Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The Interventionist Itch

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released its 2015 survey documenting American foreign policy attitudes. Entitled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the Council’s report emphasizes the stark disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over foreign policy goals and the means for achieving them. While there are certainly important differences between the two camps, there is a dangerous underlying consensus today that unites left and right: Americans of all stripes suffer from an “interventionist itch.” With respect to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State, Americans are far too supportive of the kinds of military intervention that have proved ineffective and counterproductive in the past.

As 9/11 receded and the war in Iraq descended in to insurgency, Americans became less interested in having the United States play an active role in world affairs and more wary of military intervention. Over the past year, however, as concerns have mounted over the Islamic State, so has the public’s willingness to support various measures to combat terrorism. Drawing on the CCGA survey, Table One reveals public support across party lines for a host of interventionist activities. In addition, the CCGA report notes, a majority of Americans would support cyberattacks and airstrikes (though not the use of ground troops) against Iran should Iran renege on the nuclear agreement.

American Support for Military Intervention: In order to combat international terrorism, please say whether you favor or oppose each of the following measures (% favor)*






US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Using drone strikes to assassinate individual terrorist leaders





Assassination of individual terrorist leaders





Attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Providing military assistance to Arab governments to combat violent Islamic extremists groups





Keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism





These figures suggest several sobering conclusions. First, they clearly indicate a stable interventionist consensus that includes both obvious advocates (Republicans) and less obvious advocates (Democrats and even Independents). Such a consensus is somewhat surprising considering all evidence from the past 14 years of intervention makes clear just how poorly such tactics have worked and because the public has repeatedly come to oppose the interventions they previously favored after they prove ineffective. On the other hand, the presence of this consensus is understandable given the interventionist agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations and the vocal support from both Republican and Democratic leaders for more intervention of various kinds.

Second, the consensus illustrates the degree to which the threat of terrorism has come to dominate the U.S. conversation about national security. The 2015 CCGA study finds no increase in support for the use of military force to aid Taiwan, or Israel, or South Korea. But terrorism, even 14 years after 9/11, remains a lighting rod capable of inducing overheated rhetoric and overheated fears.

Finally, these figures indicate that interventionist cries from the candidates will find a receptive audience as we approach the 2016 elections. All of the Republican candidates (Rand Paul aside) as well as Hillary Clinton have staked out positions arguing for more intervention. There is thus every reason to believe that the United States will find itself further entangled in the Middle East in the near future.

*Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Divided,” 2015.

Aiming to Set New Global Trade Rules

Today’s essay for Cato’s Online Forum on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership comes from Berkeley Political Science Professor Vinod K. Aggarwal, who explains the growing popularity of trade liberalization outside the WTO, and discusses how third countries might react to a TTIP agreement between the United States and European Union.

This essay and this forum are associated with an upcoming TTIP conference at Cato on October 12.

Voters Deserve a Better Debate

We had our second debate of the primary season on Wednesday, a grueling five hour affair pitting fifteen Republican hopefuls against each other in two debate sessions. When CNN’s hosts weren’t asking inane questions – i.e., whether candidates had considered their Secret Service nickname or whether they would trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes – they did find some time to focus on foreign policy issues. I have a piece over at the National Interest discussing the debate, and highlighting some of the misleading narratives underlying much of the GOP debate.

Though there were some factual errors, the bigger problem was the reliance of most candidates on fundamental ideas which are effectively untrue, like the idea that the U.S. military is weak or small compared to that of other nations:

Ben Carson noted that “our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago. Carly Fiorina argued that “we need the strongest military on the face of the planet,” while Marco Rubio noted that “… we are eviscerating our military.” Such claims are entirely false: the U.S. military is among the world’s largest, spending more than the next 13 countries combined in 2013 (including China and Russia)!  Today, the United States makes up 38.4% of all global military spending, and spends substantially more on the military than it did on average during the Cold War.

Many candidates also expressed support for the idea that it is U.S. absence from conflicts which creates problems, rather than U.S. intervention itself. Again, this narrative has proven to be demonstrably false in the last ten years, as examples from Libya, Iraq and elsewhere show:

Jeb Bush noted that “when we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq… and now we have the creation of ISIS.” Again, this narrative is convenient for many candidates, allowing them to blame President Obama’s troop withdrawals, rather than the initial disastrous decision to invade Iraq, for the rise of ISIS. Unfortunately, it is similarly false: Iraq’s sectarian problems existed long before the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2011, and the rise of ISIS is at least partly a result of the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army.

When we base our foreign policy debates on such misleading ideas, candidates will present policy options which are unworkable or even counterproductive. Voters deserve a better debate, one which acknowledges the nuance and complexity of foreign affairs. You can read the whole piece here

Rand Paul Makes His Pitch for War-Weary Voters

At The National Interest, I write about Rand Paul’s clear and forceful presentation of his noninterventionist views at last night’s Republican debate:

Rand Paul found his voice last night. He’s a sincere noninterventionist in foreign policy. If he can get that message across, there’s a Republican constituency for it, and even broader support among independents.

Coincidentally or not, Paul’s standing in the polls has fallen as he seemed to move away from the noninterventionist positions associated with his father, congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. He called for a declaration of war with ISIS, more military spending, and rejection of President Obama’s Iran deal.

Meanwhile, hawkish conservative pundits consistently underestimate the extent of non interventionist and war-weary sentiment in the Republican party….

