Hagel on Iraq, Iran and U.S. Domestic Politics

I had the pleasure of introducing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at a Cato-sponsored event earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

The event was promoted as “America’s Next Steps in Iraq,” and the senator shared his insights from the very latest happenings in the Senate, including the pseudo all-night debate, and the failure to achieve cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment. Sen. Hagel also had some choice comments about the Bush White House’s bizarre attitudes with respect to Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy, and he admitted that he wasn’t comfortable with the foreign policy views of the leading GOP presidential candidates. He deftly parried a question pertaining to his own political plans, other than to say that he will make a decision about his future in the next few weeks.

I was most struck, however, by his comments regarding Iran. Hagel stressed the need for engagement with Iran, along the lines of what was put forward by the Iraq Study Group late last year, and generally consistent with what Cato scholars have argued (e.g. here and here).

In a general sense, he pointed out that the problems of the Middle East will not be resolved by pushing Iran to the sidelines. They are a major power in the region. We might wish it otherwise, but that is the reality. And while our interests often diverge, they have converged in the past (as in when Tehran assisted us in deposing their bitter enemy the Taliban in the fall of 2001) and they are likely to converge in the future. For example, one could certainly argue that they are the one country in the region that is at peace with the current composition of the Iraqi government. Diplomacy is about capitalizing on common interests; focusing on areas of potential cooperation while at the same time not losing sight of the important differences. Hagel noted that Ronald Reagan, after all, was not above negotiating with the leaders of the country he deemed “the evil empire.”

Hagel’s thoughtfulness, integrity and courage are needed in the Congress. They would be of equal or greater value on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

What’s The Big Idea?

Other than the History Channel and the Simpsons, I’m not much of a TV person. But there is one intelligent weeknight show in the general wasteland of network programming.

Donny Deutsch’s The Big Idea on CNBC is a celebration of entrepreneurship. His guests have included Bill Gates and other icons, but far more interesting are the small-time entrepreneurs you’ve never heard of. Last night one women struck it big with the invention of a mundane toilet paper product. 

Just about every entrepreneur tells a story of an initial idea, a struggle to find financing and distributors, and the overcoming of naysayer friends and established businesses. Many of the stories also reveal that economic growth has less to do with formal education than with a citizenry infused with a can-do spirit.  

Kudos to CNBC and Donny Deutsch, and thank god for American entrepreneurs.    

Topics:

Get Rid of the Surgeon General’s Office

The Surgeons General have been in the news recently, complaining that they are forced to follow the policies of the Presidents who give them their appointments (gee, what a radical notion). But the real question is why this national-nanny position still exists. As argued in a column for National Review Online, the office of Surgeon General should be retired:

When the position of surgeon general, then called supervising surgeon, was first created in 1781, the appointee actually had something tangible to do. … Since then, the duties of the surgeon general have been demoted so many times he’d barely be a buck private if his title kept up with the changes. In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson took away the responsibility of overseeing the PHS and made the position of surgeon general into one of a glorified adviser who is answerable to the assistant secretary to the secretary of Health and Human Services. … The position of surgeon general today has become mostly one of a bully pulpit to serve as a federally funded advocate for various health causes… Today, the office has a budget of $3 million and the surgeon general is paid close to $200,000 annually. However they have little or no authority to coordinate the federal government’s public health activities. This coordination is already being done by more than 50 different federal offices. …to save the taxpayers’ money, to eliminate yet another unneeded voice in the health-care cacophony, to free up a uniform for the local high school’s Pirates of Penzance performance and to save C-SPAN viewers from any more surgeon-general alumni reunion tours like last week’s hearings — eliminate the Office of Surgeon General today.

Taxpayers Lose Again

In Maryland, as in many other states, legislators have to wait a year before becoming lobbyists.  The idea is to put some distance between being a member of the legislature and turning around and immediately lobbying your colleagues. Maybe it helps to reduce the impression that some legislators are thinking about their next job as they make legislative decisions.

So how can Sen. P. J. Hogan go directly from the State Senate to a cushy job as the chief lobbyist for Maryland’s university system? Because “the one-year prohibition on legislators lobbying state officials does not apply to someone moving from one state post to another.”

So if you want to lobby for the private sector, for businesses or unions or environmentalists, you have to wait a year to alleviate any appearance of impropriety. But if you want to lobby on behalf of the government itself, you can use your contacts immediately, before they get cold and distant. Indeed, you’d have to wait a year to lobby on behalf of a taxpayers group, but you can start lobbying against the taxpayers the next day. Just another way that government stacks the deck against taxpayer interests.

Chapman on Iraq

Here’s libertarian columnist Steve Chapman on Bush’s Iraq report card, released last week:

On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war, and it concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, there has been “satisfactory progress.” That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.

[…]

By now, we should all know that the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday that the results of the surge so far are “cause for optimism.” But in September 2004, he was “pleased with the progress.” In January 2005, he said, “I’m optimistic about it.” A year later, he said “we are winning.” The president’s mood is always good and always wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that the White House moved the goalposts–yet again–in its assessment metrics. The Dems in Congress thought they were being tricky by asking the president to assess whether the Iraqis were making “satisfactory” progress on the various metrics, hemming him in by forcing him to either a) put his stamp of approval on what they suspected would be obvious non-progress, or b) concede publicly that the political process was not progressing. Here was the White House’s response, from pages 7-8 of the report, clarifying its assessment techniques:

Standard of Measurement: Section 1314(b)(2)(A) states: “The President shall submit an initial report to Congress, not later than July 15, 2007, assessing the status of each of the specific benchmarks established above, and declaring, in his judgment, whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is, or is not, being achieved.” In order to make this judgment (e.g., whether “satisfactory progress … is, or is not, being achieved”), we have carefully examined all the facts and circumstances with respect to each of the 18 benchmarks and asked the following question: As measured from a January 2007 baseline, do we assess that present trend data demonstrates a positive trajectory, which is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment in the near term? If the answer is yes, we have provided a “Satisfactory” assessment; if the answer is no, the assessment is “Unsatisfactory.” For those benchmarks receiving the latter assessment, we have explained what, if any, strategic adjustments may be required to improve the present trajectory. (All emphasis in original.)

So the White House defines “satisfactory” as demonstrating a “positive trajectory” that is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment “in the near term,” a date which remains undefined. Thus, the X-axis in this case, time, could be unlabeled; it represents an infinite timeline constrained only by however the White House cares to define “the near term” at any given moment. Any upward trend could be thus deemed “satisfactory.” We got no evaluation from the White House on how fast the Iraqis should be making progress.

The White House decided to grade themselves on a significant curve, and still could only fudge the report card such that they scored a 44%. Chapman is right; if NCLB had standards like this, the future would look even bleaker.

Major Ruling in KPMG Case

In a closely-watched white collar crime case in NY, Judge Kaplan has dismissed criminal charges against 13 defendants because of the federal government’s interference with the constitutional right to counsel.

Excerpt from today’s Washington Post:

Kaplan said the Department of Justice “deliberately or callously” prevented many of the defendants from getting funds for their defense, blocking them from hiring the lawyers of their choice.

“This is intolerable in a society that holds itself out to the world as a paragon of justice,” Kaplan said, adding that he reached his conclusion “only after pursuing every alternative short of dismissal and only with the greatest reluctance.”

Previous coverage here.

Last year Cato published Trapped, which examines the problems in this area of the law.  The author, John Hasnas, spoke about his thesis here.