Cooler Heads Prevail, for Now

The hottest video on the Internet today has nothing to do with Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton’s tears – it is footage from the deck of a U.S. Navy ship of an incident in the Strait of Hormuz.

I transited the Strait exactly once (twice if you count both inbound and outbound), and my memory of the whole affair is pretty murky as it occurred over 16 years ago. Besides, I didn’t exactly get a good visual. I was an engineer aboard the USS TICONDEROGA (CG 47), and spent most of my time staring at gauges in the engineering control room down in the bowels of the ship. I do recall, however, that the whole process took a long time, and that we were on a high state of alert.

My initial reaction on hearing that Iranian small boats had approached three navy ships in a threatening manner was to gather more details. I knew that such incidents have occurred in the past, and I was curious if this was being blown out of proportion. I’ve asked around to some friends and former colleagues who have more recent experience transiting the Strait, and the general take-away was surprise that the ship captains didn’t fire. It is simply imprudent to allow any ship or small boat to come that close, and especially so if you assume hostile intent.

But it is also imprudent to take actions that might escalate into full-blown war, and that is what might have occurred if the U.S. navy had fired on the Iranian small boats.

After all, it is not unreasonable to speculate that some Iranians would like to bait the United States into taking the first shot, an idea first floated by Cato Research Fellow Stanley Kober over two years ago. And there is a pattern in Iranian actions over the past five or six years that reveal the deep divisions within Iran society, even at the highest levels of government. Hints of conciliation (as we heard last week from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), or periods of relative calm, are often broken by hostile or threatening acts, and recriminations from the opponents of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

In this context, the many members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are committed America-haters, and the few who would willingly sacrifice their own life to do harm to the Great Satan, might have been aiming for something more. Driving a small boat headlong into automatic weapons fire is no less suicidal than detonating an explosive vest, but the atmospherics would have looked dramatically different. Even if the U.S. naval personnel were acting in self-defense, and operating strictly in accordance with procedures, it would have been conveyed as an act of American aggression. After all, that is what Iranians have been told happened during the tragic USS VINCENNES incident from 1988 – in which a U.S. Navy cruiser mistook an Iranian passenger jet for a military aircraft, and 290 passengers and crew died. (And, consistent with that pattern, Iranian media is today reporting that the video of the latest incident in the Strait is “fabricated.”)

I have long argued, and still believe, that a war with Iran would not serve U.S. interests. Indeed, I believe it would be catastrophic. I also know that relatively minor incidents during periods of high tension have led to wider wars, and those conditions are in place today in the region. There is plenty of blame to go around.

For now, as the details continue to trickle in, I’m grateful that the Navy COs kept their cool, and held their fire.

A Capital Waste of Time

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard argument in Baze v. Rees, otherwise known as the “lethal injection case.”  Contrary to popular perception—and the wishes of certain activist groups—Baze considers neither the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution nor the validity of the death penalty itself.  Instead, the issue is whether the particular three-chemical formula used by most states that employ lethal injection causes undue pain and suffering such that the method violates the Eighth Amendment’s proscription of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The Court’s decision—likely to be 5-4 with Justice Kennedy the swing vote as always—may turn on what weight the justices place on the availability of other “ drug cocktails” that purportedly accomplish the same result with less chance for “undue pain and suffering.”  But that critical point raises two further (non-legal) questions: 1) Whether the case is about little more than delaying executions that will take place regardless of this particular ruling; and 2) Why haven’t all the relevant states simply adopted the “better” chemical protocols and rendered this case moot?  Ultimately, this high profile case is a waste of judicial resources.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I take a look at Mike Huckabee, the winner of the Iowa caucuses:

After a year of wringing their hands over their choices in the presidential race - a pro-choice mayor with an authoritarian streak, a serial flip-flopper, and a senator who is a dedicated opponent of free speech - the Republicans finally have a new front-runner….

So … Republicans looking for a presidential candidate to inspire them are now faced with a tax-and-spend religious rightist who would have the federal government regulate everything from restaurant menus to local schools.

As Dorothy Parker would say, “What fresh hell is this?”

It’s NCLB’s Birthday, and You Can Cry if You Want To

Tomorrow is No Child Left Behind’s birthday, but what do you get for the law that’s done nothing? Barely a month ago, two separate sets of international test results were released, allowing us to see how U.S. academic performance has changed since the law was enacted. Across grades and subjects, student achievement has either stagnated or declined – that’s despite the infusion of tens of billions of dollars of new spending in each of the past six years. 

The tests were PIRLS (Program on International Reading Literacy Survey) and PISA (Program on International Student Assessment). For the gory details, please see my summary of the results here.

What do you get for the sixth birthday of a law that’s done nothing? Repeal.

Intellectual Honesty and Oil Prices

During the GOP presidential debate Saturday night, moderator Charlie Gibson - anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight - asked the candidates whether “intellectual honesty” demanded that they forthrightly tell the American people that oil prices were only going to get higher? None of the candidates really answered the question, so allow me to do so.

No.

Oil prices might indeed be on a rocket ship upwards for as far as the eye can see, but market actors don’t think so. At the New York Mercantile Exchange, oil for delivery from next month through December 2016 is showing a downward price trend. In short, the people with the most money on the line - who will live and die (economically speaking) by these assessments - aren’t buying Gibson’s assertion about the future.

More evidence can be found the behavior of oil inventory holders. At present, oil inventories are being released to the market –hardly what one would expect if inventory holders thought that oil prices will continue their long march upward.

Of course, market actors could be wrong. Energy forecasts have such a poor track record that one should probably resist making any concrete predictions about the future. So while Charles Gibson might well be right that oil prices are only going to go higher, it is not “intellectually dishonest” to suggest that might not be the case.

Where’s the Beef?

Sen. Barack Obama has excited the national media, Andrew Sullivan, young voters, and 38 percent of Iowa Democrats with his message of “change” and “hope” and “becoming one people, the United States of America.” It makes for a great speech. But I’m reminded of what the Democratic establishment candidate, Walter Mondale, said to insurgent Gary Hart after Hart did well in the 1984 Iowa caucuses with a campaign of “new ideas”: Where’s the beef?

It’s not that Obama hasn’t addressed questions of public policy. His campaign website has as many policy ideas as a Bill Clinton State of the Union Address. It’s just that they’re pretty much the same ideas: more taxes, more spending, more government help to scratch every itch a voter might have. He’s got more subsidies for workers who lose their jobs because of international competition, more subsidies for research and jobs and energy technology and broadband access and rural schools, more federal support for labor unions, and much much more.

To help borrowers and employees, he proposes more regulations on lenders, credit card issuers, and employers. These would, of course, make lending and hiring more expensive, so fewer people would be hired, and their wages would be lower, and borrowing on credit cards and mortages would be more costly.

But my main point here is, these are the same policies that Sen. Hillary Clinton proposes. So what’s so new? In what way does Obama offer “change” or “hope” or something different from ”the same kind of partisan battling we had in the ’90s”? Where’s the beef?