Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Nothing New Under the Sun

Remember the “Ledeen Doctrine” that Jonah Goldberg used to promote the Iraq War? ( It’s unavailable for some reason on the National Review website Here it is on NRO ):

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

It turns out that aside from the strategic and moral bankruptcy of the doctrine, it isn’t even original to Ledeen or Goldberg:

These half-civilized Governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America, all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to receive an impression that will last longer than some such period and warning is of little use. They care little for words and they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they yield to that argument which brings conviction.

That’s Lord Palmerston in 1850, addressing the House of Commons, as cited in Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire.

Gods That Fail

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post has a column titled “Gods That Failed.” He’s referring to a famous book:

In 1949, a number of famous writers, among them Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone, wrote essays explaining why they were no longer communists. The essays were collected in a volume entitled “The God That Failed.”

And then he makes this analogy: “Today, conservative intellectuals might want to consider writing a tome on the failure of their own beloved deity, unregulated capitalism. “

Where to begin? Certainly we haven’t had any unregulated capitalism lately. As I put it the other day, the kind of capitalism that has encountered the current crisis is “the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans.”

As for conservative intellectuals, some of them may wish for some form of “unregulated capitalism,” though plenty of them – from Russell Kirk to David Brooks and Michael Gerson and that Arkansas Aristotle, Mike Huckabee – have been pretty darn skeptical about capitalism. But whatever the more free-market conservatives may have dreamed of, they didn’t get laissez-faire. Nor did they ever make capitalism their deity, the way communists truly did make the workers’ state their god.

But let’s think about the comparison that Meyerson is making. Some intellectuals once supported communism, and that failed. Some intellectuals, we’ll concede for the moment, were just as enraptured with capitalism; and that system, too, in Meyerson’s view, has failed. Are these equivalent failures?

Communism’s failure involved Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter – a total death toll of 94 million people, according to the Black Book of Communism. Prominent American leftists – from Lillian Hellman and Dalton Trumbo and lots of other writers to Alger Hiss of the State Department and FDR speechwriter Michael Straight, who became the publisher of The New Republic – were members of the party that did these things. And that party had total control in the countries that it ruled. There were no opposition parties, no filibusters, no election-related maneuverings that prevented the party in power from getting what it wanted.

What the Communist Party wanted, it got. Communism in practice was communist theory made real.

In the United States, on the other hand, economic and political outcomes are always the result of jockeying between parties and interest groups. So even if Ronald Reagan and his advisers wanted to give Americans “unregulated capitalism,” they had to deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, and with critics in the media, and with many other players. As these forces played out, in the late 1970s and early 1980s some deregulation did occur, along with some tax-cutting. And indeed there was some financial deregulation in the Clinton years as well.

And what is the ”failure,” as Meyerson puts it, of this semi-deregulated capitalism? Does it involve mass starvation? Does it involve terror-famines? Does it involve millions of deaths? No, so far it involves a sharp decline in the stock market from record levels. Taking 1980 as the starting point for Meyerson’s nightmare vision of “unregulated capitalism,” here’s what has happened to the S&P 500. It’s had some dips, but it still reflects vast wealth creation, and vast increases in the assets of our IRAs and 401(k)s.


(click for larger version)

The “failure” of capitalism and the failure of communism are not morally equivalent, and Meyerson should be embarrassed to even imply such a comparison.

The Biggest Economic Nonsense Since the Great Depression

An otherwise interesting Washington Post front-pager on “What Went Wrong” claims the current situation “has erupted into the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.”  On the contrary, that honor surely goes to 1980-82, with 1973-75 as a close runner-up.

This may indeed be the biggest postwar financial crisis, but that is a very different thing.

The biggest postwar financial crisis so far was the S&L collapse of the late 1980s, when nearly 3000 financial institutions were closed.  But the impact  of the S&L debacle on the real economy was minor at best (the economy grew by 2.9% a year during that “crisis”).  The stock market crash of 1987 inspired many hysterical predictions but no recession at all.

An economic crisis implies a deep and prolonged drop in real output and employment, not just another routine recession.  To describe current conditions as a worse economic crisis than 1980-82 is fanciful nonsense.

Missile Defense and the Banks

Many argue that the demand for public goods justifies government spending and taxing.  Defense spending is a classic public good. The New Times offers an interesting case study of how the federal government actually spends money on defense.

The story recounts the activities of Michael Cantrell, a Defense Department employee who turned into a lobbyist for various projects connected to the missile defense program. According to the story, Cantrell “extracted nearly $350 million for projects the Pentagon did not want, wasting taxpayer money on what would become dead-end ventures.”

