Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Uncool Animal Farm Bill

Congress believes some Americans are more equal than others. How else could it have passed (by overwhelming margins and over a presidential veto) the 2008 Farm Bill, which amounts to about a $7 billion annual transfer from the pockets of American taxpayers to high-on-the-hog agribusinesses?

To leave no doubt that these “farmers” are the exalted class, Congress included a truly Orwellian set of requirements referred to euphemistically as “Country-of-Origin Labeling” (COOL) for agricultural products like beef, chicken, pork, lamb, vegetables, and fruit.

COOL is justified by its proponents as a means of helping consumers make informed decisions. But COOL is nothing more than a ploy to thrust the marketing costs of U.S. producers on processors, packers, wholesalers and retailers, while stimulating demand for U.S. beef, chicken, pork, vegetables and the like by raising the costs of handling imports. And with the supermarket industry operating at about one to two percent profit margins, there isn’t any doubt about who will be flipping the bill.

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal gets right to the bottom line in its opening paragraph: “Grocery bills, already surging because of higher commodities costs, will almost certainly rise as costs are passed along for implementing a new country-of-origin food-labeling law, the supermarket industry says.”

The Department of Agriculture estimates first year compliance costs for entities in the supply chain to be $2.52 billion. But USDA grossly underestimated the cost of implementing COOL for fish and shellfish in 2005: the actual costs were 6 to 11 times higher than estimates.

COOL provisions for agricultural products were originally included in the 2002 Farm Bill, but implementation (for all but fish and shellfish) was stopped by congressional moratorium, as a debate, in which proponents used fears of mad cow disease and other health concerns, raged on. In a 2004 Cato Institute paper on the topic, I wrote

Proponents argue that mandatory COOL is desired by both producers and consumers. A “made-in-the-USA” label, they contend, would help identify U.S. products for consumers who are otherwise unsure and who may be willing to pay a premium to know they are buying American food.

That sounds fair enough. But there’s more to the story. If, in fact, consumers are overwhelmingly in favor of country of origin labeling, then why haven’t domestic producers voluntarily obliged? After all, if there is demand for it, why does there need to be a law mandating it?

Proponents argue that the costs of implementing COOL are small, yet none of them has been willing to implement it voluntarily. Instead, they have been expending considerable time and money to force those requirements further down the supply chain. Processors, wholesalers, and retailers-firms that buy and sell both domestic and imported products-would incur the costs of segregating inventory, keeping records, constructing and maintaining compliance systems, and often physically labeling products. Burdensome compliance costs may induce those firms to limit their sources, in some cases to only domestic suppliers.

Although consumers may be interested in having country of origin information, it is a relatively unimportant determinant of the purchasing decision. If it were important, consumers would be willing to pay higher prices for products labeled with that information, and producers would supply that information voluntarily if the increase in revenues exceeded the increase in the costs of providing it. That such information is not provided voluntarily indicates that any preference for commodities of U.S. origin is marginal.

Mandatory labeling is nothing more than a scheme to pass on what should be the marketing costs of U.S. producers to other firms in the supply chain. It is also intended to drive up the costs and reduce the revenues of businesses that produce, process, distribute, and retail imports.

What was true in 2004 remains true today. Only this time Congress succeeded in doing the bidding of our “more equal” farmers.

 

Biden and “Dumb Wars”

In his now-famous 2002 speech, then state-senator Barack Obama said, “I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” And that would certainly represent an improvement over what we’ve got now. Curious, then, that Obama’s picked a running mate who seems to have no such objection.

Today’s Washington Post details Biden’s role in enabling our Iraq adventure. It’s hardly a “Profiles in Courage” moment, and it also points up the gutless and constitutionally suspect manner in which Congress authorized the war: by delegating the final decision over war and peace to the president:

In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush’s intentions.

“The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy,” Biden said.

….

But in Biden’s closing remarks before the war vote in 2002, he also voiced a remarkable degree of trust in Bush. “The president has argued that confronting Iraq would not detract from the unfinished war against terrorism. I believe he is right. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “

Walk, chew gum, and play the harmonica, perhaps–having learned little from the Iraq experience, Biden in April 2007 called for American boots on the ground in Darfur:

Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, called Wednesday for the use of military force to end the suffering in Darfur.

“I would use American force now,” Biden said at a hearing before his committee. “I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

In advocating use of military force, Biden said senior U.S. military officials in Europe told him that 2,500 U.S. troops could “radically change the situation on the ground now.”

