Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Presidents, Precedents, and Perpetual War

Good news: after nearly three months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the branding’s finally caught up to the bombing. Our latest war in the Middle East finally has a name: “Operation Inherent Resolve” is what we’re calling it, the Pentagon recently announced. DoD planners had initially rejected that name as uninspiring and “just kind of bleh,” but after several weeks of fruitless searching, they’ve decided it’s the best we can do.

Get Excited! (Photo Credit: Dept. of Defense)Here’s Defense.gov’s banner graphic for “Operation Inherent Resolve”: simple, spare, sort of Sisyphean. 

Actually, with its air of uninspired resignation, “Inherent Resolve” suits well enough, even if something like “Operation Eternal Recurrence” might have fit better. But it surely says something that, as with hurricanes, we’re running out of cool names for the wars presidents launch.

Now that we know what to call it, what should we make of Obama’s latest military intervention and how it fits into the president’s emerging legacy on constitutional war powers? Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Waxman have an important piece on that subject in the New Republic, arguing that “it is Obama, not Bush, who has proven the master of unilateral war.” “The war powers precedents Obama has established,” they explain, “will constitute a remarkable legacy of expanded presidential power to use military force.”

It’s a remarkable legacy, all right, though I might put somewhat less emphasis on “precedent” as such. Taken individually, as Goldsmith and Waxman acknowledge, very few of Obama’s actions are wholly unprecedented. But taken as a whole, the president’s approach to war powers begins to look like something new under the sun. As I argued recently at The Federalist, Obama will “go down in history as a ‘transformational’ president, having completed America’s transformation into a country where continual warfare is the post-constitutional norm.”

The Costs of Ebola: Guinea and Sierra Leone

For a clear snapshot of a country’s economic performance, a look at my misery index is particularly edifying. The misery index is simply the sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. 

The epicenter of the Ebola crisis is Liberia. My October 15, 2014 blog reported on the level of misery in and prospects for Liberia.

This blog contains the 2012 misery indexes for Guinea and Sierra Leone, two other countries in the grip of Ebola. Yes, 2012; that was the last year in which all the data required to calculate a misery indexes were available. This inability to collect and report basic economic data in a timely manner is bad news. It simply reflects the governments’ lack of capacity to produce. If governments can’t produce economic data, we can only imagine their capacity to produce public health services.

With Ebola wreaking havoc on Guinea and Sierra Leone, the level of misery is, unfortunately, very elevated and set to soar.

Preliminary Results in Ukraine

Update: The results are finally in. With 98.5% of votes counted, Western-leaning parties (and independents) have done even better than expected, taking 311 seats. Pro-Russian parties took 112 seats, while 27 seats (mostly Crimean districts) remain unfilled.  In other good news, the populists, though represented in the parliament, did relatively poorly: Lyashko’s Radical Party took only 22 seats. Far right parties did even worse, with Svoboda obtaining only 6 seats, and Right Sector 2 seats. These results mark a major change for the Rada, which has typically had parliaments split almost 50/50 between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian parties, and will certainly presage a turn to the West for Ukraine. Unfortunately, Russia has also committed to recognize the results of the Nov 2nd rebel elections in Luhansk and Donetsk. The Rada election results are a major victory for pro-Western democracy, but the crisis in Ukraine is not over. 

Original Post: Yesterday, Ukrainian voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament, replacing the deputies elected prior to the Euromaidan protests of early 2014. In a piece at Al-Jazeera America published on Sunday, I highlighted a few ways in which the election results could impact Ukraine’s future relations with Europe, Russia, and the resolution of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. Prior to the vote, a high level of uncertainty about the likely makeup of the Rada - especially the election of far right (ie, Svoboda or Right Sector) or populist parties (ie, Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party) – was a major concern, as was the uncertainty over whether they might be represented in government. A new governing coalition will be instrumental in the resolution of the conflict, shaping how aggressively Ukraine pursues the rebels in the Donbas region.

Fortunately, initial exit polls today indicate reasonably positive results. The three mainstream pro-Western parties did well, with the Poroshenko bloc polling around 22.2%, the Popular Front at 21.8%, and surprise contender Samopomich, a Lviv-based moderate party, polling at 14%. These results are excellent news, as a governing coalition with no far right or populist elements should be possible. The far right party Svoboda will be represented in parliament, as will the populist Radical Party, but the latter did worse than expected, taking home only around 6% of the vote. Rounding out the major parties, Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland party also did worse than expected, taking just over 5% of the vote. The main surprise is the success of the Opposition Bloc, a successor to Yanokovich’s Party of Regions, which was not expected to obtain seats, but instead took around 7% of the vote.

