Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A “Tech Czar”? No Thanks.

Congress Daily reports that an Obama administration “would likely create a national technology czar with broad authority to develop policy, elevating high-tech issues to the cabinet level in a major recalibration of the government’s approach to regulating the communications sector.”

No thanks.

Technology, telecommunications, and information policy are important areas, but not everything that is important needs a lot of attention from the government. And as federal priorities go, tech is not even in the same league as national defense and fiscal order - issues that deserve a cabinet-level officer.

Creating a cabinet-level “tech czar” would be an odd joke and it would stand out as a queer sop to some political constituencies. It’s an unserious idea.

If you’re on the fence, consider the results that have come from raising other fields to “cabinet-level” importance. Education ascended to these heights in 1979 with the establishment of the Department of Education under the Carter administration. Nearly 30 years later, education in America is no better for it, and arguably even more awash in bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Yes, technology is important. No, a federal “tech czar” is not a good idea.

Convention Speeches So Far: Only a Little Terror Hype

I’m proud to report being almost perfectly indifferent to the goings-on at the two political conventions. I don’t care one way or the other about Sarah Palin, though she’s obviously an interesting pick. Here’s what interests me: the rhetoric around terrorism.

Over-the-top speechifying that stokes terrorism fears at the conventions would be bad for the country because it would help perpetuate various costly overreactions and misdirected responses to terrorism. It would encourage would-be terrorists and terrorist groups by granting them more power than their capabilities merit.

I’m pleased to report that the speeches so far have been fairly muted, including Palin’s last night, for the most part. (I’ve only reviewed the presidential and vice presidential candidates’ speeches. I’m sure plenty of speakers have said unfortunate things, but they draw far less attention than the candidates.)

Senators Obama and Biden both referred to keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands - an appropriate aim, but perhaps not a significant enough threat to merit mention in a speech of this type. The consequences of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil (or anywhere) would be significant, of course, but the chance of it happening is vanishingly small.

Governor Palin indulged in a little excess as she criticized Barack Obama’s putative approach to terrorism: “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”

It’s almost certainly true that Al Qaeda terrorists (and others) plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, but what matters more is their capability to do so. The vigilance of various agencies and people almost certainly has their capabilities in check.

I suspect that the man accused of plotting to attack the Republican convention with Molotov cocktails was a more proximate danger to “the homeland,” and he undoubtedly was read his rights.

Reading terrorists their rights, and treating them with scrupulous fairness, would help start to make them boring, and it would keep the focus on their wrongdoing. This would enervate terrorism and deprive terrorist groups of recruits and support. On these grounds alone, we should all be for reading terrorists their rights.

I’ll be watching - scratch that - I’ll check the transcript tomorrow to see if Senator McCain repeats any of his terror-hyping lines. I noted here a few weeks ago when he declared himself a follower of Osama bin Laden.

It’s an exciting line - “I will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell” - but it is a singularly foolish thing to say. It suggests that, as president, McCain would be owned by bin Laden.

I hope Senator McCain charts his own rhetorical course, rather than the one terrorists might like him to follow.

TSA: Not Even Good at Getting it Wrong

Bruce Schneier has a very good op-ed on the Transportation Security Administration’s airport security programs in the Los Angeles Times today. The winner line: “That’s the TSA: Not doing the right things. Not even doing right the things it does.”

In fairness, security is hard. By their nature, federal agencies aren’t smart and nimble. I argued that the TSA should be scrapped in a March, 2005 Reason magazine debate.

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.