Back to Somalia?

Buried in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post about the mess in Somalia is the following nugget:

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland’s government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

“If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them,” said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. “There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far.”

This demands more reporting. What kind of military presence? Most likely we’re talking about a staging ground for special operations forces or UAV flights. But that would presumably be secret, begging the question of what contractors are doing talking about it.

The State Department just designated al-Shabaab, a wing of the Islamic Courts Group, as a terrorist organization. The Courts Group is the loose-knit Islamist alliance that briefly gained power in much of Somalia before being routed by the Ethiopians and reforming as an insurgency.

Beyond claiming that “al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda,” State’s designation does not explain itself. Reuters cites officials who claim that al-Shabaab’s leader trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that it shelters al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 and 2002 bomb attacks in Kenya. The UN is less certain about an al Qaeda presence in Somalia.

That is thin gruel. Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia. And if you agree with Robert Pape that military occupations cause suicide terrorism, American boots on the ground could create terrorists, rather than denying them sanctuary.

If we can locate terrorists bent on attacking Americans in Somalia, we should target them if the local government cannot. Aside from that, we should keep our powder dry and wait and see what emerges. Sending even a small force (and it’s possible we already have covert operatives on the ground to target airstrikes) into Somalia – even Somaliland, a relatively calm area in the south – is a terrible idea under present circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a system of divided war powers so that Congress could monitor what the Pentagon is doing in Somalia, inform the public, and prevent a slide into a small war?

Will Switzerland Defend Financial Privacy?

The New York Times reports that high-tax nations such as France and Germany are badgering Switzerland to weaken its privacy laws so that flight capital can be tracked – and taxed. Germany’s former finance minister even argues that this would be akin to Switzerland helping to return a stolen car. But this argument is morally and legally wrong. On a moral basis, the German government is the one guilty of taking something it shouldn’t have. Over-taxed Germans are putting their money in Swiss banks because they don’t want the German government to confiscate too much of their money – especially since Germany is guilty of both high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested. If Germany wants to reduce tax evasion, it should reform its tax code rather than harrass peaceful neighbors. On a legal basis, nations help each other enforce laws using the principle of “dual criminality,” which means that an action has to be against the law in both nations. Stealing cars is illegal in both Swtizerland and Germany, so cooperation in the battle against car theft is appropriate. Confidential bank accounts, by contrast, are not against the law in Switzerland, so there is no reason for Switzerland the violate its human rights policiy on privacy just to help Germany enforce bad tax law. This upsets the Germans, yet they do the same thing when refusing the extradite suspects who might face the death penalty to America. It’s not their job to enforce American criminal law, so they have every right to say no. But it does indicate that German priorities are a bit strange. They defend the principle of dual criminality when they want to provide refuge to American murderers, but they think the principle should be discarded when politicians think they can grab some money from Swiss banks:

This land of stunning Alpine vistas, which has chosen to remain outside the European Union, has always loomed large in the global imagination as the place where the wealthy stash their money beyond the tax man’s reach. The best estimates suggest that image is true, to the tune of $1 trillion to $2 trillion. The scandal that threatens that lucrative business began when German authorities obtained secret financial data from Liechtenstein, Switzerland’s tiny neighbor with similar banking laws. The information in hand, investigators fanned out across Germany to seize documents thought to be related to tax evasion by hundreds of wealthy Germans. Cases are now being prepared based on the information, a process likely to take years. The fallout has claimed the job of one top executive, Klaus Zumwinkel, who had headed the German postal service, and has given the German left a political boost. But Switzerland is the bigger prize. And its continuing refusal to help other countries catch tax cheats hiding their money there appears to have hardened Europe’s resolve to force change. “If a car is stolen in Germany and taken to Switzerland, the Swiss help find it,” said Hans Eichel, a member of the German Parliament and a former finance minister. “But when it’s about tax evasion — and much larger sums — they do nothing. No one outside Switzerland understands that.” …European officials believe they can seize this moment to rally public opinion against the Swiss, German officials said. France, which will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year, has agreed to take up the issue. …The concept of bank secrecy is deeply rooted in Switzerland, akin to the confidentiality rules governing doctors and lawyers in other countries, and a 1934 law makes it a crime for bankers to disclose client information. For foreigners, this combination is an effective shield against authorities at home. …Hans-Rudolf Merz, the Swiss finance minister, has brushed aside notions that Switzerland will water down banking confidentiality, a cornerstone of the financial system. Jean-Michel Treyvaud, a spokesman for Mr. Merz, called the debate “a media phenomenon” and declined an interview request.

Failed, Self-Contradictory REAL ID Myth-Busting

Today finds another post on the DHS Leadership blog attempting to defend the REAL ID Act. Despite never having made the affirmative case for REAL ID, Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker is attempting to defeat the arguments against it.

The “myth” he purports to dispell this time is that REAL ID creates a national ID:

REAL ID is simple. The regulation requires that states meet minimum security standards when they issue driver’s licenses and identification cards necessary for “official purposes,” like getting on a plane or entering federal buildings. That’s it. The federal government’s role is to make sure that states meet minimum standards of security, so that banks and airports in one state can count on the quality of licenses issued in another.

