Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The War on Complacency

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is worried that we are letting our guard down. In the current issue of the Armed Forces Journal, he writes: “Among the security challenges America faces in the future, there is none greater than the problem of complacency.”

Some would call that good news. All the threats that we are told to fear — Iran, EMP pulses in the atmosphere, hackers, rusty Russian ships sailing to Venezuela, Bill Ayers — are apparently less worrisome than our failure to worry sufficiently about them. Doesn’t that mean we’re safe? Can we have a parade?

But note the Catch-22. That thought is itself the trouble. Safety leads you to think that you’re safe, which leaves you vulnerable. Then they get you. Safety is fleeting because it allows its own destruction. That’s some catch.

If complacency is the problem, then those who argue that we are safer than people like Michael Chertoff say are part of the threat.

I am particularly guilty. I have promoted complacency in the face of terrorism:

Terrorists, who get their name from an emotion, are psychological warriors. They make fear. By telling Americans in every corner of the nation to plan for attack and stay eternally alert, we deliver the terrorists’ message, at least to those still listening to their government’s warnings. If combating terrorists is war, it is primarily a psychological one, where the stakes are as much the American psyche as safety alone.

Victory is the return to normalcy, not for the intelligence agencies and the FBI, but for the man in the street. Victory is persuading — or permitting — regular Americans not to be afraid. Conventional pundits of homeland security worry that the public will become complacent. We should worry that it won’t.

Before they take me away, I want to clarify my position. I am only for some complacency.

For example, Secretary Chertoff is complacent about many dangers that worry me. His article sings the praises of US-VISIT, the program where we take the fingerprints of nearly all foreigners legally entering the United States. He is complacent about the threat of treating immigrants and tourists — who support our economy, enliven our universities, and start many of our most successful companies — like criminals. The article boasts about DHS’s Improvised Explosive Device Awareness campaign but is complacent about the cost of preventing the use of a weapon that has never been used in the United States. Chertoff mentions Project Bioshield, but he is complacent about the danger that our efforts to combat bioweapons are themselves heightening the risk of attack by spreading knowledge of the feared technology. And he is complacent about the danger that spending tens of billions to combat bioterrorism takes resources from efforts to fight diseases that kill infinitely more Americans (infinite because we are dividing by zero in most years) .

Elsewhere, Chertoff called terrorism a “significant existential threat” — existential was apparently an insufficient qualifier. He evidently remains complacent about the danger of that sort of threat inflation.

The End of Jacob Weisberg

In an article for Slate (another version appears in Newsweek) entitled “The End of Libertarianism,” Jacob Weisberg mocks libertarians and other free-market supporters for arguing that interventionist government policies contributed to the financial crisis. In italicized exasperation he cries, “Haven’t you people done enough harm already?” According to Weisberg, it’s already clear that, when it comes to what caused the meltdown, “any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.” Consequently, he argues, libertarians in general have now been utterly discredited. “They are bankrupt,” he concludes, “and this time, there will be no bailout.”

In firing this broadside, Weisberg poses as the pragmatic, empirically minded anti-ideologue. In fact, he is engaging in the lowest and most intellectually trivial form of ideological hack work.

As every good hack does, he bulls ahead with completely unjustified certainty. We’ve just experienced a global disruption of financial markets on a scale not seen in seven decades. And we’re still in the middle of it: the ultimate extent, severity, and consequences of this crisis remain unknown. Yet Weisberg can already sum up the story in a single sentence: the libertarians did it!

But consider the fact that it wasn’t until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States — published in 1963, three decades after the event — that our contemporary understanding of the causes of the Great Depression began to take shape. That understanding has been further refined by contributions from, among others, Ben Bernanke and Barry Eichengreen during the 1980s and ’90s.

So serious people will be debating what triggered the current crisis for a long time to come. I’ve been reading voraciously in recent weeks, trying to get some handle on what’s going on, and I can tell you that there is nothing like a consensus among scholars yet — and certainly not a consensus in favor of some simple, monocausal explanation.

With regard to government interventionism as a cause of the crisis, Charles Calomiris and Peter Wallison have marshalled strong evidence that Fannie and Freddie played a major role in inflating the real estate bubble. Despite the fact that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about financial markets than Weisberg will ever know, Weisberg dismisses their analysis as not only wrong, but risible.

Here’s what I think, at least at this point. I think the whole system failed. Without a doubt, private actors succumbed to bubble psychology and perverse incentives, and their risk-taking grew increasingly reckless. Yet Weisberg’s simplistic morality tale that good prudent liberals were foiled by go-go free-marketeers doesn’t come close to mapping reality accurately. When exactly did Democrats try to arrest and reverse the steady relaxation of lending standards? When did they try to rein in the GSEs? Meanwhile, European banks are being battered by this crisis as well. Does anybody really think that European financial regulators are closet libertarians?

