Tag: united states

An Australian Perspective on Joe Wilson

wilsonWill you allow a foreigner to comment on something that has intrigued her about this great country?

All this hand-wringing and then censure (not to mention impeachment talk) over Rep. Joe Wilson’s admittedly rude intervention at President Obama’s speech last week has me baffled. Partly, it is because I come from a land that is governed by a parliamentary system, where Question Time is a much-loved institution. The offense (manufactured, perhaps) that Representative Wilson’s comment has caused is almost laughable when I think about some of the insults that have been hurled in both directions in Australia’s parliament. Here’s a collection of quotes from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating just for starters (warning: offensive language). Here is a Brit’s take on why American politicians are “a bunch of wimps.”

Mainly, though, I am surprised that questioning of power is not more valued in America. To be sure, the President of the United States is not answerable to Congress in the same way that Ministers (including Prime Ministers) are to a Westminster-system parliament, but I would have thought that questioning the president would be well within the bounds of a nation conceived in liberty and on the understanding that all men are created equal. You got rid of infallible kings in 1776, remember?

I get why the Democrats are making political hay out of Representative Wilson’s outburst, even if I think they are hypocrites for suddenly finding religion on civility, given their own history. And I thoroughly reject, by the way, the notion that much of the criticism directed towards Obama is based on racism, even if this sort of talk gives unfortunate credence to the claims. But those same Dems who are shocked (shocked!) by Joe Wilson’s behavior are right now allowing a tax cheat to pull the nation’s purse strings.

This focus on style – who says what, how they say it, what their motivations might be – over the substance of what the congressional and administrative branches of government are doing is tremendously disappointing. I have heard far more censorious talk about Joe Wilson’s character and the propriety (or lack thereof) of what he did than of the point he was making. Meanwhile, the Dems are keeping “internal” investigations of Charlie Rangel’s ethical violations very quiet indeed.

Quite frankly, I’m far more interested in those than I am in Joe Wilson’s rudeness.

Another Day, Another Tranche of Afghanistan Reading Material

Item: The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of concerned scholars and authors who work on international security and U.S. foreign policy, have issued an open letter to President Obama warning him not to expand U.S. involvement in that country.  (Full disclosure: I was a signatory.)  The list of signatories includes many of the scholars who urged President Bush not to invade Iraq.  Politico was the first to run the story: see here.

Item: Via Michael Cohen, former CIA counterterrorism honcho Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post to think through the concept of “safe havens” in Afghanistan.  His conclusion?

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key – and flawed – assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

Item: Michael Crowley offers a piece in the New Republic that strongly implies but doesn’t quite come out and say that President Obama should ignore the skeptics and the political risks and wade deeper into Afghanistan.  The piece swallows whole the conventional wisdom narrative on Iraq–that the Surge amounted not to a combination of defining down “victory” and appeasement of Sunni tribes but rather a borderline miracle whereby Gen. Petraeus loosed his wonder-working COIN doctrine on the maelstrom of violence in that country and produced a strategic victory.  Crowley then uses this narrative to frame the decision before President Obama.  Still, he writes

[I]f the definition of success isn’t clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become “the central front in the war on terror” and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don’t publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. “The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” Riedel said. “[T]he stakes are enormous.”

Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there–including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”–a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. “The president has boxed himself in,” says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. “The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we’re in a war.”

Lots to chew on.

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.

Hillary: The Movie

The Supreme Court is soon to hear a case that may drastically roll back campaign finance regulation in the United States:

The case involves “Hillary: The Movie,” a mix of advocacy journalism and political commentary that is a relentlessly negative look at Mrs. Clinton’s character and career. The documentary was made by a conservative advocacy group called Citizens United, which lost a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission seeking permission to distribute it on a video-on-demand service. The film is available on the Internet and on DVD. The issue was that the McCain-Feingold law bans corporate money being used for electioneering.

The right position for the Court is that McCain-Feingold, and all other campaign finance regulation, constitutes unconstitutional limitation on free speech. This means reversing the Court’s 1974 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which held that government limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional but limits on contributions were not.

This distinction is meaningless. If it is OK for a millionaire to spend his own money promoting his own campaign, why can he not give that money to someone else, who might be a more effective advocate for that millionaire’s views, so that this other person can run for office?

More broadly, campaign finance regulation is thought control: it takes a position on whether money should influence political outcomes. Whether or not one agrees, this is only one possible view, and freedom of speech is meant to prevent government from promoting or discouraging particular points of view.

It would be a brave step for Court to reverse Buckley, but it is the right thing to do.

For more background on the case, watch this:

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Obama Administration Sides With Special Interests and Status Quo on Sugar Imports

Pardon me while I pile on the post earlier today by my colleague Sallie James about the Obama administration refusing to allow more sugar to be imported to the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week declined to relax the quotas the federal government imposes on imported sugar despite soaring domestic prices and understandable complaints from U.S. confectioners and other sugar-consuming businesses about potential shortages.

For all his talk about change, President Barack Obama has shown no inclination to pursue meaningful reform of U.S. agricultural programs. He supported the subsidy-laden and protectionist farm bill that finally passed Congress in 2008. On the eve of the U.S. presidential election in October 2008, he wrote a letter to the U.S. sugar industry reminding growers that they were one special interest that had nothing to fear from an Obama administration.