Cantrell is awaiting sentencing on corruption charges related to taking kickbacks for defense contractors. But his violations of the law did not start until 2000. Much of the $350 million wasted on defense projects happened before he started taking a cut of the action.

Read the whole story. Here is my summary: Pentagon officials did not want the projects Cantrell pushed, but powerful members of Congress did support such outlays. DOD had missile ranges around the world, but Ted Stevens thought another one was needed in Alaska. Acoustics research might have been conducted many places, but Trent Lott preferred the work done by the University of Mississippi in Oxford and a Huntsville defense contractor that had a branch office in Oxford. And so on.

In other words, members were directing the DOD budget to benefit their constituents in exchange for votes on election day. “Vote for me and I will give you $1,000” is not limited to presidential elections.

Gordon Tullock once wrote of campaign finance:

It should of course be kept in mind that [campaign contributions] are not actually for the purpose of buying votes. The votes are bought by the bills passed by Congress, or the Legislature, which benefit voters. But the campaign money is used to inform the voters about what their congressman has done. Since the voters pay little attention, concentrating the message on a narrow scope and repeating it again and again is necessary even though it annoys intellectuals. On the whole it is the actual things done for the voters by the votes of their and other congressmen, which attract voters to elect those congressmen.

The Cantrell story confirms Tullock’s insight. The reporter mentions campaign finance contributions by defense contractors, but by and large, the story is one of constituent service (that is, the creation and maintenance of vote purchase schemes).

There are several interesting questions here. Can Congress actually provide public goods efficiently? Isn’t Cantrell’s story one of earmarking without the earmarks? If so, won’t the practice of earmarking continue even if Congress gets rid of earmarks? The story shows Congress in a poor light, but don’t we want the legislature to control its agents (like the Pentagon) instead of simply delegating authority to spend to them?

One final lesson. The Cantrell story shows what happens when Congress has money to spend on national defense. In coming days, the federal government may come into ownership of many banks. How do you think Congress will spend the capital of those banks?

The National Republican Trust PAC Is Wrong

I support the right of the National Republican Trust PAC to advocate any issue it wants in any way it wants. It shouldn’t even have to file reports with the government. It’s the job of the public to distinguish messages it should believe and messages it shouldn’t.

So let me help you with that now: An email being circulated by the National Republican Trust PAC is despicable and wrong.

“Obama’s Plan: Mohamed Atta Gets His Driver’s License,” it blares. [I’ve been able to find no online version to link to.] The email reads:

Did you know that Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 ring leader, had a valid Florida driver’s license?

Did you know 13 of the 19 hijackers had obtained valid driver’s licenses? Armed with these licenses, eight of the hijackers even registered to vote!

Here is the shocking fact: Obama strongly supports giving illegal aliens in America driver’s licenses.

He said as much during two Democratic debates earlier this year.

This is terror-pandering of the highest order. While it’s true that several 9/11 hijackers got driver’s licenses and other documents, this has the same relationship to the success of their attacks as the brand of shoes they wore. They could have used their Saudi passports to board flights that day, and the same people in the same circumstances could get on planes today. Even if the REAL ID Act were implemented and we all carried a national ID, terrorists would not be prevented from boarding U.S. flights.

Yet there is no reason to fear. Our protection against a subsequent 9/11-style attack is the direct security of hardened cockpit doors and the awareness and vigilance of airline crews and passengers.

If it’s true that Obama would allow illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses — by the way, it wouldn’t be his decision because driver’s licenses are issued by states — it wouldn’t affect our security against terrorism.

By all appearances, this message looks like it is designed as much to raise money for the National Republican Trust PAC as to discredit Obama. Certainly, it doesn’t bring credit to Senator John McCain. In fact, it hurts him. To folks who don’t know campaign finance law, it looks like a desperate and venal grasp by McCain for an issue against Obama.

Hyping terror threats damages our country by provoking overreeactions that can be more damaging than direct attacks themselves. This message from the National Republican Trust PAC is offensive.

More Eavesdropping

Brian Ross of ABC News is reporting allegations from two whistleblowers who say the federal government eavesdropped on hundreds of international phone calls between Americans. The surveillance continued even when there was no indication of espionage or terrorism.

Question for the White House: Is this another disgraceful news report? After all, it reminds the terrorists that the NSA listens in on calls.

