Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Close Washington to Dismantle the Welfare-Warfare State

The GOP is attempting to defund ObamaCare by holding the federal government hostage.  Congressional Republicans say:  Cut the spending or Uncle Sam will have to stay home. 

Unfortunately, while the public doesn’t favor President Obama’s plan to nationalize American health care, people seem even less enthused about Republican tactics.  Better would be a threat to close down the government because the government should be shuttered.  The GOP should seek to eliminate entire programs and agencies. 

Federal control of health care is a good place to start.  The U.S. medical system is a mess, but the government should not decide who gets how much health insurance in what form through whom. 

Moreover, as I wrote in Forbes online:

Corporate welfare should be another target.  Republicans rightly worry about perverse incentives created by welfare for the poor since federal programs have wrecked families and communities while discouraging education and work.  However, even less justified are a variety of payments to dependent businesses.  Export subsidies, research grants, farm subsidies, housing aid, regulatory preferences, and more.

There’s no better reason to underwrite smaller enterprises, through the Small Business Administration.  Is there really a critical scarcity of liquor stores requiring taxpayers to pay for additional ones? 

Some tasks, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, just aren’t Washington’s job.  Worrying about the construction of apartments and homes should be left to localities and states. 

Another unnecessary bureaucracy is the Department of Education.  The national government shouldn’t be trying to run local schools.  And why should lower-income taxpayers subsidize middle-class kids who want to become lawyers?

Grant the federal government authority to create parks involving uniquely scenic or otherwise special lands.  There’s still no reason for the Interior Department to own and manage hundreds of millions of acres of forest and range land. 

The Department of Defense possesses—at the sufferance of foreign governments—hundreds of properties abroad.  While maintaining cooperative relationships with foreign militaries as well as access to some of their bases is useful, the U.S. has no need for innumerable facilities and garrisons around the globe.  The U.S. should act as a back-up against the rare hegemonic threat that friendly states could not handle rather than the guardian against every mundane controversy and conflict that arises elsewhere.

Foreign facilities often are justified as logistical way stations for intervening in the Middle East or Central Asia.  However, Europe should provide the troops as well as the bases to deal with such hot spots as Egypt and Syria.  It would not be isolationism for America to more humbly and prudently engage the world.

Foreign aid should go the way of military intervention.  Even humanitarian assistance can have counterproductive impacts, while economic assistance has been a grand failure, doing more to subsidize debilitating collectivism than promote economic reform. 

There’s much at the Justice Department that should be eliminated.  Federal criminal law has exploded.  In some cases Congress makes crimes out of actions that should be left to civil punishment—environmental disputes, for instance.  Federal lawyers also have become the vanguard of political correctness, enforcing a racial spoils system under the guise of promoting affirmative action.

Other federal sacred cows also deserve challenge.  The Drug Enforcement Agency arrests people because they prefer to get intoxicated with drugs rather than alcohol.  There are scores of welfare and job training programs of dubious effectiveness.  If Washington moved from the income to a consumption tax, the IRS would be smaller and much less intrusive. 

While many people are criticizing Republicans for threatening to close the government over ObamaCare, there actually is good reason to go to the brink on shrinking the American Leviathan.  Washington meddles in Americans’ lives far more than the Founders ever imagined—and circumstances ever justified.  It’s time to reverse the process and really shut down government.

A Familiar Pattern of Futility in the International Drug War

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week that the production of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has shifted away from Colombia toward Peru.  Observers of the war on drugs are not surprised by that development. During the early and mid-1990s, drug warriors hailed the decline of coca production in Peru and neighboring Bolivia, thanks to a crackdown that Washington heavily funded through aid programs to Lima and La Paz, as a great victory in the crusade against illegal drugs.  They ignored the inconvenient fact that cultivation and production had merely moved from Peru and Bolivia into Colombia–and to a lesser extent into nearby countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil.

That phenomenon is known as the “balloon” or “push down, pop up” effect.  Strenuous efforts to dampen the supply of illicit drugs in one locale simply cause traffickers to move their production to other locations where the pressure is weaker for the moment.  When Washington and Bogotá launched Plan Colombia in 2000, the multi-billion-dollar, multi-year program to attack the coca industry in that country, cultivation and production gradually began to shift back to Peru and Bolivia.  The latest UN report confirms that trend.  As Ricardo Soberón, the former heard of Peru’s drug policy office, put it: “The carousel has come full circle.”  Adam Isacson, an expert on Latin American drug issues with the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that the new map of coca production “looks an awful lot like the old” map from the early 1990s.

