And the Bombs Go On: Killing Afghan Civilians

We want to talk to the Afghans about corruption.  They want to talk to us about killing civilians.

Reports the London Times:

Up to 100 civilians, including women and children, are reported to have been killed in Afghanistan in potentially the single deadliest US airstrike since 2001. The news overshadowed a crucial first summit between the Afghan President and Barack Obama in Washington yesterday.

President Obama, after White House meetings with President Karzai of Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, pledged “every effort to avoid civilian casualties” in the war against the extremists.

His comments followed the expression of deep regret by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, during an earlier appearance with Mr Karzai in Washington.

News of the airstrikes came as Mr Obama met Mr Karzai and Mr Zardari for a trilateral summit aimed at pressing both leaders to join forces in confronting al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Mr Karzai had travelled to Washington to meet an Obama Administration that has little faith in his ability to take on the Taleban, the massive opium trade funding it, or rampant corruption.

Despite the Afghan leader’s pre-summit vow to make the airstrikes a focus of his meeting with Mr Obama, a top aide to the US President said that Mr Karzai was given a clear message in the Oval Office that he had to do more to clamp down on the bribes and influence-peddling that is poisoning Afghan governance.

That Afghans have got a point.  (So do we, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.)   Mistakes are inevitable in war.  But killing civilians is a potent recruiting tool for the other side.  Alas, apologies voiced by Washington don’t offer much solace to the individuals, families, and communities suffering the casualties.

Yet bombing continues upward.  Reports the Navy Times:

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show.

In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.

April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July.

The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties.

The actual number of airstrikes was higher because the AFCent numbers don’t include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also don’t include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.

Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood of more civilian casualties.

Squaring the circle won’t be easy.  But the conundrum highlights the need to look for political accommodations which would safeguard our basic security interests even if they meant abandoning any illusions about creating a liberal Western-oriented Afghanistan.

More Property Rights Shenanigans on the West Coast

Cato recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision that tramples on property rights.  (See also this oped I co-authored with co-counsel.)

Well, tomorrow the Ninth Circuit hears another case involving property rights violations, and this time the plaintiffs, in exchange for a building permit, were forced to give up their right to vote. Arguing for the beleaguered property-owners will be none other than Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur.  You can read more about the case in Tim’s own blogpost on PLF’s site.

Here’s the basic principle with these cases: just as the government can’t take your property (for public use) without just compensation, it can’t attach arbitrary regulations and fees.  After all, if you own an acre of land and the government tells you you can’t do anything on it – be it run around or drain puddles or build – it might as well have “taken” it by eminent domain.  And if it says you can do these things only if you give up some other entitlement you have – not necessarily money, but, say, the right to put up signs criticizing the local government – it has imposed an unconstitutional condition on your enjoyment of your property.

The Best Defense against National Standards? Hearing about National Standards

I’ll admit it: When I go to an event intended to tout an idea I think is wrong, I get a little nervous. What if I hear an argument that’s so convincing it forces me to totally reevaluate my position? All my work will have been for naught! Well, I had just such worries as I headed toward the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “International Evidence about National Standards” conference yesterday.

I needn’t have worried. What I heard made me even more certain that imposing national academic standards – whether through state compacts, or worse, “incentivized” with federal dollars – is doomed to failure, just as I have been saying for years.

First, there’s likely political failure. Yes, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other high-profile education folks have recently been talking about the need for common standards – or at least the folly of having 50 different state standards – and many people think national standards would be great. But though people may love the idea of national standards, when it comes to actually creating and implementing them, love quickly turns to anger.

The second panel of the day, featuring Dane Linn of the National Governors Association and Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers – whose organizations are working together to create national standards – made this abundantly clear. While people at the conference might have agreed that national standards are peachy in theory, they couldn’t agree at all on who should write them. Indeed, they couldn’t even agree on their general shape: While Linn and Wilhoit stressed the need for higher and narrower standards, the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli, who moderated the panel, said that his group, the conference convener, could very well find itself opposing narrow standards that include too little.

If you can’t get people who really believe that we need national standards to agree on even their basic shape, why would anyone think that they could get a majority of Americans to agree on a single standard?

Of course, this was a conference supposedly about the international evidence concerning national standards. Even though the domestic political outlook for national standards appears poor, surely the evidence from abroad would conclusively demonstrate the need for national standards.

Hardly. If anything, the international evidence panel was the least persuasive part of the conference.