The Role of NATO Expansion

My buddy Matt Yglesias takes up Thomas Friedman’s NYT column yesterday pointing out the role that NATO expansion played in creating the climate of tense relations between Washington and Moscow.  Matt concludes “you can’t draw a straight line from the initial NATO enlargement decision to war in the summer of 2008.”

Well, fine.  It’s true, you can’t draw a straight line.  But it certainly played a big role.  Moreover, Matt’s contention that the positive side of the NATO expansion ledger (“helping to consolidate democratic norms [especially in the field of civil-military relations] in a swathe of countries that’s now pretty big and prosperous and somewhat important”) balances out the negative (setting the stage for the situation in which we find ourselves today vis-a-vis Russia) just doesn’t hold up.

First, the perception that NATO is an engine of democratic enlargement has some fairly significant problems with it, as Dan Reiter pointed out in International Security in 2001 (.pdf).  (Follow up debate in IS here.)

Moreover, while the Clinton administration was making this quasi-Wilsonian argument about spreading democracy out of one side of their mouths, out of the other side they were blustering as Strobe Talbott did in 1997 that “there is no more solemn commitment the United States can make,” pointing out the implications of Article V–the part of the NATO charter that says an attack on one member shall be viewed as an attack on all.  Talbott conceded further that the American nuclear arsenal would be used to back up those obligations, and that such commitments were “serious stuff.”  In the New York Review of Books, Talbott had taken to making outright machtpolitik-y statements like his idea that the first argument that should be presented to Russia about NATO expansion was

Enlargement is going to happen; fighting it with threats will only intensify the darkest suspicions about Russia’s intentions and future.

So we’re going to do it anyway, we don’t care what you say, and you’re weak and can’t do anything about it, so you’d best shut up.  Clear enough.  Rest assured the Russians heard declarations like these in addition to the Wilsonian claptrap that the Clinton people rolled out to concerned domestic audiences.  That, in part, is why Putin today says things like he did to NATO in Bucharest, that

Russia viewed “the appearance of a powerful military bloc” on its borders “as a direct threat” to its security. “The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice,” Mr. Putin said. “National security is not based on promises.”

Either NATO is a binding military alliance against Russia, or it’s not.  It could be other things at the same time, but we shouldn’t be confused about what it was that made NATO membership so attractive to a country like, say, Poland.  It was Article V.

It ought to go without saying that Putin is far from blameless in all this, and the emerging narrative–that he laid a trap for Saakashvili–seems to me to be right.  But it ought not to be denied that the ill-advised bipartisan consensus on expanding NATO as much and as rapidly as possible helped set the backdrop for the ambiguous, fumbling, and dangerous American involvement in this conflict.

Also, even accepting the argument about promoting democratic norms as ironclad, is the status of civil-military relations in Hungary or Lithuania really worth this?  NATO expansion and the outside-the-Security Council recognition of Kosovo have been sacred cows for liberals for a long time, but it’s well past time for them to admit that they share some of the blame for the disastrous state of U.S.-Russia relations today.

Drinking Age

Yesterday, over a hundred college presidents called for a reexamination of the current minimum drinking age and suggested it should be lowered. This is great news and could serve as an opportunity to begin an intelligent national dialogue on improving alcohol policies.

Unfortunately, the neoprohibitionists at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and elsewhere have already sprung into action in an attempt to squelch any reform-minded opinions. MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney said in a press release that any discussion of the minimum drinking age “must honor the science behind the 21 law which unequivocally shows that the 21 law has reduced drunk driving and underage and binge drinking.”

Of course, MADD’s preferred “science” ignores a very interesting working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shreds the oft-cited correlation between adoption of the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA), which forced all states to have a minimum drinking age of 21, and a reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

How could this study’s findings differ so greatly from the research that MADD touts?

The paper, penned by Jeffery A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum, points out that prior research consistently errs by including states that were unaffected by the law – the 12 states that had adopted a minimum drinking age of 21 long before FUDAA was passed and forced states to do so. Those states – for reasons unrelated to the federal law – experienced a dramatic decrease in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the 80s and their inclusion in previous studies led many researchers to falsely conclude that the FUDAA was the key factor in the national trend.

That trend, however, began well before the FUDAA was passed in 1984. As the study notes: “[T]he decline began in the year 1969, the year in which several landmark improvements were made in the accident avoidance and crash protection features of passenger cars.” The study also recognizes that medical advances probably deserve a great deal of credit for the reduction.

While drunk driving statistics tend to attract the most attention in discussions of the minimum drinking age, the core purpose of such laws is to prevent minors from accessing alcohol. To this end, these laws have been an abject failure on college campuses. Even high school students seem to have little problem obtaining alcohol. A survey by the University of Michigan reveals that 8th and 10th graders find it easier to get alcohol than cigarettes.