The latest development underscores how proclamations of victory in the international war on drugs invariably prove to be ephemeral.  Trying to suppress the supply of a product that is in high demand is a classic case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The illegal drug trade is conservatively estimated to be a $350 billion per year industry, and global consumer demand is growing.  Even if a new crackdown in Peru causes a temporary disruption of the supply coming out of that country, all that we will see is a new “balloon” episode in neighboring states.  Indeed, there are indications that Brazil and Argentina already are becoming far more prominent participants in drug trafficking, in part because they are convenient transshipment points for sending drugs to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, where consumption is on the rise.

We have ample evidence over the course of many decades that drug prohibition does not work; a prohibition policy merely guarantees that violent criminal elements instead of legitimate business enterprises will control the trade.  Focusing on which countries are supplying most of the drugs at a particular moment, and cheering about a temporary victory in one arena, is an exercise in futility.

Germany Votes against Limited Government

The world’s most watched elections occur in America. The world’s most boring election just occurred in Germany. As expected, Chancellor Angela Merkel was effectively reelected.

The Federal Republic of Germany is the world’s most admired nation and possesses Europe’s largest economy. Berlin’s political and economic stability is the envy of the European Union.

Merkel has served as chancellor for eight years. A skilled political infighter, she exudes confidence and competence.

Germans rewarded her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), with 41.5 percent of the vote, well ahead of the more left-wing Social Democratic Party. However, the CDU/CSU fell five seats short of a parliamentary majority. And Merkel current coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, failed to receive the 5 percent of the vote necessary to be represented in the Bundestag.

Commentary on the election has focused on Merkel’s triumph. There is little doubt that she will remain chancellor. The only question is the identity of her coalition partner–and what price she will have to pay for that party’s support.

Ironically, policy isn’t likely to change very much as a result of the election. Merkel has steadily pulled her party leftward. Cem Ozdemir, co-chair of the Green Party, complained that the chancellor “becomes Green when it helps her and becomes a Social Democrat when that’s beneficial too.”

Alas, her policies helped wreck Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The Free Democrats were created in 1949 and have served in the Bundestag ever since. In 2009 they made their best showing ever, 14.6 percent. Now, with just 4.8 percent of the vote, they are out of the Bundestag.

Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

Today Cato released a new white paper, “The End of Overkill? Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy.” I am proud to have contributed to this effort with lead author Benjamin Friedman of Cato, and Matt Fay, a former Cato research assistant now enrolled in the History PhD program at Temple University. We argue that U.S. security does not require nearly 1,600 nuclear weapons deployed on a triad of systems—bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs)—to deliver them. We estimate that a smaller arsenal deployed entirely on submarines would save roughly $20 billion annually while deterring attacks on the United States and its allies.

The paper is part of a broader project, “From Triad to Dyad: Rationalizing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems,” made possible by the generous support of the Ploughshares Fund. The project began as a top-line review of the triad, but expanded into a more comprehensive study of U.S. nuclear strategy and policy. Over the last year, we presented our preliminary findings at over a dozen public events in ten different cities, as well as several engagements here in Washington, D.C. This process generated useful feedback along the way.

Here are a few excerpts from “The End of Overkill?”:

On Iran, Would U.S. Take “Yes” for an Answer?

Since the election of relative moderate Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency, there’s been a wave of events producing a newfound optimism about the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama sent a letter congratulating Rouhani on his victory and mentioning other, unspecified issues, and Rouhani reciprocated. Obama told Telemundo he saw Rouhani as “somebody who is looking to open a dialogue with the West, and with the United States, in a way we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, got into the act, reiterating an earlier call for “heroic leniency” in diplomacy over the nuclear program. Khamenei also told the radical and anti-American Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to butt out of Iran’s politics. At this time of writing, there are reports Tehran has released a number of political prisoners in Iran.

It all adds up to a period of positive trends in relations between the two countries. But it’s important not to overlook the fact that while atmospherics may help bring about talks, the countries are miles apart on the substantive issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Too much attention has been spent on getting to talks, and too little on bridging the chasm dividing the parties.