Standing in front of Reagan’s Air Force One, he embraced Reaganism:

“I’m a Reagan Conservative. I’m someone who believes in peace through strength, and I would try to lead the country in that way knowing that our goal is peace, and that war is the last resort, not the first resort. And, that when we go to war, we go to war in a constitutional way, which means that we have to vote on it, that war is initiated by congress, not by the president.”

And most particularly in electoral terms, he set up the alternatives for voters:

“If you want boots on the ground, and you want them to be our sons and daughters, you got 14 other choices. There will always be a Bush or Clinton for you, if you want to go back to war in Iraq.”

That’s Paul’s best path to the top of the polls. All the other candidates supported the Iraq war (except Donald Trump) and threaten more military action today….

Guy Benson of Townhall and Fox News tied his comments to politics: “Rand Paul making case that Iraq war didn’t make us safer…which most Americans agree with.”

I wrote more about noninterventionism at National Review in May, drawing on arguments from The Libertarian Mind.

The Economics, Geopolitics, and Architecture of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: A Cato Online Forum

In mid-2013, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations were launched to great fanfare with a pledge from its architects to conclude a deal within one year on a “single tank of gas.” Nearly two and a half years and 10 negotiating rounds later, a final TTIP deal is nowhere in sight. Well, if there is anything that trade policy observers should know by now to be an ironclad law of physics, it’s that deadlines for concluding negotiations are never respected.

Concluding trade agreements can be a long and arduous process, especially if the United States or the European Union is a party to the negotiations.  So when the United States and the European Union (who are used to dictating the terms of trade deals to smaller economies) are both party to a negotiation, it probably makes sense to budget in a little extra time for refueling – and perhaps even a new set of tires.

With that in mind, on October 12 the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies will host a conference titled: Will the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Live Up to Its Promise? Featuring 30-35 international trade and investment policy experts from academia, think tanks, business, and government, the conference will examine the economics, geopolitics, and architecture of the TTIP during a full day of panel presentations, interviews, and debates. The program is open to the public and you are encouraged to attend.

Among the many questions that will be raised during the conference are:

  • What are the prospects for reaching a comprehensive trade and investment deal between the United States and the European Union?
  • What exactly is under negotiation, and what is the strategy for advancing those negotiations?
  • Would it make sense to exclude sacred-cow issues that will only bog down the negotiations?
  • Is it wise to continue pursuing a single comprehensive deal for all issues on the table, or is it better to aim for a sequence of smaller agreements?
  • Should a deal include other closely integrated countries, such as Canada, Mexico, and Turkey?
  • How will TTIP affect the multilateral trading system, relations with the BRICS countries, and prospects for developing countries?
  • Where are the biggest potential gains for U.S. and European businesses?  For consumers and taxpayers?
  • What are the major domestic political impediments?

Pope Francis and Criminal Justice

When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, he is expected to meet with prisoners in Philadelphia and to address the criminal justice system in a speech to members of Congress.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ past comments in support of the drug war suggest that he will refuse to acknowledge one of the biggest contributors to American injustice and a primary reason why so many people end up in American prisons in the first place: drug prohibition.

In my book, After Prohibition, I quote a Catholic clergyman, Father John Clifton Marquis, who wrote:

Drug laws are a moral issue.  Fifty years of drug legislation have produced the exact opposite effect of what those laws intended: the laws have created a tantalizingly profitable economic structure for marketing drugs. When law does not promote the common good, but in fact causes it to deteriorate, the law itself becomes bad and must change …. Moral leaders have no alternative but to choose between authentic morality, which produces good, and cosmetic morality, which merely looks good. Drug laws look good! But the tragic flaw of cosmetic morality, like all other forms of cosmetics, is that it produces no change of substance …. Authentic moral leaders cannot afford the arrogant luxury of machismo, with its refusal to consider not “winning.” Winning, in the case of drug abuse, is finding the direction and methods that provide the maximum amount of health and safety to the whole society without having a cure that is worse then the disease.

Father Marquis’s concern about the dangers of “cosmetic morality” in drug policy has been substantiated in the 25 years since he expressed it. Hundreds of thousands of people are incarcerated in this country for non-violent drug offenses. Countless innocent people, whether suspects, bystanders, or police officers have lost their lives in the name of prohibition.

Russia Raises the Stakes in Syria

What on earth is Russia doing in Syria? This question has no doubt crossed many minds in recent days, as Russia began to move substantial arms and troops into Syria. There are two possible scenarios: 1) with diplomatic ties at an all time low, and heavy sanctions already in place, Russia has decided it has nothing to lose in defying the West and backing the Assad regime militarily to the bitter end; or 2) Russia is maneuvering to give itself diplomatic leverage in any Syrian settlement by raising the stakes now. Though the latter is more likely, it’s difficult to know which scenario is accurate, further complicating already tortuous US policy towards Syria.

Over the last week, various news sources have reported an increase in Russian arms and troops flowing into Syria. On Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that the Russians are setting up a Forward Operating Base at Latakia, including prefabricated housing and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles. Open source researchers have found photos of Russian trucks and T-90 tanks near Latakia, increased shipments to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus, social media posts showing that Russian troops are headed to Syria, and even satellite photos showing massive expansion of the runways, hangers and housing at Latakia.

In short, it seems that Russia is preparing to substantially increase its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to aid the refugee crisis and fight ISIS, but practically in support of the Assad regime. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an intention to commit ground troops, but certainly raises the possibility of Russian air support for Assad. There is no way to prevent this buildup: though NATO members like Bulgaria have closed their airspace to Russian flights, Iranian and Iraqi airspace remains open.