Questions for CIA director Michael Hayden and NSA director Lt. General Keith Alexander: When you say the ‘law’ is always followed, would you remind us as to what, exactly, constitutes illegal eavesdropping? And how many government officials and employees have been disciplined, discharged, or prosecuted for illegal surveillance over the past 10 years?

Question for Congress: What does Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) mean when he says an oversight hearing may be necessary? How many whistleblowers have to come forward to warrant a hearing?

For more, read Glenn Greenwald. For related Cato scholarship, go here.  

McCain and the Military Budget

John McCain likes to hold himself out as a fiscal conservative, and compared to Barack Obama there is no comparison. McCain expresses concern over the mountains of debt that George Bush and his willing accomplices in Congress have left for future generations, and has put forward modest plans for reversing these ominous trends. For example, the Republican pledges to freeze some government spending – with the notable exclusion of the military budget, veterans benefits, and entitlements – and perhaps to eliminate certain federal agencies, although in last night’s debate he didn’t stipulate which ones. Obama will not commit to similar steps to halt the runaway train of federal spending, and his tax increases are unlikely to generate nearly enough revenue to offset his proposed spending increases, and may well make the fiscal imbalance worse by stifling entrepreneurship and job creation.

But McCain’s specific proposals don’t add up to considerable savings. For example, last night he cited his opposition to the Boeing tanker deal, which he claimed saved taxpayers $6.8 billion (back in June, McCain put the figure at $6.2 billion). He has mentioned his opposition to earmarks, which total $18 billion. In the previous debate, he suggested that eliminating cost-plus contracts would save money in the Pentagon, but he didn’t venture a guess as to how much. Such modest proposals invited Obama counterattacks: the Democrat noted that the costs from the Iraq War, which McCain has pledged to continue until we achieve “victory,” would erase McCain’s vaunted earmark savings in less than two months.

Beyond sparring over Iraq War costs, however, the two candidates have not been pressed to justify their plans for military spending.

Personnel costs constitute roughly one third of the total defense budget, and are likely to grow in 2009 regardless of who wins next month’s election. Both McCain and Obama support President Bush’s decision to increase the size of our ground forces by 92,000 men and women over a five-year period. It is curious that Obama, a man who wears his opposition to the war in Iraq like a badge of honor, would support such increases. If Obama gets his wish, and removes most U.S. military personnel from Iraq over a 16-month period, he will presumably have more than enough troops to surge some into Afghanistan, while still reducing the burdens on our men and women in uniform, and their families. So, why the need for still more troops? Where else would a President Obama send them? Darfur? Congo? Burma? Georgia? He hasn’t said.

But leaving that aside, the scheduled increases are not nearly enough for John McCain. Writing in Foreign Affairs late last year, McCain pledged, “As president, I will increase the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps from the currently planned level of roughly 750,000 troops to 900,000 troops.” If McCain gets his wish, these two branches will be nearly 40 percent larger than they were prior to 9/11.

And how much will these additional troops cost? By my estimates, nearly 10 times what McCain would save if he eliminated every single earmark.

In April 2007, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Bush’s plan to grow the force would cost an additional $108 billion through 2013. Backing out those figures – $108 billion / 92,000 – equates to $1,173,913 per additional man or woman in uniform. Applying that same number to McCain’s additional 150,000 troops comes to $176 billion.

Don’t take my admittedly crude, back-of-the-envelope estimate as gospel. According to earlier Army estimates, every additional 10,000 soldiers cost about $1.2 billion a year, so the costs of McCain’s proposal to grow the force by another 20 percent might ultimately total less than $176 billion. But if CBO pegged the earlier Bush increases at $108 billion over six years, then it seems logical to conclude that McCain’s additional 150,000 will cost still more than that.

And McCain is proposing to increase that portion of the military budget that has already witnessed considerable cost growth in recent years. The military has boosted bonuses to entice new recruits to join, and to keep those already in the service from leaving. Health care costs have also risen for the military, just as they have in the private sector. If anything, the CBO’s projections likely understate the true costs of the additional troops, because they consider only the incremental expenses associated with adding 92,000 new personnel to the system, but do not fully account for the long-term costs of keeping these troops paid, fed and equipped over the course of their military careers. Then there are the additional expenses associated with caring for more military retirees.

In two successive debates, moderators Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw have tried to pin the candidates down on what they would do to control spending, and both times the candidates have evaded the question. CBS’s Bob Schieffer gets his shot next week in the third and final debate. Rather than an open ended “What would you cut?” question, he might ask them how much their different plans for increasing the size of the military will cost the taxpayers.