Far be it from Weisberg, though, to let such inconvenient questions get in the way of his cheap ideological point-scoring. Indeed, he isn’t content just to blame libertarianism for the financial crisis. He goes so far as to claim that libertarianism as a whole has now been decisively repudiated. Wow, talk about contagion! Because of what some people said about financial regulation, we no longer have to pay any attention to what other people say about trade, health care, energy, taxes, federal spending, etc. Here Weisberg further burnishes his hack credentials by demonstrating his facility with the wild, unsubstantiated smear.

To be truly shameless, a hack needs to mix his smears with double standards. And, bless him, Weisberg comes through once again. If one (alleged) error means we never have to listen to someone again, why is anybody still listening to Jacob Weisberg? After all, Weisberg admits that he “blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade” by supporting the Iraq war. (Full disclosure: I blew it, too, but my colleagues at Cato — whom Weisberg wants to write off for all time — got it right.) By his own standard, then, Weisberg should have had his pundit card permanently revoked.

All too aware of my own fallibility, I’m a more forgiving sort. But with this sloppy, shoddily reasoned attack on me and my colleagues (Cato and Reason, where I’m on the masthead as a contributing editor, are both mentioned by name), Weisberg is definitely testing my limits.

The Future of the U.S. Military Presence in Iraq

After months of negotiation, the Bush administration may be nearing an agreement with the Iraqis that would cover the status of U.S. forces in the country after the UN mandate for the occupation expires at the end of the year. Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Rice began briefing lawmakers yesterday.

The news of an impending deal comes as a surprise only because the negotiations have dragged on for so long, and because the most contentious issues seemed so intractable. The key breakthrough appears to be an artful compromise on the question of extraterritoriality. (If you think that is hard to read, try saying it three times.) The Iraqis were demanding that U.S. personnel suspected of crimes be subject to Iraqi justice; American negotiators insisted that they be covered by U.S. laws. The draft agreement, reported the New York Times, “would give Americans immunity from Iraqi law when they were on military operations but would not apply if they were off duty.”

Although Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) complained that this might give away too much, and therefore expose U.S. personnel to unnecessary risks, the dual-track approach seems to me to represent a more significant concession on the part of the Iraqis. The compromise is generally consistent, meanwhile, with other SOFA agreements, such as those in South Korea and Japan, where U.S. personnel can be, and are, tried by South Korean or Japanese courts when offenses clearly occur while they are off duty, or when the crimes are perpetrated against local citizens, as opposed to other Americans. In terms of the legal protections, “on duty” vs. “off duty” disputes are usually sorted out easily between officials on both sides, but there have been some tough cases along the way. There is also the contentious question of pretrial detention, and where the person, if convicted, serves his or her sentence, or while the case is under appeal.

But, of course, the more serious risks to U.S. personnel, including members of the military, but also private contractors and diplomats working in Iraq, don’t have to do with who gets tried in what courts. For starters, political reconciliation, and the risk of civil war has not abated. If one erupts, say following a particularly horrible terrorist attack that prompts Shia reprisals against the minority Sunnis, then once again our troops would be caught in the middle, as they were in the spring and summer of 2006 following the attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February of that year.

Then there is the ongoing risk that our very presence in Iraq is stirring up hatred and resentment that might ultimately spill over in the form of violence against all Americans, not simply those stationed in Iraq. This violence may not manifest itself for years, but the risks are real. On that question, I always go back to Paul Wolfowitz’s candid testimony in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

Anger at American pressure on Iraq, and resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Wolfowitz conceded, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

There are other sticking points contained within the draft agreement. The document reportedly calls for the removal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has previously insisted that such a timeline would be binding. The Bush White House still hasn’t taken the hint; the president continues to refer to troop withdrawals as ”aspirational” goals. Nonetheless, Bush might be willing to seize upon the new SOFA as a signal that progress is being made. The legend of the surge, which President Bush sold as a vehicle for eventually reducing the U.S. presence, will grow still larger if it actually does what it intended. On the other hand, the defenders of the surge – chief among them Sen. McCain – seem never to have bought this argument in the first place.

Will the draft agreement be ratified? The early signs are mixed, at best.The Iraqi parliament has had difficulty passing far less-contentious legislation. And there are ample grounds for one or more groups to claim that Malikihas conceded too much to the Americans, and block the deal. Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters have consistently demanded an immediate withdrawal, and the concessions with respect to jurisdiction might strike some Iraqis as a bridge to far. But while Iraqi politicians will debate the merits of the proposed agreement, the parliamentarians in a considerably more mature democracy will not: the Bush administration maintains that the U.S. Congress has no authority on this matter; Gates and Rice’s consultations with congressional leaders, we are told, are largely a courtesy.

Terrorists Could Use Beverage Containers to Sneak Flammable Liquids Aboard Trains

Alas, (via Schneier) fear-mongering like this is working less well.

“If somebody wants to break the law and bring flammable liquids on, they can. It’s not like al Qaeda is waiting in their caves for us to have a sippy-cup rule.” Directing his comments to BART administrators, [Director Tom Radulovich] said, “You know, it’s just fearmongering and you should be ashamed.”

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.