idea

Jeffrey A. Miron explains in Reason why a government bail-out of most everyone was neither the only option nor the best option:

When people try to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the introduction of derivatives, or the increase in securitization, or the failure of ratings agencies, it’s important to remember that the magnitude of both boom and bust was increased exponentially because of the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that if things went badly, the government would bail us out. And in fact, that is what the federal government has done. But before critiquing this series of interventions, perhaps we should ask what the alternative was. Lots of people talk as if there was no option other than bailing out financial institutions. But you always have a choice. You may not like the other choices, but you always have a choice. We could have, for example, done nothing.

By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.

With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it’s useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.

From the distributional perspective, the choice is a no-brainer. Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds. Under bankruptcy, on the other hand, the people who take most or even all of the loss are the equity holders and creditors of these institutions. This is appropriate, because these are the stakeholders who win on the upside when there’s money to be made. Distributionally, we clearly did the wrong thing.

It’s too late to reverse history.  But it would help if Washington politicians stopped plotting new bail-outs.  At this stage, most every American could argue that they are entitled to a bail-out because most every other American has already received one.

Week in Review: A Speech in Cairo, an Anniversary in China and a U.S. Bankruptcy

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

cairoIn Cairo on Thursday, President Obama asked for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and spoke at some length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cato scholar Christopher Preble comments, “At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups. …That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising.”

Preble goes on to say:

He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions — including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda — that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

David Boaz contends that there are a number of other nations the president could have chosen to deliver his address:

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism…. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsquare1It has been 20 years since the tragic deaths of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and 30 years since Deng Xiaoping embarked on economic reform in China. Cato scholar James A. Dorn comments, “After 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.”

In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Dorn discusses the perception of human rights in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying that many young people are beginning to accept the existence of human rights independent of the state.

A few days before the anniversary, social media Web sites like Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Cato scholar Jim Harper says that it’s going to take a lot more than tanks to shut down the message of freedom in today’s online world:

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if. Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

Taxpayers Acquire Failing Auto Company

After billions of dollars were spent over the course of two presidential administrations to keep General Motors afloat, the American car company filed for bankruptcy this week anyway.

Last year Cato trade expert Daniel J. Ikenson appeared on dozens of radio and television programs and wrote op-eds in newspapers and magazines explaining why automakers should file for bankruptcy—before spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Which leaves Ikenson asking one very important question: “What was the point of that?

In November, GM turned to the federal government for a bailout loan — the one final alternative to bankruptcy. After a lot of discussion and some rich debate, Congress voted against a bailout, seemingly foreclosing all options except bankruptcy. But before GM could avail itself of bankruptcy protection, President Bush took the fateful decision of circumventing Congress and diverting $15.4 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to GM (in the chummy spirit of avoiding tough news around the holidays).

That was the original sin. George W. Bush is very much complicit in the nationalization of GM and the cascade of similar interventions that may follow. Had Bush not funded GM in December (under questionable authority, no less), the company probably would have filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 1, at which point prospective buyers, both foreign and domestic, would have surfaced and made bids for spin-off assets or equity stakes in the “New GM,” just as is happening now.

Meanwhile, the government takeover of GM puts the fate of Ford Motors, a company that didn’t take any bailout money, into question:

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock? Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated). Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered. Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother? And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.