The hub of the panel was Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, who argued energetically against the illogical, weak standards of most American states – certainly a valid point. But he offered no compelling reasoning or evidence whatsoever to suggest that national standards would be any better than state standards. Indeed, moderator Ben Wildavsky knocked out Schmidt’s entire argument with just two punches, asking if there is empirical evidence that national standards produce better outcomes, and why Canada – which doesn’t have national standards – does very well on international comparisons. Schmidt’s answers: Almost every country participating in international exams has national standards, so it’s impossible to credit those standards with either good or bad outcomes, and Canadian provinces are kind of like countries.

If that’s the best evidence one can muster for national standards – essentially, no evidence – then there is absolutely zero good reason to support national standards.

Unfortunately, that really does seem to be all the evidence. At least, it’s all that was brought out yesterday. Which is why, though the conference didn’t force me to change my views, it did make me reach some very disheartening conclusions. Primarily, that many people support national standards simply because they are easier to conceptualize than multiple standards, and because they think that they – not people they dislike – will get to write the new, inescapable, standards for all.

DC Rally to Support School Choice For ALL, Not A Few

Today I witnessed hundreds of school children, parents and supporters rally in defense of the DC voucher program that Congress and the Obama administration recently put on death row.

They were there to tell these politicians and Mayor Fenty that the program is working for them.

Well, apparently President Obama has accepted the fact that the DC voucher program is working for these kids. The Washington Post reports, “President Obama will seek to extend the controversial D.C. school voucher program until all 1,716 participants have graduated from high school, although no new students will be accepted.”

But the parents and children demonstrating for the program weren’t just there for themselves. They were there to save this program for other children, like the 200 kids that were accepted into the voucher program and then summarily dismissed from it by Secretary of Education Duncan.

Last year during the presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama responded to a question about support for vouchers with his classic “pragmatist” pose; “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works.’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids.”

The Department of Education recently reported that the voucher program is already improving education, and it does so at a quarter of the cost.

If it’s working, why end it? Where is President Obama’s policy pragmatism now?

All I see from Obama is an attempt to kill a successful and popular program quietly instead of with screams, to leave no visible bodies on the ground for the press and voters to see.

That’s not pragmatism, that’s craven political expediency. And the scholarship families won’t stand for others being locked out of the chance they were able to seize for their children.

It’s time for President Obama to be honest, be a man, and support this program outright.

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The Cost of Flu Fears - and Our Ongoing Vulnerability

The ever-sensible Shaun Waterman has begun to tally the cost of overreaction to the fear outbreak inspired by the H1N1 flu strain. He reports in ISN Security Watch:

Even the precautions that you take against this kind of global flu pandemic could knock about 1.9 [or] 2 percent off global [economic production]. That’s about a trillion dollars,” according to journalist Martin Walker, who cited World Bank figures from a study last year.

The Economist reported last week that the crisis in Mexico was costing Mexico City’s service and retail industries $55m a day - not because of the handful of deaths but because of people’s reactions. And that was even before the national suspension of non-essential public activities called for this week by the authorities there, which was expected to double that cost.

Waterman also cites my joke about moving Vice President Biden to an undisclosed location in future crises - not for his protection or government continuity, but to keep him away from the media.

It’s comedic wrapping on a substantive point: As long as people look to government leaders in times of crises, leaders have a responsibility to communicate carefully, according to a plan, and with message discipline. If they don’t, the damage can be very high.

Even if all Americans knew to dismiss the words of the Vice President as if he’s a “Crazy Uncle Joe” - and they don’t - foreign tourists certainly don’t know that. Biden harmed the country simply by speaking off the cuff.

Here, an outbreak of flu appears to have caused billions of dollars in damage to the world economy. One billion lost to the U.S. economy is about 145 deaths (using the current $6.9 million valuation for a human life). When overreactions restrict economic activity, that reduces wealth and thus health and longevity.

Now, imagine what might happen if the United States encountered a novel, directed threat - some kind of attack that inspires widespread concern. Will Vice President Biden and officials from a half-dozen agencies rush forth with personal observations and speculation? The results could be devastating, especially to a country that is already suffering economically.

People die from poor situation management, and it makes Americans worse off. Political leaders should not get a free pass for failing to communicate well just because it’s hard to do.

The Obama Administration should learn from its many errors in handling the rather benign H1N1 flu situation. It should train up for communicating in the event of a real emergency. If the Obama Administration fails to soothe nerves in the event of some future terrorist attack, that will be a clear failure of leadership.