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.

End the Fed’s Guessing Game

The FOMC decided last week against raising interest rates given its concerns about the global economy and financial conditions. While these concerns are reasonable, the FOMC’s decision highlights a growing problem that has increasingly plagued the Fed since the crisis erupted: its incredibly ad-hoc approach to monetary policy.

Just a few months ago the FOMC was signaling it would almost certainly raise interest rates, but now it has changed its mind. This change would not be so bad if it were predictable, but it was not so. No one expects the Fed to perfectly forecast the economy, but we should expect the Fed to make clear how it would respond to differing states of the economy. This simply has not happened. From the QE programs to forward guidance to lifting interest rates from zero, Fed policy has been made up on the fly. This unpredictable behavior has meant that no one, including Fed officials, knows for sure what will happen from one FOMC meeting to the next.

As a result, markets have become more and more obsessed with every word coming from the mouths of Fed officials. Post-FOMC press conferences like the one last Thursday became must-watch TV for anyone concerned about investments. Ironically, then, the Fed’s attempt to calm markets through these ad-hoc measures has only made them more fragile.

It would be far better for the Fed to focus on a narrow mandate in a rule-like manner that makes conditional forecasts possible. For example, if the Fed were to target a stable growth path for total dollar spending and adjust policy as needed to hit it there would be far less of the Fed’s current guessing game. The FOMC’s decision last week highlights how sorely this change is needed.

[Cross-posted from]

Federal Bureaucratic Failure

The federal government spends almost $4 trillion a year. It has hundreds of agencies and runs more than 2,300 subsidy programs. It employs 2.1 million civilian workers, 1.4 million uniformed military personnel, and 560,000 postal workers. It is a huge organization.

It also fails a lot and is increasingly distrusted. One new Gallup poll finds that three-quarters of Americans think that government corruption is widespread, while another shows that half of Americans believe that the federal government is a threat to our freedom.

A new essay, “Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government,” at examines structural features of the executive branch that cause federal failure and help to engender such a dim view from the public.

Geopolitical Dimensions of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

Four of the participants in next month’s Cato conference have written essays pertaining to the geopolitics surrounding TTIP.  Today, we publish two of those essays in our Online Forum.

First, in this piece, Phil Levy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management notes the interrelatedness of economic and security interests in the TTIP and writes that “A successful TTIP would have a number of salutary effects on the geopolitical scene. The necessary corollary is that a failed TTIP effort could be costly…”

Second, in this piece, while acknowledging that “TTIP can be a valuable geopolitical tool for the United States,” Peter Rashish of Transnational Strategy Group LLC, also cautions that “policymakers need to weigh carefully how far trade policy should go in promoting U.S. foreign policy objectives.”

Your comments are welcome.

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.

Ignoring Rand Paul

Desperately searching for an establishment Republican who can block Donald Trump, many observers are ignoring the strong and politically astute performance of Rand Paul in Wednesday night’s Republican debate. A classic example this morning is Michael Gerson, the big-government Republican who has written for George W. Bush and the Washington Post and is the most anti-libertarian pundit this side of Salon. Recognizing the need for the Republican party to reach new audiences, especially “with minorities, with women, with younger voters, with working-class voters in key states,” Gerson writes:

The relatively rare moments of economic analysis and political outreach in the second Republican debate — Chris Christie talking about income stagnation, or Marco Rubio lamenting the “millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck,” or Ben Carson admitting the minimum wage might require increasing and fixing, or Jeb Bush setting out the necessary goal of accelerated economic growth, or John Kasich calling for a “sense of hope, sense of purpose, a sense of unity” — served only to highlight the opportunity cost of the Trump summer.

What’s missing? Well, Rand Paul talked about marijuana reform, an issue that is far more popular than the Republican Party, especially among younger voters. And criminal justice and incarceration, an issue of special concern to minorities. And especially about our endless wars in the Middle East, at a time when 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents say that the Iraq war was not worth the costs, and when 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” (Not the best formulation, as noninterventionists are not opposed to international activity, just to imprudent military action. But you go to print with the polls you have, not the polls you wish you had.) Those are attempts to reach new audiences that a fair-minded debate watcher would have noticed.

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