Once again, I believe savvy Stewart Baker is playing at the role of ingenue. He’s pretending to lack the common knowledge that government programs grow in size and power.

It’s true that REAL ID allows states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that don’t meet the federal standards. They won’t be acceptable for “official purposes,” which are defined as follows in the statute:

The term “official purpose” includes but is not limited to accessing Federal facilities, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft, entering nuclear power plants, and any other purposes that the Secretary shall determine.

(emphasis added)

Once REAL ID is in place, the secretary of homeland security has the power to require it for any purpose beyond the ones listed in the statute. What might those be? The immigration bill debated in Congress last summer would have required possession of a REAL ID–compliant card in order to work in the United States. If Congress doesn’t do it, perhaps the DHS secretary would do it on his own once REAL ID is at his disposal.

Baker himself recently proposed that REAL ID could be required for buying cold medicine. Wherever the federal government requires the use of identification, it could require possession of a REAL ID. In the very post where he seeks to debunk the fact that REAL ID is a national ID, he mentions the use of REAL ID by banks. The USA-PATRIOT Act extended “know your customer” regulations deep into the financial services sector. The DHS and Treasury could require possession of a REAL ID to access banking.

Strangely, Baker’s post says, “the federal government does not have the authority to regulate how or whether a bank, grocery store, retailer, or school requires REAL ID.” This directly contradicts a premise of his proposal to require REAL ID for cold medicine. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has this power — it shouldn’t — but Baker knows darn well that it does.

It’s technically true that you wouldn’t have to have a REAL ID–compliant national ID card under current law, but refusing one may not be too practical. You’d have to live in a state that gives you that option and then be willing to do without air travel, legal employment, financial services, medicine, and whatever else the Department of Homeland Security decides.

What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, tends to be a duck. REAL ID is a national ID.

Where Are Our Gold Medals?

One of the most revolting things that a politician can do is accept a hero’s accolades for passing a law that generously spends other people’s money. So I ask Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the other politicians honored for giving D.C. students taxpayer dollars, and the officials who run the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, where’s my gold medal, and the gold medals for all the other federal taxpayers who actually fund the generous tuition grants for which politicians are being given such great adulation?

Jury Nullification, David Simon, and the Texas Prosecutor

David Simon has done it again. First, he created the best show on television, The Wire.  Then, he and his co-writers wrote a passionate critique of the drug war in Time magazine, urging jurors to vote their conscience in certain cases. That article has, in turn, sparked a debate over at the Defending People blog. A Texas prosecutor started the debate with an anonymous post against jury nullification. The prosecutor went so far as to say that anyone advocating jury nullification could be prosecuted in Texas. David Simon just cheerfully joined the fracas. 

Previous coverage here. Cato co-published the most comprehensive book on this subject, Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine by Clay Conrad. For shorter works, go here, here, and here.

Real Federalism in Switzerland

An article in the Financial Times notes that the income tax imposed by the national government in Switzerland takes no more than 11.5 percent of a taxpayer’s income, and that most taxation (and spending) takes place at the canton and municipal level. This is genuine federalism, unlike the United States, where the national government is the dominant force in fiscal policy.

A big advantage of real federalism is greater tax competition, which — as the article notes — leads to lower tax rates and less government waste:

The federal constitution gives significant powers both to Switzerland’s 26 regional cantons, and to the individual towns and villages in them. …A handful of cantons have used ultra-low taxation to attract wealthy individuals to stimulate economic growth. Among the best known are Zug and Schwyz, both not far from Zurich. Most recently, Obwalden, a small, mountainous canton near Lucerne, slashed tax rates to match its low-tax rivals.

The cantonal levy is complemented by a local tax, calculated as a percentage of the cantonal level. Again, rates vary dramatically, even between communities in the same canton. For example, in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous, local tax ranges from roughly 70 per cent of the cantonal rate in the wealthy and relatively low-tax towns and villages along Lake Zurich’s so-called Gold Coast, to more than 120 per cent in poorer and much more financially stretched communities in the hinterland. The local and communal taxes are capped by a federal tax, payable separately and at a different time of the year, that rises gently to peak at 11.5 per cent for the highest incomes.

Although three levels of taxation might sound expensive, personal taxes in Switzerland are relatively modest compared with much of Europe. Rates in the ultra-low-tax cantons can be as low as 16 per cent. Even “average” cantons tend to charge less than elsewhere in Europe, thanks to the cantonal tax competition that the Swiss say encourages cantons and local administrations to maximise efficiency.

“New Hampshire Joins Montana in Real ID Victory”

So reports Wired’s “Threat Level” blog as the Department of Homeland Security capitulates in the face of New Hampshire’s rejection of REAL ID. The same thing happened with Montana.

The key? The renegade states send a nice letter that is not a request for an extension of a looming deadline but touts the security of their driver’s licenses, which the Department of Homeland Security accepts as an official extension request. That lets DHS save face, even as it backs down from repeated threats to punish the citizens of rogue states.

New Hampshire wins.