These results are extremely preliminary, and as with pre-election polling, only give a broad national figure for how people voted. Thus, they predict the 225 seats which are allotted by proportional representation from them, but the remaining 225 seats are elected in each individual district, for which we have no exit polling data. The parties associated with Petro Poroshenko are expected to do well, but these are also likely to yield high numbers of independent candidates.  Full results are expected by Thursday morning.

Until we know the final makeup of the new Rada, as well as which parties ultimately will form the coalition government, it’s difficult to assess how the results will impact the ongoing crisis. Many citizens in Crimea and the Donbas were indeed unable to vote, disenfranchising as much as 19% of the population. The overwhelmingly pro-Western nature of the parties elected may be a double-edged sword: it will be popular with Western politicians, but it is in part a reflection of the disenfranchisement of Eastern Ukraine, and will not be truly representative. Despite this, Russian leaders appear to have accepted the results, signaling, hopefully, a willingness to work with Kiev in the future. Whether any government will be able to tackle Ukraine’s myriad problems is unclear. But while full electoral results will give us a better idea of what to expect from a new Ukrainian government, for now, the indications are reasonably positive. 

Bulgaria: Liquidate KTB, Now

The long-awaited audit of the Corporate Commercial Bank’s (KTB’s) assets has been released by the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB). In its wake, a debate has arisen about the future of the KTB: Should it be recapitalized? And if KTB is recapitalized, should the Bulgarian or the European authorities be responsible? However, it is clear from the results of the audit that, once the obscurity of the technocratic arguments is stripped away, there can be no debate. KTB should be liquidated as soon as possible, and whatever proceeds can be obtained in liquidation should be used to reimburse guarantees to depositors paid from the Bulgarian Deposit Insurance Fund (BDIF).

KTB should be liquidated because it is not, and apparently never has been, a commercial bank. Had KTB been operated according to commercial banking principles, it would be virtually impossible for KTB to destroy value on the scale witnessed by the independent auditors. As of September 30, 2014, the auditors estimate that 76% of the asset value in KTB’s non-financial loan portfolio, which accounts for 80% of KTB’s assets, has been lost.

Losing 76% on a commercial loan portfolio must be put into perspective. In making loans, commercial banks generally require a senior secured position. This means that in the event of default, the bank may take collateral from the borrower and use the proceeds from selling the collateral to recover the bank’s principal, prior to any other creditor. From 2003 to 2012, Standard and Poor’s found that European lenders recovered 78% of their principal, on average, from defaulted loans with these characteristics. Even where defaulted loans were not secured by collateral, European lenders averaged a 48% recovery rate. Compare these recovery rates to KTB’s pathetic implied recovery rate of 24%, and it becomes clear that KTB was not operating as a real bank.

The KTB audit report tells a story in which KTB blatantly ignored the basic pillars of commercial lending. According to the report, there is little evidence that initial loan underwriting and subsequent credit monitoring ever took place at KTB.

If KTB’s management were just grossly incompetent, it would be bad enough. But it appears they were also criminals. The BNB is forwarding the audit results to the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office. The auditors state that KTB lied to and misled BNB banking supervisors, and engaged in transactions with no evident commercial purpose. The suspicion of criminal activity is just another reason why KTB should be liquidated, now.

U.S. Is Losing (Has Lost?) the War on Drugs in Afghanistan

After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion spent on counternarcotic operations, the results are in: the United States has lost the “war on drugs” in Afghanistan, although few U.S. officials are willing to admit it. According to this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), poppy cultivation is actually at an all-time high, over 8 percent higher in 2013 than the previous peak in 2007.

And, with the United States slated to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, the problem is likely to get worse. According to the report, given the “deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Some observers are more optimistic, however. A letter from the U.S. embassy in Kabul states that the United States is “making good progress in building the capacity of [its] Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade.”

It’s difficult to understand their optimism. The embassy letter, which is included in the SIGAR report, admits that “poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where the governance is weak and security is inadequate.”

Looking ahead, however, unless one believes—contrary to all evidence—that Afghan government control will expand into these areas as the U.S. military presence shrinks, that should translate to more poppy cultivation, not less. The embassy curiously refused to come to that conclusion.