Still, anti-drinking advocates cling to the notion that the minimum drinking age is effective and that state governments are unable to make sound decisions for their residents.

John McCain: Recruiting for Al Qaeda?

At the “Civil Forum” at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California this weekend, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) repeated a favorite line of his about Osama bin Laden:

If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice… . No one should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated … we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century–radical Islamic extremists.

What a gift to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda! - to have an American presidential candidate declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden. According to McCain, Bin Laden is so powerful that he poses a “transcendent” challenge to John McCain’s United States.

In his cogent, well-supported, and readable article, “What Terrorists Really Want,” Max Abrahms at UCLA argues that terrorists “are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists.” Think of Al Qaeda as a gang that disaffected youth might join - something powerful to belong to that gives their lives meaning.

McCain’s “gates of hell” talk is leadership malpractice, and he should stop using it immediately. Calling the threat of terrorism “transcendent” is equal parts incoherent and false. Terrorism stands no chance of defeating the United States or the West unless we ourselves collapse the society. Speaking this way about terrorism thrills our terrorist enemies and draws recruits and support to them. Silence would be much better, presidential campaign or no.

I wrote here a year and a half ago about the sensible thinking of Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. He understood that our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, fails as a security tool. Something else about Bishop came back to me as I was recently reading Abrahms’ article: Bishop wouldn’t even speak the name of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. This is how he exhibited his loathing for a shameless terrorist killer, and it also happens to comport with sensible counter-terrorism.

Exalting terrorism - as John McCain does with his “gates of hell” talk - is precisely the wrong thing for a national leader to do. The country will be made more secure by deflating the world image of Osama bin Laden and making his movement less attractive. Our leaders must withdraw rhetorical power from terrorists by controlling their tongues.

Is There a “New Trans-Atlantic Consensus”?

John McCain, in his WSJ op-ed today, says there are at least the “stirrings” of a consensus “about the way we should approach Russia and its neighbors.”  For evidence, he provides the following:

The leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Latvia flew to Tbilisi to demonstrate their support for Georgia, and to condemn Russian aggression. The French president traveled to Moscow in an attempt to end the fighting. The British foreign minister hinted of a G-8 without Russia, and the British opposition leader explicitly called for Russia to be suspended from the grouping.

I’m dubious that there’s any reason to hope for such “unity” between the major powers in Europe and the United States, as opposed to between us and the Baltic states, Poland, or Ukraine, each of which has its own, perfectly understandable reasons for supporting robust U.S. interventionism.  The point regarding England and the G-8 is somewhat more plausible, but it’s easier to take this position if you expect strongly that it’s not going to result in any action because six of the eight G-8 countries are likely to oppose such a view, scuttling the initiative.

Here are a few data points that should further call into question the idea that there will be such unity:

  • Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini argued earlier this week that “We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe, and on this point we are close to Putin’s position.  This war has pushed Georgia further away … from Europe.”
  • An unnamed EU official tells US News and World Report’s Anna Mulrine that “I think the current conflict has moved us away from the MAP plan [for Georgia]. Moving forward wouldn’t be a great idea.  When you look at it, we feel validated.”  The official added that the conflict “makes you ask about Georgia’s motives for joining NATO.”  According to the official, NATO isn’t looking to fight wars with Russia, stating to Mulrine that ”this is an alliance of responsibility.”
  • As mentioned below, the Sarkozy cease-fire deal is miles from the U.S. position, as is explained in more detail here.  So France is a question mark, at best.
  • The German foreign ministry is calling for a “balanced approach,” and is noting that it has condemned the Russian affronts it has perceived, including “the presence of Russian troops in Georgia-proper.”  Distinguishing between Russian troops in South Ossetia or Abkhazia versus “Georgia-proper” seems to imply that the Germans are not necessarily in line with the U.S. on attempting to ensure that all additional Russian troops inserted into those regions leave and go home.
  • President Bush announced yesterday that the U.S. humanitarian mission would be spearheaded by the U.S. military.  Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to cool down the rhetoric and make clear that he does not foresee the U.S. military using any force in Georgia, where are the European contributions?  It’s been a deafening silence thus far from the most important European capitals.  A European contribution would help show some unity on the matter–and invest Europeans more seriously in the mission.

In any event, McCain’s article is titled “We Are All Georgians.”  It’s tough to imagine anything even in that ballpark emerging from Paris or Berlin.  So let’s at least not kid ourselves about the prospect for serious burden-sharing.