A central, if not the central, problem is that the American foreign policy community has failed to lay out any conceivable way Iran could satisfy Washington other than immediate suspension of all uranium enrichment with no serious sanctions relief in return, which nearly everyone agrees isn’t going to happen. Congress seems to have two speeds on Iran policy these days: sanctions and asleep. Congress regularly piles on more sanctions to Iran, some painful, some symbolic, because it’s the easy thing to do politically, and no one seems willing to spend the political capital to provide Iran with a realistic offramp by which Tehran could lessen the pain and save face. Unfortunately, Congress’ actions and rhetoric have given the Iranians good reason to fear that our real policy in Iran is regime change, which can’t augur well for a deal.

Adding to the problems, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently reiterated his own ultimatum to Iran, which is certain to fail. Netanyahu, whose hawkish id commands more influence in Washington than one might hope, demands zero enrichment in Iran—a formula no one believes is achievable. This formula puts Israel, and likely the United States, on a path to war with Iran.

So would Sen. Lindsey Graham, who last weekend reiterated his call for Congress to pass a war resolution allowing the Obama administration to bomb Iran when it determines bombing would be appropriate.

Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Explained

Much attention has been focused on divisions within the panoply of groups comprising what is loosely referred to as the “Syrian opposition.” Headlines today in the Wall Street Journal (and earlier) focus attention on the sometimes-fatal form such rivalries and divisions can take: rebel-on-rebel violence.

Such violence may seem counterintuitive—after all, don’t rebels share a common enemy in the incumbent regime?

However, while rebels may share a desire to move away from the political order represented by the incumbent, this does not mean they agree on the political order they should move towards.

Thus, not only will elements enfranchised under the current regime fight to keep the status quo, but those who move away from it may fight amongst themselves to ensure their own vision of the future wins out.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for example, was particularly adept at eliminating rival claimants to the Tamil liberation movement. These efforts may be further encouraged by foreign sponsors who adamantly share a faction’s vision of the future, have a stake in that political order, and/or may be reassured by violent demonstrations of their protégés’ commitment to the cause.

Moreover, at risk of delving into the world of conspiracy and subterfuge, behind-the-scenes efforts to divide the opposition is also a time-honored survival tactic of incumbent regimes.

A Flawed Strategy to Intimidate Iran

An especially dubious argument that some advocates of using military force against Syria put forth is that missile strikes would “send a message” to Iran about U.S. power and determination.  In a new article over at the National Interest Online, I point out that not only is the logic of that argument badly flawed in this specific case, it’s not even a new argument.  Numerous hawks during the prelude to the Iraq War a decade ago insisted that eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime would either intimidate Tehran or (somehow) lead to a popular uprising against the mullahs.

Of course, neither of those developments occurred.  Instead, the United States became mired in a lengthy war that snuffed out some 4,500 American lives, consumed $850 billion in direct costs (plus hundreds of billions more in indirect and long-term costs), and caused extremely bitter domestic divisions.  Moreover, far from being intimidated, Tehran doggedly continued to pursue its nuclear program and became even more recalcitrant toward the United States.  One would like to see the armchair war hawks who pushed the “intimidation” thesis in the Iraq War debate acknowledge their blunder instead of peddling the same foreign policy snake oil with regard to Syria.

Lobbing missiles at Syria might make Tehran even more determined to develop a nuclear arsenal.  Saddam Hussein was a mortal enemy who had invaded Iran and waged a nearly decade-long war.  The clerical regime shed few tears at his departure.  The United States did the mullahs a large favor by removing the principal strategic counterweight to Iran’s power in the region.  Post-Saddam Iraq under a Shiite-led government in Baghdad is actually quite friendly to Iran, much to Washington’s chagrin.

A U.S. attack on Syria would have no such inadvertent benefit for Iran.  In fact, leaders in Tehran would likely view a move against Damascus as merely a prelude to an assault on Iran itself.  Bashar al-Assad’s government is one of Iran’s few close allies, so unlike the U.S. war against Saddam, there would be no sense of schadenfreude in Tehran.  Instead, it would give greater credibility to hard-liners who argue that there is no hope of a decent relationship with Washington, and that Iran must redouble its effort to build nuclear weapons, since the possession of a nuclear arsenal is the only way to deter a U.S. attack.  Blasting Syria might indeed send a message to Iran, but it would not be the one U.S. leaders desire.

U.S. policy makers need to rethink their strategy with respect to Syria, and the Russian chemical weapons proposal has given them the opportunity to do.   They especially need to abandon the notion that attacking another Middle Eastern country will intimidate Iran.  The Iraq War already demonstrated the fallacy of that thesis.