Washington’s war on drugs in Afghanistan, like its war on drugs in the Americas, tries to defy the most basic law of economics: supply and demand. And it’s having tragic effects, as my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has observed for years (including especially here and here). So long as the world’s appetite for drugs remains high, willing sellers will be there to satiate it.

It is hardly surprising that a prohibitionist strategy didn’t work in Afghanistan. It is surprising that some thought it would, or still might, given that it has failed everywhere else.

Americans Don’t Know How Good They Have It

CAIRO—“I could be arrested when I leave here,” said a journalist who I met at the tiny Marriott near Cairo’s Tahir Square.  A student activist observed that he could be detained at any time. 

A veteran human rights activist calmly stated:  “Some of our groups will be closed.  Some of us will be imprisoned.  It is inevitable.”

Most foreigners travel to Egypt to play tourist.  I visited with a human rights delegation, reminding me yet again about how lucky Americans—and, indeed, most Westerners—are.

Most important are the basic characteristics of a free society.  The rule of law.  Civil liberties.  Criminal procedures.  Legal safeguards.  Democratic processes. 

Obviously, even nations which purport to have all of these often fall short.  However, few Americans or Europeans, or citizens of democratic Asian nations live in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, and torture. 

In Egypt the uncertainty began when arriving.  On both of my trips the government knew our delegation was coming.  Both times I was pulled aside. 

On the first trip an entry guard took my passport and I waited for an hour before officials returned it and waved me on.  The second time after far shorter delay security officials formally welcomed me—after asking for my phone number and hotel destination. 

Of course, the U.S. occasionally stops people from entering, but not typically because they want to assess America’s human rights record.  Even after leaving the arrivals area on my first trip I had to wait again while the videographer joining us unsuccessfully attempted to persuade officials to let him bring in his camera. 

Both visits were filled with interviews—relating all sorts of harrowing stories.  Most every society has injustice and errors are sadly common in U.S. jurisprudence.  However, most Americans don’t expect a visit to a friend to turn into a stint in prison.

In Egypt for reasons of political repression and personal revenge people face arbitrary arrest, perpetual detention, fraudulent trials, and horrific imprisonment.  Some of the accounts we heard could be exaggerated or even false, but reports from people in many walks of life and across the political spectrum suggested that the slightest resistance to state authority risks freedom and even life.

Ebola Travel Restrictions – Marginal Measures

The recent story of a Liberian man in Dallas who had Ebola sparked a political conflagration around travel restrictions for countries where there are Ebola cases. The virus does not appear to have spread from him to anyone that did not come into direct contact with him in the Dallas hospital.

Many are arguing that his arrival in the United States means that all travel from the affected West African countries should be shut immediately. Others are arguing that travel should remain as open as it currently is – which is still heavily restricted. 

What happened to policy responses on the margin

Fortunately, the federal government took a marginal action yesterday. Fliers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will have to enter through one of five ports of entry and undergo an interview as well as a temperature check once they arrive in the United States. These restrictions are far less than the total ban sought by some folks and still more restricted than the current system  These checks do not interrupt the flow of aid to these West African countries either and will affect roughly 150 travelers per day.

Immigration or movement restrictions for legitimate health concerns are proper and already written into law. Travel restrictions to contain viruses different than Ebola have not been successful in the past. Ebola is far less communicable than the flu so the comparison to previous travel bans might not be appropriate.  

Americans have a very low chance of contracting Ebola while in the United States, let alone dying from it. The only person to die from Ebola in the United States contracted it in Liberia. I took a bigger risk of dying from a traffic accident this morning commuting to the office than I will ever face from Ebola.

More Americans are killed every year from their furniture than all Americans who have died from that dreaded hemorrhagic fever.

Those Americans who worry about Ebola focus on the freakishly high death rates for those who contract the virus – 50 percent for most strains of the virus (only 20 percent of Americans who have contracted Ebola have died.) But the death rate is not the most important figure; the chance of contracting the virus in the first place is the most important factor. 

So far, two American nurses who treated the Liberian man contracted Ebola from him. Both nurses are recovering. For the rest of us, that means the chances of contracting Ebola is about zero. No matter the death rate, a zero chance of contracting the disease means we will not die from it.     

Still, a few marginal precautions, like those put in place by the federal government, will impose a very small temporary cost and likely stop any future Ebola patients from coming to the United States on a commercial flight.    

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