In his letter, he offered the sugar lobby this assurance:

With respect to the sugar program specifically, while it’s true I have had concerns about the program, I will commit to listening and working with you in the future to ensure that we have a safety net that works for all of agriculture.

He then went on to criticize his opponent John McCain for opposing the farm bill and voting consistently against the sugar program (or, as Obama put it, “against sugar growers”).

In my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I call the sugar program “the poster boy for self-damaging protectionism.” As I write in the book,

When the program is not raising prices for consumers at the store, it is savaging the bottom line for American companies. Artificially high domestic sugar prices raise the cost of production for refined sugar, candy and other confectionary products, chocolate and cocoa products, chewing gum, bread and other bakery products, cookies and crackers, and frozen bakery goods. Higher costs cut into profits and competitiveness, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy.

If the president is looking for good bedtime reading on why he should dump the sugar program, I suggest he go straight to pages 147, 154-55, 160-62, and 170-72.

More Anti-Drug Aid to Mexico?

The Washington Post reports that despite reports of widespread violence and human rights abuses since Mexico increased its fight against the drug trade, the U.S. government is considering pumping more money to their failing efforts:

The Obama administration has concluded that Mexico is working hard to protect human rights while its army and police battle the drug cartels, paving the way for the release of millions of dollars in additional federal aid.

The Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion assistance program passed by Congress to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, requires the State Department to state that the country is taking steps to protect human rights and to punish police officers and soldiers who violate civil guarantees. Congress may withhold 15 percent of the annual funds – about $100 million so far – until the Obama administration offers its seal of approval for Mexico’s reform efforts.

…In recent weeks, after detailed allegations in the media of human rights abuses, the Mexican military said that it has received 1,508 complaints of human rights abuses in 2008 and 2009. It did not say how the cases were resolved, but said that the most serious cases involved forced disappearances, murder, rape, robbery, illegal searches and arbitrary arrests. Human rights groups contend that only a few cases have been successfully prosecuted.

Sending additional anti-drug aid to Mexico is a case of pouring more money into a hopelessly flawed strategy. President Felipe Calderon’s decision to make the military the lead agency in the drug war–a decision the United States backed enthusiastically–has backfired. Not only has that strategy led to a dramatic increase in violence, but contrary to the State Department report, the Mexican military has committed serious human rights abuses. Even worse, the military is now playing a much larger role in the country’s affairs. Until now, Mexico was one of the few nations in Latin America that did not have to worry about the military posing a threat to civilian rule. That can no longer be an automatic assumption.

Washington needs to stop pressuring its neighbor to do the impossible. As long as the United States and other countries foolishly continue the prohibition model with regard to marijuana, cocaine, and other currently illegal drugs, a vast black market premium will exist, and the Mexican drug cartels will grow in power. At a minimum, the United States should encourage Calderon to abandon his disastrous confrontational strategy toward the cartels. Better yet, the United States should take the lead in de-funding the cartels by legalizing drugs and eliminating the multi-billion-dollar black market premium.

Appointing Another Supreme Commander of NATO

The Obama administration has just carried out one of its standard rituals – choosing a new commander of NATO.  But why are we still in NATO?

Reports the New York Times:

When Adm. James G. Stavridis took over the military’s Southern Command in late 2006, his French was excellent but he spoke no Spanish. Not content to rely on interpreters, he put himself on a crash course to learn the language.

Over the next three years, his fluency was measured not only in the high-level meetings he conducted in the native tongue of his military hosts. He also read the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate from Colombia, in the original rich and lyrical Spanish.

Now Admiral Stavridis’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has given him a new assignment, which starts Tuesday.

“Jim must also learn to speak NATO,” Mr. Gates said.

As the new American and NATO commander in Europe, Admiral Stavridis, 54, becomes the first naval officer appointed to a position previously held by famed ground-warfare generals.

It is two jobs in one, as he oversees all American forces under the United States European Command and — far more important today — serves as the supreme allied commander, Europe, NATO’s top military position. He takes the NATO command as the future viability of the alliance is tested by whether he can rally members to make good on their promises to the mission in Afghanistan.

Adm. Stavridis obviously is a talented officer.  Alas, his chance of winning more meaningful support from the Europeans for the mission in Afghanistan is nil.  The Europeans don’t want to fight, especially in a conflict which they don’t view as their own.

But the most important question these days should be:  why does NATO still exist – at least, a NATO dominated by America?  No one, not even Russia, threatens “Old Europe.” 

Moreover, Europe is well able to defend itself.  The continent has a collective GDP more than ten times that of Russia, and even larger than that of America.  Europe’s population, too, is bigger than those of both Russia and the U.S.  The Europeans needed America’s military aid during the Cold War.  But no longer.

What of the Eastern Europeans, who worry more about Moscow?  We should wish them well, but we have no cause to threaten war on their behalf.  Security guarantees should not be distributed like party favors, inexpensive gifts for friends and acquaintances alike.  Rather, security guarantees should be issued to defend America.  It is hard to make the argument that, say, Albania, is relevant to America’s security, let alone vital to it.  Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we should start reshaping our alliance commitments to reflect our vital interest.